Thursday, October 23, 2014

A recent CV-16 article and trouble with interpreting Chinese sources

There was a recent entry on War is boring which later got published on business insider talking about trouble that China is having with engine compartment of CV-16 in recent sea trials. As usual, such articles created a lot of debates on Chinese military forums.

Now, I have actually watched the original CCTV news report that this story is based on. It mentioned that CV-16 has just completed 6 months of maintenance and overhaul at Dalian shipyard before going out to sea again. The report focused on the electrical department of CV-16. Traditionally, it has been customary of Chinese news reports to interview naval personnel, talk about one challenge they had to deal with to give audience an idea of the challenges facing these sailors and then emphasize how their great works saved the ship or mission. These kind of new reports are common and are tools used to foster patriotism in the population. So in this particular praise, this news report was trying to praise the works of the electrical department of CV-16 and give the impression to Chinese population that the Chinese navy is making great progress with its historical mission. In reality, any real life and death scenario would probably be considered confidential and never reported on Chinese news.

Back to the war is boring article, it appears to me the author does not understand the context of such news report. He summarized that China is having a lot of problems with CV-16 and especially with its engines. What we do know is that Chinese navy is at its infancy when it comes to naval aviation and working hard to improve capabilities. We also know that while CV-16 has spent a lot of times at shipyard, it has also spent a lot of times in the ocean. Currently, it has been out on sea trials for 50 days after 6 months at shipyard. Even the most competent navy USN could have engine problems on a long deployment, because complex machines like the naval propulsion systems do breakdown. So it is completely expected that CV-16 would suffer breakdowns on various subsystems while on sea trials or deployment. We know that the problem was identified and fixed quickly without delaying take off/landing training of that day. That tells us the mishap was not major. The original news report was trying to show the head of electrical department is good at identifying problems in his department and working to fix them while at sea. These are all good signs for Chinese navy going forward. That is not a surprise, since these reports are meant as positive propaganda for the population. The irony of this story is that real problems with CV-16 power plant would never get reported on CCTV.

So I think this shows that a lot of experience and cultural knowledge is needed to decipher Chinese military news. Since PLA is still lacking transparency compared to most military around the world and most of their articles are in Chinese, English articles talking about news reports coming out of China often lacks understanding and context of the original article. Depending on the bias of the author, we could get different interpretation which could either sound fear mongering or overly dismissive. Real honest truth about problems facing Chinese navy is not easy to find in the midst of their modernization and building boom. One can decipher problems facing certain programs from delays in construction and commissioning. One can also decipher problems based on the subsystems used on certain ships. And finally, some insiders are candid on Chinese forums about the issues facing Chinese navy. Contrary to popular belief, the Chinese navy does not have unlimited budget. A lot of its decisions are financially related just like they are for USN.

Monday, October 13, 2014

More Amphibious Ships for Chinese navy

As the Chinese national day golden week passed, a lot of really high quality photos from PLAN bases were posted online. As newer ships get commissioned and the oldest ships get retired, many other ships get moved between different flotillas. In the past year, the main mass produced ships have been the type 052C/D series destroyers and the type 056 light frigate. It has certainly been a busy year when we factor in the other new ships. This past month, we are seeing what appears to be the modules of the 4th Type 071 LPD really taking shape at Hudong shipyard. On top of that, production for the smaller Type 072A landing ships have restarted and the first one has launched at WuChong Shipyard as No. 981.

Type 071 can be effectively used for South China Sea and Taiwan scenarios, but provide the additional blue water capabilities that Chinese navy never had. The restart of Type 072 series is aimed at either replacing older landing ships or responding to the increased tension in South China sea. Either way, it shows that Chinese navy will continue to have landing ships of this class for green water missions. PLAN has taken the approach of continuing to build modern littoral ships like Type 056 and Type 022 series while it is building up its blue water navy. The restart of Type 072A seems to be a continuation of this approach of building cheaper and less capable surface combatants for traditional missions. PLAN's identity certainly has not transformed to that to a power projecting blue water navy like USN.

The picture below shows modules from the new Type 071 under construction:

We first started to see photos of Type 071 under construction in 2006 and it was launched by the end of that year. It was commissioned by the end of 2007, but the process of learning to operate this new behemoth has been ongoing since. The second and third Type 071s launched in quick succession in late 2010 and 2011 while joining service a year later. There were speculations of modules for a 4th Type 071 at the time 3rd one was launched, but were proven to be false.

So, why have we not seen more Type 071 until now? There is both the human factor and also the supporting system factor. In the former case, PLAN and PLAMC have really just started operating something with the size ond blue water projection of Type 071. No. 998 was sent out on to Gulf of Aden relatively early on and other Type 071 units have been sent since. Most recently this year, all 3 Type 071s were out on different missions at the same time showing their value of this blue water asset to PLAN. It seems like at the time that PLA really needed more units of this class. Even so, only in the past couple of years have we seen the marine corp starting to conduct large scale amphibious exercises in South China Sea involving Type 071 + helicopters/hovercrafts/boats operating from it. All of this shows that it really takes time to recruit the personnel and train the crew member and the new marines to operate something like Type 071. At the same time, all 3 Type 071s have been assigned to the Zhanjiang naval base and there is probably a limit to how many Type 071s that base can handle before needing further expansion. So even if Hudong shipyard is capable of building one a year, PLA may not be able to accept them at that pace even if it has high need for this series. I don't see this as a problem, since it just gives them more time to identify problems and make incremental updates to the ship.

The other part that Type 071 depended on are the helicopters and hovercraft. Type 726 LCAC was designed to be operated from Type 071. According to some CGs in Chinese TV news and pictures of the inside of well deck, 4 Type 726s can be fit in there. In reality, we have never seen more than one such LCAC inside the well deck, because they have only built 3 Type 726s up to this point. It looks like Type 726 has finally been certified with the commissioning of 2nd and 3rd unit. Type 071 may have been held back while Type 726 is reaching this point. At the same time, more variants of Z-18 has come out recently. In Gulf of Aden missions, we've seen Z-8S, Z-8J and Z-8JH on Type 071. More recently, the more capable Z-18 series have entered service with PLAN as part of the carrier project and they could increase the capability of Type 071. It's quite possible that AEW and/or ASW variant of Z-18 will get stationed on Type 071 on missions where it is operating as the command ship of a expeditionary strike group, whereas transport variant of Z-18 will be used for more amphibious missions. According to mockups we've seen, 4 helicopters can be stored in the hangar of Type 071 with 2 Z-8 sized landing spot on the helipad. In reality, I've seen at most 2 Z-8s and 1 Z-9 operating on Type 071. This will probably change as more naval helicopters are inducted. The other thing we've seen operating in amphibious exercises are the amphibious armoured vehicles. At least 15 of which can be parked in the well deck of Type 071 and more of them can be parked inside Type 071. Since these vehicles already started to exercise with Type 072 landing ships, they are probably the most mature of the amphibious units operating off Type 071.

In conclusion, PLA is continuing with its practice of building amphibious ships for littoral and blue water missions. The construction of the 4 Type 071 would indicate that PLA is feeling more comfortable with this class of ships and ready to accept new unit.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

J-15S

Recently, we got some new photos of J-15S coming out, which is always exciting. J-15S is the twin-seated version of China's naval flanker J-15. Its prototype flirst flew from SAC airfield on November 2012. All of the J-15S photos we've seen so far have shown Taihang engines powering the aircraft. That would suggest J-15S will be powered by Taihang right from the time it enters service and that the single seated J-15 could be powered by Taihang after the first batch.

We know that J-11BS entered service relatively soon after J-11B entered service after a relatively short flight testing program of around 2 years. It probably could've been even shorter if not for the problems with Taihang engine at the time. We saw very few photos of J-11BS in flight testing. In comparison, it seems to me that J-15S will be having a longer flight testing program, although not as long as would be expected out of a new variant like J-11B or J-16.

Going forward, I think it is likely that J-15S would be used in more roles than just as twin-seated trainer. First of all, J-15S could be developed in navy's version of J-16. The J-15 airframe should already be strengthened to handle the punishment of taking off and landing on a carrier, so J-15S may not need too much additional work to handle the additional payload expected out of a strike fighter. J-15S would not have the range or payload of J-16 due to restrictions of taking off from a STOBAR carrier, but it could be installed with similar avionics and combat system for strike missions as J-16. It will be able to carry different types of anti-ship missiles, anti-radiation missile and ground attack munitions/missiles that can be launched by the pilot in the WSO seat. Having the second pilot should make J-15S a more effective strike aircraft than J-15. Aside from just anti-shipping missions and ground attack missions, it could also be fitted with the subsystems for SEAD missions and EW warfare. When Su-30MK2 came out, there was a lot of talk about its usage as a "mini-AWACS". While that is a little overblown and CV-16 will already have several Ka-31 and Z-18 AEW helicopters, J-15S can certainly be equipped with the necessary avionics to process data from a group of J-15s and direct their actions.

In summary, J-15S will be a very useful naval aircraft for China's burgeoning naval air arm. It will likely have many use beyond that of a trainer.

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.