Tuesday 24 February 2009

China's Navy today: Storm clouds on the horizon... or paper tiger?

When assessing China's military potential, Western and Asian observers often tend either to view the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) as an ominous storm cloud on the horizon or to casually dismiss it as a "paper tiger" faced with significant modernization and operational problems. On the one hand, there is no shortage of commentary reporting the PLAN's acquisition of sophisticated Russian-built military ships and aircraft, improvements in indigenous production, and development of a modern Marine Force. These articles point with increasing alarm to China's drive for naval domination on both sides of the Malacca Strait, the South China Sea, and Taiwan Strait-and for extending a menacing naval presence far out into the Pacific. Other articles, pointing to aging PLAN combatant aircraft, surface units, and submarines-and to problems with indigenous production programs-maintain that China's Navy is floundering, and that it does not pose a credible threat to neighboring countries.
A more balanced assessment of the PLAN's capabilities today and its potential tomorrow may be derived from a better understanding of its mission, the present state of its ships and aircraft, and its ongoing modernization program. China's best military unitsestimated at approximately 10 percent of its overall forces-are being modemized at a steady pace, in keeping with the country's ongoing economic development. As Lt. Gen. Patrick M. Hughes, then-director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee on 2 Febmary 1999, these select forces will have achieved a reasonably high level of proficiency in 1980s-style maneuver warfare by 2010. They will be well equipped with theater-range missiles, "late Cold War equivalent" tanks and artillery, more advanced diesel and third-generation nuclear-powered submarines, and approximately 20 new surface combatant warships.

An Evolving Mission

Historically, China's Navy has been responsible for seaward and coastal defense. During the 1950s and 1960s, the PLAN focused on defending China's mainland from amphibious assault-first from the perceived U.S. threat and, later, from the perceived threat from the Soviet Union as its relationship with that country soured. Naval acquisitions were almost solely from existing Soviet systems and platforms, and defensive tactics were largely modeled after the Soviet example. During these years, the PLA developed a large fleet of relatively inexpensive (and thus expendable) missile boats, diesel submarines, and conventional bombers, which could be used in a mass attack on amphibious units and their escorts. The few destroyer-sized combatants acquired by the PLAN during this period were modeled primarily after World War II-era Russian designs.

In recent years, the PLAN's maritime mission has evolved from a role of static coastal defense to one of "active offshore defense." In this capacity, the PLAN can be used both as a tactical force and to support strategic national defense. The objectives of this new strategy are to assert China's role as a regional maritime power, to protect coastal economic regions and maritime interests, and to optimize the Navy's operations for national defense. The PLAN's responsibilities now include capture and defense of islands, and protection and blockade of sea-lanes of communication. Moreover, the PLAN is increasingly viewed by senior PLA leadership as integral to resolution of the Taiwan issue-should force be required-and for safeguarding China's "Xisha" and "Nansha" islands in the South China Sea. Finally, the PLAN is likely to be increasingly used as an instrument of overseas diplomacy through participation in goodwill cruises and port visits.

The PLAN's evolving strategy has been described in terms of two distinct phases. The strategy's first phase is for the PLAN to develop a "green water active defense strategy" capability. This 11 green water" generally is described as being encompassed within an arc swung from Vladivostok to the north, to the Strait of Malacca to the south, and out to the "first island chain" (Aleutians, Kuriles, Ryukyus, Taiwan, Philippines, and Greater Sunda islands) to the east. Analysts have assessed that the PLAN is likely to attain this green water capability early in the 21 st century. Open-source writings also suggest that the PLAN intends to develop a capability to operate in the "second island chain" (Bonins, Guam, Marianas, and Palau islands) by the mid21st century. In the future, the PLAN also may expand its operations to bases in Myanmar, Burma. These bases will provide the PLAN with direct access to the Strait of Malacca and the Bay of Bengal.

The People's Liberation Army Navy

PLAN command and control are highly centralized through its headquarters in Beijing. The headquarters staff, led by Vice Adm. Shi Yunsheng, provides oversight and direction through its logistics, equipment, repair, and political departments. The PLAN consists of three major fleets, a naval aviation arm, and marine units. Fleets are strategically located to the north in Qingdao, to the east in Ningbo, and to the south in Zhanjiang-providing the Chinese Navy with direct access to the Yellow Sea, Taiwan Strait, and South China Sea respectively. Each fleet consists of a number of major and minor bases, a naval air arm, and coastaldefense regions. South Sea Fleet units also include the Navy's Marine Force and its associated amphibious lift. Major surface combatant shipyards are located in Dalian, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hudong. The Wuhan shipyard is responsible for conventional submarine construction, and nuclearpowered attack and ballistic-missile submarines are built at the Huladao shipyard.
The PLAN is manned by approximately 268,000 officers and men, including 28,000 coastal-defense forces, 25,000 naval air forces, and some 7,000 marines. Conscripts serve for two years. Although there are recent provisions for sailors to remain in service for up to 30 years, a cadre of senior enlisted personnel is not yet well developed. PLAN academic training remains fairly basic by Western standards; however, there is an increasing emphasis on improving the quality of training through the use of automatic data-processing resources. Large-scale fleet exercises are conducted several times each year, but there is little integration between naval air and surface units, and even less integration of naval operations with units of either the PLA Air Force or Army.
Marine Force

The PLAN's 7,000-man Marine Force is relatively well trained and equipped. The Marine Force's primary mission is to safeguard China's island holdings in the South China Sea during times of peace and to seize and defend islands in the South China Sea during times of war. The Marine Force also may be used for amphibious raids or for establishing beachheads in scenarios entailing a military confrontation with Taiwan. Chinese marines are supported by amphibious tanks and armored personnel carriers, howitzers, and multiple rocket launchers. Although the PLAN has approximately 60 tank landing ships and medium landing shipsincluding relatively capable Yuting, Yukan, and Yuliang classes-its aggregate lift capability is only about 5,000 to 10,000 troops.

This limited lift capability is inadequate to support any major amphibious operation. Recent improvements in the Navy's amphibious capabilities have included the acquisition of Jingsah-class air cushion vehicles. The PLAN also has shown an interest in developing a wing-in-ground-effect craft. These hybrid aircraft have the capability to cruise one meter above the water at speeds of 120 knots or more, and in the future such craft may prove capable of supporting amphibious operations. In the past, PLAN amphibious exercises demonstrated an attempt to coordinate aerial bombardment and naval gunfire support with assault waves, but this capability has not been -well developed.

Naval Air Arm

Although the overall numbers are impressive on paper, the PLAN's aircraft are not considered to be first-line forces by Western analysts. Most PLAN aircraft are modeled after 20- to 30-year-old Russian designs, and they do not adequately support the air arm's missions in maritime patrol, antisubmarine warfare, and antiship strikes. The venerable H-61) Badger, with its two C-801 antiship missiles, presents the primary threat to surface units; however, its ability to locate and successfully engage targets independently beyond the radar horizon is questionable. Antiship-missile capability will be enhanced when the older H-61) is replaced with more capable FB-7 units.

A variation of the FB-7, the FBC-1, may prove to be the aircraft of choice when the PLAN begins to pursue development of a carrier aviation program seriously; however, the SU-27K Flanker also is a possible candidate. The capability to deliver iron bombs, rockets, and mines is provided by more than 700 attack aircraft, but with the exception of the modest numbers of newer J-811 Finback air-defense and air-superiority fighters these aircraft are not capable of effectively engaging surface ships equipped with modem air defense systems. Moreover, the PLAN has not yet demonstrated the capability to integrate these strike aircraft effectively into coordinated surface and air attacks. Maritime patrol aircraft, such as the BE6, lack modem radar systems and sensors, and they do not pose a credible threat to today's submarines.
Submarine Force

Although it deploys a force of more than 60 submarines, PLAN units lag behind Western standards, and most weapons and sensor systems are based on older Russian technology. Lack of crew proficiency and hull quieting remain significant problems, and acoustic systems are two to three generations behind the world's first-line navies. All units can carry either torpedoes or mines, and the acquisition of Russian wake-homing torpedo technology has significantly improved the PLAN's submarine antisurface capabilities. As the PLAN modernizes, it is phasing out its fleet of more than 30 older Romeo-class conventional diesel submarines, replacing them with indigenously produced Ming- (19 units) and Song- Q units) class, or Russianbuilt Kilo-class (type 877 and 636) submarines
The PLAN's four Kilo units remain the submarine force's most capable boats, although the capability of their crews to operate them effectively in a tactical environment is suspect. The PLAN's continuing reliance on Russian-built hulls reflects the lack of success of indigenous Ming and Song designs, and this situation is likely to continue as the Navy pursues acquisition of advanced air-independent propulsion systems. The PLAN is currently building a new Type 094 class of SSBN (nuclear-powered ballisticmissile submarine) to replace its single Xia-class unit. Analysts have assessed that the Type 094 SSBN is likely to be operational in the early part of the 21 st century. It will be fitted with 16 launch tubes for the expanded range JL-2 sealaunched ballistic missile.

Progress in replacing aging Han-class nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) with the new generation Type 093 SSN has been slow. The Type 093 SSNs have been compared in capability to the Russian Victor III SSN class. Given its slow progress with indigenously produced submarine units, as well as the prohibitively high construction costs, the PLAN is likely to emphasize acquisition of cheaper, more efficient, and less complex conventional submarines.

Surface Force

Although it has more than 400 fastattack missile, patrol, and torpedo boats, the PLAN only has about 50 units that are considered major combatants by Western standards. Many of these obsolete small combatants are being replaced by more capable C-801/802 missile-configured Houjian-, Houxin-, and Huangfen-class craft. During the 1980s, in a departure from its traditional practice of relying on Russian Navy designs, the PLAN aggressively sought to incorporate more advanced Western technology in its indigenous shipbuilding program. The acquisition of these technologies resulted in China's production of more advanced surface combatants during the past decade- including a single 6,000-ton Luhai-class guided-missile destroyer (DDG), two Luhu-class DDGs (4,200 tons), and nine Jiangwei-class frigates (2,250 tons). These units are equipped with the HQ-7 or HQ-61 short-range air defense systems that likely will be replaced by a longer-range vertical-launch system within the next three to five years. These ships also have integrated tactical data systems, an improved antisubmarine warfare suite that includes embarked helicopters, and gas turbine propulsion.
Notwithstanding these improvements, the backbone of the PLA surface fleet remains its 16 aging Ludaclass destroyers (3,250 tons) and 30 Jianghu-class frigates (1,425 tons) that are largely inadequate to meet the requirements of modern warfare. The planned acquisition of two 7,940-ton Russian-built Sovremenny-class DDGs in the 2000 to 2001 period will improve the PLAN's surface-combatant capabilities. These units are likely to be equipped with an advanced SAN-7 airdefense system, the KA-28 Helix Helicopter, and SSN-22 cruise-missile technology. The PLAN's HQ-61 and HQ-7 systems are based on the French Crotale land-based surface-to-air missile system, and they do not provide surface units with an effective area-defense capability. This deficiency makes PLAN surface units extremely vulnerable to air attack.
The Chinese Navy also is limited by other operational constraints. Although it has some capability to conduct shallow water antisubmarine warfare along its littoral and in the Yellow and South China Seas, the PLAN's antisubmarine warfare capability remains modest at best. Towed-array sonar and sonobouy systems use technology that is more than 20 years old. The PLAN's damage-control capability remains limited, and few units have automatic firefighting or watertight door systems. Anticontamination systems also are considered to be quite basic by Western standards. The PLAN does field a broad spectrum of fairly sophisticated sea-skimming cruise missiles-based either on Russian Styx or on French Exocet technology-including the Hai Ying ("Sea Eagle") and the "Ying Ji" ("Eagle Strike") series. These missiles give the PLAN the capability to conduct extended-range antishipping strikes from air and surface units, as well as from coastal-defense sites. Despite this capability, the lack of effective over-the -horizon targeting sensors and coordinated targeting tactics limits the likely effectiveness of these systems.

The PLAN has more than 300 miscellaneous support ships, a total that includes approximately 120 mine warfare vessels, 49 replenishment ships, and a number of other survey, research, and support units. Although virtually all surface ships are configured for mine laying, the PLAN has a limited mine-laying capability, and mine-hunting and sweeping capabilities are even more basic. Nonetheless, the inventory of PLAN mines is impressive, and it includes advanced systems using sophisticated technology. If used in sufficient numbers, this inventory poses a significant threat to surface and submarine units operating along China's littoral, the Yellow Sea, Sea of Japan, Taiwan Strait, and South China Sea. The Navy's underway replenishment capability remains largely undeveloped, and the sustainability of PLAN units is likely to be severely limited by this shortcoming.

Modernization Programs

The director of the PLA's General Equipment Department, Gen. Cao Gangchuan, recently highlighted the increasing importance of China's Navy when he stated, "The PLAN shoulders the important mission of safeguarding the security of the territorial sea and is placed at the forefront of military [engagements]." Such support by senior PLA leadership has resulted in the PLAN being allocated a higher proportion of the defense budget in recent years, allowing it to pursue force modernization aggressively.
The PLAN's modernization program has consisted of three distinct aspects. First, PLAN leadership has focused on decommissioning the large numbers of outdated surface combatants, submarines, and aircraft acquired during the first 30 years of the country's existence. Second, the PLAN has aggressively sought advanced Western technology for improving its warfighting capability and the sustainability of its ships and aircraft. Third, the Chinese Navy has focused on improving training for both its officer and enlisted ranks and, in consonance with overarching PLA programs, developing a cadre of experienced noncommissioned officers.
As the PLAN modernizes its forces, it will continue to pursue the acquisition of advanced Western technology, while it attempts to develop indigenously produced modern units. PLAN air force units lack an aerial-refueling capability and modem radar systems capable of providing force protection or supporting over-the-horizon targeting. Surface ship requirements include acquisition of modern multiwarfare capable hulls, antisubmarine warfare systems and weapons, medium-range air defense systems, and electronic-warfare systems. Submarine modernization requirements include acquisition of improved quieting technology and replacement of aging conventional and nuclear-powered submarines.

The PLAN's drive for modernization has been most dramatically reflected in its ongoing development of the FB-7 bomber, new-generation conventional and nuclear-powered attack and ballistic missile submarines, acquisition of Russian-built Kilo-class diesel submarines, and the planned acquisition of Russian-built Sovremenny guidedmissile destroyers. The PLAN also has relied heavily on Russian training for the officers and enlisted personnel who will man these units.

In the face of a post-Tianamen freeze on the export of U.S. weapons systems to China, the PLAN has relied heavily on the acquisition of advanced weapons and sensor systems from a number of other Western countries, including Israel and France. These acquisitions notwithstanding, the PLAN's eventual goal is to develop the indigenous capability to produce advanced naval units, weapons, and sensor systems. The lack of success of the PLAN's Ming- and Song-class diesel submarine programs, the slow progress in its development of nextgeneration attack and ballistic-missile nuclear-powered submarines, and the modest success of its newest indigenously produced Luhai-class guidedmissile destroyer, suggest that China's Navy will continue to be largely dependent on Western technology well into the next decade.

In recent years, open-source writings have increasingly suggested that the PLAN is interested in the acquisition of an aircraft carrier. While acquisition of an aircraft carrier would improve the PLAN's power-projection capability, liaison with senior PLAN officials has indicated that the high costs associated with acquisition and maintenance are prohibitive. That having been said, Beijing leadership views the development of a carrier capability as a key step in increasing China's maritime prestige, and it is likely to exert pressure on the PLAN to acquire an aircraft carrier. Speculation as to when the PLAN may acquire an aircraft carrier varies from as early as 2004 to as late as 2020. Clearly, costs notwithstanding, if it is to assume a greater role as a regional maritime power, the PLAN must eventually make this investment. With this in mind, there is a possibility that the PLAN will pursue a more cost effective near-term solution through the acquisition of a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) platform to support helicopter or VTOL aircraft operations.
A Force for the Future

The PLAN is not yet a significant naval power, even when viewed solely in a regional context. PLAN surface ships, submarines, and aircraft continue to lack the sophisticated weapons and sensor systems which characterize modern first-line naval units. These shortfalls limit the PLAN's present warfighting capabilities, and Chinese naval units are not yet up to the standard attained by the navies of Japan, the Republic of Korea, or even Taiwan. There also are significant tactical and doctrinal shortfalls that the PLAN has not adequately addressed. At-sea sustainability is modest, and the PLAN has not yet demonstrated the ability to conduct complex coordinated air and surface operations. The training of individual sailors remains basic by Western standards, and the PLAN lacks a corps of experienced noncommissioned officers. From the highest echelons of the service to individual commands, control is highly centralized, with little flexibility and creativity in subordinate ranks. These shortfalls will limit the ability of the PLAN to assert a significant regional naval presence for perhaps five to ten years, and the Navy is not likely to possess the longer reach associated with a maritime power-projection capability until well into the 21 st century.
Having noted these shortfalls, however, the PLAN has made remarkable progress in its drive for modernization over the last decade. It has demonstrated the capability to deploy naval forces as far away as South America and Australia. It has acquired modem Russianbuilt diesel submarines and will receive two sophisticated Russian-built destroyers within the next two to three years. Discounting at present the likely acquisition of an aircraft carrier, China's Navy has improved its strike capabilities with the introduction of more capable F-811 aircraft, and it will further improve these capabilities when it places the FB-7 in service. It has continued to develop and maintain a sophisticated inventory of antisurface missiles and mines. The complexity and scope of fleet training have steadily increased, as have the capabilities of the PLAN's Marines. Further, improvements in individual training and the development of a corps of noncommissioned officers offers the potential to improve the sustainability and combat effectiveness of individual units significantly. These factors point to a Navy that will become increasingly capable of accomplishing its more prominent mission to safeguard China's maritime economic interests, to defend and perhaps expand interests in the South China Sea, and-ultimately, perhaps-to support the use of force against Taiwan.

When viewed in this context, it would be unwise to dismiss the PLAN as a "paper tiger." In the coming decades, the Chinese Navy presents the real likelihood of expanding its capabilities significantly. As it does so, it also is likely that Beijing will increasingly view the Navy as a mechanism to exert pressure on China's neighbors and to assert its influence regionally.
While it is unlikely to develop the capability to challenge the U.S. Navy for control of the seas, it is quite possible that the PLAN will, within two decades, develop a Navy with regional capabilities second only to Japan's. The degree to which these developments constitute "storm clouds on the horizon" will depend as much on U.S. diplomacy in the coming years as on the ability of the United States and its Pacific allies to maintain a strong regionaldefense posture.

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