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Analysis: PLA Navy edges toward owning Asia-Pacific

13th July 2017 - 10:13 by Wendell Minnick in Taipei

China is producing naval vessels at a rate that will soon see the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) eclipse the US Navy (USN) in force structure and capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region. Sources indicate that China is intent on replacing the US as security guarantor for the region, and could use its position to force regional neighbours to serve as tributary states.

China’s naval modernisation efforts are based entirely on modelling their navy after the US naval combatant structure, said Chris Cavas, a Washington-based naval analyst. They are emulating the USN’s ‘balanced fleet concept’, he said, with destroyers, frigates, logistics, support mission craft and, now, aircraft carriers.

China is mass-producing new classes of fighting vessels nonstop, such as the Type 052D destroyer, Type 054A frigate and Type 056A corvette. ‘They are cranking those babies out,’ Cavas said. 

They have also begun building four cruisers, the Type 055, of 10,000t displacement. The Type 055 is capable of air defence, anti-cruise missile, anti-submarine and anti-ship missions. ‘China’s navy is becoming a force to reckon with,’ he said. 

The Type 055 has a vertical launch system capable of firing 120 YJ-18 land attack/anti-ship cruise missiles and this is a ‘problem for the US Navy,’ Cavas said. ‘It is not clear whether our countermeasures for Chinese anti-ship missiles work.’ 

China’s navy is also constructing its first flat-top amphibious assault ship, the 40,000t Type 075 (also referred to as the Type 081) with a complement of 30 helicopters. 

China’s shipbuilding philosophy is consistent with the ideological dialectics theory known as change in quantity to change in quality, said Ching Chang, a research fellow of the Taipei-based Society for Strategic Studies, and a former Taiwan naval officer. 

‘By accumulating evolutionary efforts to a yield point, then a revolutionary new type will be produced,’ Chang said. ‘There is a cyclic pattern in Chinese naval shipbuilding activities: revolutionary-evolutionary-revolutionary-evolutionary.’ This is the general modus operandi of Chinese mainland naval shipbuilding, he pointed out. 

As an example, the Type 052C ‘Aegis’ destroyer was revolutionary, and follow-on minor modification types were evolutionary until the revolutionary phase began again with the Type 055. ‘One big step forward, then follows a series of smaller improvements,’ Chang related.

Cavas said China is using fewer foreign dual-use systems for its ships. ‘Things used to be French, Dutch, Russian, but now systems appear to be indigenously produced.’ 

One area of weakness used to be propulsion, said Roger Cliff, senior research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses, but they seem to have solved that one with the QC-280 gas turbine, an evolution of the Ukrainian GT-25000 design.

There are still questions on when surface ships will transition to nuclear power. Rick Dorn, senior analyst at AMI International, suggested that since they have developed nuclear-powered Type 095 attack submarines and Type 094 ballistic missile submarines, ‘what would stop them from putting those plants on a surface ship, possibly an aircraft carrier?’ 

Chang said whether they go nuclear on propulsion is a matter of time and a few key factors will affect the decision: marine nuclear fuel rod production technology, final disposal technology, marine nuclear reactor control and steam turbine control technology. China will not go forward on nuclear-powered surface ships until these necessary technologies are mature, Chang said.

One area of difficulty China has to overcome is building large aircraft carriers. Currently, the 55,000t Liaoning, a former Soviet aircraft carrier, is a training platform using a ski-jump launch system. 

The second carrier, likely named Shandong and based on the Liaoning, will be commissioned in 2020. The third aircraft carrier, now under construction, could be a standard flat-top carrier in the 100,000t range with a catapult system. 

The real challenge will be whether they can build a catapult that can stand up to the sea environment and thousands of firings, said Cliff. ‘It is a non-trivial challenge. There was speculation that they might skip steam catapults and go directly to an electromagnetic catapult system, but those turn out to be harder than was anticipated, so I expect China’s first carriers to have steam catapults.’

Sarah Kirchberger, head of the Centre for Asia-Pacific Strategy and Security at Kiel University, Germany, said that China is experimenting with steam catapults and the electromagnetic aircraft launch system, and the challenge will be to develop sufficient competency in either of these fields, and to integrate the chosen technology successfully into a brand new ship design. 

‘We can expect to see the usual issues that commonly afflict prototypes, and it will take some time, likely a few years, to overcome them,’ she assessed. 

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