Saturday, August 30, 2014

PLAN ASW Modernization

The Chinese navy has done a lot of modernization in the past 20 years, but some areas have been lagging behind others. Even while China was still buying large ticket items from Russia, there was a lot of talks on China's growing submarine force and anti-ship missiles. Not only did the imported ships have some over-hyped supersonic missiles, the domestic built ships and aircraft were also equipped with a fairly modern YJ-83 missile. The path to modernization in ASuW is relatively small compared to other areas, so it was not surprising that PLAN made the largest jump here at first.

By 2005, Chinese navy was in the midst of inducting Type 052C and 051C capable of providing anti-air area defense. Even including the interim Type 052B class, this was a very significant jump from point defense in most of the surface combatants to having ships capable of detecting multiple aircraft and missiles at long distance, processing them on the combat system and engaging them with modern long range vertically launched surface to air missiles. As Type 054A started to proliferate in Chinese navy and becoming the backbone of many flotillas, this became no longer an area of weakness. With more Type 052Cs joining service and the first Type 052D being commissioned, Chinese fleet has now become modernized in the area of AAW.

The one area that PLAN has always lagged is in ASW. For a long time, most of the surface combatants only had hull sonar and some ASW rockets. By the turn of century, the new ships have been installed with Yu-7 torpedo. However, China's limited number of naval helicopters mean that only a limited number of ships can travel with ASW helicopters. Since helicopters are rotated between ships, that would limit the ships training with them and their effectiveness. Before the induction of 054A, China's most advanced ASW assets were diesel submarines and Type 037 sub chasers. They are both limited to littoral waters and cannot be expected to escort a fleet. Even in littoral water, they are limited by their own noisiness and lack of speed or range. The 093s could be useful in blue waters, but they are also very loud.

Type 052As were China's most well equipped ASW ships until Type 052C came along. The Type 052C destroyers were the first of surface combatants to be installed with the new generation of Towed array sonar and acoustic decoy. The Type 052s had their original imported French variable depth sonar replaced with this new towed array sonar. The induction of Type 054A really brought a lot of added ASW capabilities. They were also equipped with towed array sonar and acoustic decoy in the back along with bow mounted sonar in the front. Lack of permanent naval helicopter remains to be an issue, but at least they can launch ASROC type of missiles from VLS. That really extended the range of engaging submarines when a helicopter is not available for such duty. Even so, the passive TAS by itself has limitations and is still more suitable for littoral water.

In the past year or so, a new generation of home grown variable depth sonar has been developed. One of those versions has been installed on Type 056, which should be able to replace Type 037 sub chasers for littoral ASW duties. With the existence of helipad that can land Z-9 helicopter, installation of Yu-7 torpedoes and this new VDS, it should be a huge leap over the Type 037s that are retiring from service. An improved version of 054A has also come out recently with this new variable depth sonar installed next to TAS (position of acoustic decoys on earlier 054As) and the new 11 barrel CIWS. This combination of active VDS and passive TAS is installed on the most recent 4 054As (2 each from HD and HP shipyard). Although more of this type could be built, my guess is that they are just testing out this new ASW combat suite and CIWS for the next class of ships. The new Type 052D destroyer (No. 172) is also fitted with this new combination of active/passive sonar in the back along with a bow mounted sonar in the front. It is also said to be able to launch a longer range ASROC type of missiles from VLS than Type 054A. All of this should give Type 052D very balanced combat capability in ASuW, AAW and ASW. A new type of ASW helicopter based on the developing Z-20 project is needed to really allow this ship to hunt and engage modern submarines. Of course, Chinese navy does have a new ASW helicopter in Z-18F, but it is probably too large to be carried in the hangar of Type 052C/D. However, Z-18F should be able to serve on CV-16 along with large future combatants likes Type 055 and LHD/LPD classes. Z-18F is larger than other ASW helicopters like SH-60, NH-90 and Ka-28. It can carry more sonobuoy and has more snobuoy openings than SH-60. It can also carry dipping sonar along with up to 4 Torpedoes. The rest of the electronics and combat system has been upgraded from Z-8 with a new large surface search radar and modern MAWS and RWR antennas. It also has the range to really hunt modern nuclear submarines. That's why it is expected to be a part of the air wing of CV-16 and future Chinese carriers.

As a whole, the hardware for ASW in PLAN has definitely modernized, but they still lack in many areas. While they finally have a Y-8 maritime patrol aircraft, it's still years behind P-3C and serving too small in number. While Z-18F is a nice addition, a Z-20 or Z-15 based ASW helicopter is badly needed for ships in the class of Type 052D and 054A. And finally, the biggest help to Chinese navy would be newer and quieter nuclear submarines with more powerful sonar. Until that happens, the Chinese navy would always be in a place of danger when it comes to underwater warfare.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Past and present of China/Russia military cooperation

Two recent articles about military exchange between China and Russia. The first one is Robert Farley's article about 5 ways Russia could help China's military. The second article is about Russia looking to buy Chinese electronic military/aersopace components.

I have written on numerous occasions about what China is still interested in buying from Russia and what China would be interested in buying from Europe if the embargo is lifted. The reason is that the balance of military technology prowess has changed so much between Russia and China in the past 20 years that we have gotten to the point where Russia is looking to now buy Chinese military components. Back in 1990, the gap between the collapsing Soviet Union and China was so great that China had to pick which area of its military it had money to import. In the end, despite the army's overwhelming influence in PLA, the much greater gap in air force and navy led to purchasing Su-27s, S-300s and Sov destroyers instead of MBTs and IFVs. People talk about post TianAnMen square arms embargo as the reason that China turned to Russia, but it's quite obvious to me they would've turned that direction regardless of whether or not an embargo was in put. By 1990, China had already experienced how tightly US and other Western companies safe guarded their technology and IP after numerous projects like the J-8II Peace Pearl project. In the end, China spent $500 million without really getting any kind of industrial boost, while US got a thorough look at what was China's most advanced plane at the time (without being very impressed by it). It was with that backdrop that China turned to Russia for help after warming of the relations in the late 80s. It quickly found that Russia had very lax protection of technology compared to Western countries. On top of that, most of Russian military hardware were on fire sale after the Soviet collapse with pretty much anything available to anyone who had money for it. From there, China got a lot of support from Russians in not only the J-11 project, but all of China's indigenous projects. It's hard to imagine that China could've paid $2.5 billion to anyone else and got anywhere close to the amount of technology transfer, industrial help and advanced fighter jet that China got here. It wasn't until early 2000s that Russia started to catch on top how much China's military industrial complex was improving and how much success it was copying a lot of what Russia was showcasing at the time. By that time, China had already noticed that Russia was increasingly pitching non-existent projects requiring China to pay for development cost, so it was already slowing down purchases even though it seemed like the trade was still booming to the outside world. By 2007, the failed IL-76 purchase stopped all ongoing military cooperation between the 2 side. After that was resumed, China continued to purchase more aerospace engines and helicopters from Russia, but not many other major items. Even the much discussed Su-33 deals never came to fruition as China managed to build J-15s with Ukrainian help.

That brings us to the current state of cooperation between the 2 countries. The most recent deals have been AL-31FN/RD-93 engines, Mi-171E/26 helicopters and refurbished IL-76 transports. The 5 items in Farley's article are aerospace engine, Tu-22M bombers, leasing of Akula subs, S-400 SAMs and ballistic missiles. Outside of Tu-22M, I would agree with all of the other items, although China would be interested in the more advanced Tu-160. Aerospace engines and S-400 have already been proposed to China and have high likelihood of been purchased. The other items are all strategic and Russia have been reluctant to share them with China in the past. With the current international climate, Russia is relying more and more on China as it becomes isolated, one wonders if Russia would change it's mind. China would certainly gain a lot from a similar Akula II leasing deal like India got. I would imagine Tu-160 and Yasen class attack subs are completely off limits.

I have been reading for a while that China has been trying to sell electronic components to Russia for it's military products. One of which was T/R modules for Russia's AESA radar. According to the article, the Russian space agency is looking to purchase several billions of dollars of such components from China, which would be a wide range of products. Maybe this could start military export from China to Russia in other areas where Russian manufacturers have simply fallen behind like in building naval ships. Although, I would say it's far more likely that Russia would purchase subsystems and components.

So things have certainly changed in the past 20 years and the recent change in Russia's isolation around the world has seemingly pushed military cooperation even further in China's direction.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Present acquisition plans of Chinese air force

I've spent a lot of time talking about the progress of the J-20 project, because it is the most interesting project going on, but it's a good time to catch up on the aircraft that are actually been procured by the Chinese air force.

Most recently, huitong's website listed what appears to be a new PLANAF regiment of J-11B. I was expecting J-11B production to stop with works well under the way for J-15 and J-16 project, but it looks like SAC will produce a few more J-11B/S to complete the 5 PLAAF regiment/brigade and 3 PLANAF regiments. At the same time, we've seen the appearance of Serial Number 108 of J-15's first batch, which would indicate that we have at least 9 (100 to 108) J-15s already painted in PLANAF colors. Since we have yet to see any J-15s from this batch practice takeoff/landing on CV-16, I would imagine they have yet to be delivered. At the same time, we saw J-16s with serial number 1612 and 1613 at SAC from earlier this year. If the prototypes are number 160x, then it would appear 161x may be the first batch of J-16s delivered to PLAAF. If that's the case, then somewhere around 1 dozen J-15s will probably be delivered to PLANAF while a small number of J-16s will be delivered to PLAAF this year. Going forward, these two projects along with J-15S (and possibly some J-11BS) should carry the load of production at SAC.

Also, a lot of us were surprised earlier this year when J-10s started showing up at the 124th brigade of PLAAF. That was the 10th PLAAF regiment/brigade (also with FTTC and 44th, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 24th, 9th, 15th & 12th division) along with one PLANAF regiment. Since J-10B production has already started, the remaining J-10A production from the 7th batch should be going to this brigade. I have already seen Factory serial number 120 on one J-10B in the past month, which would indicate that we should see the first J-10B regiment get most if not all of its aircraft this year. It would not surprise me if the first ones have already been delivered. This first batch of J-10B will be using AL-31FN series 3 engines, which have increased thrust and reliability over the earlier AL-31FNs.

Outside of these 2, I have not seen any new JH-7A unit this year, which could mean the production for it has stopped. It would be replaced by JH-7B and J-16 in service. There is also no sign at the current time that PLAAF will be inducting JF-17 into service, but that may change when they have the domestic engine option available.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

More on US/China naval dialog and J-20 project

In my last post, I talked about China's participation in the Rim PAC 2014 exercise. As this was happening, Admiral Greenert, Chief of US naval operation, made a visit to China and was the first US (possibly first foreign) service member to visit CV-16 Dalian and speak to its crew member. You can see the DOD article here.

Admiral Greenert had what seems to be a good overview and very frank conversations with his Chinese counterpart Admiral Wu about the near future of Chinese naval aviation program. I don't think it's a surprise to Chinese naval followers that they are building another STOBAR carriers similar to CV-16 before moving on to a more modern design. And it's certainly not a surprise that he saw all of the Russian equipments ripped out and replaced with brand new Chinese ones, because that's what we've seen from all of the TV reports. Even so, I really do encouraged at the increased level of communication and discussion between the two sides even though they have feel like they are dealing with possible adversaries. That's the kind of discussions that will hopefully eliminate or at least reduce miscommunications in the future. Greenert also visit a 039B (Improved Yuan) class submarine and some other ships in the North Sea Fleet around where CV-16 is based. The 039B that he boarded was one of the most recently commissioned PLAN submarine, so it certainly seems like Chinese navy is not holding back. From that, I get 2 thoughts:
  1. China is certainly reciprocating US efforts for greater transparency. It is also showing greater transparency in general.
  2. Biggest factor to the greater transparency and willingness to show what they have could be their improved hardware and professionalism. A large part of China's secrecy is due to not wanting to be embarrassed with less advanced ships and non-professional crew members.

There has also been more news coming out on the J-20 project. The new prototype No. 2012 has made its maiden flight. From all the pictures I've seen so far, it seems to have minimal changes from Prototype No. 2011. The word is No. 2013 and 2014 will also be coming out sometime this year for test flights. So, I think they will now start comprehensive flight testing programs. On SDF, one of my fellow PLA watcher compared the first 2 flying J-20 prototypes (no. 2001 and 2002) to YF-22 while comparing this new batch of prototypes to the F-22 EMD program. It took over 5 years from the first flight of F-22 EMD prototype to the first production F-22 being delivered to Nellis AFB. I would say it will probably take similar amount of type for the first production batch of J-20s to be delivered (so around second half of 2019). Even though the Russians have been saying production version of PAK-FA will be delivered in 2016, I think there is a good chance that won't happen and we will see the 2 aircraft enter service at around the same time.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

China participating in RIMPAC and J-20 updates

This year, China has been invited to RIMPAC for participation. China is sending No. 171 (Haikou), No. 575 (Yueyang), No. 886 (Qingdaohu) and No. 886 (Peace Ark) to the exercise.

I'm sure some others would disagree but I think such participation is great for not only relationship between the 2 countries and lowering naval tension. Aviation week posted a good article of its visit on No. 171 Haikou. It's certainly no surprise to me that the reporters were allowed to take pictures and interview the captain and crew member, since China has had this kind of "open house" on its new ships in different port calls around the world. The article promised an "exclusive and rather frank sit down with Senior Capt. Zhao Xiaogang" coming up, so I'm interested in seeing how that goes.

We are also seeing what appears to be a new prototype of J-20 coming out this past week for low-speed taxi test. From what we've seen so far, there is no much changes on this new prototype (No. 2012) compared to the last prototype (No. 2011). There might be some changes in the tail area and around the engine going forward, but I think CAC has mostly settled on the design of this aircraft. We can see it below:

Would be interesting to see how this proceed vs PAK-FA going forward.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Updates on CV-16 Liaoning

Most recently, CV-16 came out of dry dock in Dalian. It had entered there for regular maintenance and repairs in middle of April after over a month of training and exercise. It looks like the hull has been repainted and the non-skid layers got re-applied.



Sunday, June 1, 2014

What China still seek from Russian military export

With the recent signing of the major gas deal between China and Russia amidst the entire situation in Ukraine, there has been a big push by the media and Putin himself to frame all of this as somewhat of an alliance between the countries. While I generally think this is overplayed, I think the military cooperation part of things can be explored. Russia is coming to China from a position of weakness and is probably willing to sell technology they were not willing to before. The question is what China actually wants from Russia at this point.

Last year, I talked about the possible Su-35/Lada deals here. At this point, I would bet that neither deal goes forward. Even if some kind of conventional submarine deal gets signed, it will be more for a design based on Lada that will use mostly Chinese combat systems, engine and weaponry. The Su-35 talks have floated since 2008 and still have not ended up anywhere. The closer we get to J-20, the less it makes sense for China to purchase Su-35. In the recent visit by Putin, the 2 countries signed deals for cooperating on a new upgraded version of Mi-26 and large airliner. In the aviation fields, China’s biggest import from Russia remains to be high performing turbofan engines.

In the most recent join sea drill between China and Russia, Russia sent a fleet consist of the Slava-Class Cruiser Varyag, a Udaloy class destroyer, a Sov class destroyer and a landing ship. Chinese fleet was consisted of No. 151 Zhengzhou (Type 052C), No. 139 Ningbo (Sov class), No. 112 Harbin (Type 052), 2 Type 054As and landing ships. The drill lasted for 5 days in East China Sea, so it was probably the largest such drill between the 2 countries. If this exercises had taken place in 2005, there would’ve been many articles about how this is a showcase of Russian weaponry for export to China. We certainly don’t hear that kind of talk now. Just by focusing on Type 052C Zhengzhou and Slava-Class Varyag, we can see the different approach China has taken in its naval modernization vs Soviet naval philosophy. In the role of area air defense, Type 052C probably has comparable to superior capabilities to Slava with its 48 cell HHQ-9 VLS and more modern AESA MFRs + combat system vs 64 cell S-300 VLS. It’s pretty much weaker in everything else (close-in air defense, ASuW and ASW). Like its big brother Kirov class, Slava class can operate and pack a lot of punch (with 16 P-500 missiles) by itself, whereas 052C is better served as an air defense escort in a flotilla with other offensive options. When looking at where PLAN has proceeded in its modernization, it makes a lot of sense why China did not purchase the unfinished Slava class Ukraina when it could have done so in the middle of last decade. I have talked about how Sov class had become the white elephants of PLAN, because they could not effective communicate and operate with other ships due to having different combat system, communication equipments and data link. Numerous projects were started in recent years to create subsystem to solve these problems when the Sov destroyers go through their mid-life overhaul. Purchasing the Ukraina or any other Russian warships will have cause similar difficulties in combat and logistics. PLAN seems to have a pretty good direction forward with mass production of Type 052D and Type 055, so it has not been tempted to buy Russian hardware since early 2000s.

Since combat aircraft and submarine purchases also seem unlikely with the slow progress of talks over Lada and Su-35, what else is China still buying from Russia outside of the engines? New purchase of S-400 SAMs is possible, but China seems to be doing pretty well with the success of HQ-9 in the Turkey competition. Transport and utility helicopter is another such area. Russia is just finishing the delivery of 48 Mi-171s to China this year and has signed agreement for developing an improved Mi-26 with China. It looks like both of these helicopters should see more orders in future even as more domestic options like Z-15 and Z-20 become available, since they occupy different roles. Another area is in large transport aircraft and tankers, where China has been purchasing refurbished IL-76s from Russia and IL-78s from Ukraine. The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine could possibly give Ukraine more incentive to sell refurbished IL-76/78s and former Soviet designs (possibly improved version) to China. One interesting example is Zubr class LCAC where Russia and Ukraine argued over Ukrainian right to sell license production of Zubr class to China. The second Zubr was shipped early to China due to its shipyard’s location in Crimea. Now that Crimea has become part of Russia, China will probably continue to build more Zubrs as needed without further negotiation with Russia.

The final area where China would want Russian help is nuclear submarines and strategic bombers. I think even with China’s stronger bargaining power, it is still nearly impossible for Russia to sell plans for Tu-160 or Akula-II to China. The most it could get here are design help for these strategic platforms.

As we move forward, I think we will get to a point where Russia will start buying military subsystems from China. That will be quite a shift from where things were 2 decades ago.