The former Ukrainian carrier Varyag gets her new pennant number from her Chinese owners, with the above photos from Chinese internet forums showing the finishing touches for the number 16 being painted on the port side of her hull at her berth in Dalian, Liaoning Province, China. Combat Aircraft magazine (Twitter: @combatair) is reporting that she will be attached to the Chinese Navy's South Sea Fleet after a combined total of 103 days of sea trials.
What are the odds she will be officially inducted into the fleet on the 1st of October 2012, the anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China? And after years of speculation/conjecture, we will finally find out her new name.
As I've mentioned elsewhere, those who pooh-pooh the Varyag miss the point. Think of her as the PLAN's 2012 equivalent to USS Langley (CV-1) who launched her first aircraft as an aircraft carrier in 1922. And look how at what that humble beginning for led to a mere 22 years later. And mind you, that photo constituted just a small part of Task Force 38/58's carrier-based striking power.
That is not to say the Chinese Navy will have as many carriers as TF.38/58 come 2034. Things are a lot more complex and expensive these days, and (hopefully) there won't be a global conflict 20 years from now. But Varyag was never intended to be cutting edge, or take on the 7th Fleet. Carrier operations will be a steep learning curve for the Chinese Navy, and the Varyag is but a small step on the curve. She will most likely serve primarily as a platform to train up a core of naval and air crew competent in carrier ops, develop tactics and establish doctrine in carrier operations.
30 years from now, if things go according to (China's) plans, we may see a core of Chinese pilots who've trained on Varyag flying J-15s, AEW & ASW platforms off newer and more numerous carriers serving with the Chinese Navy. There are persistent rumours the Chinese will be (are?) building more carriers, and to be honest, I'd be more surprised if they aren't. As they say, watch this space.