China Moves Beyond Littorals To Test Growing Fleet Power
BY WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — The People’s Liberation Army Navy has been pushing into deeper and more distant waters as it tests the capabilities of an expanding fleet that may portend a challenge to U.S. naval power.
In 2006, a Chinese Song-class submarine surfaced just over four nautical miles from the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk near Okinawa. How it evaded detection until surfacing has yet to be explained.
In December 2008, China began sending flotillas to the Gulf of Aden to conduct anti-piracy patrols. The missions continue and have boosted confidence in the Navy’s ability to project force beyond its coastal waters.
China has also become more aggressive toward the U.S. Navy. In 2009, there were three incidents with Chinese maritime and naval vessels. These involved the American ships Impeccable in March, the Victorious in May and the John McCain, an Arleigh Burkeclass destroyer, with a Chinese submarine, in June.
China is developing a blue-water capability that includes the “ability to surge surface combatants and submarines at extended distances from the PRC [People’s Republic of China] mainland,” said Adm. Robert Willard, commander, U.S. Pacific Command, before a U.S. House Armed Services Committee in March.
Willard said China is expected to have an operational aircraft carrier around 2012 that will likely “be used to develop basic carrier skills.” China also continues to “field the largest conventional submarine force in the world” with more than 60 boats.
Modernization programs include development of sophisticated shipboard air defense systems, sea-skimming anti-ship cruise missiles and advanced torpedoes, and fielding new satellites that allow the Navy to communicate, navigate and track targets.
China’s efforts to expand the use of satellites should not be a surprise, said Bernard Cole, author of the book “The Great Wall at Sea” and a Chinese naval specialist at the National War College.
“While the [People’s Liberation Army Navy] has indeed, during the past 30 years — and especially during the past decade — made significant strides toward becoming a late 20th century Navy, those strides are neither unexpected nor should they be alarming,” Cole said.
Careful Strategic Moves
Despite China’s moves toward building more sophisticated warships, the Navy remains cautious, even hesitant, on new ship construction. Some ship types appear to have gone into mass production, such as the stealthy Jiangkai II-class (Type 054A) frigate, but the service appears to be unhappy with its destroyer designs.
Of the destroyers built over the past decade, China constructed only two of each class and then stopped. These include the Luzhou-class (Type 051C), Luyang I-class (Type 052B) and Luyang II (Type 052C).
This suggests China is “still trying out prototypes,” said Roger Cliff, an analyst at think tank Rand, “as a result of which no additional destroyers have been launched in the last few years.” Now there are reports China is designing a new larger class of destroyers.
“If past practice holds up, these will not go into mass production right away either,” Cliff said. “Instead, they will build one or two and test them out before deciding whether they are satisfied with the new design.”
The same holds true for submarines. In the diesel-electric class, the Chinese have stopped production of the Song-class (Type 039) after 13 boats, but there had been a five-year gap, from 1991 to 1995, between the first and second Song before a rapid build program was initiated.
Now a similar pattern is emerging with the new Yuan-class submarines.
“After a couple years of having only two Yuan-class, they now seem to be building several more, suggesting that they have worked out any kinks with the design,” Cliff said.
China also appears to know when to end a program if it appears unsuccessful. The latest attack submarine, the Shang (Type 093) class, ended production after only two hulls in 2003.
“Apparently, they have gone back to the drawing board and are now reportedly working on a Type 095 class,” Cliff said. The ballistic missile sub Jin-class appears to have garnered the Navy’s respect and five or six additional boats are expected, despite the fact the vessel is similar in design to the halted Shang.
Chinese warship-building strategies appear to hold true for the upcoming aircraft carrier program. China procured the half-built Soviet-designed Varyag in 2001, which has been undergoing significant refurbishment. This has lead to wide-scale debate on whether it will serve as the first aircraft carrier or as a training platform for further carrier builds.
“After the experience of the Indian Navy with refurbishing an ex-Soviet carrier, I very much doubt that the [Chinese Navy] would attempt to go down the path of trying to modernize the Varyag as a credible operational aircraft carrier,” said Sam Bateman, adviser at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “They might bring it into service as a training platform at most.”
“After they’ve played around with those for a while, they’ll probably start building a couple hulls of an improved design, possibly nuclear-powered,” based loosely on either the Varyag or the new British Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, Cliff said.
Though China’s overall naval modernization is proceeding apace both in terms of hardware and operational skills and expertise, there are indications, including a slowdown in the growth of defense spending and the use of civil agency patrol vessels in the South China Sea, “that China is becoming more aware that other countries are using China’s naval modernization as justification for expanding their own navies — India and Vietnam are main examples here,” Bateman said.
The result is that this places China in an uncomfortable position of being viewed as the trigger for a naval arms race in the region.