China emerges as a maritime power JANE'S INTELLIGENCE REVIEW - OCTOBER 01, 2004
Hawkssss (Login Hawkssss) Posted Oct 29, 2004 10:03 PM
JANE'S INTELLIGENCE REVIEW - OCTOBER 01, 2004
China emerges as a maritime power
Dr. Lyle Goldstein and US Navy Lieutenant-Commander William Murray
Surging domestic economic growth has provided funding for the long neglected Chinese navy. Dr. Lyle Goldstein and US Navy Lieutenant-Commander (retired) William Murray investigate the latest developments in China's drive to build a modern, potent maritime force.
A watershed in the evolution of Chinese maritime power occurred in May 2004 when it was announced that the head of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) would be assigned a permanent seat in the Central Military Commission (CMC), China's highest national security decision-making body, which previously consisted solely of leaders of the ground forces.
China's emergence as a possible maritime power and its strategic orientation toward its maritime flank really only dates from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and recent progress is predicated on a very low level of maritime competency to begin with. However, it is China's exponential economic growth that is giving the PLAN an increasingly robust financial basis on which to build, aided by newly efficient extractive means for bringing China's new wealth into state coffers. The first fruits of these efforts are now in evidence.
"These people are building ships like nobody's business... It's mind-boggling," said a military attaché in Beijing, quoted in the Washington Post earlier this year.
Thus far, Beijing has opted to purchase much of its new fleet abroad, benefiting from the Kremlin's fire-sale of advanced military technology. However, more noteworthy is the success that China appears to be having in fielding indigenous platforms to complement its foreign purchases. The latest generation of warships herald a new era in Chinese naval design and capabilities, while less tangible, but still significant, progress is also evident in the arena of military professionalism. Within the wider context of China's evolving prowess in basic science and engineering and the stunning growth of its merchant fleet and shipyards, the extent of China's maritime challenge is obvious.
Submarines at the centre
There are many indicators that submarines are the keystone of Beijing's rapidly evolving area denial capability. In November 2003, there was a surfaced transit of a PLAN Ming-class submarine southeast of Japan's Kyushu island and in July 2004 a new class of submarine, the Yuan-class, was unveiled.
Some analysts have dismissed Chinese submarine capabilities out of hand, citing the April 2003 Ming-class submarine 361 accident, in which 70 crewmembers died, as evidence of underwater incompetence. They argue that the PLAN submarine force has long suffered from antiquated and even dangerous platforms such as the Romeo-class diesel submarine and the Han- and Xia-class nuclear vessels. Such doubts overlook the pace of progress that has become increasingly evident. More indicative of Beijing's underwater trajectory is the accountability to which the PLAN's leaders were held after the 361 disaster. The senior naval leaders deemed responsible were quickly sacked and replaced. Admiral Zhang Dingfa, a submariner, became the new commander of the PLAN, demonstrating a firm national commitment to the undersea force.
One of the most visible indicators of Chinese modernisation programmes is that the Song class submarine following a somewhat troubled design phase, has now entered serial production. Seven to eight Type 039A Songs have now been launched. According to one source, submarine production is being accelerated: China reportedly recently placed a large order for German diesel engines to power these vessels. Future Song-class submarines will likely feature air-independent propulsion technology, which PLAN publications discuss frequently.
According to photographs published on Chinese internet sites, including some from a Hong Kong port visit in May 2004, there appear to be three distinct versions of Song-class submarines, distinguishable by significant alterations to the submarines' sail shape and the number and orientation of limber holes along the hull. Close-up photographs confirm that Song-class submarines, like the most recent versions of the Ming-class, have an anechoic rubber tile coating for sound dampening purposes.
Images thought to be of the interior of a Song-class submarine control room show flat screen control panels, one of which is apparently configured as a 360º digital waterfall broadband sonar display. This tends to confirm Western speculation that the Song-class is equipped with a copy of the French DUUX-5 digital sonar system - a major improvement over analog predecessors. There also appears to be a digital fire control system with weapon presets or systems test options available for selection on additional flat screen monitors. Song-class submarines can reportedly fire the C-801 Anti-Ship Cruise Missile (ASCM) while submerged, as well as some of the PLAN's most modern torpedoes. Other control room images depict a raised periscope, which features electrical or wave guide connectors near the eyepiece and handles that suggest the possibility of permanently installed cameras, night vision enhancement, thermal imaging, laser range-finding, antenna systems, or other modern periscope capabilities. There also appears to be a flat screen for some type of satellite navigation system.
Complementing the Song-class programme is the PLAN's ambitious 2002 Russian contract for eight Project 636 Kilo-class diesel-powered submarines. Along with 3M54E cruise missiles, delivery of all eight submarines will occur between 2005 and 2007. Battery problems with the China's first batch of Kilo-class submarines did not forestall this purchase, suggesting that the PLAN has developed confidence in the appropriate maintenance practices. Acoustically comparable to the most advanced US Navy (USN) Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarine (SSN), the Kilo-class submarines will be a force to be reckoned with.
Given the accelerating pace of Song-class submarine construction, defence analysts were surprised by the sudden and unanticipated appearance of the Yuan-class submarine in July. The photographs available show many similarities between this vessel and Kilo-class submarines, including the two-over-four torpedo tube arrangement, a larger and more rounded bow section that suggests an advanced passive sonar system and a flattened top of the hull. Unlike the Kilo-class, however, the Yuan-class features sail planes and an upper rudder, indicating that the Chinese have incorporated a host of Russian characteristics into their latest indigenous design. Although air-independent propulsion (AIP) cannot be ruled out, the Yuan-class is probably a conventional diesel powered submarine since there is little evidence of the PLAN actively experimenting with AIP technology. Nuclear power can likely be excluded due to the vessel's limited displacement and also because all other PLAN SSNs have been built at the Huludao shipyard. The class's weapons systems are still unknown but it will likely carry advanced torpedoes and be capable of sub-surface ASCM launch. It is not clear when the Yuan-class might impact Song-class production or further purchases of submarines from abroad.
The long-anticipated Type 093 SSN represents the high end of the Beijing's prospective underwater fleet. With the flagship launched in December 2002 and preparing for imminent sea trials, this class of second-generation nuclear submarines will likely replace the PLAN's ageing and noisy Han-class SSNs. A second 093 SSN was reportedly launched in late 2003. Another 093 is said to be under construction, as is the first of the Type 094 second-generation nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), the design of which is widely thought to be derived from the 093. The 094 will likely carry 16 8,000 km-range JL-2 SLBMs and sources expect two or three of them to be in service by 2010. Extended ranges for Chinese SLBMs implies the possibility of the PLAN adopting a 'bastion' strategy to protect these emerging deterrent capabilities.
Long rumoured to be the acoustic and technological equivalent of Soviet Victor III - and Delta-class submarines, the 093 and 094 can only improve on the troubled legacy of China's first generation Han-class SSN and Xia-class SSBN. On the other hand, Western observers should not make the mistake of extrapolating from these earlier failures. The PLAN nuclear submarine fleet may be poised for revolutionary, as opposed to incremental, progress. With no 093 sea trials yet reported, the simultaneous construction of up to six of these complex ships is a remarkable testament to Beijing's newfound confidence in integrating advanced technologies in weapons platforms.
Further augmenting the submarine fleet, Russian state shipbuilding company Admiralteiskiye Verfi (formerly known as Shipyard No 194) recently announced that on 18 August it had launched the second of five diesel-electric submarines it was contracted to build for the Chinese Navy. The first had been launched earlier this year.
The PLAN is aggressively improving its surface fleet with a robust construction programme of destroyers, frigates, amphibious vessels and patrol craft. Widely available photographs chronicle the construction and fitting out of two new PLAN Type 052C destroyers at Shanghai's Jiangnan shipyard. These two 6500-tonne ships, both launched in 2003, appear to share the same hull design as the two brand new Jiangnan-built Type 052B guided missile destroyers (DDG, and the previous decade's solitary Type 051B. Both of the 52B and one of the 52C destroyers have undergone builder's trials. Unlike their predecessors, the 052Cs are optimised for area air defence. They have phased array or planar array radars - a first for the PLAN - on the four corners of the bridge's vertical superstructure and as many as six sets of rotary surface-to-air missile (SAM) vertical launchers - also a PLAN first - located forward of the bridge and adjacent to the helicopter hangar. Sources speculate that this is a naval version of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) HQ-9 air defence system, with a range of 120 km. The 052C's helicopter hangar is large enough to carry two Z-9A or KH 28 helicopters. A pair of four inclined tube launchers oriented athwartships will house an as yet undetermined type of ASCM. Two of the new Type 730 Close In Weapons System (CIWS), said to resemble the Dutch Goalkeeper system and a 100mm main gun on the foredeck round out the apparent weaponry. Propulsion is probably provided by two imported Ukrainian gas turbines with two diesel engines. It is not known if more type 052C DDGs will be built.
The 3500-tonne diesel-powered Type 054 frigate is another conspicuous PLAN construction programme. The Hudong shipyard in Shanghai and the Huangpu shipyard in Guangzhou have each launched one Type 054 since 2003. Both of these vessels have undergone sea trials. Sources indicate that both yards have at least one additional frigate under construction, although there is some debate about whether these newer ships will be further modified to include a 32-cell VLS system for SA-N-12 or comparable missiles on the foredeck, as a recently displayed design model indicates. Notable for their sloping, stealthy superstructures and superficial resemblance to the French Lafayette-class guided-missile frigates (FFGs), the two current 054s are thought to carry the HHQ-7 point defence SAM missile system, as well as two quad-launchers for the PLAN's indigenous 120 km-range C-802 ASCM, a 100mm gun forward, torpedoes, four AK-630 CIWS, and a KH 28 helicopter.
Also noteworthy among Beijing's indigenous surface programmes is the recent launch from Shanghai's Qiuxin shipyard of the PLAN's newest missile patrol boat. According to one analysis of available photographs, this vessel features a wave-piercing centre hull and two outer hulls that each house two water drives that look very similar to those that propel Sweden's new Visby-class missile corvette. Armed with a 30mm gun forward, it also has two enclosures aft that each appear large enough to house two ASCMs. This vessel's superstructure is heavily faceted to provide a reduced radar reflection. Other photographs show this new catamaran moored next to a commercial wave-piercing ferry of similar design. It is not clear how many of these commercially-derived 'missile catamarans' - seemingly the latest derivation of the classic Cold War fast missile patrol boat - will be built.
Another PLAN construction initiative is a marked increase in amphibious ship construction. As chronicled by photographs on the internet, in the past two years Beijing has built at least seven new landing ship/tanks (LST) that are enlarged upgrades to their 3,400-tonne Yuting-class, increasing their inventory of LSTs from 16 to 23. During this same period, the PLAN has launched at least six new medium landing ships (LSMs) that appear to be modernised versions of their solitary 1,400-tonne Yudeng-class. This influx of new construction raises the PLAN inventory of LSMs to 42, most of which are quite modern. It is not known whether this rate of construction will be sustained. There is, moreover, credible evidence of ambitions to construct a 12,300-tonne amphibious transport dock (LPD) capable of carrying up to three landing craft air cushion (LCAC) and several helicopters. Finally, the relatively new PLA Marine Corps is now equipped with what is reputed to be the most advanced amphibious light tank in the world. Considering that the PLA rehearses the use of merchant shipping in military roles, the above building programmes imply a robust amphibious capability in the near term future.
In April and July 2004, observers in Russia reported the launch of the third and fourth of China's four Sovremennyy-class destroyers. The PLAN seems to be seeking to realise synergistic benefits for its surface fleet through parallel programmes of indigenous production and foreign acquisition, similar to the Song- and Kilo-class submarine and J-10/11 aircraft development efforts. It has been suggested that major investments in a surface fleet are wasted until the PLAN can develop a viable force to control the air in its operating area. However, incremental steps are already widening this potential area of operations - at least to encompass China's Economic Exclusion Zone. This area will expand in the future. Moreover, the PLAN surface fleet remains potent for threatening the smaller navies of some of China's neighbours. Perhaps most important, China's surface fleet enables Beijing to claim a seat at the table during any major crisis in the Asia-Pacific, as well as the mantle of the premier rising regional power. Even in the absence of conflict, the PLAN serves China's growing range of national security interests.
The human factor
As the PLAN fields a potent, new generation of surface and sub-surface platforms, there is also an overall Chinese recognition that the 'human factor' remains decisive in warfare. At the broadest level, this amounts to a fundamental turn away from ideology and towards the objective study of naval warfare - a trend that has been two decades in the making. Capable institutions are emerging that have the potential to significantly increase the PLAN's fighting effectiveness in the years ahead.
In 2003, the naval command expanded its recruitment programmes to draw in 1,600 university graduates as part of what appears to be a successful replication of the US Reserve Officer Training Corps programme. These technologically competent cadres will officer China's growing fleet. Salaries have been raised to retain personnel. The formation of a capable force of non-commissioned officers is another high priority for the naval command. In general, a climate of intellectual openness is spurring the military reform process.
A host of naval-interest publications such as Jianchuan Zhishi (Naval and Merchant Ships) and Dangdai Haijun (Modern Navy) serve as forums for debate and also acquaint naval personnel with worldwide naval trends. These and other Chinese military publications are engaged in a broad effort to inculcate officers and the broader public with a detailed knowledge of modern military history, emphasising campaigns at sea. Lacking its own indigenous naval history and quietly shelving the confines of Maoist strategic formulations, the PLAN appears to be engaged in the creation of a community of sophisticated maritime strategic thinkers.
The current atmosphere of relative openness is also evident within the PLAN's educational institutions. This is clear, for example, from recent reforms undertaken at the Qingdao Submarine Academy. According to a 2002 report: "All the traditional modes of instruction, including long-applied teaching practices and well-taught textbooks, were set to be scrapped within a short time." After an assessment that "basic theories have often been stressed at the expense of operating skills" teams from the Submarine Academy set about undertaking thousands of visits to fleet units in order to reform the curriculum to better serve those who will "fight under high-tech conditions". Internet images seem to show the new and powerful influence of computerised simulation technology on PLAN education and training facilities. These images, reportedly from the Qingdao Submarine Academy, show students developing their piloting skills in a surface navigation computer simulator and operating a bank of digital sonar or fire control screens. Although the PLAN submarine force evidently receives priority focus, the reform spirit - in particular the zealous exploitation of new technologies - is likely to impact all aspects of PLAN operations in the near future.
The move away from rote, scripted drills toward more free play 'confrontational training', apparent across the PLA may culminate in revolutionary change with respect to the effectiveness of Chinese military exercises. Specifics remain sketchy and many Western analysts remain sceptical that the PLA is actually any more joint than before. However, some recent training innovations may be suggestive of a new training ethic. For example, cross-posting, or the exchange of personnel from different warfare specialities, is commonly reported in PLAN routines, involving submarine, surface and aviation elements. Inter-theatre exercises involving elements from the three main fleets also appear to be increasingly commonplace. Several innovative exercises recently involved logistics operations from remote ports. Such exercises would appear to fuse technological and organisational developments to yield genuine doctrinal innovation. A recent Chinese account of a Ming-class submarine sortie off the southeast coast of Japan suggests a new and bold intention to operate beyond the first island chain. Recurring 'research activities' of Chinese hydrographic vessels in waters near Japan are also strongly suggestive of this tendency, as are other recent PLAN deployments to the waters east of Taiwan.
Finally, it should be recognised that a firm foundation for China's naval modernisation has been laid with respect to creating the massive infrastructure for basic and applied research. Chinese universities grant nearly half a million science and engineering degrees each year. Furthermore, some of Beijing's myriad labs devoted to naval weapons research are led by Chinese holding PhDs from Western universities. A recent RAND appraisal of China's defence industry noted that shipbuilding was at the forefront of impressive industry-wide technological and quality-assurance progress. Beijing's wide-ranging investments are starting to pay dividends, as demonstrated by the array of capable platforms described above.
The emergence of China as a significant sea power is not a foregone conclusion. Many significant shortfalls are apparent in the PLAN modernization programme - especially if one considers its potential for blue-water operations.
The following areas could be substantial weak points in the evolving PLAN: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); area air defence and naval air; anti-submarine warfare; and mine warfare. ISR capabilities remain rather limited, suggesting potential difficulties in finding targets for China's newest stand-off weapons. The PLAN Air Force (PLANAF) has long been the poor cousin of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), nor does much progress seem to be have been achieved under the last commander of the PLAN, Admiral Shi Yunsheng, an aviator who was replaced in 2003. Aircraft carrier projects appear to be on indefinite hold. There are some signs of recognition that helicopter operations will have to be vastly expanded and improved to keep pace with other aspects of fleet modernisation. This would help rectify uncertainty over Chinese anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities. In this respect, the modest programme for maritime surveillance aircraft, akin to the P-3 Orion, remains a fundamental gap. There is also a clear shortfall in amphibious lift - far less than what would be necessary to deliver the requisite forces across the Strait of Taiwan. Finally, many analysts have noted that the PLAN appears to give short shrift to mine warfare, possessing mostly old-fashioned contact mines, one single dedicated minelayer and a not especially impressive fleet of minesweepers.
On the other hand, even in these areas of weakness bright spots are discernible. Concerning ISR, new reports suggest that China has, in fact, been aggressively pursuing development of an airborne warning and control system (AWACS)-type aircraft for early warning and airborne battle management. A number of aircraft, similar to the Russian A-50 Mainstay, are in various stages of testing. In addition, China already has as many as three over-the-horizon skywave radars for maritime surveillance.
Regarding naval air defence, the new surface platforms described above represent a significant improvement over their predecessors. With respect to naval aviation, the PLANAF will receive its first batch of fourth generation Su-30Mk2s from Russia during 2004. Armed with Kh-31 supersonic anti-ship missiles and with a highly respectable combat radius of 1,500 km, these aircraft may herald a new recognition of the PLANAF's importance. Moreover, it may be significant that the PLAN's new ranking political officer General Hu Yanlin is a transplant from the PLAAF. He reportedly retains excellent ties with the current PLAAF leadership. Such ties could enforce a more rational future division of labour between the PLANAF and the PLAAF.
In terms of mine warfare, minelaying and clearing exercises are taking place, and there is a definite, discernible interest in technology associated with advanced deep-water mines.
China has accelerated its programme of naval modernisation. Not only is the PLAN benefiting from a host of lethal systems purchased from Moscow, but for the first time in modern history, China is deploying respectable indigenous naval platforms, especially new diesel submarines, destroyers and frigates. While considerable uncertainty surrounds the momentous commissioning of China's second generation of nuclear submarines, given China's new technical prowess, it would be a grave mistake to simply extrapolate from the failed first generation of nuclear submarines.
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YEAR VESSEL NUMBER BUILT
1964-1984 Romeo 84 (4 per year)
1975-1980 Romeo 20
1981-1985 Romeo 16
1986-1990 Ming 4
1991-1996 Ming 6
1996-2000 Ming 7
2001-2005 Kilo (Project 636) 8
093 SSN 1
2006-2010 (projected) Song/Yuan 10
093 SSN 3
094 SSBN 4
Lanzhou - Luyan II (Type 052C) Class (DDGHM). Indigenously manufactured, Hull 170 and her sister 171 will be true area air defense ships when armed with a mature, vertically launched HQ-9 SAM.
Jiangkai (Type 054) Class (FFGHM) The two of this modern class have diesel propulsion, ASCMs, the HQ-7 SAM, and a helicopter hangar.
A new Fast Attack Craft missile was launched at Quixin Shipyard in April 2004. With a wave-piercing catamaran hull form and waterjet propulsors, the ship is probably of aluminium alloy construction while the design clearly incorporates RCS reduction measures.
The Yuan-class, built at over 200 km up the Yangtze river, shares similarities with both Russian Kilo and Chinese 039A class submarines. Its appearance was a surprise to Western observers.
Yuting II Class (LSTH)- In the past two years the PLAN has constructed at least 8 of these modernized vessels, raising their inventory of LSTs to 23.
The authors are faculty members in the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, USA.
Disclaimer: This work reflects the personal opinions of the authors and not the official views of the US Naval War College or the US government.