The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has a world-class Navy, but its ambitions go far beyond that, with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) on course to follow continuing and sustained capability growth. Thirty years ago, this organisation was clearly a flawed instrument, there were some positive points, but in the main in terms of surface units, submarines, and naval aviation, the PRC was operating from a position of technological inferiority. Now, 30 years on, PLAN, like the PRC itself, has changed and changed dramatically.
When Mao Zedong proclaimed the foundation of the PRC on 1 October 1949, in Beijing, the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War was virtually assured. While the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had proven to be superior in ground combat, its naval capabilities were a mix of units that had defected or been captured from the Nationalists. Equipment included former US, British, and Japanese vessels. In spite of these naval limitations in 1949 and 1950, the PLA conducted a number of amphibious operations using all sorts of craft including junks and fishing boats, three operations (including the capture of Hainan Island) were successful, an attempted invasion of Quemoy was not.
Mao and the Chinese leadership were keen students of history and understood that it was China’s weakness in naval terms that had made her so vulnerable to the colonial powers. It was therefore essential that China developed a modern Navy and the infrastructure to support it. The problem was that China had been at war since 1927, either in the context of Civil War, the Sino-Japanese War, WWII, and then the final stage of the Civil War. Consequently, there was very little if any infrastructure to support the rebuilding of China, and so China turned to its ideological ally the Soviet Union for assistance in developing its capabilities across the board, from industrialisation to rearmament.
In the context of developing Chinese maritime power, this Soviet assistance was critical. Firstly, the Soviet Union provided PLAN with equipment, initially destroyers, patrol craft and submarines, trained crews, and helped to construct the facilities that these units would be operated from. They also helped to construct shipyards in preparation for the transfer of technology that would allow China to initially assemble and then build from scratch modern surface vessels and submarines. Again, training was provided, but there was more to it than that, with promising Chinese candidates being identified and sent to the Soviet Union for advanced education.
Through the 1950s, PLAN and the Chinese industry were assisted at all levels by Soviet advisors and gradually a real naval capability started to emerge, one that was supported by a national defence and shipbuilding industry. Furthermore, the fact that promising Chinese talent was sent to the Soviet Union for further education and training created the basis for the long-term development of Chinese maritime industrial capabilities.
Then things started to change, by the end of the 1950s ideological differences were starting to emerge between Mao’s China and the Soviet Union and eventually the alliance between the two states collapsed in what was known as the Sino-Soviet split. In 1960, the Soviet advisors that had been working with PLAN and the Chinese industry were recalled to the Soviet Union. This was to have devastating consequences for PLAN and the naval industry, and would take more than 25 years to recover from. Added to this was the impact of the political convulsions that shook the PRC in the 1960s and 1970s. PLAN was not hit as hard as the other parts of the PLA in this period, but its ability to develop was blocked. From an industrial perspective, these political convulsions were extremely damaging.
It must be noted that the PRC was not totally dependent on Soviet aid. For example, they did receive some nuclear assistance from the Soviet Union, but the first Chinese nuclear weapon, tested on 16 October 1964, was primarily a Chinese programme. Then on 17 June 1967, Beijing tested its first hydrogen bomb. In parallel with this, efforts were made to develop effective delivery systems for nuclear weapons, initially this saw aircraft responsible for the deterrent mission and then locally developed land-based missiles. The next step was a sea-based deterrent.
The PRC developed its nuclear submarine capability during the 1960s, with the first Type 091 (“Han” class) nuclear-powered general-purpose attack submarine (SSN) being launched in 1970 and completed in 1974. This was followed by a second Type 091 boat being launched in 1977 and completed in 1980. Although the “Han” class had significant limitations, the Chinese achievement in developing an SSN with the technology constraints they were operating under cannot be underestimated. Between 1984 and 1991, Beijing would complete three more upgraded “Han” class boats, these are still in service but the first two units were decommissioned in 2000 and 2004, respectively. The “Han” class set the scene for the first Chinese SSBN, the Type 092 (“Xia” class), the first unit was laid down in 1978 and completed in 1981, with the boat becoming operational in 1987. Work on the JL-1 missile for the Type 092 started in 1967, with the first sea-launch from a “Golf” class submarine test vehicle taking place in 1982. Again there were significant problems with the “Xia” class that took many years to rectify, indeed lack of confidence in the design explains why only one unit was built.
Both the Type 091 and Type 092 represented the starting point of PLAN nuclear efforts, but they have been followed up by a second generation of SSN and SSBN in the PRC. Work on the Type 093 (“Shang” class) started in the 1990s, with the first two units launched in 2002 and 2003 and these were commissioned in 2006 and 2007. Then production halted, presumably due to PLAN dissatisfaction with the boats, leading to the development of the Type 093A (“Shang” class), with two boats being commissioned in 2015 and 2016, and two more in build. The Type 093A is reported to have a modified hull form that reduces noise and is also said to be fitted with vertical launch tubes for cruise missiles. Once the last Type 093A boats are commissioned, a new type will enter production in the form of the Type 095.
The Type 094 (“Jin” class) ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) is far more formidable than the earlier “Xia” class and between 2007 and 2015, four submarines were commissioned into PLAN. It is believed that a fifth Type 094 will be commissioned in 2017, this boat could be an enhanced Type 094 variant or even the first of the projected Type 096 successor class. In December 2015, the US Department of Defense (DoD) confirmed that the PLAN’s Type 094 force had started combat patrols, meaning that Beijing now has a confirmed sea-based nuclear deterrent. It also indicates that the Chinese leadership was convinced that they had a secure and robust command and control system for their SSBN. Each Type 094 is equipped with 12 JL-2 missiles that have a 7,200km range and multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) warheads with an estimated CEP (circular error probable) of 300m. The JL-3 next-generation missile is under development for the future Type 096 SSBN.
Chinese SSNs and SSBNs still have deficiencies, they are still noisy compared to US equivalents for example, but their performance has improved dramatically in recent years. Part of this is due to learning from experience to produce better designs, part is from acquiring technology and design assistance from Russia. As we shall see, Russia has played an important role in the development of today’s PLAN.
After the Sino-Soviet split, Beijing went into virtual isolation, but relations with Moscow got so bad that there were serious armed clashes along the border in 1969. This led Beijing to open relations with the US in 1972; but, it was only after the death of Mao and the defeat of the leftist ‘Gang of Four’ that Beijing could truly change direction. Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978 and sought to build a new China based on the ‘Four Modernisations’ policy of modernising agriculture, industry, national defence, and both science and technology. The Chinese leadership was perfectly aware of how backward its military was; in terms of surface units and submarines, the majority of equipment available to PLAN was of 1950s vintage or earlier in design terms.
eijing’s financial resources were limited, they would buy certain equipment but their main aim was to acquire technology, either under license or by other means, to develop effective indigenous capabilities in the maritime domain.
In terms of complete systems in the 1980s, France provided DAUPHIN and SUPER FRELON helicopters (these are still produced in China as the Z-9 and Z-8), fire control and search radars, command systems, ship and submarine sonar systems, marine engines, and the CROTALE surface-to-air missile system (produced in China as the HQ-7). Germany delivered marine engines, while Italy provided torpedoes, electronics, and ASPIDE missiles, and the UK provided aero engines. The US provided S-70 helicopters and LM2500 gas turbines.
Then, in 1989, came the Tienanmen Square incident and many western nations imposed an embargo on defence sales to Beijing. The embargo demonstrated to the Chinese leadership that it must avoid dependence on foreign powers and have access to its own defence technology. Although some of the western powers kept to the embargo, others were more open-minded and continued to supply. This was helpful, but while ties with the West were becoming strained, new options were emerging. Relations with Moscow had been repaired and as the Soviet Union started to collapse, Beijing was just beginning to purchase defence equipment. The emergence of the Soviet successor states, especially Russia and the Ukraine, offered immense opportunities to the PRC. They could get complete systems and subsystems, and they could get technology and license production rights. Furthermore, they could obtain all of this on very advantageous terms paying with a mixture of cash, finished goods, and commodities.
The PLAN took advantage of the situation and from 1994 to 2002 placed orders with Russia for two KILO III (Projekt 877EKM) diesel-electric submarines (SSKs), two “Sovremennyy” class (Projekt 956) destroyers, 10 KILO II (Projekt 636) SSKs, and an order for two improved “Sovremennyy” class (Projekt 956EM) destroyers. In parallel, large quantities of naval weapons, missiles, Close-In-Weapon Systems (CIWS), radars, sonars, naval helicopters, and other equipment flowed into the country. This not only supported the Russian systems that had been acquired, it was also integrated into a new wave of Chinese ship designs. The Ukraine also played a critical role in the supply of technology and with the provision of marine gas turbines to power the PRC’s new ship designs.
The Current Scene
The PLAN might not have been impressive 30 years ago, but it is now. In 1998, the PRC acquired the hulk of the Soviet Projekt 11435 (“Admiral Kuznetsov” class) carrier “Varyag” in the Ukraine, eventually bringing it back to Dalian in 2002. After years of work, on 29 September 2012, she was commissioned into PLAN as its first aircraft carrier, now named “Liaoning” (CV 16). The Shenyang J-15 is the combat aircraft for the aircraft carrier, a navalised version of the Shenyang J-11, itself an evolved unlicensed variant of the Sukhoi Su-27 that was built under license in the PRC.
A second aircraft carrier, often referred to as the Type 001A, is under construction at Dalian and could be completed in 2017. This new unit will have a larger displacement than the “Liaoning” and will incorporate lessons learned from delivering and operating the first carrier. It is believed that Beijing has also had access to the blueprints for projected future Soviet carriers that were to be built at the Nikolayev Shipyard in the Ukraine and this will have certainly made a contribution to Chinese carrier design. At least one more aircraft carrier is expected to be built in the near term.
Currently reportedly under construction at the Jiangnan Shipyard on Changxing Island near Shanghai is the first Type 055 destroyer, these have an estimated displacement of 10,000 tons, making them considerably larger than the current Type 052D (“Luyang III” class) destroyer. Indeed, it has been suggested that the Type 055 could actually be classified as a cruiser. What does appear to be valid is that the Type 055 will be a central element of future PLAN Carrier Battle Groups.
In September 2005, PLAN commissioned the first Type 052C (“Luyang II” class) destroyer. There are now six of these in service, with the last commissioned in February 2015; all were built by Jiangnan. Jiangnan was also responsible for the first four of the Type 052D destroyers, with four more Type 052Ds having also been launched by Jiangnan; one is undergoing trials and three are fitting out. This could mean that two more units will be commissioned this year. Jiangnan is currently building one more Type 052D, with Dalian building an additional two for a class of 12 destroyers, all of which are expected to be in service by 2018.
Hudong-Zhonghua Shipyard in Shanghai and Huangpu Shipyard in Guangzhou have been responsible for the Type 054A (“Jiangkai II” class) frigate. The first unit was launched at Hudong-Zhonghua in December 2006 and commissioned in January 2008, the 25th ship of the class was launched at Hudong in June. These are high-performance modern units. Another modern type is the Type 056 (“Jiangdao” class) corvette, which is being built by four yards: Hudong-Zhonghua, Huangpu, Wuchang and Liaonan. The first unit was launched in May 2012 and commissioned in February 2013. There are currently 26 Type 056 combatants in commission and six under construction. The primary mission for these 1,500 tons units is EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) surveillance and littoral missions, but of the 32 units in service or in build, nine are optimised for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) missions. It is expected that PLAN will receive a minimum of 40 Type 056 corvettes.
In terms of conventional submarines (SSK), PLAN has come a long way from when it was dependent on the Projekt 633 (“Romeo” class) boat. In the early 1990s, PLAN started taking into service a developed version of the Projekt 633 in the form of the Type 035 (“Ming” class). Some of them remain in service, but the key development both operationally and industrially was the acquisition of KILO boats from Moscow. These would assist Beijing in correcting the deficiencies of the “Ming” class successor, the Type 039 (“Song” class), of which 13 have been commissioned between 1999 and 2006. The “Song” class was followed into service by the Type 039A (“Yuan” class), with 14 units commissioned between 2006 and 2015. It is expected that a total of 20 boats will eventually enter PLAN service. Some four distinct variants of this SSK design are thought to exist, with each variant adding new capabilities and technologies. One should also mention the single Type 032 (“Qing” class) submarine commissioned in 201. This large displacement unit is used as a test vehicle for submarine systems for the Chinese SSBN/SSN and SSK force.
The tremendous growth in size and capability of the PLAN amphibious force and the great emphasis put on acquiring enhanced fleet replenishment capabilities are other important developments. PLAN naval aviation has also seen unprecedented growth as well. The speed at which PLAN has developed is extraordinary, what is certain is that its capability growth shows no signs of slowing down. Today, the PRC is the second largest world economy and has the second largest defence budget, it has determined that maritime power is a critical national instrument and is prepared to make the investment necessary to have world-class naval capabilities.