Wednesday 30 April 2008

PLA Navy: From 'Green Water' to 'Blue Water'

In the first half of 2002, the attention of Western military specialists was drawn to two large-scale contracts concluded by China and Russia and aimed at PLA (People's Liberation Army) Navy modernization:

1. construction of two Sovremenny-class missile destroyers, for $1.4 billion;

2. construction of eight upgraded Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines, for $1.6 billion.

Indeed, $3 billion in six months is a huge sum of money. However, this represents only a part of the resources directed at PLA Navy (PLAN) modernization. In any case, the rate of PLAN modernization and construction is not inferior to similar rates of the PLA Air Force and air-defense network (described in recently published articles).

General Structure of the Chinese Shipbuilding Industry

Remarkably, China has a comparatively modern shipbuilding industry; this definitely facilitates PLAN development.

In July 1999, China General Shipbuilding Company was divided, for the purpose of "socialist competition" and accelerated development, into China Shipbuilding Industry Group Corp. (SIGC) and China Shipbuilding Heavy Industry Group Corp. (SHIGC).

SIGC includes several large shipbuilding plants in Shanghai and Guangzhou Shipbuilding Plant, producers of diesel engines and other equipment for vessels. SHIGC includes Dalian Shipbuilding Plant, Dalian New Shipbuilding Plant and Qingdao Shipbuilding Plant, producers of diesel engines for vessels, etc.

During the year 2000, SIGC finished construction of 112 civilian vessels, a total of about 2 million tons deadweight. The volume of production and export increased by about 45 percent from the 1999 level.

Shanghai-based Hudong Shipbuilding Plant, Shanghai-based Jiangnan Shipbuilding Plant and the Guangzhou (capital of Guangdong province) Shipbuilding Plant provided more than 80 percent of the finished deadweight. Several vessels have a deadweight of 80,000-100,000 tons each.

The same year, SHIGC finished construction of 72 civilian vessels, a total of about 1.5 million tons deadweight. Dalian Shipbuilding Plant and Dalian New Shipbuilding Plant provided at least 80 percent of the finished deadweight; this included a 300,000-ton oil tanker for Iran.

By mid-2002, total annual capacity of the two Dalian-based plants approached an estimated 5 million tons deadweight.

Together, the two companies constructed, in 2000, civilian ships of about 3.5 million tons total deadweight. This volume approached 4.5 million tons in 2001 and, by preliminary estimate, could surpass 5 million tons in 2002.

In addition, SIGC and SHIGC annually produce several hundred diesel engines of large capacity and much other equipment for vessels, including sophisticated electronics for control and navigation.

According to available data, 50 percent to 60 percent of the finished vessels are exported – to both developing and developed countries. China's shipbuilding industry occupies third place in the world by production volume, after Japan and South Korea. The quality and technological level of Chinese-made civilian vessels are close to world levels.

Particularly powerful is the group of Shanghai-based shipbuilding plants, namely, newly constructed and very advanced Waigaoqiao Shipbuilding Corp., Jiangnan Shipbuilding Corp., Hudong Shipbuilding Corp. and Shanghai Shipbuilding Plant.

By mid-2002, the total annual shipbuilding capacity of these enterprises, belonging to SIGC, reached 3 million tons deadweight (including 1 million tons at Waigaoqiao). They are capable of producing modern tankers and large civilian vessels of all kinds.

In 2001, Jiangnan, Hudong and Shanghai Shipbuilding Plant finished construction of civilian vessels with a total deadweight of 1.8 million tons (600,000 tons more than in 2000), thus constituting 40 percent of China's civilian shipbuilding production.

The same companies are engaged in naval vessel production:

* Two enterprises of SHIGC in Dalian city (Liaoning province) are constructing destroyers. Obviously, the same enterprises are preparing now for the first Chinese aircraft carrier construction. In April 2002, the unfinished aircraft carrier Varyag (purchased by China from Ukraine) arrived in Dalian – for re-equipping into an entertainment vessel or for another purpose? Experts estimate a 50-50 chance for either.

* SIGC enterprises in Shanghai are constructing frigates for PLAN, while SIGC plants in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Wuhan develop and construct diesel-electric submarines.

No doubt the "Dalian group" of SHIGC and the "Shanghai group" of SIGC could easily become powerful producers of modern submarines, destroyers, cruisers, even aircraft carriers – if advanced naval technology is available. However, achievements in civilian shipbuilding cannot be easily converted into naval shipbuilding construction.

Here China still has much to learn from Russia – particularly in low-noise engines, naval electronics and naval weapon systems of all kinds. And that's obviously what is going to take place during 2002-2005: While placing large-scale weapon orders to Russia, the Chinese side obtains broad access to the technology of this weapon manufacturing. In the framework of a $3 billion order for submarines and destroyers, Shanghai and Dalian would get the best Russian technology for naval vessel development and construction.

PLAN by 2006

Recently, the U.S. and Taiwan concluded agreements on the supply of several destroyers and diesel submarines to the Republic of China Navy. As expected, this project will be finished by 2010. However, PLAN intends to accomplish its major upgrading much earlier, by 2005-2006. The details of this transformation – under way already – are given below.

Nuclear submarines:

This item deserves significant attention, despite no "sensational news" in this area – in contrast to construction or purchase of destroyers and diesel-electric submarines for PLAN emerging during the last several months. In this case, silence is dangerous.

Let's look first at Huludao Shipbuilding Plant in Liaoning province. This plant, the only producer of nuclear submarines in China, doesn't belong to SIGC or SHIGC; it is probably directly subordinated to the Chinese Defense Ministry.

Since 1999, the Huludao plant has been engaged in production of new-generation "093 project" nuclear attack submarines and "094 project" ballistic-missile (strategic) submarines. St. Petersburg-based Rubin Design Bureau and some other Russian enterprises are providing all the necessary technology to Huludao.

In summer 2001, one or two newly constructed "093 project" attack submarines participated in Dongshan maneuvers near the coast of Fujian province, about 200 km from Taiwan. By 2006, PLAN could acquire at least four "093 project" submarines, equipped by anti-ship cruise missiles with a range of up to 500 km (somewhat similar to Russia's Granit anti-ship missiles) and land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) with a range of up to 2,500 km (similar to Russia's Granat LACMs).

Simultaneously, by 2006, China could get one or, more probably, two "094 project" strategic submarines, equipped with JL (Julang or Giant Wave)-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with a range of 10,000 km; this is a submarine-based variety of China's DF-31 ICBM. Several successful tests of these SLBMs – launched in the South China Sea or East China Sea and hitting targets in Xinjiang, at a distance of about 5,000 km – took place in 2001 and in early 2002.

The question is how many Russian-made nuclear submarines will China purchase by 2006?

In June 2001, the Russian state-owned weapon monopoly Rosvoouruzheniye (transformed in late 2001 into Rosoboronexport) published, on its Web site, a large catalog of weaponry available for foreign customers. One item is of special interest (edited):

Project 971 Shuka-B (nuclear) multipurpose attack submarine is capable of striking against groups of hostile ships and against coastal installations. Designated the "Akula" class by the West, this submarine is officially designated Project 971 Shuka B (shuka is an aggressive breed of freshwater pike).

Some 110 meters long, the Akula is double-hulled with considerable distance between the outer and inner hulls to reduce the possible damage to the inner hull. The hull is constructed of low-magnetism steel, is divided into eight compartments, and features a distinctive high aft fin.

The Project 971, using a steel hull, was initiated in 1976 when it became evident that the existing industrial infrastructure was inadequate to mass-produce the expensive titanium hulls of the Project 945 Sierra class. The performance of the Project 971 boats was a close approximation to that of the Project 945 design, though the latter was significantly more expensive to build and maintain. It has 650-mm and 533-mm torpedo tubes that can use mines as well as Granat cruise missiles, anti-submarine missiles and torpedoes.

Unit Cost: $750 Million

Armament: 6x533mm torpedo tubes

Speed: 20 knots (about 36 km per hour)

Build Time: 16 months (from time of signing contract), additional time for delivery.

There were many reports regarding Akula-class submarines purchased for PLAN needs, at the shipbuilding plants in Severodvinsk (near Arkhangelsk city on the White Sea) or Komsomolsk-na-Amure (Khabarovsk region of the Russian Far East) between mid-1999 and early 2001.

Once again, silence regarding this project, in 2001-2002, could be even more dangerous than the exact information. Russian-Chinese military-technological cooperation has produced a series of shocking surprises already. In order to escape one more large-scale shocker, let's assume that, by 2006, PLAN will get two Akula-class nuclear submarines from Russia. This is a very dangerous weapon platform, and the U.S. Navy should be prepared in advance.

In 1999-2000, there were several reports that China will buy two decommissioned Typhoon-class strategic submarines in Russia. However, the authors are inclined to consider this a bluff: The PLA doesn't like old second-hand weapons. Even if Moscow made a corresponding proposal, the Beijing response probably was negative.
New Purchases of Kilo Submarines and Sovremenny Destroyers From Russia

On Jan. 3, 2002, Rosoboronexport signed a contract with the Chinese for $1.4 billion for the construction of two Sovremenny-class destroyers for PLA needs. Let's look again at the Rosvoouruzheniye catalog (text is excerpted):

"Sovremenny Class is a Russian class of destroyers designed to engage hostile ships by means of missile attack, and to provide warships and transport ships with protection against ship and air attack. Intended primarily for anti-ship operations, it was designed to complement anti-submarine warfare (ASW) Udaloy destroyers (of a previous generation). The ships have anti-ship, anti-aircraft, anti-submarine and coastal bombardment capability. The ships, with a maximum displacement of 8,480 tons, are similar in size to the U.S. Navy's Aegis-equipped missile cruisers, and are armed with an anti-submarine helicopter, 48 air defense missiles, 8 anti-ship missile launchers, torpedoes, mines, long-range guns and a comprehensive electronic warfare system.

Unit Cost: $425 Million
Build Time: 15 Months" (end of description)

So, why is China paying Russia $700 million per destroyer?

According to the understanding of the authors, the major reasons are as follows:

1. China's People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) intends to obtain these two destroyers as early as possible – ideally by early 2006. PLA strategists know that the probability of a conflict around Taiwan and/or in the South China Sea – with U.S. forces as the major adversary – is growing, and there is no time to waste. That's why PLAN is ready to spend extra money.

2. These destroyers will be equipped with the very best weapon systems available in Russia.

3. Without doubt, in parallel with the two destroyers constructed in St. Petersburg, the shipyards in Dalian city would master the technology for constructing similar (or even better) vessels.

Let's look for the details of these items.

According to Russia's Interfax agency (June 28), the Severnaya Verf (Northern Wharf) shipyard in Petersburg began building the first of two Sovremenny 956EM Project destroyers for China in June 2002. E and M in the project designation stand for "export" and "modernized." Construction of the second destroyer should start at the end of July. The two destroyers are to be completed and delivered to the customer in early 2006.

The ships were developed by the St. Petersburg-based Severnoye (Northern) Design Bureau. Several Russian shipyards competed for the contract, Baltiysky Zavod (St. Petersburg-based Baltic Shipbuilding Plant) and Severnaya Verf shipyards being the principal competitors. Eventually, the order was placed with Severnaya Verf, which was engaged in building two 956E destroyers for PLAN from 1997 to 2000.

The project 956EM destroyers will boast cutting-edge armament assets. This vessel has been designed for countering hostile surface ships and landing craft (its major duty), countering anti-aircraft and anti-missile defenses of combat and transportation ships, providing fire support to landing units, and patrolling and carrying out various missions as part of a formation or separately.

The 956EM destroyer is fitted with advanced missile and artillery assets and torpedo, radar and anti-submarine systems, as well as the Moskit supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles. Length of the destroyer is 150m, and beam is 17m; it is capable of traveling at a speed of 34 knots (60 km per hour). (end of brief description)

Severnaya Verf, indeed, constructed for China two Sovremenny 956E destroyers in 1997-2000. Both destroyers – by 1997 – were about 40 percent ready. The Russian navy – the initial customer – terminated the order due to lack of funds. Severnaya Verf got the new order for the additional two destroyers, to be constructed from scratch, in terribly heavy competition with Baltiysky Zavod (no room here to describe this New Russian-style thriller).

Remarkably, (a) this time, construction should take place much more rapidly (by early 2006 the two destroyers should start service in Qingdao or Zhanjiang naval seaports) and (b) the 956EM destroyers will be much more advanced than the 956E ones; the 'M' means a lot here. According to Western experts, these destroyers – according to their design, at least – are the naval vessels of the 21st century.

And they are incomparably more advanced than two Luhai-class destroyers, the best and largest Chinese-made naval vessels, whose construction was finished in Dalian in 1997 and 2000, respectively (there is some uncertainty regarding the second destroyer).

According to an article in Moscow-based Novyye Izvestiya newspaper (June 27), China is preparing for the American occupation of the naval base at Cam Ranh, Vietnam, recently abandoned by the Russian navy. That's why, according to the Chinese-Russian contract signed on Jan. 3, 2002, Severnaya Verf must produce two Project 956EM ships for PLAN as early as 2005.

The Chinese were primarily attracted by the Moskit anti-ship strike system with its supersonic missiles, which NATO calls the "aircraft-carrier destroyer." Two 956 E destroyers, received in 1999-2000, increased greatly PLAN's capability regarding conflict with U.S. Navy aircraft carrier groups. And there is information that the two new 956EM destroyers, which Severnaya Verf has begun to build, are to be equipped with more improved weapons, namely, Yakhont systems, whose effective range reaches 280 km (as opposed to 100 km for the Moskit missiles).

China's naval strategy is not limited to the struggle over Taiwan. Chinese interests are increasingly shifting south, and the PLAN has been given the mission of defending oil- and gas-rich islands in the South China Sea. (end of article briefs)

Important comment: The Yakhont missile launcher and its anti-ship missile are much more compact than the Moskit (Sunburn) launcher and its missile. That's why it is possible to deploy, on a 956EM destroyer, at least 16 Yakhont systems (up to 24, according to some sources). One 956EM could have the combat potential of two to three 956E destroyers!

As the authors mentioned in the recently published article "Chinese multi-level air-defense network," sometime in April 2002 Russia and China signed a contract to sell two S-300F (RIF) ship-borne anti-aircraft complexes to China for $200 million. Beijing plans to install the RIF complexes, with a 120-km range, on two new-generation missile destroyers to be built in China by 2005.

According to Hong Kong media reports in mid-June, these two destroyers aren't inferior to the Sovremenny 956EM; they will be constructed by "436th plant" (evidently, in Dalian) and use Chinese-made gas-turbine engines of 26,700 kW capacity. Earlier, China had to import these engines from Ukraine; now China is capable of producing them (based on technology from the Ukrainian Zarya Corp.).

There is some speculation (also in the Hong Kong media) that purchasing two 965EM destroyers for $1.4 billion means the delay of the Chinese-made destroyers project. In the authors' opinion, this is absurd. To the contrary, payment of such money to Russia means that China will get every bit of manufacturing technology and use it at its own shipyards.

So, by the beginning of 2006, PLAN could have up to eight comparatively modern missile destroyers: two Luhai, two Sovremenny 956E, two Sovremenny 956EM, and two Chinese-made Sovremenny replicas. This is a great challenge to U.S. aircraft carrier groups.

New-Generation Diesel Electric Submarines

The leading U.S. papers published, in May-June 2002, dozens of reports on a Chinese-Russian contract for PLAN to purchase eight Kilo 636 diesel-electric submarines for $1.6 billion. We'll describe the most remarkable features of this bargain.

1) These submarines are much more advanced than the four Kilo submarines received by PLAN in 1995-98. They are equipped with two new-generation weapon systems:

1. Klub anti-ship cruise missiles with a range up to 200 km; the Klub or 3M54E1 is developed by the Yekaterinburg OKB (Experimental Design Bureau) Novator; no counterpart has been invented in the world. They have three stages: The first two define movement at subsonic speeds, the third goes into operation 20 km from the target at supersonic speed, which guarantees invulnerability from enemy air-defense weapons and destroys the enemy's ship. The Kilo-636 submarine with the Klub system is capable of salvo firing of missiles simultaneously from six torpedo tubes – and not only at surface targets, but also at submarines.
2. The Shkval torpedo, whose speed reaches 100 meters per second. After launch under water, it flies through the air and descends by parachute into the region where the hostile ship was detected and then again travels under water. Under such conditions the commander of the targeted submarine simply cannot perform an anti-torpedo maneuver. Incidentally, the Russian navy has no ships yet with such a weapon. In 2001, China acquired at least 40 Shkval torpedoes from Russia and/or Kazakhstan. It is supposed to use them on "093 project" nuclear submarines also.

2) Just like the Sovremenny 956EM contract, the contract for Kilo submarines caused intense competition among Russian enterprises. This resulted, by early July 2002, in the following: Five submarines will be produced by the Komsomolsk-na-Amure shipbuilding plant (the Khabarovsk region of the Russian Far East), two by the St. Petersburg-based Admiralteisky Verf plant, and one by the Sormovo shipbuilding plant on the Volga river, in the Nizhny Novgorod region. The contract for constructing two submarines will be transferred from the Komsomolsk-na-Amure plant to Northern Machine Building Enterprise (NME) in Severodvinsk city, on the White Sea. That's despite NME having no experience in Kilo submarine construction (in contrast with the other three shipyards), and getting the Kilo submarines from Severodvinsk to China will be very difficult. 3) The authors conclude that, simultaneously with the eight submarines constructed in Russia, at least four submarines of the same kind will be built at China Shipbuilding Industry Group Corp.(SIGC) shipyards in Shanghai, Wuhan or Guangzhou cities. As early as 1997, the Chinese and Russians negotiated for China's purchase of about 10 Kilo submarines in exchange for their manufacturing technology.

In 1999, China finished the construction of a "super-Kilo submarine" – the improved version of China's Song diesel-electric submarine. China already has part of the Kilo construction technology; now SIGC will get the entire technology. 4) The order for eight submarines is distributed between three Russian enterprises, in order to accelerate the project's realization. The Chinese will spare no efforts to get all the submarines by 2006 (despite the contract prescribing project completion by 2007).

Finally, by 2006, PLAN could get an entire fleet of comparatively advanced diesel-electric submarines: three to four Song, four old-generation Kilos, eight new-generation Kilos, and at least four Chinese-made Kilos of the new version. Such a fleet, united with the aforementioned advanced destroyers, could greatly affect the naval balance not only around Taiwan, but in the South China Sea and East China Sea as well.

First Chinese Aircraft Carrier

No information about construction of a Chinese aircraft carrier from scratch is available; however, China now has the Varyag unfinished aircraft carrier.

The latest information about the fate of Varyag could be reduced to the following:

Varyag, after spending 110 days being towed by tugboats through the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, Indian Ocean, South China Sea, East China Sea and Yellow Sea, arrived at Dalian seaport in late March 2002. In April-May, the vessel showed no outward signs of becoming "the world's largest floating casino and hotel" (Macao-based company Agencia Turistica bought Varyag from Ukraine under just this pretext, for $20 million, in 1998).

Heavy security measures bar any civilian access to Varyag at the Dalian shipbuilding plant (which of the two plants is unknown). This has fueled speculation, in the Hong Kong and Taiwan media, that Varyag is being used by PLA for the attempt to build its first operational aircraft carrier.

Varyag is stripped of its armaments, it no longer has the nuclear reactors installed earlier by the Ukrainian company Generating Systems of Crimea. Still, the Kuznetsov-class carrier Varyag is 70 percent complete and weighs 33,600 tons.

According to Hong Kong media, it is extremely doubtful that Agencia Turistica will ever turn Varyag into a floating casino. Moreover, this company's owners are closely connected with PLAN. (end of Varyag-related information briefs)

It looks like the probability of Varyag becoming PLAN's first aircraft carrier should be estimated as at least 70 percent. And this also could be accomplished by 2006.


1) The PLA intends to accomplish a major PLAN overhaul by 2006.

2) At that time China will have complete technology for manufacturing advanced submarines and destroyers.

3) The balance of power in East Asia (let alone around Taiwan) would be tilted in favor of China.

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