Category Archives: Defence

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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China Makes A Bigger Bang In Arms Dealing

THESE ARE RICH times for the arms trade. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) notes that transfers of major weapons in 2012–16 reached their highest volume for any five-year period since the end of the Cold War. (SIPRI uses five-year periods to smooth out annual fluctuations which can be marked in the arms trade.)

China is a leading player in the international arms trade, and one increasingly able to decrease its dependence on imports thanks to a growing domestic arms industry.

chinas-arms-trade

This also makes China a frontline arms exporter, with estimated annual sales of just shy of $3 billion going to 44 countries, particularly to elsewhere in Asia (Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar especially) and to Africa. China’s share of global arms exports rose to 6.2% from 3.8% between 2007–11 and 2012–16.

It is now firmly a top-tier supplier, in third place in the global rankings, moving ahead of France and Germany, though still a long way behind Russia and the United States, which have nearly four and more than five times the sales respectively.

China’s arms manufacturers still face significant quality issues in international markets, though that is improving at the cheaper end. However, IHS Jane’s reported two C-705 missiles failing to hit their targets during a large-scale Indonesia navy exercise in the Java Sea last September 14. In Cameroon, one of four Harbin Z-9 attack helicopters sold to it by China crashed soon after being handed over, bringing a halt to any further sales.

China is also poor at after-sales service and maintenance. Nor has it yet established a globally competitive arms brand in the same class as the US’s Lockheed Martin. China’s biggest arms maker is China North Industries Corp. (Norinco), but its strategy seems to be targeting developing economies with a sales pitch that boils down to near-Western quality but at a fraction of the price.

Chinese arms makers also remain dependent on key components, such aircraft engines, imported from abroad, notably from Russia, Ukraine and France. It also imports key weapons and large transport aircraft, helicopters, vehicles and ships.

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The Liaoning Sails The South China Sea

CHINA’S AIRCRAFT CARRIER, the Liaoning, seems to have gone no further than the South China Sea. There it has been carrying out exercises with its contingent of F-15 fighter jets including combat exercises, aerial refuelling and difficult return landings.

“The Liaoning aircraft carrier group in the South China is carrying out scientific research and training, in accordance with plans,” according to foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang. “Complex hydrological and meteorological conditions in the South China Sea as well as a cold front in the area have posed some challenges,” according to the military.

That is not the adventurous sail to the ‘second island chain’ that had been predicted. Speculation now is that the carrier will sail up the Taiwan Strait on its way back to its home port of Qingdao, to complete a symbolic circumnavigation of the island.

Meanwhile, the US Navy says the USS Carl Vinson, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier that was used to bury the body of Osama bin Laden at sea in 2011, will sail from California this week to replace the USS Ronald Reagan which is ending its tour in the Western Pacific.

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Heading For The Deep Blue Yonder

The aircraft carrier Liaoning seen in the East China Sea

THE PLA-NAVY’S aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (above), has sailed for the Western Pacific on what state media say is a routine naval exercise. The trip marks the first time it has ventured into ‘blue water’.

Japan’s defence ministry noted that the carrier and seven other warships had sailed from the East China Sea making passage between Okinawa and Miyako islands on Saturday headed for the Philippines Sea. Taiwan’s counterpart said on Monday that the carrier had entered the South China Sea after passing south of the island, though it counted two fewer vessels than the Japanese (it may not be counting supply ships; a carrier battle group usually comprises eight vessels).

The symbolism of the sailing is that the Liaoning has ‘broken through’ the ‘first island chain’ — the first major archipelagos out from the East Asian littoral, stretching from the Kamchatka peninsula in the north to the Malay peninsula in the south-west and within which China believes the United States wants to keep its force projection penned.

This trip may have been long planned to come just as US President-elect Donald Trump prepared to take over from Barack Obama, but the timing will have added piquancy given Trump’s ratcheting up of tensions in past weeks, including suggestions that his administration might abandon the One China policy.

Last month, Beijing declared the Liaoning ‘combat-ready’ and the warship conducted its first live-fire drills earlier this month in the Bohai Sea. Before heading out to the Pacific, Liaoning was carrying out combat-readiness air drills in the East China Sea including aerial refuelling of its J-15 fighters.

This trip (or the next one) may be intended to get the Liaoning to the ‘second island chain’ (Guam, Mariana Islands and Iwo Jima) to test the carrier group’s long-range mission capabilities, which will be essential to changing the strategic naval balance of power in the Western Pacific (eventually).

The nationalist-minded state newspaper, the Global Times, lays out the long-term course:

The Chinese fleet will cruise to the Eastern Pacific sooner or later. When China’s aircraft carrier fleet appears in offshore areas of the US one day, it will trigger intense thinking about maritime rules.

That is still some day off, but no longer never.

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China Cracks On With Its Second Carrier

China's second aircraft carrier, CV17, seen under construction in dry dock in Dalian, Liaoning province, in mid 2016

THE CONSTRUCTION OF the hull of China’s second aircraft carrier has been completed, state media reports, and the flight deck is now being installed.

Once that is done, probably by the first or second quarter of next year, the vessel will be floated, and its fitting out will start. Sea trials will likely not begin until 2018 or 2019, so the carrier will not be commissioned into active service until the 2020s.

The picture above was taken in Dalian earlier this year, so the flight deck will by now be looking more complete, though there is still work to be done below deck. Our man with the telephoto lens says the island (conning tower) was being installed by late September.

The vessel, known as 17 (US Navy convention would call it CV-17, but the PLA-N uses just a number), is similar in many respects to China’s first carrier, which carried the number 16 before being rechristened as the Liaoning. Whereas the Liaoning was a refit of the Varig, a surplus Soviet-era Admiral Kuznetsov class carrier bought from Ukraine where it was built, 17 is an indigenous version and will carry the designation of a Type 001A class carrier.

It is about the same size as the Liaoning, unsurprisingly as it is being built in the same Dalian dry dock as its predecessor used, but lighter, displacing about 50,000 tonnes. As can be seen in the photograph, it will have a ‘ski ramp’ launch system at the bow.

It also looks to have more space for aircraft than the Liaoning and less for secondary weapons. 17  will still be capable of carrying less than 50 aircraft, including helicopters, but a few more than the Liaoning. As well as the J-15 fighters and helicopters that the Liaoning has, 17 will probably carry an anti-submarine and early warning patrol aircraft.

Chinese military strategists have indicated that China plans a set of three Type 001A carriers — one to be operational, one in port and one in maintenance.

They will very much be the PLA-Navy’s training wheels. Though operational warships, as a carrier battle fleet, they are far short of the blue-water force China has aspirations for its Navy to be. Nineteen, 20 and 21 — Type 002 class carriers — will be much closer to that. This Bystander will be looking for keels to be laid in 2017, probably in Shanghai yards, but they will not be operational on the high seas for at least a decade. Until then, Beijing will have a carrier force whose primary purpose will be to project force in the South China Sea.

That force will be constrained. For one, the J-15s flying from it are a converted rather than a customised marine fighter, and one that has limited strike capacities. Battle-effective carrier fleets need a range of patrol and other aircraft capable of waging electronic warfare. That 17 will likely carry one or two of them is notable.

Furthermore, ski ramp launches restrict a carrier’s fleet to jets. Transporters needed for resupplying carriers far out at sea might be able to land on them, but cannot take off again. Nor can turbo-prop patrol aircraft operate from them.

The next set of carriers will have either the more powerful catapult launch systems standard on US and Russian carriers or may skip a generation and go to electromagnetic systems as are being developed for the US Navy’s most advanced carrier.

That might prove a step too far too fast for China’s naval architects and designers. They have climbed a steep learning curve with refitting the Liaoning (despite the Varig coming, reportedly, with eight lorry-loads of technical documents). Building its successor from scratch will be proving equally challenging, though it has been achieved in double-quick time by carrier-building standards.

In addition, the submarine force has been the navy’s development priority over the carrier fleet, and thus it got the pick of the available design and development talent — the often forgotten constraint on all navies.

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