Monday, December 29, 2008

PLAN - Review of 2008

As we approach 2009, it's time to look back at 2008 in the PLAN world and look forward to what might transpire in 2009. Last year, I took a look at how much PLAN has improved in the past 5 years. I don't think I will need to do that again. Frankly, PLAN improved so much in that 5 year period that it is impossible for it to make an equivalent leap in the next 5 years. As a result of this, this report will be a more abbreviated version.

To recap, some of my predictions from last year didn't turn out so well. In particular, the much anticipated 052D class did not show up at all this year. Although, I have read that work on it has already started in Shanghai, we just haven't seen any pictures yet. And from the new location of JiangNan, it's clear that pictures of 052D will not come as frequently or as clearly as the pictures for 052B/C and 054/A. Right now, we see a lot of overhead shots of the JiangNan shipyard (because everything is taken from aerial view) and a lot of guesses on what each of the ships are. Fortunately, HuDong shipyard still hasn't moved to the new location in Changxin, so its pictures are still frequent. As usual, pictures from HuangPu shipyard, Dalian shipyard and Wuhan shipyard are still frequent and very detailed. Even the extremely secretive nuclear submarine shipyards in Huludao cannot avoid those overhead satellite shots as evidence in those google earth images of 094s. These pictures are the reason that PLAN is the most transparent of four major PLA branches (my personal transparency rank is Navy, then army, then air force and finally second artillery).

In terms of new construction, this year was definitely a lot slower than 2007. In many ways, I consider it to be the slowest year since 2002. In 2003, we saw the 052Bs, 072-III class and 039G1s coming out. In 2004, we saw 052C, 054 and Qiandaohu class replenishment ship coming out. In 2005, we saw 051C, 022s and 039A coming out. In 2006, we saw 054A, 804 class MCM ships and YuanWang ships coming out. In 2007, we saw 071, 093/094, ELINT ship, 805 class MCM ship, Fuxianhu class replenishment ship coming out. Through this time, we also saw 2 Sovs and 8 636Ms inducted into PLAN. All we saw this year were slightly modified version of 039A, the Type 920 medical ship and a new submarine tender. All things considered, this year is not only a downer for the number of ships being built but also lacked the new exciting variants of past years. There are many reasons for this. We had the Olympics, which basically put a moratorium to construction for a few months. One of HuDong's massive cranes collapsed and it was also building 3 F-22Ps at the same time for PN, so HuDong only managed meager progress on a 054A. In fact, I was just thankful the crane didn't collapse on 054A. HuDong had been building 054A, 071 and MCMs in the past couple of years, so there was a huge drop in its deliveries to PLAN. JiangNan was finalizing on its move to Changxin Island, so the only progress we saw were a group of 022s. We've seen basically no work out of Dalian shipyard. For much of the year, the HuangPu shipyard seems to spent more time with tugboat rather than newer 054A. Wuhan shipyard has been working on 039A submarines, but clearly most of the military shipyards haven't done much this year. I think what we saw this year was PLAN finally getting some real work done with these new gadgets. They are trying to work on software with these newly found hardware. Among which, the 052B/Cs, 054As, 071 and 093/094 all joined forces in the Sanya base to form PLAN's most potent flotilla. In fact, I expect this base to be the primary base/headquarters of a future blue water fleet (China's version of 7th fleet and Honolulu base). You can even see that from the recent Somalia fleet. They are sending 169, 171 and 887 from this fleet with 169 and 171 to be replaced by 168 and 170 later. I've also read that 093 might accompany these ships on their way there. This kind of expeditions along with major live firing exercise in the past couple of years are the kind of training needed for the sailors to become experienced with these new ships.

So, what did we see and didn't see this year? We saw the second batch of 054A in Huangpu and HuDong shipyards toward the end of the year. At this point, we still do not know all of the changes on this ship, but we will definitely be following a lot of 054A next year. We saw at least 2 new 039As joining service this year and also a modified variant at works in Wuhan. However, all pictures surrounding this class disappeared by the second half of the year. We saw 866, the first of China's new Type 920 medical ship, joining the ESF. This was a surprise, because I expected it to join SSF to support long range operations, support islands in South China Sea and also do humanitarian relief missions. We also saw a new submarine tender, designed to operate LR-7, under works at Guangzhou shipyard. The need for a new ship in this class is very high with all the new submarines joining service, so we will be following this ship a lot next year. We also saw a lot of 022s in both HuangPu and the new JiangNan shipyard, so it looks like this class is still in mass production. At this point, I think no one knows exactly how many 022s are in service or will be in service. The number is very high and the production should probably wind down in the next couple of years. We continue to see new tugboats coming off the docks of HuangPu shipyard. It's almost astounding how many new units of this ship have came out. We saw the LCAC in the beginning on this year and not much after that. I'm guessing that it is entering service with 071 and we won't see much more of it. As mentioned before, we haven't seen the 052D class photo at all. We also did not see any action regarding to a second unit of 071 or a LPH. There might have been newer units of 805 class, but we didn't really see them outside HuDong shipyard. We saw one new type of Y-8, but did not see any pictures of the ASW/MPA version have already been ordered by the navy. We found out more about 054 series' ASW gear this year from pictures of TAS sonar on Jianghu and an interview with the capitain of 138. We found out that 054 not only has Towed array sonar as we long hoped for, but also may have something like the ASROC. We saw many some new export types of AShM being displayed in Zhuhai air show, but nothing resembling the long rumored supersonic ramjet propelled missile. We didn't see any news/pictures regarding to an AGS like naval gun, but have seen successful development of a new 130 mm gun for next line of destroyers. We have seen the much talked about FL-3000N in Zhuhai air show, but its presence there seems to indicate that it is for export. PLAN will probably continue on its pass of gun based CIWS for air defense. We saw newer gas turbine like QC-70 finishing development early this year and also indigenization of DA-80, which is already been used on at least on one of the 052B class ships. I'm personally looking for more gas turbines like QC-185, QC-260 and UGT-15000 on new ships. They may not happen this year, but their availability in the future would reduce the current bottleneck that PLAN faces for new ships. Getting the right motor has always been a problem for PLA whether it is for tanks, fighter jets, transports, helicopters or ships.

So, what am I looking forward to next year. The one that comes to my mind right away is 052D. It was probably overly ambitious of me to have expected to see photos of the ship coming out this year. I believe we will see pictures of this ship coming out next year, although not as fast and as furious as 052C pictures due to the remote location of the new JiangNan shipyard. Even though the quality of photos from this yard won't be as good, I'm eagerly waiting those photos to see the configuration for this ship. I've read some source speculating that this ship will be at least 1000 tonnes heavier and have more weapons loaded. Now that they've had a couple of years of experience with 052C, we should see a more loaded/combat design for the new ships. I'm also looking to see 054A in both HuDong and HuangPu shipyard. HD might be a little slow next year with more F-22P work and the crane problem, but HP should proceed smoothly now that tugboat and 022 production should slow down a little bit. I am eagerly waiting to see the weapon/sensory fit with these 054A units. We should also see more diesel submarines coming out next year. I don't know whether the newer units will look like the existing 039A or the one with modified hump. I suspect we will see more of the former, because 039A is now a relatively mature design, whereas the new one is likely to go through more testing. I'm sure there will also be more nuclear submarines, but it will be just as difficult to figure out how many will be produced. The other ships I'm waiting to see include more 071 class LPD, some signs of an LPH and a new 1500 tonne class ship to occupy the gap between 022 and 054A. I think we will finally see Y-7 or Y-8 based MPA next year that will be like China's P-3C. After focusing on ASuW, AAW and MCM in the past years, the ASW part of PLAN is finally coming out of ashes and showing up in new hardware. And as always, we saw new ships like the submarine tender, ELINT ship, new tugboats and Type 920 in the past 2 years, it will also be interesting to see newer types of auxiliary ships appearing next year. I guess the final one in mind is the aircraft carrier project. At this point, I don't expect to see any picture coming out of JiangNan that would be clear enough to discern an aircraft carrier. However, we can keep tabs on this project with all the news that are bound to come out. We received a lot of news this year regarding to the naval pilot school and possible su-33 purchase. I would expect more news like this to come out next year.

In conclusion, 2008 has been a quiet year compared to the past few years. The hiatus around Olympics, the specific conditions in several shipyards and possible problems caused by the snow storm early this year are all possible causes. I look forward to 2009 to be another important year as I believe many projects are about to start.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A visit around the HP shipyard

As you guys know, HuangPu shipyard is located in Guangzhou province and is also one of the most important military shipyards in China. And the fixtures there are the 022 FACs, 054A frigates and tugboats.

First, we see some new pictures of the third 054A construct from this shipyard. Looks like this ship is ready to be launched soon. Most of the sensors and on-board weaponry are still covered right now, so we will have to wait until later to see if there are any major changes from the first batch of 4 054As.

And it seems like since 2006, we always see a huge flotilla of 022s outside of the HP shipyard. Even after 2 years of non-stop work, we still see that even now. Looking at this and the flotilla in Changxin shipyard, it really makes you wonder how many 022s PLAN has.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

New Varyag photos

So this week, we saw some new photos of Varyag coming out. The photo is kind of interesting because it looks like they opened up the missile section (where the shipwreck missiles would be) to fit equipments in there. We are not sure exactly what. One of the major possibilities would be engines for Varyag. The parts for the engines could be lowered to the hangar deck through the missile opening and/or the hangar elevator. They can then cut an opening in the hangar deck to lower and assemble the engines inside the boiler rooms. After what seemed to be a couple of years of hibernation, work for Varyag has started again. Here are some of the photos of the work done for the ship.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Chinese Helicopter Industry

Today, I saw a really good interview the chief designer in the Z-15 from the Chinese side (who is also the deputy chief designer of 602 Institute. If you can read Chinese, the original interview is as follows, it provides a really solid look at China's helicopter industry.





























Some of the interesting points that Mr. Yang made:
  • China is developing helicopters in 1.5 t to 15 tonne range like US and Europe is doing rather as opposed to Russian portfolio which includes much heavier models. It seems to follow a general trend in the development of Chinese maufacturing industry where they are generally trying to follow the path of West. Most of China's recent indigenous efforts (not licensed/unlicensed production like flankers/Mig-21s) are actually showing more Western influences.
  • EC-175/Z-15 received 111 orders in its first airshow appearance and orders from 10+ customers since. Chinese companies have also placed orders for 10+ Z-15s.
  • Obviously, China feels that its self-produced helicopters like Z-9/11 are generation(s) behind Z-15. Z-9/11 only have a lifespan of 6000 hours compared to 20,000 hours for a modern western helicopter. This project is not only important for improving technologically, but also improving after-sales servicing and support.
  • They are also proceeding with their 10+ tonne helicopter project independently and may launch the project in 1 or 2 years. It may be in conflict with Z-8, but that's ancient technology.
  • Chinese helicopter market has a huge upside. At the current time, there are only several hundreds military helicopters + <>
  • The biggest gain from cooperation with Eurocopter is learning how to develop a safe/reliable design. Prior to this cooperation, China had little idea on how to design something that would be able to pass the strict Western aviation standards. They also learnt the design process of Western companies, which includes the quality control and management practices.
Out of all the above points, I think that last one is what most people should understand about China. As written in this article, what China really seeks is learning the process of developing a successful product. They went from a minor partner in the EC-120 project to become an equal partner in EC-175. By the next step, they probably would like to develop a new helicopter (like the 10 tonne helicopter) independently. That helicopter would most likely not be cutting edge in the civilian market like EC-175 will be, but it will be developed through this Western design model. The same thing has already happened in the automaker and shipbuilding industry and probably will happen in the airliner industry. American gov't spends a lot of time trying to stop China from having access to sensitive military/dual use technology. It's true that such technology are helpful to the Chinese military buildup, but what China really has copied from the West is its design and management practice (although it still has a long way to go). It gets upset about Canada exporting a few PW engines for the prototype part of Z-10 project, but nothing seems to happen with Sikorsky after S-300 and S-92 deals. Not that I think it's all Sikorsky's fault. In a market where Eurocopter and Agusta are more than willing to cooperate and/or give China license production, Sikorsky has little choice to do the same. And at the end of the day, China can always go to the Russians/Ukrainians for engines, if Western engines are denied for its military projects. And with Russian expertise in heavy lift helicopters and Western cooperation in 1.5 to 13 tonne helicopters, China is developing a helicopter industry through a whole range of weight classes for military and civilian use.