Saturday, December 22, 2007

PLAN in 2007

I haven't been able to post for a while due to my personal schedule. But as the Christmas approach us, I finally have a little bit of time to sit down and write something. The two major areas of Chinese military that I look at are the navy and the air force. I will try to start by looking at the year that was and the year that is to come.

PLAN seemed to have moved to a new level of transparency (although still not transparent by Western standard) over the past year. We have finally seen the unveiling previously hidden platforms in 093 and 094 nuclear submarines. China has also stopped refuting reports that it is looking to build a carrier. They all but admitted to Admiral Mullen a while back that they will be building carriers.. So, what can we say about the advancement of PLAN in the past year? If I had to make some summaries on PLAN, they would consist of the following:
1. Of the 4 major services, PLAN is the one that has benefited and improved the most from the recent PLA modernization.
2. The civilian shipbuilding has allowed PLAN to build a massive amount of new ships of relatively high capability at low cost.
3. We have seen more signs of force projection with the unveiling of 071 LPD, 888 replenishment ship, 804 mine hunter, 093, 094 and 054A frigates.
4. We have also seen the modernization in every area of PLAN with the mass production of 022 class, 801 and 805 class minesweepers, Yuanwang 2/5, 851 ELINT ship and new classes of medical ships.
5. We have seen deployment of new sensors/weapons and development/testing of even newer sensors/weapons.

Now, to look examine each of the 5 points:
First, while all 4 services have received mass amount of upgrade in the recent years, the improvement in navy have been the noticeable. If we look at 5 years ago, China's surface ships basically consisted of 2 Sovs, 1 051B, 2 052s and a bunch of obsolete Ludas, Jiangweis and Jianghus. Only 136 and 137 had SAMs that have more than point defense range. Outside of that only 051B and 052 had reliable point defense in the form of HH-7. Clearly, multiple concurrent engagements against sea-skimmers were pretty much non-existent. The ability to engage supersonic missiles was also extremely limited. In terms of ASuW, 136/137 were the pride and joy of PLAN with the much hyped sunburn missiles. In terms of ASW, China relied on subchasers, its more modern submarines in Song and Kilo. The PLANAF had some Y-8 MPAs, H-6s and a regiment of JH-7. As much as PLAAF have improved in the recent years, it was not in this kind of pathetic shape in 2002. It at least already received 74 su-27s, 38 su-30 and some J-8Hs. The order for 2 956EM and 8 636M were looked at as a saviour for PLAN. As we move forward 5 years, the change is almost startling over the past 5 years. They have added 2 052B, 2 052C, 2 051Cs, 2 054, 4 054As, 2 956EM, 1 071, 8 636M, almost 10 039/A, 5 093s, 3 094s, 50+ 022s, 4 more regiments of JH-7/A and a regiment of su-30MK2. We've even seen a total revamp of the auxiliary ships. With the assistance of KJ-200, one 022 has about the same striking power as any ship back in 2002 (yes, I believe YJ-83 is better than the overhyped Sunburn). The strike power in these newly acquired platforms exceed 2002 levels by many folds. They finally have true fleet defense ships in 052C and 051C. They finally have a multi-layer air defense system in place with HH-9/S-300 as the outer layer, HH-16/shtil as the medium layer and Type 730 + HH-7 for close in air defense. They have the capability to engage multiple supersonic missiles as a fleet. Even the seemingly ignored area of ASW have received massive improvement with the induction 093s, 039/As, Kilo and Ka-28s. MCM capability have improved from the complete WWII area fleet to 90s European level with the induction of 804, 805 and 801 class. The induction of 138/139 and the kilos barely met any excitement in PLAN world. In fact, we've heard more complaints about them with 3M80MBE and Club missiles than satisfaction. The only thing that seems to lack behind is the training of sailors for these new ships. 5 years ago, PLAN was struggling as a weakling to in the 4 services. It was barely enough to provide coastal defense. Forward to today, PLAN is just as strong as the other services. It finally is capable of launching real blue water operations without embarrassing itself.

Secondly, this improvement in PLAN has taken place while many other navies in the world have stayed put or regressed. Although ROKN and JMSDF have also improved a lot during this time, China's other main rival in ROCN really hasn't improved that much. With the exception of the 4 Kidd class destroyers and the possible induction of HF-3, ROCN has basically stayed the same. We hear more talk than action during this time. Russian navy has continued its decline with only a limited surface ship actually in operation. Other major navies around the world are all shrinking number like USN, RN and French navy. Everyday, we hear news of delays, budget overruns in various projects like LCS, LPD-17, Gorshkov, Astute class and Type 45. Whereas in PLAN has built the ships on time and seemingly on budget. Can any other navy get a frigate like 054A for 200 million US and Type 22 for less than 15 million US? This improvement can clearly be attributed to the improving domestic shipbuilding capabilities. With the 2nd largest shipbuilding industry in the world (and growing to number 1), the major domestic shipyards like JN, HD, HP and Dalian have certainly made good use of the improved technology, better project management and more skillful work force from the civilian side. Even a military only shipyard like Huludao have managed to crank out nuclear subs like there is no tomorrow. Coincidentally, South Korea and Japan have also used their competitive civilian shipbuilding industry to build highly advanced ships on time and budget.

Thirdly, the new ships we've seen in 2007 have strong elements of force projection. China launched 071, it's largest non-replenishment military ship, at the end of 2006. Many of us were anticipating HH-16 or HH-7 on 071, but that didn't happen. Having said that, 071 is indicating a change in PLAN's doctrine. While 072s are good enough for Taiwan strait, 071 will be important in any long distance amphibious operation. From the pictures, GE photos, it looks like 071 is in the 20,000 t range in terms of full displacement. Its almost as long as LPD-17 and can carry probably 3-4 Z-8F on the helipad + 2 Z-8F or 3 Helix in the hangar. For short range missions, having both the helipad and hangar can provide extra assault helos to support the amphibious operations. 071 also represents the first step toward building an helo carrier (which will probably start building soon). The first 071 has already joined SSF and we will probably see more of this class in the coming years. The second one should be refined from the first one. The other big ticket item from this year is the construction of the 4 054As at HP and HD shipyard. I have already chronicled 054A, so I don't think I will need to state its capabilities again. 054A definitely represents a change in PLAN frigate from corvette size to frigate size (although the Europeans have increased that). They definitely have the size/endurance to be escorts for a carrier group, which is something we can't say for Jiangweis. With the unveiling 093 and 094, these are also clearly power projection tools. The new 093s may not be the most advanced attack subs out there, but PLAN has finally received a sub that has a reliable reactor, good set of sensors and reached reasonable level in terms of speed/quietness. The photos from GE clearly shows that they are actively building more and more 093s. And with 095 supposedly under works already, 093s will provide Chinese sailors with more blue water operations until the more capable sub is ready. And finally, even the launching of 888 and 804 continues to indicate more willingness to move out of first chain. 888 is an evolution from the recent 886/887 replenishment ships. 804 represents the first MCM asset in PLAN that is intended to operate outside of the coastlines. It's equipped with modern imaging sonar and remote operated vehicles to hunt down and dispose mines. Although I did not mention in the points, the addition of more JH-7A regiments, possible inclusion of H-6K regiment and different new Y-8 surveillance ships all point to capabilities further away from the coastline. Of course, PLANAF will not provide true blue water capabilities until PLAN gets a carrier group.

Fourthly, the non-blue water elements in PLAN have also all received important upgrades in the past year. The most obvious one is the mass production of Type 22 FACs. PLAN is clearly in love with these new FACs. In terms of speed, survivability and firepower, they are clearly generations ahead of the FACs that they are replacing. And in any Taiwan scenario, they will be crucial in providing additional firepower. We've seen them already in large scale exercises. If I was to guess, they probably have anywhere in the neighborhood of 50 to 75 of these either commissioned or launched. We will be seeing 022s fully replacing 021/024/037s in the next few years. We've already seen target ships based on the catamaran hull of 022. We've even heard about more of the catamaran LCUs are produced from Richard Fisher. They will definitely be guarding China's coastline for the next 20 years. Outside of 804, we've basically seen at least 2 classes of new minesweeper coming out. The 805 class (also with 328, 438 and 840) seems larger and more capable. Presumably this class of minesweeper can also be oceangoing vessels. 801-803 and 811-814 seems to be the other class that is also an improvement over T-43 class, but is not as advanced. Either way, China is finally getting its first major MCM upgrade since those early days. We've seen China promoting more or more mines in the export market. It's good to see that they are also investing a lot more in the MCM field. We've also seen the new Yuanwang 2 and Yuanwang 5 getting launched this year. You can read about it's purpose on sinodefence. And finally, the elint and medical ships are also getting upgrades with the induction of the 991 SWATH ship, the upgrade of the existing 851 ELINT ship, the induction of 920 medical ship and conversion of another to a medical ship. We've seen a new ocean tugging ship just launched from HP shipyard(sort of caused delay of the construction of more 054A class). The importance is that China is clearly upgrading all parts of its fleets rather than just the eye-catching ones like nuclear subs and surface ships.

Finally, we've seen HH-16 + it's FCR, AK-176M + its FCR, new Sea Eagle radar, AK-630M, ROV, ship launched LACM, Yu-6, H/SQG-207 flank array sonar and JL-2 coming into service on the new platforms. AK-176, ROV and the LACM are certainly systems that we were not expecting to see this year. Especially LACM, we were really surprised to see that 052C's launchers were capable of launching LACM as well as advanced AShM. In the coming year, things that might get deployed are the new Sea Eagle radar and MFR on 891, ASROC and towed linear array radar that are supposed to be in development, gun/missile CIWS, a Chinese AGS and a supersonic AShM like Onyx. I will certainly be expecting some surprises in the coming years. The next post will talk about what kind of systems I'd expect to see next year.


timurelame said...

I wonder if PLAN has a couple of 10,000-tons class destroyers on the drawing boards.

Feng said...

maybe, but I don't think the next round of destroyers will be that large. I will be posting a follow up soon.