By the end of the decade, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) could operate three aircraft carriers, two of which were built domestically. Its first operational carrier, Liaoning, actually began life as Soviet Navy Project 11435 Kuznetsov-class heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser Varyag in the late 1980s—and it was one of two former Soviet vessels purchased by Beijing to jumpstart a Chinese domestic carrier program.
However, the Varyag/Liaoning wasn’t actually the first carrier that the PLAN had access to for future study. In 1985, Beijing bought the ex-Australian HMAS Melbourne (R21), a Majestic-class light aircraft carrier that was operated by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) from 1955 until 1982. It had been the third and final conventional carrier used by the RAN.
The warship had been laid down as HMS Majestic during World War II and was launched in 1945. She was nearing completion when the war ended, and work progressed slowly—however many lessons learned during the war related to carrier design and operation were then incorporated into the ship’s modernization program. The ship, which was actually designed as a somewhat “disposable warship” that would be retired after the war ended, soon found life with the RAN.
After decades in service followed by time spent in a mothball state, the ship was officially retired and sold for scrap to China for $1.4 billion. However, when the ship arrived in China in 1985 for the scrapping project, engineers studied the World War II in detail. The ship was antiquated by that time, and the Australians had removed all the modern and sensitive technology, but that didn’t stop Chinese engineers from reportedly showing special interest in equipment such as the Melbourne’s catapults, arrestor wires and aircraft lifts/elevators.
The flight deck was not only studied, but dismantled and put ashore where PLAN pilots used it for landing practice. It was copied and a replica was used to launch aircraft. Much of the carrier remained in existence until at least as late as 1994 and it gave Beijing valuable insight in carrier operations. The scrapping efforts only began in earnest in 1994 and took several more years to complete.
According to the Battle-Machines website, some sources suggested the scrapping only ended in 2002—seventeen years after the warship arrived in China. Even during the scrapping, it appears that each and every crucial part may have been studied before being melted down. Not surprisingly, Beijing tried to maintain a cover-up and the PLAN claimed to have only been opportunistic about the ship’s presence while the reality is that acquiring the carrier for study may have been in the cards from the beginning.
At one point the PLAN even approached the RAN for blueprints of the catapult steam system, which was denied, not surprisingly. Without the plans, the PLAN had to carefully dissect and reverse engineer the carrier’s launch systems, which helps explain the time before the carrier was fully scrapped.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.