Saturday, June 25, 2011

Is J-15 a game changer?

I often see articles on the web warning of the impending Chinese naval power and the impact on American's naval dominance. I find most of them to be badly written and low on facts. However, there are some authors how have followed PLAN for a long time and write some really good stuff. Andrew Erickson is one of the few PLA followers that I truly respect. His latest article with Gabe Collins on the J-15 program is another quality piece of work. I would recommend all PLAN followers to read it.

The authors did a good job of going over all of the potential problems associated with operating J-15 on a STOBAR carrier like Varyag. They brought up the reduced maximum take-off weight of J-15 vs land based flankers. They brought up how US carrier groups can make use of USAF tankers from forward base points to extend the range of USN air wing, but this option is not available to PLAN in the foreseeable future. Another limitation to Chinese air wing is the lack of fixed-wing ISR assets and ASW assets like E-2, S-2 and S-3. I think the following lines sums up the entire article perfectly.

The J-15’s emergence offers potential capabilities that are noteworthy because China is starting from such a low baseline in naval aviation that virtually any progress could make a big difference.

For these reasons, Chinese ski jump carriers simply cannot be used in any of the combat roles that U.S. Navy carriers have performed.

I think most of us would agree with the assessment that J-15 on Varyag does not represent any kind of game changing capability, but rather the most obvious option for PLAN to start off. Varyag was not designed for the same kind of missions that PLAN has in mind for future carrier groups. From much of what I read on Chinese sources, it’s seems that PLAN wants to follow USN’s direction in carrier operation. However, it clearly does not have the same aircraft, carrier producing capability and general weapon system available to achieve that in the near future. As a result, it would have to develop carrier operation doctrine based on what it has at disposal. I do think that Varyag will see more time in service than just as a training carrier based on all of the new sensors and CIWS they have installed on it, but the first domestic carriers will give us much better idea of the direction of PLAN. It’s with this that I disagree with some of the points made in the article.

The article completely dismissed most of the missions that J-15 could have based on the assumption that it will always be flying off a STOBAR carrier. Based on what I have seen (including the recent photos of fixed wing AEW), I would say that the first domestic carrier will probably be a CATOBAR carrier. In fact, I’ve read that PLAN picked the J-11 platform over J-10 platform for naval aviation due to its potentials in performing different types of missions. China does not have the same fleet of SSGNs or cruisers that Soviet Union had to launch long range supersonic missiles. The shipwreck missile launch module has also been removed from Varyag. China’s current helo fleet is also likely to be restricted to AEW and ASW missions. So, I don’t think China will be relying on helicopters or deck-launched ASCMs (as mentioned in this article) to attack opposing naval forces. Maritime strike and anti-ship missions will be carried out by J-15 regardless of whether it is operating off a STOBAR carrier or a CATOBAR carrier.

I also think the authors really missed the point when they speculated that China would need longer ranged AAM and AShM to compensate for the shortened range of J-15. Russian missiles like R-37 and Brahmos are extremely bulky and would significantly cut down the range of a naval aircraft. J-15 would be able to carry at most one AShM of Brahmos size or two missiles of R-37 size. The original Su-33 could not perform any mission outside of Combat Air Patrol, because Su-27 was purely an air superiority fighter at the time. Even if Su-27 had multi-role capability, the limited takeoff weight from STOBAR carrier would’ve drastically reduced the usefulness of most of the current Russian anti-ship missiles and ground attack weaponry. Most of the recent Chinese weapons development has aimed at creating smaller weapons (PGMs, ground attack missiles, AAM and AShMs) that can be carried by smaller fighters (like J-10 and JF-17) and UCAVs. J-15 could possibly take off with a couple of YJ-83s (about 700 kg each) or a couple of KD-88s (also about 700 kg each) and still have useful combat range. It would also be able to carry a number of PGMs similar to JDAM and SDB and attack land based targets. If China does build a CATOBAR carrier, J-15 will theoretically be able to carry as much weapon as F-18E/F, while having comparable range and CAP time. So, I think the combat potential of J-15 should not be limited to the so called “missile-centric” approach.

In conclusion, I think this article did a very good job at pointing out the problems facing PLAN as it is about to launch its first carrier and operate its first naval aircraft. The appearance of J-15 is not a game-changer in anyway, but it will be a tremendous learning process for PLAN. They have a long way to go before becoming competent at carrier operations. At the same time, I think it is also worthy to explore the potential of J-15 on CATOBAR carriers, because I believe PLAN is moving in that direction. J-15 really has the potential to perform all of the roles that F-18 E/F performs for USN. It’d be interesting to see whether or not they will develop EW version of J-15 like Growler or buddy-to-buddy refueling version of J-15. They have already done this with the JH-7 platform, so it should not be too difficult to also do this on J-15. It will also be interesting to see what else they plan to join J-15 in the air wing. We’ve already seen a naval trainer in JT-9 and naval AEW helicopter in Ka-31 and Z-8. I would think that other variants of Z-8 and possibly Z-15 will also become part of the air wing. And with all of the resources that China has put into UAVs and UCAVs, I think we will see them on there too. The possibilities increase even more if China does build CATOBAR carriers. The naval AEW project currently in development (and possibly other projects) would be able to take-off. As with everything else in PLAN, I’m just waiting patiently for all those developments.

Monday, June 20, 2011

More public proclamation of the Carrier program

About a week and half ago, Chen Bingde finally publicly discussed the ex-Varyag aircraft carrier for the first time. And now that the veil has come off, we are seeing more public proclamation of the carrier program.

As we saw previously, a naval variant of the JL-9 trainer, currently serving in PLAAF, is being developed and tested. Today, CDF blog posted an article on China Military Online, which seems to be an official acknowledgment of this project. Interesting enough, this naval variant is named JT-9, instead of the previously expected designation of JL-9H. It'd be interesting to see what other part of the carrier project is made public next.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Varyag + China's blue water ambitions

Over the past year, I have seen numerous articles about China's aircraft program coming out as Varyag is getting closer and closer to joining service. Many of those articles are fear mongering and riding this "China is taking over America" sentiment that many Americans are feeling through this economic downturn. So, it was interesting that I read an article completely on the other side this week from wired magazine. Aside from the title, it raises some good points to think about while missing out on other points.

I think that David Axe makes a good point in bringing up all of the navies surrounding PLAN that have carrier(s) or aviation capable flattops. At this point, PLAN is just at the start of its blue water naval strategy. Due to the increasing pressure on PLAN to defend Chinese interests around the world, PLAN is finally getting into the business of building a blue water fleet. Due to its lack of experience in naval aviation and lack of contacts/training with countries that have naval aviation tradition, PLAN will be starting from a very backward position. As stated in the Wired article and by most PLAN observers, Varyag will be a training carrier once it goes into service. One can see the amount of resources that China has placed in its carrier program by the amount of resources spent on Varyag, the carrier simulation facility in Wuhan, the different take-off/landing facilities around the country and the numerous indigenous naval aviation program under way. Just from the latest photos of Varyag alone, we can see several close-in weapon systems that have not appeared in any previous PLAN ships.
We can see the new RAM-like HQ-10 SAM installed in 3 different positions on Varyag

A host of new sensors + 052C MFRs on the oversized island.

The new HQ-10 SAM + 12 barrel ASW rocket launcher + new 10/11 30mm barrel CIWS + 18 barrel multi-purpose rocket launcher

And here is a list of possible ongoing naval aviation programs. First, we have the mysterious fix-winged naval AEW program, which is probably aimed for the first domestic carrier.

And then we have the domestic Z-8 AEW program that is now going through trials with PLAN naval aviation.

Which is mixed in with 9 imported Ka-31 AEW helicopters. It's hard to say how PLAN will use the two platforms at this point, but I would imagine seeing both on Varyag + first couple of domestic carriers. I do see PLAN going toward the USN model in the future and use strictly fix-winged AEW assets.

And finally, they also have the J-15 and JL-9H program going. Due to its range and payload, J-15 could be designed to perform more than just air defense duties of Su-33. Think of Super hornets and all of its different uses in USN.

So, I would say that there are many new weapon systems and technologies developed in China for its naval program. On top of all of the new hardware been developed, the process of training competent carrier operation crew is just as arduous. So far, the only major cooperation agreement they have been able to make is the one with the Brazilian navy. Therefore, China has a lot of stuff to learn over the next 20 years. Varyag will be a training carrier once it goes into service, but it will also be an operational carrier once the sailors accumulate some years of experience. The same will be the case for China's first domestic carriers.

When I look at the entire PLAN modernization, I really think that the carrier program has trailed most of the other programs. Over the past 5 years, one can already see an increasing need for a Chinese blue water fleet with its increasing energy security concerns from Africa/Middle East + its dependence on world commerce + the number of Chinese nationals working in African/Middle Eastern/Pacific Island countries. China currently gets a free ride from US Navy for energy security and safety of its merchant ships, but it really has no trust in USN. A good number of Chinese people in and outside of the military thinks that US is trying to hold China down. And when one looks at the extremely vocal China threat group in Washington, it's easy to see why they would get this view. So, I think that even though China already has a clear need for a carrier, this program has trailed the rest of PLAN modernization for numerous reasons. And I think that as China becomes even more dependent on world commerce in the coming years, the need for a blue water fleet will become more apparent (even if it will make many neighbours uncomfortable). On top of that, China sees East Asia and Southeast Asia as its backyard and wants to become the big dog here that keeps order. It cannot do so with a green water fleet. You are seeing more comments/actions from China in this direction, even though they will not say this openly.

One part I think David Axe was really wrong on was the assertion that Varyag will be defenseless. The PLAN naval modernization/expansion have been going on for the past 15 years. If anything, PLAN already has the necessary escorts for the first carrier and is in the process of building many more advanced escorts as shown in the photos below. And the recent Gulf of Aden missions provided PLAN with an opportunity to try these ships out for long periods in blue waters, so they will be ready by the time Varyag becomes operational.
The first three photos are the 3rd, 4th and 5th 052Cs currently under construction in JN shipyard

This next photo is the 6th 054A currently under construction in the HD shipyard

And here is the 6th 054A from HP shipyard that just got launched.

The other importantly part of China's increased blue water ambitions is the need for oversea "places" that PLAN can dock in the future for supplies. Here is a Jamestown article on the issue of logistical supply places that are emerging from the Gulf of Aden missions. Now, I do think that China will need a couple of oversea naval bases in the future to protect its commerce and such, but it is not at that point yet.

Most recently after the Osama killing, a lot of noises came out of Pakistan asking China to have a naval base in Gwadar. Here is an Asia Times article on the subject of Gwadar naval bases. You can see that China is punting on this issue right now, because it does not make sense for China to have a base there at the moment.

At the same time, I did find this other article regarding recent meeting between China and Burma to be far more interesting.

According to official sources in Naypyidaw, Chinese officials have repeatedly raised the issue of mobilizing its naval forces in Burmese territorial waters in recent months amid the superpower's increasing interests in the country, most notably the Sino-Burmese oil and gas pipelines, and the Chinese navy's activities in the Indian Ocean, particularly patrolling against Somali pirates.

Chinese officials are not suggesting a Chinese navy base in Burma, but having the permission to dock their warships at Burma's ports while they are patrolling the Indian Ocean and Somalia, said a source who spoke on condition of anonymity. The issue is still under discussion.

However, Burmese military sources have said they believe that China is more concerned about protecting the strategic port of Kyaukpyu, a multi-billion project that Beijing financed.

After the pipelines are finished in 2013, they are expected to have the capacity to transfer to Yunnan Province more than 80 percent of China's imported oil from the Middle East and Africa, as well as Chinese-purchased natural gas from Burma's Shwe Gas Field.

Shwe Field is currently Burma's largest gas reserve with an estimated 7.0 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. It was discovered in 2004 and is likely to be operational by 2013. The Burmese regime chose to sell the natural gas from Shwe Offshore Field to China over another energy-hungry neighbor, India, in 2007, a move that consolidated the junta's position as a valued ally of Beijing.

The pipeline project includes upgrading the airport on Ramree Island where Kyaukpyu is located. Residents of Ramree Island said that they have seen not only Chinese workers, but also Chinese military personnel in recent years on the island.

Chinese interests include the protection of oil tankers. Beijing has sent warships to Somali waters in the past two years, a maneuver that marked the superpower's the first ever naval mobilization outside the Pacific Ocean.

Returning from a counter-piracy operation in the Indian Ocean in August 2010, two warships, the Guangzhou and the Chaohu, docked at Thilawa Port, near Rangoon, for a five-day visit. Burmese and Chinese state media reported at the time.

From this article, you can see all of the Chinese energy and economic interest in this region and why China would want to have a blue water navy that can operate in this region. When one look at the narrow Strait of Malacca where much of China's energy and commerce shipping flows through, it becomes clear why China would also want to build an energy pipeline that would bypass that. In that region, China would not only be under the mercy of USN, but also under the mercy or threat of Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. That is quite a scary thought for the supposedly next super-power of the world. In the increasingly bitter confrontations between China and its neighbors over South China Sea, I think China will need to get back to building trusting relations with its southern neighbors while also continue to build an effective blue water navy.

So as Varyag is about to start sea trials, we see the shift of a nation from enclosed and poor to more prosperous and reliant on the world. The need for a blue water navy comes from China's need to protect its oversea interests + its people's desires for a strong nation. China will not become a blue water navy overnight, but would need years to develop competent carrier operations. It stills has a long way to go before it can be mentioned in the same breath to the Seventh Fleet. That's a scary thought for a nation that's more dependent than any other nations for safe and open sea lanes. As we observe the formation of China's blue water ambitions, I hope more people see if from this view point rather than the view point that China is about to take over the world.