(China Military News cited from Reuters and written by Benjamin Kang Lim) -- China may be ready to launch its first aircraft carrier in 2011, Chinese military and political sources said on Thursday, a year ahead of U.S. military analysts' expectations.
Analysts expect China to use its first operational aircraft carrier to ensure the security of its oil supply route through the Indian Ocean and near the disputed Spratly Islands, but full capability is still some years away.
"The period around July 1 next year to celebrate the (Chinese Communist) Party's birthday is one window (for launch)," one source with ties to the leadership told Reuters, requesting anonymity because the carrier programme is one of China's most closely guarded secrets.
The Defense Ministry spokesman's office declined to comment.
The possible launch next year of the ex-Soviet aircraft carrier 'Varyag' for training, and testing technology, will be one step toward building an operating aircraft carrier group, analysts said.
The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence estimates the Varyag will be launched as a training platform by 2012, and China will have an operational domestically built carrier after 2015.
Andrew Erickson and Andrew Wilson of the U.S. Naval College wrote that it was "conceivable that carrier-relevant research, development, and even production ... could proceed with a rapidity that might surprise Western analysts."
China, which would be the third Asian country to have a carrier after India and Thailand, needs hardware, software and pilot training.
"The acquisition of a carrier doesn't equate to the acquisition of a capability -- the ability to use it effectively -- the latter involving a process that can take decades," said Robert Karniol, a veteran defense analyst based in Canada.
The 300-meter (1,000-foot) Varyag is undergoing refit at a state-run shipyard in northeastern city Dalian, sources said.
A Chinese firm bought the then-engineless Varyag from Ukraine in 1998 for $20 million, planning to convert it to a floating casino in Macau, but the Chinese military then bought the vessel.
Chinese air force pilots have yet to master takeoffs and landings from carriers. They have been undergoing training, but have far fewer flying hours than their U.S. peers.
"They must realize that their learning curve will be costly in terms of blood and treasure," Erickson and Wilson wrote.
"The Varyag will allow us to familiarize ourselves with aircraft carrier tactics of war," one Chinese military source said.
The United States and China's neighbors are nervous about how China could use its growing navy, and speeding up preparations for an aircraft carrier group could add to those jitters.
"Just the prospect of China building aircraft carriers has already made neighbors uneasy," former  taiwan deputy defense minister Lin Chong-Pin said in an interview.
China has refused to rule out the use of force to unify with  taiwan, a self-ruled island over which Beijing claims sovereignty. Tensions between the two sides have eased in recent years.
In March, China announced a 7.5 percent increase in its 2010 military budget to about $78.6 billion. But Washington suspects Chinese spending to be double that figure.
China is seeking to buy ship-borne Su-33 jets from Russia and is working on a variant of its own J-10.
The Varyag will be based in the southern province of Hainan.
Factbox: China's aircraft carrier ambitions
The launch of the ex-Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag, for training and trying out technology, will be a step toward building and operating aircraft carrier group, analysts said.
Here are some facts about China's carrier ambitions.
* Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong proposed building "railways on the high seas," fleets of merchant ships escorted by aircraft carriers, at a meeting of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in 1958. The proposal died because of a lack of funds.
* Mao's successor, Chairman Hua Guofeng, endorsed plans to import or co-produce an 18,000-ton light aircraft carrier in the late 1970s but the project was scrapped because British suppliers asked for too high a price.
* Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded Hua as paramount leader, cut defense spending to free up resources for the economy.
* Admiral Liu Huaqing championed an aircraft carrier programme when he served as People's Liberation Army (PLA) navy chief from 1982 to 1988 and CMC vice-chairman from 1992 to 1997.
* President Jiang Zemin, who was concurrently Communist Party chief and CMC chairman, rejected Liu's idea lest it rattle the United States and China's neighbors.
* Jiang's successor, Hu Jintao, has given his blessings to the carrier programme.
* The navy reportedly receives billions of dollars annually for weapons acquisition, and the figure is likely to grow.
* The cost of building a medium-sized conventionally powered, 60,000-tonne carrier similar to the Russian Kuznetsov class is likely to be more than $2 billion.
* A carrier needs aircraft and escorts -- combat aircraft, airborne early warning systems, anti-submarine warfare and search-and-rescue helicopters, guided- missile destroyers, frigates and supply ships.
* The total cost of one carrier battle group is about $10 billion, spread over a 10-year development period. China is likely to acquire at least two.
* The cost for training, maintenance, repairs and fuel for a carrier battle group is estimated at about 10 percent of the construction cost, or $200 million.
* The 300-meter (1,000-foot) Varyag, designed to displace 67,500 tonnes fully loaded, was conceived in the 1980s to be a jewel in the Soviet navy's crown to challenge U.S. naval power.
* After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, newly independent Ukraine was left with the Varyag, 80 percent complete but with no  engine or rudder.
* Repeated bids to sell the Varyag failed until it was sold for $20 million in 1998 to a Chinese company, Agencia Turistica e Diversoes Chong Lot Limitada, to be turned into a floating casino.
* In 2000, Turkey rejected a Chinese request for the Varyag to pass through the crowded Bosphorous strait, which separates Asia and Europe, into the open sea. Turkey argued that the vessel posed too great a danger to its 12 million inhabitants and the villas and palaces that line the banks of the Bosphorus.
* After the carrier was forced to wait at the mouth of the Bosphorus for 15 months, Turkey agreed to allow it to use the waterway in 2001. China agreed to encourage Chinese tourists to visit Turkey and import more Turkish goods.
* The Dutch ITC company was employed to tow the Varyag to China from Ukraine. But in another twist, strong wind snapped tow ropes as tugs were guiding the ship through the Aegean Sea. For 12 hours, the carrier drifted toward the island of Evia before it was secured.
* The Varyag, delivered in 2002, is being refitted at a state-run shipyard in the northeastern port city of Dalian. China has gained engineering and technical assistance from Russia and Ukraine.
* The Varyag could be launched as early as 2011, but it is unlikely to be operational for years.
WHAT COULD IT BE USED FOR?
* China sees its ever-expanding fleet of merchant ships, especially oil tankers, and the shipping lanes they use through the Malacca Strait and elsewhere, as needing protection. Chinese warships have undertaken anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden.
* Growing overseas investment and rising numbers of Chinese citizens living or working overseas also need protection.
* China's prosperous coast and resource-rich exclusive economic zones and territories -- including claims to the Spratly Islands -- need to be secured in the event of disputes.
* A carrier could be used in humanitarian aid or disaster relief operations.
* Analysts are divided over whether an aircraft carrier would be necessary if China ever wanted to intimidate, or invade,  taiwan.
* China bought for scrap the Australian carrier HMAS Melbourne in 1985.
* The ex-Russian Minsk was acquired in 1998.
* The decommissioned Kiev arrived in the northern port city of Tianjin in 2000.
* The Minsk and Kiev were probably bought as "cadavers" to be dissected and serve as templates for indigenous carriers.