PLA Navy Capabilities on the March

By Dr. Richard Weitz

08/07/2011 – The PRC’s sustained military buildup has over time allowed the PLAN to modernize many of its platforms and weapons systems. Since the late 1990s, China has undertaken an ambitious modernization program that has produced approximately one hundred new warships since 2001. The PLAN already has the largest number of principal surface combatants (75), submarines (60), and amphibious ships (55) of any Asian navy.

At the end of 2008, the Chinese Navy set off on an historical mission: the first modern deployment of battle-ready warships beyond the Pacific.  What was the task?   An anti-piracy mission that will provide escorts and patrols in the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden. (Credit: http://gcaptain.com/historic-mission-for-chinese-navy?5171)At the end of 2008, the Chinese Navy set off on an historical mission: the first modern deployment of battle-ready warships beyond the Pacific.  What was the task?   An anti-piracy mission that will provide escorts and patrols in the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden. (Credit: http://gcaptain.com/historic-mission-for-chinese-navy?5171)

If this rate of expansion continues, the PLAN could possess more ships than the U.S. Navy at some point during the next two decades. The qualitative improvements have been equally stunning and include longer-range maritime planes and anti-ship missiles, quieter submarines, more sophisticated surface ships, and better educated and trained sailors. They are transforming what had been a primarily shore-defense force into a viable regional Navy power. Anticipated future PLAN acquisitions include more advanced blue-water power projection capacities.

A long-standing PLAN priority has been to enhance the capabilities of its submarine fleet, equipped with anti-ship cruise missiles as well as land-attack cruise missiles. The PLAN has constructed more than a dozen Song-class SSN (Type 039 or Type 039/039G) attack submarines.

Most recently, the PLAN has acquired about a dozen indigenously made submarines that have made major achievements in terms of quietness and range. The Jin-class SSBN (Type 094) is armed with 12 JL-2 ballistic missiles, with the theoretical range to hit targets in the western half of the United States from strike positions west of Hawaii. The Shang-class SSN (Type 093) nuclear-powered attack submarines and the Yuan-class SSN (Type 041 or Type 039A) diesel-powered attack submarines complement one another due to their diverging power systems.

The dozen Russian-made Kilo-class diesel electric submarines have also represented a marked advance in the PRC’s undersea warfare capabilities. The Kilo’s wake-homing torpedoes present a particularly deadly threat to aircraft carrier battle groups, which emerged as a key concern for PLA strategists following their intervention in the 1995-1996 Taiwan missile crisis.

Although many PLAN submarines are outdated, the newest classes are approaching the capabilities of those of the other major world navies in sound-dampening technology, naval propulsion, and weapons systems. The Office of Naval Intelligence anticipates that the PLAN will deploy the next-generation Type 095 attack submarine by 2015.

In addition to modernizing its fleet of submarines, the PLAN has developed increasingly sophisticated surface combatants. Since the early 1990s, the PLAN has put five new types of destroyers and frigates into service, with each successive model featuring new variations and improvements. Taken together, these modern warships are substantial improvements over China’s aging Luda (Type 051) destroyers that entered service in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of these new warships feature stealthy hull designs; efficient propulsion systems; and enhanced sensors, electronics, and weapons systems.

In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, the Chinese Navy fleet composed of missile frigate Luoyang, front, and training ship Zheng He arrives in Wanson, North Korea, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011. (Credit: http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/World/20110804/chinese-warships-north-korea-110804/)In this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, the Chinese Navy fleet composed of missile frigate Luoyang, front, and training ship Zheng He arrives in Wanson, North Korea, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011. (Credit: http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/World/20110804/chinese-warships-north-korea-110804/)

During the 1990s, China purchased two Sovremenny class missile destroyers (DDG) from Russia. These outclassed any surface combatant fielded by the PLAN at the time, providing improved anti-submarine warfare capabilities, more advanced anti-ship missiles, and longer expected sea-duty time.

Since the original purchase of these four Russian destroyers, the PRC has introduced its own improvements regarding both design and functionality to its indigenously made surface warships. The PLAN also made the important decision to focus on quality over quantity.

The last few generations of warships have only seen a few vessels built per model in an attempt to maximize the new functions of each generation without committing considerable resources into constructing a ship type that might soon become obsolete.

The PLAN’s fleet of indigenously manufactured destroyers, and to a lesser extent frigates, has become increasingly more capable due to the longer reach of their platforms, their improved active electronic countermeasures, their advanced anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters, and their newer generations of air defense and anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM).

These ships have a limited capability to conduct long-distance operations, including eight counter piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden since December 2009, a non-combatant evacuation operation of PRC nationals from Libya, and many visits to far-off ports, including in the Western Hemisphere. The new Type 920 hospital ship and longer-range PLAN submarines could also be used for long-range missions.

In addition, the PLAN has been developing a large number of smaller vessels, including indigenous-made littoral and coastal vessels, gunboats, missile boats, torpedo boats, and countermine warfare ships. These ships can be used for a variety of missions, both offensively and defensively, or in support of larger ships, though many of these vessels are suitable only for coastal combat because of their limited range and size.

The dozens of small Houbei-class (Type 022) fast-attack craft, armed with anti-ship cruise missiles and using stealthy catamaran hulls, might prove the most useful. They perform coastal patrol and defense missions, allowing larger ships to extend their operations elsewhere.

These new warships in both the frigate and destroyer classes offer significant improvements over the Navy’s designs of the 1970s and 1980s. The roles of these ships, that of air defense and power projection, provide the beginnings of what could become a fleet battle group. More recently, the PLAN has begun developing aircraft carriers, a vital but more complex element of a blue-water fleet that extends beyond the “first island” chain–commonly linking Okinawa Prefecture, Taiwan, and the Philippines—and perhaps the “second island” chain linking the Ogasawarsa island chain, Guam, and Indonesia.

Although the writers stressed their defensive potential, aircraft carriers could more plausibly strengthen the PLAN’s offensive capabilities by providing more effective air cover for any battle far from the PRC mainland, where all China’s warplanes, including those of the PLA Navy Air Force, are stationed since the PRC government has no foreign military bases. One or more carriers could prove quite useful for providing air cover for an invasion of Taiwan, harassing U.S. surveillance planes and ships inside China’s expansive 200-mile maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ); or contesting disputed islands with Vietnam, Japan, or others.

The PLAN still lacks the sealift capacity to transfer and sustain a large expeditionary force for an extended period, though it is increasing its capabilities. China has effectively doubled its force of roughly 20 landing ship tanks (LSTs) by additionally building 10 Yuting-II and 10 Yubei-class LSTs from 2003 to 2005, each with a capacity to carry roughly 250 troops. The PLAN also maintains numerous smaller transports that augment the LSTs. In 2006, the PLAN built a larger landing platform dock that can hold up to 800 troops, providing greater mission flexibility.

In total, the PLAN can amphibiously transport a maximum of 15,000 troops in a single wave. China’s airlift capability is comparably modest, with a capacity to transport a maximum of 5,000 parachutists in a single operation. But recently China has begun constructing Yuzhao Type 071 amphibious ships, comparable in size in the previous generation U.S. Navy Whidbey Island/Harpers Ferry (LSD-41/49) class ship. And there is speculation that even larger Type 081 amphibious assault ships are under design. These could carry more helicopters and perhaps even STVOL-type planes.

Chinese Navy ships moored at Sanya, in southern China's Hainan province. China's navy will move faster to build large combat warships, next-generation aircraft and sophisticated torpedoes in a modernizing overhaul for fighting in an era of information technology, its commander in chief said Thursday, April 16, 2009. (Credit: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1892954,00.html)

Chinese Navy ships moored at Sanya, in southern China's Hainan province. China's navy will move faster to build large combat warships, next-generation aircraft and sophisticated torpedoes in a modernizing overhaul for fighting in an era of information technology, its commander in chief said Thursday, April 16, 2009. (Credit: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1892954,00.html)

The PLAN Marine Corps is a small contingent of specially trained troops that serve on China’s few amphibious transport dock ships, which are based at the Zhanjiang port attached to the South Sea Fleet. Numbering approximately 12,000 troops, the PLAN Marine Corps would provide the initial landing force of any amphibious operation. The Marines also garrison disputed islands under PRC control and have deployed in the Gulf of Aden to fight pirates on ships.

The Marine Corps equipment includes amphibious Type 63 and 63A tanks along with a variety of armored personnel carriers. These are all seriously outdated. Barring a significant investment in new equipment and larger numbers, the PLAN Marine Corps will continue to serve primarily as an instrument to garrison remote islands and board and fight pirate ships.

The PLA Naval Air Force (PLANAF), the Navy’s ground-based air contingent, conducts primarily territorial water defense and fleet air support in those geographic areas within reach of warplanes based on Chinese territory. The PLANAF includes hundreds of older short-range J-7E (a Mig-21 variant) and J-8II air superiority fighters along with the H-6D (based on the Soviet Tu-16 Badger), which carries two anti-ship missiles.

The effectiveness of these planes against modern air defenses such as those found on U.S. Navy ships is questionable. The planes, weapons, and other technology found in the PLANAF lags considerably behind those of the more generously funded regular PLA Air Force.

The PLANAF does have Su-27s and Su-30MK2 fighters purchased from Russia to provide longer-range support for naval operations. The Su-30MK2 variant has some advanced C4ISR capabilities along with long-range search radar to detect surface ships to engage them with anti-ship cruise missiles. The Su-30MK2 variant is generally compared to the U.S. F-15E fighter, though it still lags behind newer fifth-generation aircraft such as the F-22 and F-35.

In comparison, the SU-27 originally purchased from Russia, was later produced under license in China. The PRC then copied liberally from the Su-27 to make a Chinese variant, the Shenyang J-11, which has undergone several modifications and technological improvements from the original Russian version. The J-11 offers improvements in radar and early warning systems, but most of these warplanes have gone to the regular Air Force.

As partial compensation for the Navy’s weak amphibious and air combat capabilities, which would significantly hamper any PLA effort to occupy Taiwan or fight against the United States or another modern navy, China has developed a powerful strike capability in its large number of long-range missiles. The Pentagon’s 2010 report on the PLA notes that it has “the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile program in the world.”

PRC policymakers hope this capacity would discourage U.S. military intervention on Taiwan’s behalf. The missiles also allow the PLA to threaten more distant targets in Asia. China has positioned more than one thousand short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) opposite Taiwan to menace the island.

This arsenal is reinforced with a smaller number of medium-range ballistic missiles and land-attack cruise missiles. The PLAN has also acquired a variety of indigenous and foreign-made anti-ship cruise missiles. Among the most powerful are Russian-made SS-N-22 Sunburn missiles carried aboard China’s Sovremenny-class destroyers and SS-N-27 Sizzler missiles found on some of the PLAN’s twelve Kilo-class attack submarines. According to the media, the PLA has been researching and developing an experimental anti-ship \cruise missile, the CH-SS-NX-13, for use on PLAN submarines.

China’s attempts to develop the world’s first ballistic missile designed to attack targets at sea is of special concern to the U.S. Navy. The PLA’s candidate is the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), which is based on the mobile, medium-range, ground-to-ground DF-21 (also known as the CSS-5) ballistic missile. The DF-21D has an estimated range of 1,500 kilometers (900 miles), enabling it strike deep into the western Pacific, with a maneuverable re-entry vehicle that could allow its warhead to target moving ships without itself being intercepted.

A logical mission for such a weapon would be to disable or destroy a U.S. aircraft carrier before it can move its planes within striking range of PLA targets. Although the DF-21D has yet to be tested over the ocean, the Pentagon considers the system to have achieved initial operational capability.

For the companion piece to this one please see http://www.sldinfo.com/?p=22097.

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