COMMENTARY: It’s the Logistics, China
PLA Navy photo
In protracted warfare, logistics and sustainment capabilities are as important as force composition, something China will struggle to mitigate.
Despite recent successes by the People’s Liberation Army Navy to fulfill Xi Jinping’s goals of modernizing China’s military by 2035, its Navy lacks requisite logistics and sustainment capabilities for blue water operations.
Currently the Chinese Navy conducts maritime operations with the help of commercial replenishment ships and ports. While an effective solution in peacetime, civilian logistics and sustainment practices are untenable in combat operations. In pursuit of a truly modern navy, China requires: additional combat capable replenishment ships, such as the Type 901; basing access in critical regions; and securing prepositioned stockpiles like fuel, munitions, and repair parts in countries like the Seychelles and Pakistan.
China’s envisioned blue water navy involves carrier strike groups operating beyond the Second Island Chain into the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Currently, its maritime deployments consist of small flotillas supported by the Type 903 replenishment ship. According to a report prepared for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, the People’s Liberation Army Navy anti-piracy deployments to the Gulf of Aden reveal that the Type 903 replenishment ship can only support two-to-three ships for approximately two weeks at a time before requiring a resupply, seriously hampering China’s near-term expansion goals.
While the Type 903 may be suitable for shorter deployments, like those to the Gulf of Aden, larger and more demanding carrier strike groups necessitate additional fuel — a capability currently lacking in China’s fleet. As such, it is anticipated the Type 901 combat replenishment ship will be the vessel attached to carrier strike groups — with nearly double the fuel capacity as the Type 903. (See Table 1)
If carrier strike group deployments resemble those of the past, the Type 901 will have to support double the amount of ships — or an estimated five to six ships — than the Type 903 supported in the Gulf and Aden.
In addition, the Type 901 will be responsible for providing fuel for flight operations while at sea. Despite possessing twice the fuel capacity, absent any ports or prepositioned stockpiles abroad, the Type 901 will struggle to maintain carrier strike group operations over extended periods of time, especially in combat operations.
China’s drive to expand international basing access stems from military and economic considerations.
According to the Defense Department’s 2018 annual report to Congress on the nation’s military and security developments, “China’s expanding international economic interests create an increased demand for the PLA to operate in more distant maritime environments to protect Chinese citizens, investments, and critical” sea lines of communication.
In addressing these issues, the Chinese navy will likely rely on a mixture of commercial ports for fuel and exclusive logistics facilities for mission critical supplies like munitions and repair parts. It currently relies on access to commercial ports for fuel in 14 countries, including South Africa, Greece, and Spain. While these commercial ports are helpful for replenishment in peacetime, the China will require access to fuel and other supplies from secured prepositioned stockpiles — like its only overseas port in Djibouti, Africa.
The so-called “iron mountains,” or more accurately, secured prepositioned stockpiles, are often considered vital to supporting combat operations at distance over time. While iron mountains are sometimes regarded as lucrative targets, the People’s Liberation Army Navy will require some form of prepositioned stockpiles abroad to support combat operations.
As China’s strategic initiatives like its Belt and Road Initiative lead the navy into contested regions, like the Arabian Sea or the Mediterranean, it will require safe and reliable access to critical supplies to potentially support combat operations in the future. In filling this gap, the PLAN may search to lease ports in Pakistan or the Seychelle Islands as logical locations for their iron mountains.
As a near-peer competitor, China’s movement on any of these three areas—investment in replenishment ships, establishing port footholds around the globe, or standing up their own iron mountains — are key indicators to gauge Beijing’s capabilities to support its modernizing navy. Just as China has leveraged the tyranny of distance against the United States to bolster force posture in the Indo-Pacific, so too should the United States bolster its force posture elsewhere in the world and continually develop its relationships with allies and partners alike, thereby reducing potential Chinese footholds in the future.
Will Mackenzie is a research associate for the defense program at the Center for a New American Security.