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.

Monday, May 5, 2014

052D’s role in PLAN

In my last blog entry, I looked over the future of PLAN surface combatant fleet. Part of the reason I did that is the emergency of the new Type 055 cruiser. For any future PLAN carrier group or expeditionary strike group, Type 052D will be expected as important escorts even with Type 055 in the fold. What roles can Type 052D and how will it be utilized by PLAN?

If we look at Type 052D’s ancestors Type 052C, we have a surface combatant that is clearly designed to provide area air defense. It is the first modern Chinese AAW ship that has advanced multi-functional radar system with Active guided long range SAM along with relative modern combat system. It is also expected by many to have an advanced AEGIS like combat system allowing engagements using inputs from sensors on different ships and aircraft. While it is also equipped with the advanced YJ-62 (also replaceable with LACM) and advanced sonar system (looks to be same Towed Array Sonar as on Type 054A), there is no question that the emphasis of the ship is for area air defense. Type 052C’s ancestor Type 052B can be looked at as a stepping stone from Type 052 to 052C. Its production stopped at 2, because Type 054A is cheaper and provides almost all of the capabilities of 052B (including much stronger ASW). A large PLAN flotilla prior to 052D would surely need both Type 052C and 054A to provide required air defense and anti-submarine defense.

Type 052D provides PLAN with a lot more flexibility. That’s why more Type 052D is expected to be produced than Type 052C. It is equipped with a newer generation of multi-functional radar, new variable depth sonar along with other new sensors. More importantly, it’s the first surface combatant with the universal VLS. Type 052D could also maintain a more balanced profile with 32 cells for long range SAM, 8 cells for quad-packed medium range SAM, 8 cells for anti-ship missiles, 8 cells for LACMs and 8 cells for ASROC like missile. That would provide comparable air defense to 052C while having increased firepower in ASuW and ASW. If 052D is given the task of area air defense, it can utilize all of its VLS for the purpose of air defense. They can use 48 cells for long range SAM and remaining 16 cells for quad-packed medium range SAM or even 56 cells for long range SAM and remaining 8 cells for quad-packed medium range SAM. Both of which would provide solid protection for the ship itself and surrounding fleet once we factor in the 24-cell HQ-10 SAM and 7-barrelled PJ-12 CIWS for point defense. Another possible usage is in BMD, although I'm not sure if the technical characteristics of 052D's radar allows it to do tracking and target discrimination of ballistic missile threats. This role might be left for Type 055 cruisers. In theory, you could put the reported HQ-26 missile (or some other SM-3 like missile) on 052D along with other air defense missiles in the BMD role.

With the addition of PJ-38 artillery gun and VLS launched LACMs, 052D could be PLAN's first ship to have major land attack capabilities. PJ-38 would provide 052D with the ability to support amphibious landings like Sov destroyers. Long range LACMs would finally give PLAN the ability to attack land target from far away. This is a capability that PLAN really never needed when they were a brown or green water navy. Even though YJ-62 launchers were removed, 052D could also be fitted with 16+ anti-ship missiles in an ASuW profile. All of the SAMs should also have secondary anti-ship mode. If they develop PJ-38 into being able to launch over the horizon anti-ship projectiles, 052D could be quite powerful in ASuW missions. Finally, Type 052D can also be PLAN's most effective surface ship in ASW missions. Its universal VLS can hold longer ranged ASROC missiles than Type 054A's VLS. Type 054A is almost limited to the short legged Z-9C helicopter while 052D could also use Ka-28 helicopters (and Z-15/20 in the future). With a more powerful sonar suite than Type 054A, it would be better suited for ASW missions in blue waters.

At the moment, 052D is China's primary surface combatant and expected to provide the most important roles in escorting a fleet. It is likely to be useful in China's navy for a long time because it is using China's first universal VLS and an artillery gun that can launch different type of projectiles. Its close in defense systems could easily be upgraded. New missiles and projectiles could probably be supported on 052D in the future with software updates or relatively small hardware upgrades. PLAN currently has the problem where it often does not replace outdated weapon system because of cost and supply concerns. That's why the recent Type 052 upgrades only changed the CIWS. Type 052D is first ship in PLAN to really benefit from a more plug and play approach that USN has enjoyed for years. Even when Type 055 joins service, Type 052D could still be very useful in land attack or ASuW or ASW roles.

Friday, April 11, 2014

PLAN surface combatant fleet now and future

With the recent induction of No. 172 and the appearance of Type 055 full scale land simulation structure, there has been some questions about how many of these ships will join PLAN and the number of sailors that will need to be trained to operate them. This entry will focus on the hardware part, since that is an easier factor to quantify than the software part. Before all of that, I want to take a quick look at Type 055. Based on the dimensions of the land simulation structure, estimate for width of the ship have been 21+ m and length to be 175 m based on photos. That would make this ship larger than the neighboring Atago class and KDX-III class, which are both over 10,000 ton in displacement. It would be comparable in size to Slava class and only smaller than Kirov class and Zumwalt class. Based on work by online PLAN fans, it seems like Type 055 would be able to comfortably hold 128 VLS cells ¬¬¬and still have enough endurance long range missions. To the best of my knowledge, China has only built land based simulation structures for aircraft carrier and nuclear submarine. Therefore, the construction of such a structure shows the high regard that PLAN has for Type 055. Work for Type 055 is said to be starting at JN this year, so it’s quite interesting to me that they are building the training structure so early.

Looking at PLAN right now, we still have a good mix of Soviet-era ships and modern ships. Amongst what PLAN considers to be destroyers, we have the very old Type 051 class and the very new Type 052C/D class along with many interim classes in between (Type 052, Type 051B, Sov, Type 051C and Type 052B). About half of Type 051 Luda class ships have already been decommissioned and the remaining ones should be retiring over the rest of the next few years as they come up to 30 years in service. After that, it will be interesting to see what PLAN does with those interim classes. Type 052 Luhu class have been in service for 20 years, but just receive mid life upgrade in 2011, so will probably service until next decade. Similarly, No. 167 of Type 051B Luhai class has been active since entering service in 1998, but looks to be getting a mid life upgrade very soon, so will probably stay in service until middle of next decade. The 4 Sov destroyers have the problem that they are using combat system and data link that simply don’t work that well with PLA’s new inter-service data link protocol. Even though they are still relatively new, their combat system and electronics are so backward that the smaller Type 054A frigates are more effective in combat and leading fleet. I had previously advocated that PLAN just retire all 4 of them early, but now it looks like China will put them through extensive mid life upgrade with indigenous parts replacing the older Russian systems. At least, that should allow these ships to communicate better with the rest of the fleet. The 2 Type 051C destroyers have the same problem as the Sovs. They are the last PLAN destroyers to use steam turbine propulsion and also use a different type of VLS (and Air defense system) that needs its own industrial support. Since the latter 2 Sovs and Type 051C ships joined service at the same time as the first Type 052C ships, they will remain in service for a while serving minor roles while Type 052C/D form the backbone of air defense for PLAN. The production run for Type 052C will stop at 6, while Type 052D will probably hit 12 ships. If we add in the 2 Type 052B, 2 Type 051C and 2 recent Sov destroyers, that will total 24 destroyers or 2 flotilla of 4 destroyers for each of PLAN’s 3 fleets. In reality, PLAN will probably have more destroyers than that in service in order to form a permanent blue water fleet, but this provides a simple breakdown for 2020 to 2030.

PLAN’s frigates do not have nearly the number of interim classes. Nearly every jianghu-1 class ships have already been decommissioned as Type 054A have been joining the fleet in mass. By the end of this decade, I would think all of the remaining Jianghu ships will be either be decommissioned or refurbished/upgraded for export or coast guard. The 4 Jiangwei-I frigates should also be close to decommissioning. Aside from that, PLAN has 16 Type 054As (which will become 20 over the next 2 years), 2 Type 054 and 10 Type 053H3 Jiangwei-II frigates. By the end of this decade, these 36 frigates (22 054/A + 14 Jiangwei) will form 3 flotillas for each of the 3 fleet. In order to replace the retiring Jiangwei class and provide escort for the new blue water fleet, a new class of frigates will likely start construction in the next few years using the new universal VLS. It could also be argued that with the induction of the Type 056 class, PLAN no longer needs as many frigates for the nearby waters. In that case, the class that comes after Type 054A will be closer in size to 052B/C and the European “frigates” than the 4000-ton class frigates we see today.

It’s always interesting to speculate how a rapidly modernizing naval force like PLAN will look like in 5 or 10 years time. With most of the older Soviet era ships are close to retiring, we finally have a good idea to project into future, because they are no longer just building interim classes. For me, a major symbolic milestone will hit once all Luda and Jianghu class ships retire. The majority of PLAN’s main fleet will be modernized by then. On the other hand, questions about modernization in software are a lot harder to answer and quantify.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

China's military expenditure

China's annual announcement of its military expenditure is often met with a lot of alarm. The question has often been why China needs to be constantly increasing its military expenditure so much. Here is a chart showing China's military expenditure vs treasury income vs GDP from 1999 to 2013.

Over this period, the military expenditure has generally been between 1.2% to 1.5% of the GDP and 9.5% to 5.5% of the treasury income. so in real RMB terms, military expenditure has not gone up as a percentage of GDP. In comparison to the treasury income, military expenditure has decreased a lot due to improved tax collection in China. The question is why the military expenditure has remained steady when the reported year to year increased is greater than GDP growth. The answer seems to be that GDP is inflation adjusted whereas military expenditure is not. There are 3 other charts similar to this which shows military expenditures going back to 1950. Seems like China maintained higher military expenditure % (4.5% to 9%) up until when Deng Xiaoping took over in 1978. After which, PLA saw its spending vs GDP drop all the way to 1% in the mid 90s. Now, China's definition of military expenditure can be different from that of the west, so there is no reason to compare China to Japan or US here. The important take away here is that China is not in any kind of expansion mode when it comes to military expenditure.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The commissioning of the lead ship of 052D class

Yesterday, China officially commissioned the lead ship in its new class of destroyers. From this article, you can see that this first Type 052D class ship is named after the city of Kunming and given the hull number 172. The ceremony was attended to by Chinese Navy commander Wu Shengli. Videos of the commissioning can be found on youtube.

I have covered Type 052D in numerous entries like this before. In some ways, it represents the final step in the modernization of China's surface combatant. Starting from the early 90s when Type 052 was launched until today, the Chinese naval destroyers have incrementally improved with Type 051B, Type 052B and Type 052C before finally reaching Type 052D. It is equipped with China's first universal VLS capable of launching HHQ-9 series of long range SAM, quad packed medium SAM, YJ-18 anti-ship missiles, LACM and Yu-8 (or similar ASROC). It is also carrying PJ-38 130 mm main gun, 24-cell version of HQ-10 CIWS and PJ-12 7-barreled 30 mm CIWS. A lot of the radar, ESM suite, communication antenna and other electronic installations look like the ones we have seen on 052C, but it is carrying a flat second generation multifunctional radar given the designation Type 346A and a new type of variable depth sonar at back. Whereas Type 052C placed heavy emphasis on AAW as China's first area air defense ship, Type 052D not only improves in that area, but should also become capable in ASW (with the long range anti submarine missile + improved sonar), ASuW, long range missile strikes and amphibious landing support. As the hull of 052D has already been "maxed" out, the next generation of Chinese destroyer would be larger and equipped with more advanced propulsion unit. Here are some of the photos.

The commissioning of No. 172 was surprising for many followers even after its hull number was recently painted. The last 2 052Cs, which were launched before No. 172 have yet to be commissioned. The recent batch of 052Cs have generally taken over 2 years to be commissioned after launching. It appears that the Chinese naval brass rushed No. 172 into service so that it can participate in its 65th anniversary celebration at Qingdao on April 23rd. Now that it has been commissioned into the South Sea Fleet, they can start the process of training and developing tactics for this new class of ships. At present, we have 3 052D launched with a 4th that looks to soon be launched. The production run is likely to reach 12 ships with JiangNan shipyard building 8 of them and Dalian shipyard building the remaining.