The Growing Reach of China's Navy

Military modernisation programme includes capacity building to cater for China’s growing global footprint and international interests. This will involve multiple missions gradually shifting from ‘near seas’ defence to the ‘far seas’ which includes power projection.

Issue: 5 / 2015By Lt General Naresh Chand (Retd)Photo(s): By Wikipedia, US Navy
China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is conventionally powered and has an estimated full load displacement of almost 60,000 tonnes and likely to have 30 aircraft on board

China is steadily building a modern and regionally powerful navy, officially called the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) (PLA-N), with incremental growing capacity building for conducting operations beyond China’s near seas region. China’s improving naval capabilities pose a potential challenge to India’s interest in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) apart from challenging US’ long-standing superiority over the Pacific region. It also causes conflict of interest with Japan, Philippines, South Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia.

Blue Print of Modernisation

Envisaged Role. Defence analysts believe that China’s naval modernisation effort is geared towards carrying out the following roles:

  • Managing the Taiwan problem militarily if the contingency so exists.
  • Power projection or defending China’s territorial claims in the South and East China Sea.
  • Implementing China’s vision that it has the right to regulate foreign military activities in its 200-mile maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
  • Defending China’s commercial sea lines of communication (SLOCs) like the one linking China to the Persian Gulf.
  • Degrading US influence in the Western Pacific and thereby asserting China’s status as a leading regional power and major world power.
  • To synergise with the above roles China wants its Navy to be capable of carrying out anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) to deter US intervention in a conflict in China’s maritime regions over Taiwan or any other issue. If that fails then it will be able to delay the arrival or reduce the effectiveness of US forces.
  • Additional roles for China’s Navy include conducting maritime security (including anti-piracy) operations, evacuating Chinese nationals from foreign countries when necessary and conducting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations.

Military modernisation programme includes capacity building to cater for China’s growing global footprint and international interests. This will involve multiple missions gradually shifting from ‘near seas’ defence to the ‘far seas’ which includes power projection apart from other roles mentioned above. China’s 2015 Military Strategy, released in May 2015, also stresses placing an increased emphasis on maritime operations, among other things.

China’s Tactics in East and South China Seas

China has been taking actions for force projection and defending its maritime territorial and EEZ claims in the East and South China Sea since late 2013. These actions include land reclamation and construction activities at several sites in the South China Sea, and even building of runways. Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies has reported that land reclamation has been completed at Fiery Cross Reef (area of 27,40,000 square metres) and construction of the airbase is continuing. Similar activities are also being carried out on Mischief Reef and Subi Reef. All these are located on the Spratly Islands. The final steps will be converting them into military bases with facility for employing elements of the defence forces. Spratly Island is a major archipelago in the South China Sea which comprise more than 30,000 islands, reefs and other features. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia have claims on this area and occupy some portions of it. Brunei claims EEZ but does not have a physical presence. China’s action to build military bases on disputed territories has led analysts to believe that China is seeking total domination of this region and have led to increasing concerns among effected and interested nations. If China employs force to resolve the disputed territories in its favour then US’ position may become precarious as it has military treaties with some of the countries. China’s response is that it is just catching up with claimants who have build military bases earlier.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) sailors at the Qingdao, North Sea Fleet headquarters in China

The Beginning

Designing process of China’s latest ships seems to have begun in the late 1980s. The work has picked up with inputs from military operations against Iraq during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and as well as deployment of two US aircraft carrier strike groups near Taiwan in response to Chinese missile tests and naval exercises in the region. China’s naval modernisation programme is broad-based to include anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs), surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), mines, manned aircraft, unmanned aircraft, submarines, aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes, patrol craft, amphibious ships, mine countermeasures (MCM) ships, underway replenishment ships, hospital ships, and supporting C4ISR systems. Some of these acquisition programmes are discussed in detail below. China’s naval modernisation effort also includes improvements in maintenance and logistics, doctrine, quality of personnel, education and training, and exercises. It also appears that the modernisation programme is focused on quality than quantity. US Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) states that “China’s force modernisation has concentrated on improving the quality of its force rather than its size. Quantities of major combatants have stayed relatively constant, but their combat capability has greatly increased as older combatants are replaced by larger, multi-mission ships.”

ASBMs

China’s ASBM, called DF-21D, is a theatre-range conventional ballistic missile which is equipped with a manoeuvrable re-entry vehicle (MaRV) designed to hit moving ships at sea. DF-21D is based on a variant of the CSS-5 (DF-21) medium-range ballistic missile, which China started deploying in 2010. The DF-21D has a range exceeding 1,500 km and is armed with a manoeuvrable warhead. This missile provides the Chinese Navy the capability to attack aircraft carriers in the Western Pacific. Some call it a ‘game changing weapon’ as the US Navy has not previously faced a threat from highly accurate ballistic missiles capable of hitting moving ships at sea. Due to their ability to change course, the MaRVs on an ASBM are more difficult to intercept than non-manoeuvring ballistic missile re-entry vehicles. China reportedly is developing a hypersonic glide vehicle that if incorporated into Chinese ASBMs, could make Chinese ASBMs more difficult to intercept. An earlier report has suggested that ASBM programme is being developed in phases. By the end of this year (12th plan) a range of 3,000 km and enhance aerodynamic manoeuvring capabilities is to be achieved, by 2020, the range will be extended to 8,000 km and by 2025, global precision strike capability will be achieved.

ASCMs

China’s large inventory of ASCMs also includes several indigenous designs as follows:

YJ-62. The ASCMs include the domestically produced ship-launched YJ-62 ASCM with C-602 as the export version (range 280 km) The YJ-62 ASCM is China’s counterpart to the anti-shipping variant of the RGM-109 Tomahawk. The YJ-62/C-602 is a medium-range, sea-skimming cruise missile that can be launched from air, land or sea. Each missile carries a 300-kg armour-piercing high-explosive warhead, has maximum range of 280 km with a maximum flight speed of about Mach 0.6-0.8. The new variant, the YJ-62C, has a range of more than 150 nm (about 333 km). In 2009 the Pakistan Navy purchased 120 Chinese C-602 ASCMs from China.

Russian SS-N-22. Russian SS-N-22/Sunburn supersonic ASCM is fitted on China’s Sovremenny class DDGs acquired from Russia. Reported effective range varies from 90 km/65 km/250 km.

China’s force modernisation has concentrated on improving the quality of its force, rather than its size

YJ-18. China’s submarine force is also increasing its ASCM capability, with the long-range YJ-18 ASCM replacing the older YJ-82 on the Song, Yuan and Shang classes. The YJ-18 is similar to the Russian SS-N-27B/Sizzler ASCM, which is fielded on eight of China’s 12 Russian-built Kilo SS submarines. YJ-18 sprints towards the target with an initial subsonic phase estimated at 0.8 Mach but 20 km from the target the speed increases to supersonic from Mach 2.5 to 3. Range is 180 km.

YJ-83K and YJ-12. The China’s Naval Aviation arms its JH-7 and H-6G with YJ-83K ASCM which has an effective range of 200 km. China has also developed the YJ-12 ASCM for the Navy which is reported to have a range of up to 250 km and a speed of Mach 2.5 but later some sources gave a range of 400 km and a speed of Mach 4 when launched at high altitude.

Submarines

China is rapidly replacing its obsolete submarine force with a modern one on priority as it visualises its submarine force as a critical element of regional deterrence, particularly when conducting ‘counter-intervention’ against modern adversaries.

Latest Acquisitions. China, since the mid-1990s, has acquired 12 Russian-made Kilo class non-nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSs) and four new classes of indigenously built submarines which include a new nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) design called the Jin class (Type 094); a new nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) design called the Shang class (Type 093); a new SS design called the Yuan class (Type 039A); and SS design called the Song class (Type 039/039G). US believes that the Type 093 SSN design will be succeeded by a newer SSN design called the Type 095 which might provide China with a more clandestine, land-attack option. It was also reported by ONI that an improved version of Shang class SSNs will replace six of the aging Han class SSN. Chinese nuclear- and non-nuclear-powered submarines are relatively acoustically quieter than similar Russian submarines. China is also having a new joint-design and production programme with Russia for diesel-electric submarines based on the Russian Petersburg/Lada class.

Arming the Submarines. China’s submarines are armed with one or more of ASCMs, wire-guided and wake-homing torpedoes and mines. Eight of the 12 Kilos purchased from Russia are armed with the lethal Russian-made SSN-27 Sizzler ASCM. In addition to other weapons, Shang class SSNs may carry LACMs. Although ASCMs are a key threat but wake-homing torpedoes are also a concern because they can be very difficult for surface ships to counter. China’s ageing Ming class (Type 035) submarines may be used as or as a decoy.

Submarine Force Level. By the end of 2012, China was expected to have a total of 40 indigenous relatively modern attack submarines. This was apart from the acquisition of 12 Kilos from Russia. Basing on the current rate of growth, ONI estimates that by 2020, China will have a force of 74 submarines which will include 11 with nuclear-power. Some estimate that this figure may go up to 80.

Jin Class SSBN

Four Jin class SSBNs are currently operational and up to five may enter service before China begins developing, and fielding its next-generation Type 096-SSBN over the coming decade. Each Jin class SSBN is expected to be armed with 12 JL-2 nuclear-armed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). China continues to produce the Jin SSBN (Type 094) with associated CSS-NX-14 (JL-2) (SLBM that has an estimated range of 7,400 km and this capability represents China’s first credible, sea-based nuclear deterrent. Unconfirmed reports indicate that China has informed India that it is likely to conduct its first SSBN nuclear deterrence patrol sometime in 2015.

Aircraft Carriers

On September 25, 2012, China commissioned into service its first aircraft carrier—the Liaoning, a refurbished ex-Ukrainian aircraft carrier, previously named Varyag, that China purchased from Ukraine as an unfinished ship in 1998. The Liaoning is conventionally powered, has an estimated full load displacement of almost 60,000 tonnes and likely to have 30 or more aircraft on board. It was reported by a Chinese newspaper that Liaoning may have 24 J-15 fighters, six anti-submarine warfare helicopters, four airborne early warning helicopters and two rescue helicopters. It has also been reported that construction has begun of its first indigenously built aircraft carrier.

Indigenous Aircraft Carrier Programme. China has plans to make their own aircraft carriers but not many details are known. The next carrier which is reported to being built, at a feverish pace at Dalian Shipyard, is similar to Liaoning with a ski ramp but with some improvements. The second indigenous aircraft carrier is likely to be built at Jiangnan Shipyard, followed by four more. However, these are unconfirmed reports. China’s first aircraft carrier battle group is expected to be formed in 2016 to make up for the shortcoming of the limited combat radius of the country’s existing fleets.

PLA-N Jiangkai class frigate Linyi moors alongside the Luhu class destroyer Qingdao

Carrier-based Aircraft

China has developed a carrier-capable fighter, called the J-15 or Flying Shark, that can operate from Liaoning. It was widely reported that it was developed from the Russian Sukhoi Su-33 Flanker which is the naval version of the base Su-27 Flanker air superiority fighter. The J-15 is reported to use different avionics and systems from the Su-33 of Chinese origin. It has various upgrades such as AESA radar, composite and radar absorbent material, missile approach warning system, improved infrared search and track, and new electronics.

Surface Combatants

Destroyers

Sovremenny Class Destroyers. During 1996 China ordered two Sovremenny class destroyers from Russia which entered service by 2001. Two more followed by 2006. These destroyers are equipped with the Russian-made SSN-22 Sunburn ASCMs (range about 220-240km).

Indigenous Destroyers. Six new classes of indigenously built destroyers of Luhu (Type 052), Luhai (Type 051B), Louzhou (Type 051C), Luyang I (Type 052B), Luyang II (Type 052C), and Luyang III (Type 052D) class designs have joined the fleet. These destroyers are modern in terms of hull designs, propulsion systems, sensors, weapons and electronics. Some of them have phased array radars and armed with ASCMs. It has been reported that China plans to build a fleet of 12 Type 052D [Luyang III class] destroyers—nicknamed ‘Chinese Aegis’, before shifting to the later Type 055D multi-role cruiser.

Type 055 Cruiser or Destroyers. China is planning to build the next-generation cruiser or destroyer (it is not clearly spelt out) called the Type 055 which may have a displacement of 10,000 tonnes. A cruiser is smaller than a battleship but larger than a destroyer. The new cruiser to be built in China will carry a variety of anti-surface weapons. China plans to develop two versions of the Type 055 guided-missile destroyer—an anti-submarine and an air defence variant. Type 055 may have a length of about 190 metres with nearly 12,000 tonnes displacement.

Indigenous Frigates

Since the early 1990s four new classes of frigates, called the Jiangwei I (Type 053 H2G), Jiangwei II (Type 053H3), Jiangkai I (Type 054) and Jiangkai II (Type 054A) designs, have entered service. These feature improved hull designs and systems, including improved anti-air warfare (AAW) capabilities. The US Department of Defense states that “China has continued to produce Jiangkai II FFG (guided missile frigates) (Type 054A), with 17 in service and 5 are in various stages of construction”. Finally this class of frigates may be between 22 and 24 in number.

Type 056 Corvettes

China is building a new type of corvette (i.e., a light frigate, or FFL) called the Jiangdao class (Type 056), of which 20 are in service. Finally China may built 60 of these to replace patrol vessels, including the 60 Houbei-class catamaran. These corvettes are of 1,500 tonnes displacement and equipped with 76mm, 30mm, and 12.7mm guns, four YJ-83 family ASCMs, torpedo tubes, and a helicopter landing area. Their role is to patrol the EEZ and safeguard China’s interest in the South China and East China Seas.

Houbei (Type 022) Fast Attack Craft (FAC)

During 2004 China introduced a new type of ASCM-armed FAC, called the Houbei (Type 022) class that has a stealthy and wave-piercing catamaran hull. Each boat can carry eight C-802 ASCMs. About 60 have been built until the production ceased in 2009. Houbei has enabled China to move from coastal defence to offshore and far sea operations. China has also phased out OSA and Houku class missile patrol boats; and gun-armed Shanghai and Hainan class patrol craft. Eventually they may be replaced by Type 056 corvette.

Amphibious Ships

Yuzhao (Type 071) Amphibious Ship. Like other type of surface vessels, China has also modernised its amphibious ships to Yuzhao (Type 071) class, four of which have entered service. The Type 071 has an estimated displacement of more than 18,500 tonnes, can carry about four air cushion landing craft, four or more helicopters, armoured vehicles and troops for long-distance deployments for an expeditionary force, ‘Over the Horizon’ amphibious assault, HA/DR, diplomatic missions and counter-piracy capabilities. The amphibious ships are similar to landing platform/dock. It has also been reported that even larger amphibious ships called Type 081 with a displacement of 50,000 tonnes are also in the pipeline to support China’s global ambitions and also competing with US. Such capability will give China the ability to accomplish various amphibious operations short of a full-scale invasion of Taiwan.

Zubr Class Air Cushioned Landing Craft. During June 2013, China has been reported to acquire four large Zubr class air-cushioned landing craft from Ukraine. Zubr is reported to have a range of 300 nautical miles, a maximum speed of 63 knots (116 kmph) and a payload of 150 tonnes.

Mobile Landing Platform (MLP). China’s has also acquired a MLP type of ship which is a semi-submersible ship that can support ship-to-shore movement of equipment by serving as a ‘pier at sea’ for ships that lack a well deck for accommodating landing craft.

Chinese Navy’s Air Arm

Historically, Chinese Navy has relied on older Chengdu J-7 variants and Shenyang J-8B/D Finback fighters for offshore air defence. In 2002, China purchased 24 Su-30MK2, making it the first fourth-generation fighter aircraft in service. These aircraft feature both an extended range and maritime radar systems. Later it started replacing its older J-8B/D with the newer J-8F variant. The J-8F featured improved armament such as the PL-12 radar-guided air-to-air missile, upgraded avionics, and an improved engine with higher thrust. Today, the PLA(N) is taking deliveries of modern domestically produced fourth-generation fighter aircraft such as the J-10A Firebird and the J-11B Flanker. For maritime strike, it has relied on the H-6 Badger bomber for decades. The JH-7 Flounder augments the H-6 for maritime strike. China is also modernising its fixed-wing maritime patrol aircraft, airborne early warning and surveillance aircraft with the Y-8 and the Y-9.

UAVs. China is developing and fielding a vast range of UAVs. Some estimates indicate that China plans to produce upwards of 41,800 land and sea-based UAVs between 2014 and 2023. China has unveiled details of four UAVs under development—the Xianglong, Yilong, Sky Saber, and Lijian—the last three of which are designed to carry precision-strike capable weapons.

Conclusion

In the last two decades China’s naval modernisation plans have grown manifold but analysts believe that it has certain limitations in certain areas including joint operations with other parts of China’s military, anti-submarine warfare, dependence on foreign vendors for some ship components and long-range targeting. China’s Navy is supported by Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) for asserting and defending its maritime territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. Accordingly, China is equipping CCG with cutters at a rapid pace. Overall China is aware of its weaknesses and working at a feverish pace to overcome them.


Inputs based on US Congressional Research Paper