China Focuses on Surface Power
By WENDELL MINNICK, SINGAPORE
China continues to expand the operational and strategic role of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) as it buys and builds new warships and submarines and upgrades existing ones.
Chinese shipyards have been building fast attack missile patrol boats, dock landing ships, frigates and destroyers, many with stealthy, high-tech features common on Western warships.
“The Navy budget focuses on building more modern surface ships, such as the FFG 054A frigate, and the technology of Chinese fighting ships is gradually improving,” said Andrei Chang, editor of the Hong Kong-based Kanwa Defense Review. “For instance, new HQ16 and HQ9 vertical-launched air defense systems have already been installed on FFG 054A and DDG 052C Chinese Aegis destroyers. The third FFG 054A has been launched in Guangzhou Huanpu shipyard this year.”
With these modern shipbuilding capabilities may come the know-how to construct an aircraft carrier, he said.
The PLAN recently completed production of prototypes of three new classes of destroyers: the Luyang 1/Type 052B, Luyang 1/Type 051C and the Luyang 2/Type 052C.
“China launched two Luyang 2/Type 052C destroyers in 2003 and 2004 and there is no open data to suggest that China has decided to undertake series production, or to, instead, build a new type of Aegis[-like] destroyer — perhaps using an upgraded version of the Ukrainian technology active array utilized by the Luyang 2,” said Richard Fisher, vice president of the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center.
Russia has provided many of China’s new ships, including the Sovremenny-class destroyers and Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines, and there are indications that China will continue to rely on Russian naval construction capabilities.
“Russia is currently not building any major surface or submarine warships for China, but Russia is reportedly close to selling China the unique Zubr large amphibious assault hovercraft, a large number of Kamov naval troop assault helicopters, a significant number of Beriev Be-200 turbofan-powered seaplanes, and is selling surface-to-air missile technology for the PLA’s Type 054A frigate, now in series production in two shipyards,” said Fisher.
China’s submarine program has made many in the Japanese and U.S. defense communities nervous. The PLAN operates one nuclear-powered sub, the Xia-class ballistic missile boat, but the bulk of its force are slower and shorter-range diesel attack submarines, such as the Kilo-class and Chinese-built Song-class boats. This preference for diesels over nuclear-powered submarines reinforces China’s claim that it is fielding a defensive navy, said retired U.S. Adm. Mike McDevitt of the Center for Naval Analyses.
“Because they are range/endurance limited and move relatively slowly, they create the image of being defensive in nature. Importantly, they fit within the template of East Asian naval developments that has South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia joining Japan, Taiwan and Australia as nations with conventionally powered submarines,” McDevitt said.
Aircraft Carrier Questions
There has been much speculation that China is trying to build a blue-water navy made up of aircraft carriers and Aegis-type destroyers that could project force into the Pacific and patrol oil shipping lanes from the Middle East.
Lin Chong-Pin, president of the Taipei-based Foundation on International and Cross-Strait Studies and former Taiwan vice minister of defense, recalls the famous statement by the godfather of the PLAN, Adm. Lu Huaqing, who once said that he would “not die with eyes closed if China did not acquire aircraft carriers.”
That thought went by the wayside in the early 1990s, when, as Lin points out, the “submarine school” became dominant with arguments that aircraft carriers were impractical without a large submarine fleet.
The submarine school claimed carriers would not be able to sail safely beyond checkpoints controlled by Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines under U.S. influence. In addition, the required ships, submarines and other capabilities for a carrier fleet were not feasible given the PLAN’s limited financial resources.
However, now that the submarine school has acquired its fleet, Lin argues there are signs that time might be right for a flattop navy.
“Since the late 1980s, the efforts to get the accompanying conditions ready for the carriers have never ceased. They include the deepening of the harbors, such as Zheanjiang; the training of the fighter pilots … in western China’s deserts, where the reflection of the sand is similar to the water surface; increased shipbuilding capabilities; and the accompanying surface combatants and submarines,” he said.
Lin said national pride, combined with new strategic realities, such as sea lanes of communication and fears that Taiwan will declare independence, are forcing Beijing to give the green light for a carrier construction program.
Chinese officials recently have been quoted in mainland media reports rsaying that the country could field its first aircraft carrier as soon as 2010, and attention has focused on the Varyag, an incomplete Russian carrier which was towed to China in 2002. Although the ship arrived in a dilapidated condition, it was cleaned and painted in 2005, and several statements by officials this year could indicate the Chinese are seriously considering completing the ship.
However, creating a blue-water navy that would challenge U.S. maritime dominance is still a lofty dream.
McDevitt points to other considerations that formed the PLAN decision: “Developing such a navy would have meant a departure from China’s continentalist strategic tradition. Besides being countercultural to an army-dominated PLA, a Western-style blue water navy would have been very expensive and very difficult to make credible in terms of training and technology.”
Times are changing for the PLAN and pressure to create a modern navy with blue-water capabilities is coming from both Beijing and Washington.
“This combination of those factors, plus the pressure from the United States to become a responsible stakeholder, are creating ‘demand signals’ from a PLA Navy that can support U.N.-sanctioned missions; protect PRC interests abroad with a show of force; protect or evacuate PRC citizens in jeopardy; protect sea lanes of communication; respond to natural disasters; and demonstrate PRC resolve in support of embattled friends in Africa and along the South Asia littoral,” said McDevitt.
Christopher Cavas contributed to this report from Washington.