Analysis: PLA Navy edges toward owning Asia-Pacific
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.
Another technological challenge to tackle will be the third carrier’s propulsion plant, Kirchberger said. Nuclear propulsion would of course be the obvious choice for a flat-top carrier, but developing it could be a time-consuming challenge despite the fact that China already operates nuclear propulsion plants, albeit of a different type, aboard submarines.
The remarkable progress China has made in its naval modernisation and shipbuilding efforts over the past 20 years must be considered in light of the difficult conditions China has faced under the 1989 Western arms embargo, Kirchberger said. Except for dual-use technologies, China has been limited to cooperating with Russia and Ukraine, and yet has made ‘remarkable progress in naval shipbuilding.’
For one, China has made the transition from an experimental approach of warship design, ‘building various prototypes simultaneously while importing foreign models to study, and successfully settled on one indigenous design for the serial production of every major surface combatant type’.
This has enabled China to take advantage of ‘economy of scale effects’, which also increases operational readiness, whereas the earlier approach resulted in a ‘heterogeneous fleet facing multiple logistics and training challenges’, Kirchberger said.
Second, the quality of construction itself has improved markedly when comparing modern vessels with earlier Chinese warships. China is now successfully using modern build methods, and the quality of the welding now appears to be high.
Kirchberger argued that while the new ship designs look good from the outside, it must be noted that hull design is only a small part of the challenges associated with building a naval force capable of network-centric operations. Major challenges faced by China now pertain to systems integration and jointness.
Modern ‘informationised’ warships are ‘systems of systems rather than just systems’, and they require a much more sophisticated level of systems integration than was necessary in the past, a factor largely invisible from the outside.
‘One can assume that China has to face similar challenges as other leading navies when it comes to integrating a lot of power-hungry and sensitive sensor equipment aboard a relatively small hull.’ Moreover, these capabilities require enormous computing power and highly specialised software.
The problem is therefore not just to develop each of these systems and components separately, but to integrate them all into an organic whole, and this requires secure data links and specialist and intense crew training for sailors, naval aviators and shore-based personnel.
Since transparency is lacking and failures will likely remain unacknowledged, it will be difficult for outside analysts to assess the actual status of China’s systems integration efforts from open sources.
Craig Beitinger, an AMI International analyst, said that while Chinese naval operations are largely focused regionally, the fleet is stretching its legs into the Indian Ocean and participating in counter-piracy as well as showing-the-flag operations in the Mediterranean. The 2015 Joint Sea 2015 naval exercise with Russia highlighted Chinese naval activity/development and the promotion of interoperability with Russia and other navies.
Cavas agreed, ‘Part of the maturity is anti-piracy missions begun in 2008, and they have learned a lot from the US Navy during those missions.’
This has given the PLAN more confidence in interacting with other navies beyond their near shores.