Tag Archives: PLA-N

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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High Stakes

THE BYSTANDER SUSPECTS that the aerial incident involving two Su-30 fighter jets and a US WC-135 reconnaissance plane over the East China Sea this Wednesday past has more to do with North Korea than China-US conflicts.

The American plane was on deployment sampling the atmosphere for evidence of nuclear explosions, though Beijing has accused it of unspecified ‘surveillance’ activity in airspace over the Yellow rather than the East China Sea. Whether the flight indicates that Washington is expecting another test by Pyongyang shortly or whether it was a routine radiation measurement flight, we are unsure.

It is sure, however, that the repeated flights by US warplanes near Chinese airspace are a constant irritant to Beijing, to which Washington is disinclined to pay any heed. The last occasion planes from the two sides came dangerously close was over the South China Sea in February. That may have been inadvertent, but an incident in May last year was not.

The risk from such ‘unsafe intercepts’ is a collision as happened in 2001 when a PLA-Navy pilot died after his interceptor jet hit a US Navy signals intelligence aircraft over Hainan Island. Systems were put in place after that to make such incidents less likely, and there are parallel procedures at sea-level for naval vessels. Disaster, though, will always be waiting to happen for as long as these flights continue.

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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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Surprise Seizure In South China Sea

THE SEIZING OF a US Navy underwater drone by the PLA-Navy points to the potential for a small incident to take on greater import as Sino-American relations become more uncertain ahead of Donald Trump assuming the US presidency.

The drone was conducting a military oceanographic survey to map underwater channels in what the US claims are open waters some 160 kilometres off the Philippines, but China considers to be its own.

The incident comes hard on the heels of the publication of satellite photographs showing anti-aircraft batteries on seven of China’s artificial islands in the South China Seas and US President-elect Donald Trump’s questioning of Washington’s commitment to the ‘One China’ policy and his taking of a telephone call earlier from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen.

Having had the unpredictability card played against it, Beijing may be countering in kind.

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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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The Modernisation of China’s Armed Forces That Wasn’t On Parade

WHAT MOST CAUGHT this Bystander’s eye at last week’s parade in Beijing to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender to end World War Two in Asia was what wasn’t on show: the aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and advanced blue-water ships being built for the PLA’s navy and the high-tech kit and code for its information, cyber and space warfare units.

Those are the cutting edge of China’s military modernization, not the ballistic missiles paraded through the streets of the capital on September 3rd with such patriotic pomp. We were slightly baffled by the fuss made in the popular prints of the DF-21D ballistic missile. The ‘carrier killer’ was, after all, deployed last year, officially acknowledged four years ago, and has been in development since the 1990s.

Like most of the hardware trundled through the streets in an overt display of hard-power prowess and progress, the DF-21D promises more than it can yet deliver operationally. It would take a bunch of the land-based DF-21s working in concert with aircraft and submarines to knock out a U.S. carrier group. Limited in range (1,750 kilometers), the missiles would, at best, provide a deterrent to a U.S. carrier coming to the aid of Taiwan or a regional neighbour in the event of conflict.

It is not yet the weapon of a world-class military force. More attention should have been paid to the DF-5B an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which can deliver a warhead to any part of the United States. The latest addition to China’s ICBM arsenal, the mobile DF-41, was notably absent from the parade — as was the J-20 fifth generation fighter aircraft. And it is the new Jin-class submarines that are letting China make progress toward a credible sea-based second-strike capability.

China’s armed forces long ago pivoted from their role in the 1980s as a land force to defend the long border with Russia to a more mobile force to face threats from the sea. However, they are still far short of the ability to provide open-sea protection as against coastal-waters defense, just as, for all the years of double-digit spending on defense, the PLA as a whole is still yet no match for U.S. forces should it come to all-out war, as the chart below underlines.

That is not to say that Beijing is not expanding its arsenal, particularly its nuclear weapons, nor that it lacks ambition to have world-class fighting forces. It has been pursuing the modernization of the PLA for decades to that end. Much like with the economy as a whole, it is doing so by replacing low-skilled labour out with higher-value-add technology.

China vs U.S. Total Defence Spending, 1988-2013

The 300,000 reduction in the PLA’s numbers that President Xi Jinping announced on September 3rd is only the latest case in point. This cut will reduce the PLA’s strength to 2 million from 2.3 million by removing non-combatants, civilian employees and the lowest-skilled ground forces.

Once the cuts are done, though, it will mean the PLA will be about half the size it was when the modernization drive started three decades ago. (Many of those shed in the intervening years have found new employment in the People’s Armed Police Force and the Border Guard; a hard edge to internal security, a connection of long standing in military doctrine, remains.)

The PLA-Navy (PLA-N) has been in the vanguard of the modernization drive, followed by the PLA-Air Force (PLAAF), the strategic missile force, the Second Artillery Corps (SAC), and then the Ground Forces in that order.

The new shape of the PLA should be apparent by 2020, including a new joint command structure similar to that employed by the United States to manage lean, mobile and multi-functional rapid response units. The announcement of a joint command has been imminent for some time, suggesting that inter-service rivalry remains strong and an impediment.

It may be no coincidence that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has reached deep into the command of the ground forces. We would surmise that was to clear out entrenched opposition to restructuring the military high command as well as to clear a path for a new generation of officers rising on professional merit rather than their ability to buy promotion.

The long-term target is to have armed forces capable of winning ‘informationised’ wars by the middle of the century. That means armed forces well equipped with the so-called soft elements of hard power — satellite surveillance and the ability to disrupt an enemy’s information superiority by destroying its satellites, irregular warfare capacity, computer network operations, and space capabilities.

Little of that was on parade in Beijing last week, but it comprises the new PLA’s marching orders.

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Cyber And Space, More Than Blue Water, Next Theatres Of War

 

Photo Credit: Flickr/Times Asi. Licenced under Creative Commons. China’s conventionally-armed ballistic missile, the DF-21C.CHINA HAS BEEN reclaiming land for the deployment of dual-use facilities such as radar stations and landing strips in the disputed waters of the South China Sea for a while. Long-standing readers may recall this 2012 photograph of a radar station at the Zhubi reef in the Nansha Islands (the Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands to much of the rest of the world).

Chinese fishing fleet at Zhubi Reef, South China SeaHowever, the rhetoric around the reclamation — and the reclamation itself — has been ratcheted up in recent weeks. Washington’s new defense secretary, Ashton Carter, is among those recently weighing in to air his concerns. Those of China’s regional neighbours have also been well and repeatedly advertised.

Beijing’s recently released new defense strategy document will do little to calm those concerns. While to this Bystander’s eye, the document does little more than codify developments that have been in train for sometime, explicitly laying out the greater priority China is placing on its navy and “open seas protection” makes a statement in more senses than one.

There is no doubt that China is modernizing its navy to ensure its access to open sea and its ability to defend its sea lanes beyond. Plans for new aircraft carriers, destroyers and nuclear-power subs bear ready witness to that. But for all its rapidly rising defence budget, Beijing still has a long way to go before it can match the capabilities of Washington’s blue-water fleet.

The United States will continue its Asian ‘pivot’ and, more particularly, military overflights to undermine the notion that land reclamation establishes sovereignty over the artificial islands created in those waters — ‘meddling in South China Sea affairs’ by Beijing’s lights, which is one of the risk factors for ‘security and stability along China’s periphery’, as the new strategy document puts it.

However, it is easy to be distracted by China’s naval build-out from the the other priority areas that the new strategy document highlights. The new frontiers of military competition are, to Beijing’s mind, outer space and cyber warfare. The new strategy document puts it thus:

The world revolution in military affairs is proceeding to a new stage. Long-range, precise, smart, stealthy and unmanned weapons and equipment are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Outer space and cyber space have become new commanding heights in strategic competition among all parties. The form of war is accelerating its evolution to informationization. World major powers are actively adjusting their national security strategies and defense policies, and speeding up their military transformation and force restructuring. The aforementioned revolutionary changes in military technologies and the form of war have not only had a significant impact on the international political and military landscapes, but also posed new and severe challenges to China’s military security.

We have noted before China’s ambitious space plans, and the opportunities they provide for developing dual use technologies. The new strategy document promises:

China will keep abreast of the dynamics of outer space, deal with security threats and challenges in that domain, and secure its space assets to serve its national economic and social development, and maintain outer space security.

Earlier this year, there was confirmation of the poorly kept secret that China has both military and state-security-services run cyber-warfare units. Previously Beijing had dismissed all suggestions made in Washington and Brussels that China was behind repeated cyber attacks on U.S. and European targets. Indeed, its sees itself as more hacked than hacker:

Cyberspace has become a new pillar of economic and social development, and a new domain of national security. As international strategic competition in cyberspace has been turning increasingly fiercer, quite a few countries are developing their cyber military forces. Being one of the major victims of hacker attacks, China is confronted with grave security threats to its cyber infrastructure. As cyberspace weighs more in military security, China will expedite the development of a cyber force, and enhance its capabilities of cyberspace situation awareness, cyber defense, support for the country’s endeavors in cyberspace and participation in international cyber cooperation, so as to stem major cyber crises, ensure national network and information security, and maintain national security and social stability.

In the case of international cyber cooperation, China has already been working more closely with Russia on cyber operations further extending Beijing’s strategic cooperation with Moscow.

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