2011 has been a really hectic year in PLAN world. Although I have personally not had a chance to post as many updates, this years has seen non stop activities around different shipyards. When I write annual reviews like this, I'm almost afraid that I will miss an important part. As I wrote previously, the second wave of PLAN shipbuilding activity begun in 2010. The pace has only picked up in 2011. This blog entry will explore this and much more.
During this past year, we have seen the Varyag project move into the sea trial stage. Varyag's first and second sea trials captured some headlines around the world and was discussed quite a lot on this blog. While Varyag will most likely function as a training and test ship in the coming years, it is the most noticeable step taken by PLAN to shift from a green water fleet to a blue water fleet. As China learns to operate its first carrier, it will be fun for PLAN and other naval followers around the world to see how China intends to operate future carriers. Personally, I have already been trying to identify the different close in defense systems and sensors they have installed on Varyag. One thing that seems certain is that PLAN would like to follow the path of USN rather than USSR in carrier doctrine. We have already seen them remove all anti-ship missiles and long range SAMs from Varyag to allow more space for other stuff (including hangar space). We have also seen the development of fixed wing AEW project as well as the purchase of Ka-31 and the ongoing Z-8 AEW project. The J-15 project is also expected to be far more multi-role than the original Su-33s. Basically, PLAN is trying to modify a carrier that was original designed to conduct ASUW on its own with a limited number of Su-33s providing air cover to a carrier that relies on its air wings for all aspects of naval warfare. The amount of electronics on Varyag's island also indicates that Varyag is not only expected to provide command & control for supporting fleet, but also targeting info in an integrated environment. As we move forward in 2012, it will be interesting to see the continuing evolution of this ship..
Aside from the much talked about Varyag, Chinese shipyards have continued to pump out naval ships capable blue water missions. The lead ship (866) of the Type 920 class hospital ship has also been quite busy this year. It has been an important part of PLAN's display of soft power and was sent around different third world countries on a good will tour. The Type 071 project has continued to roll forward with the induction of the second ship (999) into the same flotilla as the lead ship (998) and the launching of the third ship. We have also seen newer amphibious ships under construction in HD shipyard. In the past year, we have seen more evidence of PLAN learning how to operate something of Type 071 class with the induction of Type 726 hovercraft (Chinese LCAC). We have seen different helicopters take off/land on 998 as well as many amphibious vehicles (and even a MBT) operating from 998 and Type 726. Clearly, they are still learning to use it, but PLAN appears to be quite pleased with the Type 071 class. The new class of submarine tenders also saw two new units launched in Guangzhou shipyard. The lead ship (864) was equipped with the LR7 submarine rescue system from UK. It will be interesting to see if the next two continue to use that or an indigenous option. Consider they already have 3 other large submarine tenders, they may not be building any more ships of this class. Aside from these major naval projects, I find the launching and possible induction of the No. 88 "life style" ship to be the best indication of PLAN's blue water desires. From all of the pictures I have seen, this ship looks to be a ship where sailors (who have been out in the sea for a long time) can party and release stress. I guess that's PLAN's substitute to having port calls.
Aside from all of the larger ships, Chinese shipyards have also continued to building different classes of warships. The JiangNan shipyard is in the midst of building a second batch of 4 052C class ships. The first one seems to have already joined service with East Sea Fleet. The second one was launched a few months ago and will probably start sea trials sometimes after Chinese New Years. The third one looks to be close to launching and the fourth one is still just many large modules. We know that these ships are using indigenously produced QC-280 gas turbines rather than the original GT-25000 gas turbines from Ukraine. Other than that and probable upgrades and fixes to sensors and command system, I don't really see any change from the first two 052Cs. After these 4 052Cs, the next batch of JN destroyers will apparently have some real changes. We will probably not see these new ships until 2013. The two ships from the 052 class finished receiving their major upgrades this year. They should stay in service for a decade or two longer. I do expect old Type 051 class ships to start retiring in the next few years, but we will probably see the number of PLAN destroyers increase with the rumored production plans at JN shipyard.
The 054A project has also continued to sail along. These ships have proven to be very capable of long range missions in all of the deployments to Gulf of Aden. PLAN seems to be very pleased with its performance, because it has ordered more 054A than what was originally expected. At least 9 054A have joined service by now (4 in SSF, 4 in ESF, 1 in NSF). On top of that, 4 more 054A have been launched with one of them currently undergoing sea trials. I do believe that 054A production is drawing to a close and they will start producing 054B soon. The 054 series of ships should eventually replace the 053 series of ships. However, many of the 053 class ships are still quite new and have undergone upgrades in the past year. The 6 Jianghu-V ships (558 to 563) finished modernization this year and should continue to patrol South China Sea for a while longer. The 4 Jiangwei-I ships have received new TAS system in the past couple of years and appear to be going into docks for more upgrades. Similar to destroyers, the number of PLAN frigates should also increase in the next few years.
052C and 054A are part of PLAN's move to become blue water navy, since they are likely part of PLAN's first carrier group and expeditionary strike group. There are also newer littoral ships that are coming into service. The 022 class production have almost stopped completely now. Enough of them have been produced to replace all of the old FACs. We have been waiting for an OPV class to appear between 022 and 054A class to guard the littoral waters and patrol in South China Sea. For a while, it seemed like all of the newly built cutters will be taking that role, even though they are practically unarmed. Finally, the long rumored 056 class ships are now under construction in multiple Chinese shipyards. We have already seen 056 hulls forming in HuDong and HuangPu shipyard (part of the reason why I think 054A production is stopping), but smaller shipyards around the country are also expected to be building 056 ships. While I am still waiting to see how 056 will turn out, I do expect it to eventually replace a good number of 037s in the service. Some may even serve in the role of sub-chasers. MCM ships have also restarted productions again. This year, we saw the 5th Type 081 minesweeper class ship and the 2nd Type 082II minehunter class ship joining force. With the ramp up in production at JiangNan shipyard, I certainly expect to see more of these ships produced in the coming year. In this area, PLAN is finally catching up to the wave of MCM ships that came out in Europe in the 90s. PLAN will need to develop blue water MCM capability eventually, but they need to learn how to use these things first. And finally, numerous 039B class (Yuan) submarines entered service this year. I have now completely lost track of the count, since they don't paint numbers on the diesel submarines. I think at least 3 039B from Wuhan shipyard and 1 039B from JiangNan shipyard joined service. The mysterious new diesel submarine that some have named Qing class seems to be undergoing extensive sea trials right now. I don't expect this class of ships don't be mass produced for a while. It seems like they are really building a lot of 039B class and might do so for another year or two. After which, I think Song, Yuan and Kilo submarines will represent the majority conventional submarine force. From that, I can say the diesel submarine fleet has modernized faster than any other area of PLAN. In comparison, the latest nuclear attack submarine is still stuck at least 2 generations behind Virginia class. There has been rumors that a 095 class submarine has been launched, but we won't find out for a while if that's the case.
Naval aviation also continued to modernize this year. The first naval regiment of J-10 and J-11B were formed this year. Naval aviation for PLA is very different from that of USN. The fixed wing aircraft do not operate from any ship. They are just expected to operate jointly with ships in naval warfare. Previously, PLANAF consist mostly of the extremely short legged J-7 and J-8 aircraft. By this year, all of the naval aviation divisions have at least one regiment of J-10, JH-7 or flankers. At the same time, more Y-8 special missions aircraft have been produced this year (including the new ASW aircraft). This means PLANAF should at least be able to help out naval ships in littoral conflicts. Back in the days, they were pretty much useless. In the coming year, I expect to see more Y-8 special missions aircraft and naval helicopters to join PLANAF. One of the biggest problems of PLAN is the shortage of helicopters. This problem is getting better with the induction of more Ka-28/31 and Z-8s, but will remain a huge problem until Z-15 enters service.
As I look back in 2011, this was a really exciting year to follow PLAN. I have spent a lot of time talking about new toys that PLAN is getting. That's something which is relatively easy to quantify when one follows PLAN. The much harder question to answer is the software part of modernization. With all of these new hardware, how much has the training and doctrines improved to be able to effectively use these new weapon systems? With all of the new ships coming into service, PLAN will need to train new sailors to be able to operate these new ships. I have read many articles about large military exercises, new training methods and great achievements by PLAN. However, much of those pieces just seem to be propaganda. It's easy to see that PLAN is happy with ships like 052C, 054A and 071, but it's much harder to compare PLAN training to that of Western navies. We have certainly seen PLAN sending ships on more missions away from home. Gulf of Aden deployments have been a great success. Hopefully, that will also lead to greater understanding and cooperation with Western navies. We have also seen more joint exercises and port calls in the past couple of years. Hopefully, that will also lead to better relations with other nations. However, the recent naval expansion has also caused a lot of discomfort among China's neighbors. While I'm not advocating that PLAN should stop modernization and transformation into a blue water navy. It should also be mindful on how its actions will affect its neighbors.
Looking forward to 2012 and beyond, it's easy to see that this modernization process is not slowing down. All of the major naval shipyards are continuously churning out new ships. In a couple of years, we will start seeing fixed wing aircraft take off and land on Varyag. The greatest support for PLAN modernization comes from the launching of 893 test ship. As recently as 2005, PLAN only had one ship (891) to test out new sensors and weapon systems. Now, it has 3 ships testing out new weapon systems. I have read about quite a few weapon systems that they are developing, so I'm waiting to see them appear on these test ships. I do also see possible problems ahead. With China's economy facing a turbulent future, that should also effect the amount of money it can spend on its navy. It's unlikely to face the same level of austerity as European countries, but it should also not get overly ambitious with new developments.