Category Archives: Defence

China Rushes To Ready Its Second Carrier For Party Congress

China's first indigenous aircraft carrier, codenamed the 002, seen at its mooring dock in Dalian in 2017 being fitted out.

CHINA SHIPBUILDING INDUSTRY Corp. (CSIC) and Dalian Shipbuilding Industry Corp. (DSIC) are rushing to complete the construction of China’s first indigenous aircraft carrier (seen above at her mooring dock in Dalian earlier this year) so the start of her sea trials can be trumpeted at the forthcoming Party congress. A stronger, more outward looking China is expected to be one of the themes of the meeting.

Outfitting work and system debugging of the 70,000-tonne Type 001A carrier, modelled on the Liaoning, a converted Soviet era carrier bought from Ukraine that is now in PLA-Navy service, are almost complete ahead of schedule, according to a defence ministry spokesman, and the power-systems tests have been completed.

DSIC’s chairman, Liu Zheng, told a company Party meeting last month that the shipbuilder would “greet the 19th CPC National Congress by delivering key achievements on a special product in this special time”.

The timetable for the mooring trials is being telescoped so the carrier can set out to sea in time for the Party congress. Sea trials, which will test propulsion and communications systems under operational conditions, are the final phase before a vessel is handed over the navy to be commissioned into service.

From an April launch to September sea trials would be the blink of an eye in terms of aircraft carrier production, but a signal of the symbolic important Beijing places on its first home-built carrier.

Meanwhile, the first of the successor generation of carriers, the Type 002, is under construction in Shanghai yards.

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China Makes A Show Of Force Near The Korean Peninsula

HQ-16A medium-range air-defense missiles being loaded onto their launch trucks during a combat training exercise at a military range near Bohai Bay in early September, 2017. (Photo credit: He Miao, chinamil.com.cn/)

AN ARTILLERY UNIT from the PLA’s new 81st Group Army has conducted a live-fire anti-missile drill in recent days near Bohai Bay, so close to the border with North Korea. HQ-16A medium-range air-defence missiles (Red Flag 16s, seen above being loaded onto their truck launchers for the exercise) were successfully fired and took out their targets, military media say. The drill, held in ‘early September’, was a combat-readiness test against a surprise attack.

The HQ-16A has a maximum range of 40 kilometres and can take out a ballistic missile flying at either a very low or high altitude at a range of 3.5-18 kilometres. Such missiles are only likely to come from one place, and similarly the message from Beijing is being sent in the opposite, despite the defence ministry issuing a statement saying that the drill was routine annual training and did not target any specific country.

On September 5, at the same site, the PLA-Air Force, also live fired HQ-6s (seen below), a short-range air-defence missile intended to counter close range missiles, including those launched at sea, or aircraft flying at low-to-medium altitudes.

An HQ-6 air-defense missile being live-fired by the PLA Air Force fires at simulated sea and aerial targets during an exercise near Bohai Bay on September 5, 2017. (Photo credit: Li Ming and Xie Biao, chinamil.com)

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China’s Djibouti Base Raises The Flag

Satellite image taken in early 2017 showing location of Doraleh Multi-Purpose Port and construction of adjacent Chinese naval base. Picture credit: Google Maps.

THE PLA-NAVY formally opened its base in Djibouti this week, China’s first military base overseas — though Beijing prefers to call it support facilities. Symbolically, it raised the flag in Djibouti on the same day as the PLA’s 90th anniversary.

The base is next to the Doraleh Multi-purpose Port to the west of Djibouti City on the southern side of the Gulf of Tadjoura which opens out into the Gulf of Aden. The $420 million port was only formally opened in May and is still half-finished. The biggest Chinese port construction project in the region, it was built by China State Construction and Engineering Corp. (CSCEC). China Merchants Holdings International is a stakeholder in the port’s operations.

A base comprising an encampment adjacent to a Chinese-built commercial port is a model seen in the making in Gwadar in Pakistan and likely to be repeated in Sri Lanka, and perhaps elsewhere.

Bases operated by the US Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force are only a few kilometers to the southeast. The United States runs some of its most secret drone operations in the Middle East from its Camp Lemonnier base next to Djibouti’s international airport.

Map of Djibouti City showing location of Doraleh Mult-purpose Port adjacent to China's naval base and the US military's Camp Lemonnier.

China’s base has been under construction since early last year, at a reported cost of $590 million. It covers a little more than one-third of a square kilometer and can accommodate several thousand military personnel. Satellite imagery of a later date than Google’s seen above suggests hangar facilities for helicopters and a short runway have been built before berths.

However, there are no deepwater channels running to the base, so the neighboring port, which does have deepwater berths, one of which is reserved for the PLA-N, is going to have to be living up to its name.

China has taken a ten-year lease on the land for its naval base and is a major funder of the Djibouti government, footing the bill for at least $14 billion-worth of infrastructure from railways to ports, airports and water conduits.

The rent China is paying for its naval base is not publicly disclosed (our man with his nose in the sand reckons that it is $20 million a year), but the US pays $63 million a year under its 20-year lease on its base.

The debate over the extent to which the base represents power projection will only continue, though that power projection will likely be steady but incremental as Beijing practices at being a world power.

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A Nuclearised North Korea Will Have To Be Managed, Not Crushed

WHAT IS MOST concerning to this Bystander about North Korea’s latest missile test is not that Pyongyang may have, as it claims somewhat grandiosely, the ability now to strike the United States mainland with an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), but that the missile was apparently fired from a previously unknown launch site.

If there are more such sites, it means that in the event of a retaliatory or pre-emptive strike by Pyongyang against, say, Seoul or Tokyo, shooting down those missile could not happen until they were in the air. By then, it would be probably too late to save hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of lives in those cities, even if the THAAD anti-missile shield works — and THAAD will not protect against conventional shelling; Seoul being in range of North Korean artillery.

The event that most likely would trigger such strikes is, of course, a military attack on North Korea ordered by US President Donald Trump. That is an option that is becoming more not less likely.

We know that the US military has been asked by the White House to prepare a plan for that, should it be needed.  Since Friday’s ICBM test, Pyongyang’s second in three weeks, two US Air Force bombers have flown over South Korea, accompanied first by Japanese and then South Korean fighters, in what is taken as a show of strength by the US and its allies. The bombers passed within 50 miles of the Demilitarised Zone border to the north. The United States has also conducted as successful THAAD test in Alaska, the currently realistic reach of North Korean missiles.

That Trump and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, have turned to browbeating China for not reining in North Korea is probably best read as a sign of increasing desperation on the part of the Americans who are edging towards an action that, in the end, they will not want to take.

However, the status quo, while fraught with danger as brinksmanship always is, is preferable to military conflict. Now Pyongyang has nuclear weapons, disarming it is no longer a policy option. Managing that capability in a way that conforms to international norms is the only way forward, and that will have to be done around the negotiating table.

Economic sticks and carrots have had little to no success to date. Pyongyang has rebuffed previous suggestions along those lines and has done nothing to dismiss the notion that it puts regime survival ahead of the famine of its people.

Without nuclear weapons, Kim Jong Un, like his father, believes his dynasty could go the way of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar al-Qadhafi.

This is also why six rounds of UN-led international sanctions since 2006 have had so little effect.

Beijing understands the point. It does not care much for Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, and younger Chinese diplomats express disdain for a regime stuck in a Communist world they barely recognise. However, Beijing’s priority is to avoid regime collapse. That would send millions of refugees into northeastern China, likely trigger a civil war possibly requiring Chinese military intervention, and, in the worst outcome of all, leave a US-friendly regime hard against its border.

For all Washington’s attempts to twist Beijing’s arm to make it participate more actively in the sanctions regime, these efforts will yield little beyond what has been achieved so far and thus have little impact on North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities.

For all Trump’s belligerence towards North Korea, the most likely eventual outcome is not denuclearization through force or negotiation, but acceptance that North Korea is a nuclear power and that a freeze in the further development of its nuclear and missile capabilities is the best that can be achieved.

It will though take a long time and probably many scares before we get there.

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Djibouti Bound

Chinese warships leaving Zhanjiang, Guangdong province, China on July 11, 2017 bound for China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti. Photo credit: Xinhua/Wu Dengfeng.

CHINESE MILITARY PERSONNEL are now en route for Djibouti where they will garrison China’s first overseas military base, which it started building last year at a cost of $590 million.

The photo above shows the departure from Zhanjiang in Guangdong province of the South Sea Fleet’s Jinggang Shan, a Yuzhao class Type 071 amphibious transport dock that had previously been deployed in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370,  along with a second PLA-Navy ship, China’s sole semi-submersible Donghai Island class naval auxiliary ship.

The Horn of Africa country, only half as big again as municipal Beijing, is already home to US, French and Japanese military bases with a Saudi Arabian one, like China’s, under construction.

China’s base will be used for supporting peacekeeping (Beijing has deployed its first UN peacekeeping combat troops in South Sudan), international anti-piracy operations off the Somali coast and in the Gulf of Aden (in which China has taken part since 2008) and humanitarian aid.

It will also provide advanced support, should it be needed, for the more than 250,000 Chinese now working in Africa — and the Chinese investments where they work. Evacuations of nationals have already been needed in Libya and Yemen.

China stresses that Djibouti will be a logistics or support, not military base. The question is, however it is described, whether it is the first of one, several or many such overseas beachheads.

The US defence department’s recent annual report to the US Congress on China’s military prowess took this definitive view:

As China’s global footprint and international interests have gown, its military modernization program and become more focused on supporting missions beyond China’s periphery, including power projection, sea land security, counterpiracy, peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR). In February 2016, China began constitution of a military base in Djibouti that could be complete within the next year. China likely will seek to establish additional military based in countries with which it has long-standing, friendly relationships.

The US defence department pinpoints Pakistan as best fitting that bill. Given the growing economic interests at stake in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which runs through both some insecure but strategically important territory, and China’s extensive role in building a deep-water port at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea coast, that seems a logical deduction.

However, many other countries will not be receptive to the notion of hosting PLA bases, and Chinese military doctrine sees prowess in cyber, space and information warfare as more potent than building a traditional network of military allies.

Indeed, current doctrine sees power projection assets as a vulnerability in modern warfare. That alone will be cause for China to move cautiously on establishing further bases.

At the same time, Beijing will use China’s economic linkages to cement support among those with similar security interests and to deter adversary power projection in third countries, particularly that by the United States.

For now, gaining access to foreign commercial ports for as a logistics base and for pre-positioning of support of “far seas” deployments by the PLA-Navy is likely to be the order of the day. That, anyway, is what would be needed for the HA/DR operations that Beijing is likely to concentrate on while its military learns to find its way around the world.

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China Looks At Semi-Submersible Warships

Illustration of concept models of semi-submersible arsenal ships

THE ‘ARSENAL SHIP’ is a 20-year old idea proposed by the US Navy. At base, they are a mobile floating platform for launching large numbers of missiles at sea, large being in the hundreds. A putative price tag of $450 million caused the US Congress to knock the idea on the head in 1998 when it scrapped funding.

Popular Science magazine is now saying that the PLA-Navy has taken up the idea, and with a twist. Its ideas for arsenal ships would let them slip beneath the waves better to evade detection.

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but plans have been seen of a couple of concepts for large scale warship-cum-submarines with flat hulls and steering fins that would let them at least semi-submerge as well as hydroplane when on the surface. One illustrative example is seen above. Wuhan City has been claiming some props for the research being done locally.

An arsenal ship would naturally fall into a carrier battle group, relying on the aircraft carrier’s fighters to protect it from air threats while providing the battle group with hundreds of extra missile launchers.

The magazine says:

Chinese research institutes have been testing sub-models of both arsenal ship configurations since 2011, including open-water tests for the hydroplane arsenal ship and laboratory tests for the arsenal submarine. Unverified rumours on the Chinese internet claim that a full-scale, proof-of-concept is under construction at Bohai Shipbuilding Heavy Industrial Corporation, to be launched after 2020.

There would be considerable technical challenges to overcome with an arsenal ship, especially one of the size China envisages. Not least, will be making it strong enough to contend with the stresses it would encounter underwater. Semi-submersible warships that have been built to date are small, torpedo-boat sized.

It would also need to be able to travel fast enough to keep up with a carrier group, which would make the hydroplane option the more likely.

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It Is Not Having An Aircraft Carrier; It Is What You Can Do With It.

TOWING THE HULL of a vessel out of dry dock and mooring it at the neighbouring berth is not much by way of a naval manoeuvre, but when the vessel is China’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, such a ‘launch’ carries a certain symbolism and an opportunity for patriotic pride.

The as-yet-unnamed sister carrier to the Liaoning, China’s starter carrier, herself bought as an unfinished hull from the Russian Navy, will now have to be fitted out and then undergo sea trials. It is likely to be 2020 before she is commissioned into service.

Soon, construction will get underway at the Dalian dry dock on a third Type 001/001A carrier. That will give the PLA Navy the standard carrier set navies everywhere want — one vessel on operations, the second in maintenance and the third being used for training.

This trio will be small beer by the standards of the US carrier fleet. It will comprise Admiral Kuznetsov class carriers, which naval men dismiss as aircraft-carrying cruisers, though that still lets the Liaoning pull rank on the best that India and Japan has, and it is more than a training vessel, better regarded as a moderately capable warship.

Nonetheless, talk of China being able to project military power beyond the ‘Near Seas’ (Yellow, East and South China Seas) is premature. At best, it will be able to project a bit of military power close to home, and perhaps especially against the smaller neighbours on the periphery of the South China Sea. The perception that it can may be the most important impact.

The Type 001/001A carriers are underpowered and have an old-fashioned ‘ski-jump’ aircraft launching system, both of which limit the PLA-Navy’s air power at sea. Also, the Shenyang J-15 multirole fighters the carriers carry are limited in both range and endurance. The latest, fourth-generation fighters represent a significant improvement over the previous versions but fall a long way short of fifth-generation fighters such as the F-35Cs deployed by the United States Navy.

However, under China’s incremental ‘crawl, walk, run’ approach to carrier development, the third Type 001/001A carrier will be considerably more capable flagship for a combat-capable carrier group than the Liaoning.

However, think of the Type 001/001A carriers as collectively being the ‘crawl’ stage; the ‘walk’ phase is already underway at the state-owned Jiangnan shipyard on Changxing, the island opposite Shanghai at the mouth of the Changjiang River. This Bystander noted at the start of last year the four new docks built there for the construction of two mid-sized aircraft carriers, suggesting that the Type 002s will be larger than the Type 001/001As.

Since that post, the satellite imagery shows that a roof has been built over the dry dock, presumably to obscure the view of prying ‘eyes in the sky’. At Dalian, anyone could see the Liaoning’s construction from the roof of the nearby IKEA store.

Displacement — that is size to landlubbers — is not everything when it comes to carriers. Offensive capability is what counts.

Propulsion systems — speed and range for the ship and power for the launching systems — are one critical component. China will have to have nuclear-powered carriers at some point if it wants them to be at sea for long periods without refuelling.

Another is being able to carry more offensively-capable aircraft and launch them more powerfully. One reason that ski-jump launches are so limiting is that take-off is fuel-intensive, cutting range and payload (payload includes not only armaments but also such equipment as airborne early warning systems).

The Type 002s could skip a generation of launchers and go straight to electromagnetic launch systems (EMALS), of the sort the U.S. Navy is currently testing to replace its catapult launchers, although that might be a too radical step for what has been a conservative development plan. The first Type 002 is likely to have catapult-assisted launch, assuming the J-15’s can be sufficiently strengthened to take advantage of it.

The third critical component is developing the advanced weapons and communications systems to control a stronger supporting battle group of destroyers and frigates, logistics and supply ships and submarines.

As we said earlier:

If China is to have a blue-water navy capable of projecting force far from its shores, it will need fleet carriers — and eventually supercarriers if it is to fulfil its long-term ambition of matching the U.S. Navy.

China’s experience in building massive oil tankers and ore carriers suggests that its shipyards can build hulls up to supercarrier size and of the quality and strength necessary in a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The systems and operational sides of carriers are still a work in progress — and the learning curve is steep — albeit advancing with every new carrier built.

Carriers do not sail them selves (not yet at least). However, China has been preparing an elite cadre of carrier sailors and airmen for three decades, an indication of how long-laid its carrier plans have been.

Such preparation mitigates but does not eliminate the risks of carrier aviation. Small, rolling landing strips are inherently more dangerous than those on land. It took the US Navy and Marine Corps 40 years to get their accident rates down to the average level across the US Air Force (they lost 8,500 aircrew over those four decades, according to one retired US naval aviator).

For all the prestige and patriotic pride that China is investing in its carriers, it is almost certain to suffer unexpected losses and reverses.

Nor are carriers the be all and end all of naval power. They would be disproportionately susceptible to attack in the event of war because of their size and roles. In the ballistic missile age, their longevity during a high-intensity conflict would probably be counted in days, if not hours.

This Bystander would be the first to acknowledge that carriers are only one part of China’s plans for a blue-water navy, albeit an expensive one. Our back of the envelope calculation is that the cost of a carrier battle group runs upwards of $10 billion — and China can build them less expensively than most. However, that sort of money would buy the PLA Navy a lot of hardware far more suitable to the roles it is likely to be undertaking in the foreseeable future.

That is part of the calculation of the price of prestige.

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