Tag Archives: PLA Navy

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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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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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’s Modern Major-Generals

President Xi Jinping poses for a group photo with military delegates to a meeting on armed force reform, Beijing, November 24-26, 2015

THE MODERNIZATION OF China’s armed services into a professional fighting force commensurate with the needs of the country’s growing global presence is starting to reach the sharp end. A two-day policy meeting on PLA reform, presided over by the chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), President Xi Jinping, has just wrapped up in Beijing. The photograph above shows Xi and his top brass at the event.

The meeting ratified:

  • the PLA and the Chinese People’s Armed Police being put under the administration of the Central Military Commission, the twin state-Party agency through which the Party controls the armed forces, a move that further strengthens and integrates the Party’s control of the military and security apparatus;
  • amalgamation of the country’s seven military regions into five, which will be refocused as combat commands;
  • and advancement of the concept of the PLA as a true multi-service force as opposed to an army with planes and ships by giving the PLA Navy (PLA-N), the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and the Second Artillery Corps, which controls nuclear and conventional ballistic weapons, more autonomy over their procurement and strength expansion.

While much of this was presaged in the five-year-plan for the military drawn up in 2011, this most recent meeting suggests that the army, which has been fighting a rearguard against the changes, has largely concluded that further resistance is futile. This is partly because of the irrefutable military rationale that modern China needs more air and naval power and fewer ground forces, but also because Xi’s anti-corruption drives have successfully removed more than 200 of the greenish-brown-uniformed gainsayers.

However, the tightening of Party control over the armed forces, in itself another aspect of Xi’s centralization of power, and state media reports of the continuing need ‘to solve the problem of weak discipline enforcement and inspection and to ‘eradicate the soil of corruption with stricter rules and systems’, suggests that the pressure will be kept up. Corrupt, poorly trained and equipped ground forces is the PLA’s Achilles heel.

While the PLA ’s old commercial empire was dismantled some years back, China growing industrial-military complex offers new temptations. A ‘revolution in the management’ of the military will take care of some of that, as will cutting 300,000 administrative and non-combatant personnel from the army’s numbers as previously advertised — though the timeline is unclear and the cuts will still leave the PLA as around a 2 million-strong force including 1 million ground forces.

The aircraft carriers, advanced submarines, stealth fighters and ballistic missiles bear ample testimony to the naval and air services’ ascendancy. However, the PLA’s command structure, including its communications and logistics, does not yet fully reflect that though the communications infrastructure is making rapid advances.

A unified joint military command is also needed for the tighter integration between the PLA and internal security forces, even more important now that Beijing has now declared its ‘war on terror’ albeit mostly starting at home.

The 2011 five-year plan spoke of developing leaner, more technologically sophisticated armed forces with a joint command structure capable of “winning local wars under conditions of high technology and informatisation”. That is now being put in place, even if China is still — at least for now — only capable of winning skirmishes rather than wars in the Pacific, cyberspace and real space.

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Navies Calm Dangerous Waters Beneath The Political Storms

US Navy officer on board the PLA-Navy's aircraft carrier Liaoning, October 2015. Photo credit: People's Daily.

THE RECENT ‘FREEDOM of navigation’ passage by the US Navy’s destroyer, the USS Lassen, through the Spratly islands was sandwiched between a visit by 27 US naval officers to the PLA-Navy’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (seen above), and the first visit by the PLA-Navy to an East Coast US Navy station when three PLA-Navy warships of Escort Task Force 152 led by the guided missile destroyer Jinan called at Mayport in Jacksonville, Florida.

That was far from the first visit by Chinese military officers. The chief of the PLA general staff, General Fang Fenghui, toured of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the USS Ronald Reagan in San Diego in May last year. Also last year China was invited for the first time to participate in the biannual RIMPAC exercises, the 22-nation maritime warfare drills organized by the US Navy’s Pacific fleet.

Beyond the political rhetoric, military-to-military cooperation between China and the U.S. is on the rise, and particularly between their respective navies over the past two years.

Military-to-military contacts have long been a staple of U.S. diplomacy to prevent wars of words becoming anything more deadly. They build trust and transparency between two groups of professional military men who often have more in common and more respect for each other than they do with and for their political masters.

China and the United States undertake similar technical contacts in the realms of trade and financial affairs. The military contacts, however, and especially the naval ones given the increasing political tensions between the two countries over the South China Sea, have raised concerns in the U.S. Congress that they are yielding too much military information to the PLA without restraining Beijing’s increasingly assertive actions off its shores and beyond.

Fang’s visit, in particular, raised questions of whether the US Navy had broken Congressional rules that forbid exchanges with China that could involve ‘force projection’. In December, Randy Forbes, the Virginian congressman who heads the seapower and projection forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee sent a letter to the civilian bosses of the Pentagon calling for a review of America’s current military-to-military engagement policy with China.

Forbes’s letter did not fall on entirely deaf ears. Attitudes towards China in many parts of political Washington are hardening to a degree.

There is no evidence that those shifts are being felt among the military, although they will keep a weather eye out for shifting political winds. And the Pentagon continues, if perhaps slightly more circumspectly than before, to pursue the so-called new model of military-to-military relations between the two countries that reflects the broader framework of a relationship that China wants to put more on a partnership footing.

The Obama administration let President Xi Jinping write the rubric for that — “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.” It is language that Washington is showing less enthusiasm for now than before. But it is the tone that is changing rather than the overall narrative.

The working model is now cooperation where interests overlap, careful management where they do not. As relations go through a rocky patch, the priorities are avoiding accidents that turn into crises and establishing lines of communications if they do happen.

The risk is real. Last year a PLA fighter buzzed a US Navy plane, coming within 10 meters of it. The year before, a Chinese amphibious transport vessel escorting the Liaoning forced the USS Cowpens, a guided-missile cruiser, to take evasive action to avoid a collision.

That there have been no further mishaps is down in part to the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, known by its acronym, CUES, that China, the United States and other Western Pacific nations agreed last year. The Code sets out ground rules for safe speeds and distances that vessels should keep, the language to be used in communications between navies, and actions to be taken in case a ship becomes disabled.

However, the rules do not apply to coast guard or other civilian vessels such as fishing boats. Nor are there enforcement mechanisms.

A third issue is that the rules apply “at sea.” They do not specify it that means international and territorial waters, or just international waters, which makes the disputed waters of the South and East China seas huge grey areas.  Washington and many other regional nations do not recognize Beijing’s maritime territorial claims.

It is the same disagreement as Washington and Beijing have over the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS), to which the Code is subservient.

Nonetheless, any code is better than none. Even the process of creating it was a confidence-building measure in its own right, as is the joint practice drill on using the Code that the two navies held in February. The USS Lassen was warned by China using the CUES protocols when it sailed passed the Spratlys last month.

Beijing and Washington signed a further bilateral memorandum of understanding that was a follow-up to the Code and in October this his year added a codicil. The two countries have also set up a military crisis hotline.

Is this all enough to prevent anything untoward happening? Probably not if one side or the other is set on a deliberately provocative act or even if a citizen-patriot becomes recklessly overzealous. But it does provide an often overlooked counterpoint to the currently testy political narrative.

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Washington Lays Out Its Annual View Of China’s Military Capabilities

The U.S. military’s newly released annual assessment of China’s defense capabilities will surprise no one in saying that Beijing is improving its military training, weapons and surveillance so as to be able to conduct more sophisticated attacks against Washington and other adversaries closer to home. Neither is it any surprise that this is a result of China’s two-decades-long drive to modernize the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

If anything, this report to the U.S. Congress is a restatement of the justifications for Washington’s ‘Asian pivot’ announced in 2012. It is also perhaps the clearest statement to date of how that doctrinal shift is being tempered by U.S. budget cuts — and provides an implicit counterargument for curtailing them.

In light of those budget-cutting pressure, the Pentagon sees an opportunity for offshoring some of the cost of its increased Asian presence to its Asian allies. In every region of the world, the Pentagon says, it will seek to build the capacity of partners’ forces so that they, not Washington, can take the lead in providing security. That should also provide a bonus for America’s arms manufacturers who should see increased export demand for their wares as a result.

Equally predictably, Beijing has dismissed the report as a holdover of Cold War thinking, and says that its armed forces are still 20-30 years behind those of the U.S., which spends more than another nation on its military at 4% of GDP. Beijing also asserts that its military build-up is solely for defending its own sovereignty, though as the continuing conflicts in the South and East China Seas testify, sovereignty can be in the eye of the beholder.

“Probable” drone reconnaissance in the East China Sea was among the most significant military developments of last year identified by the Pentagon in its report. Others include:

  • air-defense upgrades to destroyers and frigates;
  • test flights of China’s Y-20 transport planes to move ground forces quickly across great distances;
  • at least eight launches to expand intelligence and surveillance from space;
  • integration of anti-radar missiles into the PLA Air Force’s fighter-bomber fleet; and
  • the PLA Navy’s development of long-range, over-the-horizon radar as a targeting mechanism for DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles carried on new Jiangdo-class corvettes, which previous Pentagon reports have identified as a threat to the U.S. new Littoral Combat ships.

The Pentagon’s assessment is couched in terms that suggest its working assumption for any future China-U.S. military conflict is that it would be a high-tech naval and missile fight. Thus the U.S. military’s need is to invest in technology more than capacity, and to ensure that its partner militaries in Tokyo, Manila and elsewhere in the region are willing and able to undertake U.S.-led training.

They may want to wait until after 2016 when the U.S. will have a new administration which may have a new set of priorities. Beijing will be quite happy to continue its PLA modernization in the meantime.

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China’s First Aircraft Carrier To Head For The High Seas

China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, will make its first blue-water voyage within a year, state media report. Xinhua did not say where the Liaoning would go or how long the sailing would last, but the trip is likely to include flight-landing exercises on the high seas. Since being formally handed over to the PLA-Navy last year, the refurbished carrier has been undergoing tests and conducting training operations from its home port of Qingdao.

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