25 years ago, the Chinese Navy or the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) as it is officially known as, was virtually a military branch which no country took seriously. It consisted of a handful of destroyers which were equipped with short range and almost obsolete weapons compared to the West or the Soviet Union. But, 1990 onwards, the Chinese embarked on a massive modernization and expansion plan for their navy. They began to replace their outdated vessels with indigenous ones and imported ones if they didn’t have the technology yet. Their gunboats were replaced by missile boats, their light frigates were replaced with powerful missile armed ones, they embarked on a plan to acquire an aircraft carrier and increase their fleet of nuclear submarines. I will tell you about those in detail in the next few paragraphs.
(Design improvement over 20 years)
The first major purchase made by the Chinese in the late ‘90s was a total of 4 Sovremnny class guided missile destroyers from Russia, 2 of which were customized and upgraded and delivered by 2005. At that time, it was the most powerful destroyer in the Russian inventory. It was armed with 8 Moskit supersonic Anti-ship missiles, 48 medium range Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs), 2 of the deadliest naval guns in the world, i.e. the twin barreled Ak-130 and had powerful radars and sophisticated electronics. It was at that time, slated to be the most powerful warship in the Chinese Navy and would inspire the development of a series of Chinese destroyers with progressively better capabilities. Using the technology and the experience, they designed the Type-52 class of destroyers. This class has been so drastically improved, that the latest variant, the Type-52D is said to be one of the most powerful warships in the world and it incorporates cutting edge AESA radars, 64 Universal missile launchers (same launcher for all types of missiles) which only the US have been able to develop and modern missile defense systems. Its predecessor, the Type-52C is also very powerful and it tested the technology which was incorporated on the 52D. It can carry up to 64 supersonic anti-ship missiles if needed because of its universal launching capability. This has no equivalent as the west still uses 8 tube angled launchers for its AShMs and Russia and India incorporate a maximum of 16-20 cells on their major warships.
Older Chinese frigates were armed with several medium caliber guns in manned mounts and sort range missiles. They weren’t good enough for anything other than local patrolling and had almost no powerful warfighting weapons. The Chinese rectified this as well and overtook their regional rivals and developed powerful frigates which rank among the best in the world. They rapidly developed new missiles and guns by reverse engineering and incorporated them onto their new ships. The one commendable thing that the Chinese do is to produce small numbers of a new class of ship, and when it is a success, they take what all they learnt from building it and incorporate them into a successive class which will be very powerful and will be mass produced. This is working in their favour as their Type-54 series of frigates show. The initial Type-54 frigates were built in small numbersas a successor to the Type-53 and were relatively lightly armed and had 8 Anti-Ship missiles and an 8 cell launcher for short range SAMs. But they incorporated the lessons they learned along with new technology into the Type-54A class of frigates. The 54A has 32 vertical launchers for medium range SAMs which is a massive improvement in air defence capability when compared to its predecessor and features improved radars, sensors missiles. They have shown their capacity to mass produce by building 20 Type-54A frigates in just 8 years. Comparatively, their neighbour built 3 similar vessels in 8 years.
The older Chinese navy relied on hundreds of gunboats and torpedo boats to deploy in the South China Sea and to act as a deterrent against enemy intrusion of their territory. Now these have been replaced by a class of powerful missile boats called the Type-022 Houbei class. These are extremely impressive boats which pack a solid punch in surface warfare with their load of 8 Medium range AShMs. They make use of a catamaran design which also gives them a very high top speed. Many critics and analysts point out that these boats are insignificant in modern warfare as they are easy targets for aircraft and submarines as they lack self defence systems. But I feel that these boats are not at all vulnerable.
In case of a conflict, the Type-022 will act in coordination with the Type-52 destroyers and the Type-54 frigates. An ideal scenario will be a situation where a destroyer and frigate accompany a dozen missile boats to face the enemy. Since these boats carry 8 missiles, the dozen boats will pack the same punch as a dozen frigates which also carry the same 8 missiles. All the protection to these bats will be provided by the destroyers and frigates and probably a submarine operating with the task force. So technically these boats will act as floating missile carriers. They use tactics like these and easily launch 8×12=96 missiles against the enemy and saturate their defenses and achieve a kill. So to fire 96 missiles, the Chinese need not employ 12 frigates. Just 12 of these inexpensive boats escorted by frigates can get the job done. China has nearly 100 such boats. Hence it is impossible to launch an attack on the Chinese navy in their turf, without suffering major losses. Thus they have ensured the safety of their mainland from external aggression by building such vessels.
Details about Liaoning © Jeff Head 2012
Now, the most talked about part of the Chinese Navy in the recent years has been its new aircraft carrier. They did not have the technology to build a carrier from scratch, so they did the next best thing. They bought an empty skeleton carrier from Russia on the pretext of turning it into an entertainment complex and then towed the empty rusting hull back to china where they began a 10 year long program to refurbish the hull and convert it into a brand new carrier. The long and tiring process was a success and china named its newest carrier Liaoning. They claimed that it would not be used as a warship and that it was merely a ‘training ship’ for its pilots to train carrier ops from. They selected the Chinese version of the flanker called as J-15 to operate from their carrier. This would theoretically give China the ability to project air power in the South China Sea and carry out air strikes far away from their mainland. But carrier aviation is not just about building an aircraft carrier and getting aircraft and pilots to fly from it. It is a very complicated procedure which needs years of training and perfection to be of any use in a combat. The Chinese have absolutely no experience in carrier operations. Hence it would be at least 5-10 years before they can operate their carriers as effectively as USA, UK, France or India.
The Liaoning has the dimensions and displacement of a Supercarrier but since it uses ski jumps to launch aircraft and has a capacity of less than 50 aircraft, it doesn’t actually qualify for that title. Photos released of the carrier ops show that the Chinese navy is still perfecting carrier launches and arrested landings. They won’t have the carrier combat effectiveness of the US, French, Royal or the Indian navies for the next decade at least. It needs a rigorous training and cooperation with existing carrier operating navies. Since China can’t send their pilots for training to US or Russia like Indian pilots, they have to figure out everything all on their own. The future Chinese carriers are already under construction. It is said that they have purchased the design of Russia’s abandoned carrier Ulyanovsk, and they are building 2 carriers based on an improved version of this design.
You must be thinking that any major country can build naval vessels, and why am I stressing about China. It is because they have managed to refine their designs and improvise with locally built technology faster than any of the western countries have been able to do, or even Russia for example. Russia hasn’t built a single new class of destroyer since the collapse of the Soviet Union (they just finished building the ones laid up earlier), but China has managed to build dozens since their collapse. But of course all their technology is heavily unproven so far and it is just the word of the Chinese that we have to rely on to know about their combat effectiveness. But that is no reason to underestimate them as most of the technology used currently is not war proven but still considered to be very good. A reverse engineered Chinese product may not be as good as the original, but the Chinese have proved that they can copy a system and improve it to make it almost as good as the original system itself. The Americans, Indians, Europeans all have to remove the blind notion that Chinese products aren’t good as they are copied stuff. I’m not telling that Chinese products are better than western ones, but their scientists are developing weapons which are cost effective and can give Western, European and Russian equivalents a run for their money.
The Chinese submarine fleet consists of around 50 diesel powered submarines (SSK) and around a dozen nuclear powered (SSN) ones. The thing is, the Chinese submarine strength can’t be determined exactly as they have several large and secret submarine bases which can house an unknown number of submarines. Their diesel sub fleet, although largely outdated, can prove dangerous in the South China Sea. China has had nuclear submarines from a long time. But they aren’t up to the level of Russian, American or European submarines. The one thing that is synonymous with Chinese nuclear subs is noise. This is not expected to change in the near future as they are concentrating on surface warfare vessels and building relatively quiet diesel submarines. Their next generation of SSBNs are expected to field an 8000 km range ballistic missile. The next generaation Type-95 attack submarines is expected to have land attack capability.
There were also rumors that China wanted to lease an Akula from Russia during the 90’s, but the deal never came through. If they had managed to lease one, they would have developed a fleet of deadly reverse engineered subs which would have been quieter than anything that they have in their inventory currently. Thankfully such a thing never occurred and Chinese SSNs are noisy enough to be tailed easily by American subs which currently dominate the underwater space. How much ever China progresses in submarine technology, they can never match American, British, French and Russian nuclear subs. There are reports which say that US Navy has a very easy time tailing Chinese SSNs in the Pacific and the Indians too find it relatively easy to tail them in the Indian Ocean as they are comparatively very noisy.
One of the possible carrier designs © Wenxiaotong
The Chinese navy has several major projects in the pipeline. These things aren’t officially confirmed by their government, so all we have are speculations, rumors and clever guesses. The most likely project is the construction of large aircraft carriers as the Chinese made their intention to build more carriers public. Nothing is known about the design of these carriers. But we can be sure than they will be larger than their current carrier and will easily displace around 75-80,000 tons and will be more than 300 m long. It is unknown whether the carriers will use ski jump or catapults to lunch aircraft. There are speculations that these carriers will be nuclear powered and will base the naval version of the J-31 stealth fighter.
There are rumors about the construction of a 10-15,000 ton guided missile cruiser for the PLAN. The photos of a full scale mockup have added credibility to this rumor. These ships will have 128 Universal VLS, FL-3000N and Type-1030 CIWS and a 130/155 mm naval gun and will have extensive command and control facilities, a bigger and improved version of the AESA radar found on the Type-52D and possible Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) capabilities. They would be in the same category as the Ticonderoga and Slava class cruisers. That would definitely change the balance of power in the pacific.
Currently, they lack the capability for long overseas deployments, but that will soon change with the commissioning of new support ships, aircraft carriers, landing ships, cruisers and submarines. The US navy has total and unchallenged dominance in the Pacific, but that will change very soon as they are getting a formidable opponent who can’t be taken lightly. This may prove to be a problem for the South East Asian nations who have territorial disputes with China. But it all depends on how China decides to use its newly acquired naval power, to maintain peace or to bully its neighbors. Only time will tell.
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