Saturday, September 29, 2012

The white elephants of PLAN

With the induction of Liaoning into PLAN this past week, PLAN has reached a milestone in its drive to modernize and becoming blue water navy. We can see now that China has gone through deliberate process of going from a fleet of Luda and Jianghu surface ships to one that will have a carrier escorted by 052D and 054A/B. It has mostly been a step by step process where they often had small production runs and incremental changes. While this has been a fairly successful strategy, it has also left some white elephants in the fleet. I want to look at why these ship were ordered and why they are “white elephants”.

I regard the Sovremenny class destroyer, the 051C destroyers and the Kilo class submarine. You may have noticed that these represent two of the three mentioned here are high profile import from Russia while the third one largely depended on the import of Rif-M air defence system from Russia. This is not a coincidence.

Focusing most of my attention on the Sovremenny class, it was by far the most powerful and modern battleships in PLAN when the first two were imported 12 years ago. Sovremenny class are equipped with medium ranged SAM, supersonic anti-ship missiles, 2 powerful AK-130 main gun, Ka-28 helicopters and advanced sensors. Compared to the most advanced PLAN ship at that time, 051B, it was stronger in AAW, ASW, ASuW and ground support. The two improved Sovremenny class that were ordered in 2002 came with upgraded versions of the same systems in addition to the Kashtan CIWS. If we just compare the weapon systems on Sovremenny class with that of 052B, it may appear that these ships are very comparable. Even now, some derivatives of subsystem from Sovremenny class can be found in many new PLAN surface combatants.

So, why would I consider 052B to still be an important part of PLAN, whereas I look at Sovremenny class as “white elephants”? The main reason is that PLAN has developed its own data link standard, combat and control system and communication system. Now, Sovremenny class is still powerful compared to most PLAN destroyers by themselves, but they have a hard time communicating with the newer PLAN surface combatants. Whenever one of the Sovremenny ships is used to be the command ship of a flotilla, it will have to install a lot of domestic communication and control systems to be able to give directions to other ships. Even using that and PLAN’s data link systems, there is only so much information that Sovremenny ships can take in and process at the moment. Compare them to the new 054A class ships that joined ESF in the past couple years, the additional firepower is outweighed by the modern combat systems and electronics. In PLAN exercises, 054A was used to lead a flotilla of 3 Sovremenny ships against threats of sea-skimming target drones. 054A’s combat system was able to develop a combat plan for its missile, gun and ECM systems using data processed from data link network to destroy all the targets. That’s just one of the problems with Sovremenny class right now. They can’t be used to lead a fleet, their steam boilers are not suitable for blue water deployments, their combat systems are too old, their firing rates is too slow and their air defense systems don’t react fast enough to counter multiple sea-skimming threats. PLAN has improved so much in the past decade, that their decision in 2002 to purchase 2 additional Sovremenny class now look like a panic decision to counter Taiwan’s purchase of Kidd class destroyers. It would be hard for PLAN to refit Sovremenny ships using domestic systems without some Russian help. If China can’t put modern combat and communication systems on Sovremenny ships, these ships will simply have more and more diminished roles in the future.

Although 051C class was built in China, it suffers through some of the same issues that Sovremenny class faces. Now, the two 051C class ships were built as insurance for the 052C program. Since 051C was making use of the existing 051B hull with a mature long ranged SAM (Rif-M), it was considered safer than 052C. As it turns out, 051C actually joined service after 052C did. The decision to basically shove Rif-M air defence system on the 051B hull compromised the hull design of 051C. As a result, 051C does not have a hangar and still uses steam turbines propulsion. Also, Russians have publicly stated that 051C carries a version of Rif that cannot engage anti-ship missiles. Due to the design of the Rif system, each 051C would only be able to engage targets from one direction. While 051C still has area defence capabilities due to the long range of S-300 missiles, their utility is pretty much restricted to provide air cover to the North Sea Fleet. It would be hard to imagine them as escorts to an aircraft carrier, because they provide marginal ASW capabilities and cannot provide the same level of air defense as 052C/D class. If you place two 052Ds together, they not only have those powerful MFR panels, but can also share radar data with each other and also with other ships and aerial assets. If two 051Cs were to provide area defence, they would have to be facing each other just to provide 360 degree air defense coverage and would still need 054As to provide fleet defence. On top of that, they don’t have the same level of data sharing and sensor tracking capabilities as 052C/D ships. As with Sovremenny class, 051C ships are also victims of the rapid advancement of domestic naval weapon systems.

Finally, the kilo class is still quite useful for PLAN. The problem is that their capabilities were over hyped by the Western media. As a follower of PLAN, I see photos of different conventional submarines serving in different bases. The problem is that while I see photos of Song and Yuan submarines out in the sea and at the bases, the only pictures of Kilo class show them either at the bases or at the shipyards under repairs. It seems like China is constantly making changes to these ships to put their own subsystems on there. For the longest time after China first received the newer kilo submarines, it could not complete successful firing of the much hyped Club missiles. Only after some modifications, were they able to finally use these missiles. The problem now is that Kilo submarines are still spending way too much time at the bases instead of making deployments. It’s not entirely clear to me why PLAN has so much trouble utilizing Kilo class, but their importance is diminishing by the day as newer diesel submarines are joining service.

Now, all of the above may sound like I’m overly critical toward China’s purchase of Russian systems. In the case of 2002 purchase of Sov and kilo, they seemed to be panic moves by China toward the Bush's effort to sell more advanced weapons to Taiwan. The earlier purchases of Sov and kilo were very necessary in strengthen PLAN at the time and bringing the technologies that China needed to assist in the building of its own fleet. The building of 051C also made sense, although I think the political influence of Dalian Shipyard also had much to do with it. There are also domestic ships like 051B and 052A which used to be capital ships in PLAN, but have become outdated with the induction of the new wave of warships. They are still relative young and more advanced than Luda and Jianghu class ships, so they will be kept around for a while in diminished role. However, they were not as costly or over-hyped as the Russian import, so it's hard to think of them as "white elephants".

22 comments:

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Meng-yuan said...

I disagree.

China did panic in early 2000s, but it was over the EP-3E incident. This happened during Bush administration's early months, before 9/11. There was a real danger that those neocons newly in power would start a war against China to suppress its rise. With DF-21D still in development, China realized that it had no defense against a carrier strike on Beijing. All three weapons mentioned in your article (plus SU-30) were procured on an emergency basis as stop-gap measure.

Viewed in this light, the decision becomes quite rational. For example, type 051C makes no sense as fleet defense, but as mobile AA missile platforms stationed in Bohai, it is perfectly suited to intercept incoming F-18E/Fs.

As for the Russian imports, they also serve as samples for reverse engineering. The various component weaponry is obviously adaptable to indigenous platforms. Even little things like the shape of draining holes on the Kilo helps improve subsequent Chinese designs.

In all, the rapid rise of Chinese military power does not negate the urgency of acquiring temporary solutions a decade ago. These seemingly "white elephants" ensured peace and security for 10 years and promoted development of modern replacements. It was the right decision to purchase them.

Feng said...

The orders put in 2002 were clearly counter to Bush's proposed weapon package for Taiwan. As I said, I can understand the decisions that were made, but in hindsight, they were the wrong moves.

The idea that 956EM can actually be "a defense" against carrier strike is laughable. The entire Sov fleet is the definition of "white elephant" in PLAN. Su-30 is a different story and I can talk about it in a separate entry, but it represented a change in PLAAF doctrine.

As for shape of drainage holes, they already had 4 kilo (with of the improved variety), why would they need another 8 to help with subsequent designs?

You do realize that China did not get those second two 956 and 051Cs until 2006, right? That was after China had already gotten the 4 052B/C. And of course, the induction 054As a year later basically removed the need for the 956s.

So where does your 10 years come from?

G said...

Feng is right that the orders were responses to Bush's arms sales to Taiwan, not Hainan incident.

That these Russian platforms have become "white elephants" for PLAN is a testament to the tremendous progress that China has made in naval weapon development in the last decade.

The 956EM's and the additional Kilo's were necessary and understandable, although they were not ideal and the best China could get. Keep in mind that the cross-strait tension lasted until Ma took office in Taiwan in 2008. The chance for military action in Taiwan theater was real and could not be discounted. The the quantity of 052B/C is not enough and their capabilities were uncertain at the time. They were stop-gap measures and insurance.

So these "white elephants" from Russia served as deterrence and were not entirely waste of money.

As a side note, the Su-27 for PLAAF has been a very successful import.

G said...

Feng is right that the orders were responses to Bush's arms sales to Taiwan, not Hainan incident.

That these Russian platforms have become "white elephants" for PLAN is a testament to the tremendous progress that China has made in naval weapon development in the last decade.

The 956EM's and the additional Kilo's were necessary and understandable, although they were not ideal and the best China could get. Keep in mind that the cross-strait tension lasted until Ma took office in Taiwan in 2008. The chance for military action in Taiwan theater was real and could not be discounted. The the quantity of 052B/C is not enough and their capabilities were uncertain at the time. They were stop-gap measures and insurance.

So these "white elephants" from Russia served as deterrence and were not entirely waste of money.

As a side note, the Su-27 for PLAAF has been a very successful import.

Meng-yuan said...

The 2002 weapon sale to Taiwan necessitated upgrades in PLAAF and the amphibious arm of PLAA; Chinese investments in the navy were obviously aimed at deterring the US carrier groups up until recently, when blue water capability became within reach of the PLAN.

956EM was designed specifically to attack the outlying escort vessels of American carrier group. I don't understand your use of the word "laughable". Maybe in reality it wouldn't have worked against American fleets, but it was the best China could get at the time.

The Kilo was much better than anything China could produce 10 years ago. The PLAN brass thought the improved Kilo would bolster their deterrence capability further. The hole design was an example I used to illustrate fringe benefits, which definitely encouraged the buy-Russian mentality.

The 051C was authorized in early 2000s. Obviously, the design bureau screwed up and had a bad delay in delivering it. Not all Chinese weapon designers work together as one unit or are up to the same competence level. Shenyang's struggle with J-11 is another perfect example.

You do know that the AA missiles on 052C were not as capable as those on 051C, at least when the ships were first delivered?

China had tremendous luck in that the US got bogged down in Iraq and could not spare much attention to start a war in East Asia for an entire decade, but back than, even as Rumsfeld organized the attack on Saddam Hussein, he was also urging his generals to plan for an attack against China. His comments were often made in public, and Chinese intelligence would have to be totally inept not to pick them up.

Back in 2002/2003, few could project that Iraq would turn into a quagmire for so long. Quite the contrary, the logical expectation was that once the US finished the job in a year or two, it would be looking for its next victim. After all, less than two years separated the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. A 2005/2006 delivery date was not fast enough for China, but still better than doing nothing.

Back to the original issue of whether these ships became "white elephants". We have to remember that we are talking about modern China, where skyscrapers got built and torn down in cycles of a few years, not decades. These ships may seem unfit for the new missions now, but the same can be said to pretty much everything the PLA procured 10-15 years ago. Given the small numbers of units purchased (especially the 051C), your criticism seems a little harsh to me.

Meng-yuan said...

I should add that the 956EM design was completed by 2001 and the contract officially signed in early 2002, so the initial request had to be in 2000 or earlier. It was therefore clearly not a response to the weapon sales to Taiwan.

The two 051Cs were deployed to the North Sea Fleet because Bohai was where they needed to sit in waiting and intercept incoming planes from US carriers. The 956EM went to the East Sea Fleet so that it could attack the carrier fleets themselves in joint operation with SU-30s.

I think we can safely conclude that the Taiwan weapon sales was not the primary driver of those purchases.

kingping said...

Meng is funny! USA planning to attack china, lucky USA was busy in Irak! Pffffff what a stupid comment !!! If China was Irak. Like Deng ones said China is no Argentina!!!!!!

hkbc said...


Making claims that can never be proved or refuted like the entire Soviet era fleet is a white elephant hardly advances your argument.

Feng said...

I understand why China did what it did, but it doesn't mean I have to agree with all of their moves. For example, I actually agree with Kilo and Su-30, but am against 956EM and Rif purchase. It's a testament of the advancement of PLAN that 054A and 052D are so advanced now. However, just because there are reasons why these high profile imports are playing second fiddles now, does not mean that these systems are not "white elephants". Reading through reports on sov destroyers in recent times with PLAN, it's a real headache on what PLAN should do with these ships.

Btw, if you think 956EM was designed specifically to attack the outlying escort vessels of CVBG, then you've really bought into the arguments of China-threat group like Richard Fisher and such. The Soviets designed the Sov destroyers to support amphibious landings. Its anti-shipping prowess can't compete with any of the cruisers or bombers or attack subs. It was certainly not the best China could've done. Do you really think the 4 Sov can provide the same fire power as a couple of flotilla of 022s with Y-8 providing targeting data? As for 051C missile being better than 052C missiles at the time, that would only be the case if you factor out the combat system and the more power radars on 052C. 051C was an insurance policy for 052C, but due to the Russian slowness, it became an after thought. And now, it's stuck to operate in NSF, because you can't put it in a carrier group or even along with 052C/D as escorts in a expeditionary group. And it's still very new, so what should PLAN do with this ship? These are the questions that we need to ask. Ships like 052B and 051B and 052A are also left behind by the overall advancements. But guess what, they are still making these long deployments around the world for various missions. In 052A/B, they are not using steam turbine propulsions and have much better ASW capabilities against the near sea threats. And they don't have the same sticker shock as the imports. So if PLAN moves them to a secondary role, it's not a big deal.

Look, I don't have time to go through all of your angers toward my critic of PLAN. I'm not here to be a cheer leader. I think from your responses, you seem to get offended by the very idea that China could've made than a non optimal move or that Russian import is proving to be a logistical nightmare.

kingping said...

Feng you Rock! Love your blog!

Meng-yuan said...

I can agree to disagree, since overall you are still a rational thinker. Furthermore, this is your blog after all.

I have to clarify, however, that most of my statements are based on Chinese insider comments, e.g. the reason why the PLAAF refuses to buy JF-17, why the PLAN ordered type 051C and 956EM. There is nothing I said here that is my original contribution, but that should be a good thing as none is speculative, at least not from me.

The only item that is from Western source is my comment on Rumsfeld's plan to attack China. This is from the memoirs of several retired US generals/admirals. kingping, calling someone a liar is a serious accusation, at least in the US, so I think I am justified to point out that you are an idiot.

SK2 said...

Those so called insider comments are being laughed by many already.....and I am sure Feng has access to those insider comments as me and you do also.

Regarding the lack of anti-ASM/SSM ability of the 956, after the purchase of it, some suggested to put it with the LuHu (052A) as a working pair, just like the Brits 42-22 trap. And for several years we can see the 956 always go to training/patrol with the 053H4, acting in the same way as the 42-22 trap again, providing limited area air defense and limited anti-ASM/SSM ability.

Meng, when the 3N80 was born the Aegis wasn't being installed in the first Tico yet. And now you are saying they are designed to kill Aegis? LOL

Regarding the 051C's function. First it wasn't being built for protecting the Bohai but for general anti-AA. It did went for Somali patrol (which some laughed as negligence of duty to protect the party) but not being selected again because of the heavy fuel consumption and lack of hangar.

For the choice of 051C, some suggested the first hull (114) was the wasted hull of an unfinished 051B, which stopped incomplete after the 167 has finished building. It was put aside for a while until the PLAN selected to purchase the Rif-M.

odessaguy said...

The idea that the PRC panics when Taiwan gets a few new weapons is laughable. Taiwan could never represent a military threat to China. So why panic and buy Sovs and Su-30's, Kilos from Russia?

jxz said...

@Feng Very good analysis as always. Thank you for the insights. I think hindsight is always 20/20, but reality is that the money spent on these trades could've been invested elsewhere.

@odessaguy China hasn't considered Taiwan as a serious military threats for a long long time. She still has to counter Taiwan's procurements to maintain military supremacy.

Meng-yuan said...

SK2,

I will ignore your evidence-free name calling and just comment on the two paragraphs with some substance.

I did not say that 3M80E (I suppose that is what you meant by 3N80?) was designed against Aegis. I only talked about 956EM. It seems your logic is as spotty as your typing/spelling.

If 051C is designed for general AA, then you have answered the question of why just two? Why only for the North Sea Fleet? Why even bother when 052C was already available earlier? The fact that they got sent to long trips is irrelevant, because the needs of PLAN certainly change with time and old equipment often find new uses. We were talking about what it was designed for, not what it is good for.

SK2 said...

Meng-yuan, as you have emphasized that the 956EM was designed to attack "outlying escorts of the CBG", let's think of the following:

1. What are the "outlying escorts of CBG"?

Apart from the missile-less Perrys, the rest are Aegis boats.

2. What are the weapons 956EM can use against these escorts?

3M80E, AK-130

Hmm......so what you want to say is that 956EM was was designed specifically to attack Aegis boats, but 3M80E wasn't? So are you saying that the AK-130 (or AK-630 if you want :P ) are designed specifically to attack these outlying vessels?



Regarding the 051C question, the PLAN purchased the system way before the 052C matures, and that act as a stop-gap measure until the PLAN got a indigenous, formidable and reliable Area Air Defense System. As the 052C system matures there were no need to purchase more than 2 Rif-M system.

For the role you suggested, even if both 051C boats are available, do you think 48 x 2 missiles can defend from waves of F/A-18E/F attack from multiple number of carriers? And what about the cruise missiles in the CBG also?

SK2 said...

Or Meng Yuan, I guess you want to suggest those 051C to be radar pickets rather than AA missile platform in Bohai, just like the US Navy does in WWII and the PIRAZ in Vietnam War? But it still lack one thing, good long range radar.

JedL said...

Just wanted to post a separate question that I've been pondering for some time (not sure where to post this question so I just raise it here)- why are PLAN warships painted a light gray / off-white? Would this not compromise its ability to stay camouflaged against the sea?

I would think that compared to US / Japanese warships (moderate gray) and Russian warships (dark gray), PLAN ships tend to stand out very clearly against the sea especially when the sea is blue (under sunny weather). I know some ppl say we are passed the age of fighting close range, but if it should ever come to a close range fire fight, would not sea camouflage matter?

Do you think the PLAN should revert to a darker gray for its warships?

Feng said...

I really don't know about that. I think that will be a question that only a true PLAN insider can answer.

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Shaolin Lin said...

Retired these 4 sov from PLAN, refit them to be used as maritime patrol ship.Use them to patrol the disputed islands with Japan, and collier with any Japanese ship get in her way.