Recent developments in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) have continued to be headlined by steady progress with its aircraft carrier programme. The former Russian Project 1143.5/6 Varyag was commissioned as Liaoning on 25 September 2012 at a ceremony at the Dalian shipyard which had carried out its refurbishment, the importance of the event being marked by the presence of outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao. The ship subsequently carried out initial take-off and landing exercises during November before deploying to the PLAN’s new North Sea Fleet base at Dazhu Shan near Qingdao in February 2013. Flight operations were conducted by Shenyang J-15 jet fighters which have been reported as derivatives of Russia’s Sukhoi Su-33, an assertion criticised as being ‘… groundless and sour’ by China’s Xinhua news agency. Their successful carrier debut was marred by the demise of the head of the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, Luo Yuang, who died from a heart attack after watching the exercises. China has confirmed that it plans the domestic construction of further ships to supplement Liaoning but has denied reports that further carriers are already being assembled.
Whilst China’s carrier programme has attracted most attention, it is the more rapid modernisation of the rest of the PLAN’s fleet that has most immediate relevance. Previous reliance on largely obsolescent designs is increasingly been overcome by the introduction of new construction. Major developments with respect to key ship categories are highlighted below:
Type 056 corvette
Major Surface Combatants: Recent surface-ship construction has been dominated by the mass production of the new Type 056 ‘Jiangdao’ littoral warfare corvettes. The first of these was delivered in February 2013 before being commissioned as Bengbu on 12 March. Displacing a little under 1,500 tons at full load, she has a balanced armament that includes a 76mm gun, surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles, anti-submarine torpedo tubes and close-in-weapons systems, as well as a flight deck to support helicopter or UAV operations. Falling between the Type 022 ‘Houbei’ class catamarans and Type 054A ‘Jiangkai II’ frigates in size and capability, the new ships are intended as replacements for the older Type 053 ‘Jianghu’ frigates and Type 037 ’Hainan’ patrol vessels and have drawn comparisons with the US Navy’s larger littoral combat ships. By mid-2013 as many as six of the class had been delivered from four different shipyards. Additionally, more than ten further vessels were under construction. Commentators have suggested that the corvettes will be used for offshore patrols in the disputed waters of the South and East China Seas, releasing the PLAN’s larger ships for true ‘blue water’ operations.
The Type 054A ‘Jiangkai II’ frigates remain in series production at both the Hudong-Zhonghua and Huangpu shipyards as the PLAN’s principal ‘blue water’ surface escort. Around fifteen of the class have now been delivered and a final total of at least twenty is expected. They increasingly appear to be the vessel of choice for China’s overseas deployments, possibly because of the range and economy offered by their CODAD propulsion. The Black Sea and Malta are just some of the new shores visited by the class over the past year.
‘High-end’ production is focused on the Type 052C ‘Luyang II’ destroyer and the improved Type 052D variant. Production of the second, four-ship batch of Type 052Cs is now drawing to a close and all should be in service by early 2014. The follow-on Type 052D is estimated to be slightly larger than its predecessor with a length of 160m (155m) and beam of 18m (17m) but features new, flatter phased array panels, a revised vertical launch system and larger gun. Two of the new ships had been launched by the end of 2012 and additional units are variously reported under construction or planned.
The uppermost picture is a conceptual illustration of the hydrodynamic third-generation Type 095 nuclear attack submarine. The bottom two pictures depict the next-generation Type 096 ballistic missile submarine (e.g. the successor to the Type 094 Jin-class SSBN).
Submarines: News flow on the PLAN’s submarine force has continued to remain limited. The US Department of Defense’s annual report to Congress on the Chinese military provides little information not already in the public domain on the nuclear-powered attack (Type 093 ‘Shang’) and strategic (Type 094 ‘Jin’) submarines, although it does support previous contentions that there may be a transition to new Type 095 and Type 096 designs. There have certainly been few reports of new construction, suggesting previous rumours of difficulties with existing designs, both conventional and nuclear-powered, may have some foundation. Recent suggestions that China may be negotiating the acquisition of Russian ‘Lada’ type AIP-equipped submarines lend credence to this thesis with respect to the current generation of diesel-electric boats, as a major reason for the purchase would be the access to new technology it would provide. It is also worth noting that the PLAN’s flotillas of conventional submarines have already seen significant upgrades over the past decade, perhaps allowing other construction to be prioritised. It is also apparent that China is paying particular attention to the logistic, maintenance and training facilities required to support effective ‘blue water’ submarine operations, attempting to learn lessons from Russian Cold War failures in this regard.
Other Warships: Modernisation of China’s front-line surface forces is being balanced by further investment in secondary vessels. The increasing tempo of international deployments has put particular pressure on the small fleet of replenishment vessels and two additional Type 903 auxiliary supply vessels were close to completion by mid-year to supplement the earlier pair. The pace of development of indigenous amphibious vessels has been less marked, with construction of the Type 071 ‘Yuzhao’ amphibious transport docks seemingly suspended after completion of the third ship in September 2012. This might possibly indicate a transition to fabrication of a long-rumoured amphibious assault ship class. In the interim, amphibious capabilities are being strengthened by the introduction of giant Ukrainian Zubr hovercraft, with four being acquired under a reported US$315m contract. The latter pair will be built in China under Ukrainian supervision, opening up the possibility of further domestic production in due course.
A key feature of recent territorial confrontations has been the active role taken by ships belonging to China’s various paramilitary maritime agencies as opposed to front-line PLAN warships. Significant investment is being made in such constabulary assets and steps have recently been taken to adapt their command structure to a more homogenous model. In March 2013, it was announced that an enlarged National Oceanic Administration overseen by the Ministry of Land and Resources would add the China Coast Guard forces of the Public Security Ministry; the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command; and the maritime anti-smuggling police of the General Administration of Customs to its existing responsibility for China Marine Surveillance. The new unified Coast Guard will have over 50,000 personnel and is likely to assume a similar role to that carried out by counterparts in the United States, Japan and elsewhere. In addition to providing improved efficiency, the new structure is reported to be intended to enhance the protection of China’s maritime rights and interests. As such, it is likely to continue playing a key role in China’s pursuit of its various territorial claims.