China’s Navy Takes Great Leap Forward

By Stew Magnuson
In February, two Chinese navy destroyers and a new amphibious vessel sailed through the Sunda Strait between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra. Weeks later, they returned from exercises in the Indian Ocean by taking a more circuitous route through other straits in the island nation’s exclusive economic zone. It was the first time Chinese navy vessels had sailed those waters.

These passages followed a similar first, when Chinese ships last summer went through the Soya Strait between Japan and Russia.

This summer, China is expected to send “three or four ships” to the annual Rim of the Pacific exercise organized by the U.S. Navy in Hawaii, according to Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, U.S. Pacific Command commander.

“It’s a big deal. It will be historic for them to come there and do that,” he said at an Atlantic Council presentation.

China’s navy is growing, analysts said. And it’s not only the number of ships increasing. Modernization of its fleets is going hand in hand with new types of vessels including the stated goal of building indigenous aircraft carriers.

“China is building not simply a navy, but a broad based set of maritime denial capabilities that seem to be aimed not only at the United States, but which will inevitably effect its neighbors,” said Dean Cheng, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Ronald O’Rourke, specialist in naval affairs at the Congressional Research Service, in a report released Feb. 28 wrote that “China’s naval modernization effort also includes reforms and improvements in maintenance and logistics, naval doctrine, personnel quality, education and training and exercises.”

It has a “modest, but growing capability for conducting operations beyond China’s near-seas region,” he added.

Cheng added that the nation’s navy is relatively new to extended blue water operations away from home, but it has been gaining more experience while participating in anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden.

“They have been slowly learning how you sustain a naval force far away from home,” Cheng said.

Elements of its program comprise a variety of anti-ship missiles — including what would be the first anti-ship ballistic missile if it is proven to work — new classes of submarines, manned aircraft, destroyers, frigates, corvettes and amphibious ships, O’Rourke said.

“Changes in platform capability have been more dramatic than changes in platform numbers,” he added.

It should be expected that a nation such as China desires to improve its military in general, and its navy in particular, analysts said.

Jan van Tol, a retired Navy captain and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said, “With China’s steadily growing economic and political power going back decades now, it’s not an unreasonable thing from their perspective to go out and modernize and perhaps extend their fleet.”

It is updating ships that were built as far back as the 1950s, he said.

Cheng said China imports huge amounts of food, raw materials and energy sources. Its economic center of gravity is now mostly on the coast.

“We should not be surprised that a country that depends on the sea to sustain its economic life is going to develop a navy,” Cheng said.

It needs to deploy a substantial blue water navy to protect sea lanes. “It’s almost irrelevant to what the United States does. That the U.S. is the number-one most powerful navy in the world complicates China’s life,” Cheng added.

China’s navy garnered a great deal of attention when it launched its first aircraft carrier, a second-hand ship built in Ukraine, and later announced plans to create an indigenous flattop fleet.

The Liaoning was commissioned in September 2012, is conventionally powered, has a full load displacement of 60,000 tons and may accommodate up to 30 fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft, O’Rourke’s CRS report said.

Its aircraft capacity and displacement is almost half of a U.S. carrier. 

Defense Department reports and analysts have called it China’s “starter aircraft carrier.” The Chinese navy will spend the first few years learning how to conduct carrier operations through training, particularly the tricky business of aircraft landing and taking off from a moving ship.

“It’s somewhat generous to even call it an aircraft carrier,” Van Tol said.

The nation seems committed to building new ones, which will presumably be more capable, he said.

The bigger question is: What does China want to use these ships for? Do they want to have a global navy? That is unclear, Van Tol said, and if that is the goal, it would take many decades to reach it.

Indigenous aircraft carriers are likely to be smaller and less capable, but entirely reasonable for presence and power projection in the East Asia region, he said.

“To a lot of observers, they will look like genuine aircraft carriers,” he said. Only professionals can tell how good a carrier is by the way it looks and by observing how it operates, he added.

China wants to make the claim that “we can do whatever the Americans can do in the region,” Van Tol said.

U.S. carriers are complex vessels with nuclear power, and integrated weapons and sensors. They are high-capacity ships, he noted.

It has been nine decades since the United States started the development of aircraft carriers. It took a long time for them to evolve into today’s carrier force and China is only at the beginning of learning the basics.

The Chinese navy can save time by learning the lessons of others, however, “gaining the actual operational experience to me is the longest pole in the tent,” Van Tol said.

“As an asset, it is not particularly alarming. It’s more about what it can do potentially in confrontations that do not involve the United States in the region. Or the benefits of presence,” he said.

The U.S. Navy makes the argument that forward deployed presence is a vital contributor to national security. China may see carriers in the same way.

Meanwhile, “the U.S. Navy, especially our submarine force, is very good at sinking ships,” Van Tol said.

China is making its own mark when it comes to attack submarines.

Locklear said: “They are building a submarine force that is going to be significant in numbers. Is this going to be for their own homeland security, or is it for other purposes?”

Jesse Karotkin, senior intelligence officer for China at the office of naval intelligence, testified before the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission Jan. 30 that China regards its submarine force as a critical deterrent for “counter-intervention” against well equipped modern adversaries.

“The large, but poorly equipped force of the 1980s has given way to a more modern submarine force, optimized primarily for regional, anti-surface warfare missions near major sea lines of communication,” Karotkin said.

Along with 12 non-nuclear powered attack submarine it purchased from Russia, China has four new submarine designs, O’Rourke wrote. A new nuclear powered ballistic missile carrier called Jin class a nuclear powered attack Shang class and two other attack classes: the Yuan and the Song.

A follow-on design to the Shang class may go into service as early as 2015, the ONI predicted.

“Anti-submarine warfare is always tough and Chinese subs are getting better,” Van Tol said. Japan and the United States will have to keep improving its ASW capabilities, he added.

China’s surface combatants are also in the throes of being modernized.

Less than 10 years ago, the nation’s surface force was a mix of vintage, modern, converted, imported and domestically built platforms with wildly varying capabilities, Karotkin testified.

Now, China’s navy is shifting entirely to domestic designs with indigenously built sensors and weapon systems with only a few licensed from foreign countries, Karotkin added.

There are six new Chinese-built destroyer classes, many equipped with anti-surface warfare missiles. There will be 28 to 32 Chinese destroyers by 2015, ONI predicted.

Cheng said China has shifted from building destroyers and frigates one or two at a time to a more serial production process, which is boosting their numbers more quickly.

“That is a very significant change,” he said.

This will allow for common equipment, the transfer of ships and personnel between fleets and the ability to act like a unified navy. “And since it only has one coast to worry about, it means you can really concentrate a substantial naval force of common ship types,” Cheng said.

The Luyang III destroyer is believed to be the first to employ a multipurpose vertical launch system outfitted with land attack cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles, anti-submarine rockets and anti-ship cruise missiles, O’Rourke said.

There will be some 52 to 56 frigates in the fleet by 2015, ONI numbers show. China also recently introduced corvette-class ships into the mix, with 20 to 25 expected by 2015. That followed the production of about 60 fast attack craft called the Houbei, which employs “a stealthy, wave-piercing” catamaran hull. Each of those carries eight anti-ship cruise missiles, O’Rourke said.

“China’s naval build up shows few signs of pulling back. It’s a very methodical progression,” Cheng said.

China and the United States are not enemies, but competitors, the analysts said.

The biggest potential for a flashpoint comes with regional flare-ups. China and Japan are disputing sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which may have petroleum resources. The Spratly Islands in the South China Sea are claimed by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei.

A confrontation over Taiwan, for the time being, seems less probable as leaders in that break-away province are not currently calling for independence, Cheng said.

“Generally, the U.S. relationship with China, across many aspects, is cooperative but competitive,” Locklear said. Military-to-military engagement between the United States and China is steadily improving, and he plans on visiting there a “couple” more times this year.

If China’s growing navy is used to coerce its neighbors into giving up a legal process to determine the legitimacy of territorial claims, then that would be a problem, Locklear added.

Cheng said these territorial disputes are not “trumped up.” There is serious and real belief among the peoples of Japan and China that the Senkakus belong to them. The same could be said for the Spratleys in the South China Sea.

“These claims are very real. And that means it is very hard to step away from a claim that you honestly believe is yours,” he said.

There has not been a full-scale naval clash in the Asia-Pacific region since World War II, and most of the navies there, including China’s, are largely inexperienced, Cheng said.

Nevertheless, China has been stoking tensions. Despite being invited to RIMPAC, it has harassed U.S. naval vessels and displayed bad seamanship.

Locklear said miscalculation could lead to a confrontation. “You don’t want to have a bunch of lieutenants on ships determining the end state of your national security policy concerning two superpowers,” he said.

Cheng said: “What we have seen in times of crisis is that the Chinese don’t often pick up the phone … We’re not sure how the Chinese really deal with crisis management, but I think it is pretty clear that we deal with them differently than they do.”

Van Tol said China is doing more than simply acquiring new ships and submarines. A lot of effort is going into figuring out its doctrine.

“They are spending a lot of time and money training. This is a serious, professional military figuring out what it needs to do to win the next war and then trying to do it,” Van Tol said.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, International, Shipbuilding

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