Tag Archives: PLA-N

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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The China-Blue Waters Of The Mediterranean

IT WON’T BE the first time that the PLA-Navy and its Russian counterpart conduct joint exercises. But it will be the first time they do so in the Mediterranean Sea. And that sends both a certain and a provocative geopolitical signal to Brussels, London and Washington beyond.

The foreign ministry has confirmed that two Chinese frigates and a supply ship will be among the nine warships involved in the exercises, which, Beijing says, will focus on actions where the two powers are likely to coordinate such as maritime resupply, rescue missions and escort duties. No damp squibs, the exercises will include live-fire practices.

The three Chinese vessels have been on anti-piracy duty off the Somali coast and were used in March to evacuate some 500 hundred Chinese citizens from Yemen.

There are no international high seas in the Mediterranean. All of it falls into the economic zone claimed by at least one of the some two dozen countries in it or bordering it. However, Chinese warships are no recent strangers to the waters. They evacuated more than 30,000 Chinese workers stranded in Libya after the overthrow of Qaddafi in 2011. Since then, a PLA-N frigate has twice been involved in the removal of chemical weapons from Syria.

The timing of the exercises is pointed. They will come shortly after President Xi Jinping visits Moscow on May 8th-10th. While there, he will attend the May 9th military parade to mark the 70th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War, which Russia celebrates the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. NATO and other Western leaders are boycotting the event in protest against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s adventurism in Ukraine. Xi will be fêted as the honoured guest.

A contingent of PLA troops will march in the parade. The message is that both NATO and Asian nations should regard the China-Russia alliance as a growing counterweight on land and sea to the one between the United States and Japan. Beijing sees Washington’s pivot of its foreign and defence policy towards Asia as intended to hem in China.

Beyond the geopolitical posturing, there is substance to the growing reach of the PLA-N. Beijing has increasing national interests far from home, including in the Maghreb and more broadly the Middle East and East Africa. The PLA-N’s capacity to project blue-water power far from home is still meagre, but it is being built up systematically—now in the balmy waters of the Med as much as in the shipyards at home.

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New Attack Submarines Boost PLA-Navy’s Long-Term Modernisation

chinese-093G-submarine-huludao-shipyard
THREE NEW NUCLEAR
attack submarines are being added to the PLA-Navy, according to state media, taking the country’s sub fleet to about 15 and providing more tangible evidence of the modernisation of China’s military. One report suggests the PLA-N took delivery of the vessels in late-February.

CCTV recently showed a satellite picture of the three subs docked at unidentified berths. This Bystander believes the location to be the Bohai shipyard at Huludao on the Bohai Sea. Our images, acquired from Google Maps, shows one sub in dry dock (above; the black square in the middle of the sub is its vertical missile launching tubes; vertical supersonic missile launching is the vessel’s big advance in capabilities), and two at berth (below). There is little advantage to keeping them hidden. Indeed, China stopped keeping its subs secret in 2009. It is the logistics systems for the latest subs that the rest of the world will want to get a look at.

CCTV said the vessels were Type-093Gs, a longer, faster and quieter (thus less easily detectable) version of the Type-093 nuclear subs of which six are believed to already in service. The PLA-N also has in its sub fleet three old Type-091s and four Jin-class Type-094s, which can carry ballistic missiles.

chinese-submarine-huludao-shipyard

The Type-093Gs are reportedly capable of launching the new YJ-18 supersonic anti-ship missiles. The YJ-18, now in development as a replacement for a mishmash of Soviet-era models, is equivalent in capability for maritime attacks to the Russian (land attack) cruise missile that NATO has nicknamed the ‘Sizzler’. It will be the basis for a series of supersonic and hypersonic (faster than Mach 5) missiles that could be used to attack carrier groups; these missiles fly so fast towards the end that they are difficult for anti-missile systems to intercept.

China is already testing one such hypersonic weapon, the WU-14, which can travel at Mach 10. Were it to come to a hot war between China and, say, the U.S., these missiles would be Beijing’s best bet for knocking out the carrier groups that Washington would likely use to cut China’s maritime supply lines.

The early models in the series will be for attacking ships. The missile can carry a more potent warhead than the PLA-N’s current missiles, and thus be able to penetrate the increasingly heavy armor of U.S. and Japanese warships. Later models are intended for submarine and, eventually, land attacks. The YJ-18 will have a range of 300-400 kilometres from a carrier.

While China’s first carrier, the Liaoning, is operational, it is still far short of being battle ready, mostly because of a lack of pilots trained to operate from carriers. Training more is a priority. And not just for the Liaoning. As many as six carriers are planned, according to senior PLA-N officials quoted recently by the Hong Kong Commercial Daily.

That number has been bruited before. Construction on two improved and indigenously built Liaonings is underway in China Shipbuilding Industry Corp.’s Jiangnan yards in Shanghai with plans for three indigenous nuclear-powered carriers to follow. The newspaper report may be as close to confirmation of those plans as we have had to date.

It will be those latter three carriers that will propel the PLA-N into a blue-water force to be reckoned with. The Liaoning, a refitted ex-Soviet carrier, the Varyag, is, at 58,500-tons, lightweight by carrier standards — half the size of U.S. carriers. It also launches its aircraft with a ‘ski-jump’, not a catapult. That limits the fighters that can operate from it.

The Liaoning carries helicopters and modified Shenyang J-15 fighters, but couldn’t launch the fifth-generation J-31 fighter. It is better described as an aviation-capable patrol ship than a carrier of the line. Letting the PLA-N learn the ropes of carrier operations is its main purpose.

Modern catapult launchers use electromagnetic systems that require massive amounts of energy, of the magnitude a nuclear-powered carrier would be capable of generating. China Shipbuilding Industry was tasked in 2013 with developing nuclear power technology that would be compact and safe enough to install in ships such as carrier and icebreakers, and possibly into nuclear stealth bombers.

Nuclear bombers are probably years off, but a first nuclear-powered carrier is likely within a decade. The two second-generation Liaonings due to be commissioned in 2020 are likely to be conventionally powered. It is a racing certainty that the carrier after those would be nuclear powered.

To put that in perspective, China has had nuclear-powered subs for 40 years, but that is still 15 year fewer than the U.S. In 2022, the U.S. Navy will mark the 60th anniversary of its first nuclear-powered U.S. carrier while the PLA-N may still only be getting its first into the water. What is certain though is that the PLA-N is playing determined catch-up.

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