As usual, I’m taking a look at this time of the year of all the things that has happened to PLAN. 2014 has been an active year like 2013, so it’s a good time to look over what they are doing and where they are going.
Aircraft Carrier - I think PLAN is making very cautious steps in developing their naval aviation capabilities. CV-16 Liaoning spent a large part of the year in Dalian going through regular maintenance and overhaul before going on another long sea trial afterward. At this point, I think the intensity of flight operation training still have not increased much from when it first joined service. It looks like most of the sea trials are aimed at testing out different subsystems (like propulsion unit, electric generator, radar installations) and the sea worthiness of CV-16. Most of the pictures of take off and landing exercises are still taken with the J-15 prototypes rather than the production ones. It’s quite possible that they are practicing takeoff and landing on the land based training facilities before putting them on the carrier. So in the upcoming year, hopefully we will see more J-15s on CV-16 conducting carrier operations out in the sea. One encouraging sign from this year is the abundance of new Z-18 based helicopters for a variety of roles (transport, AEW and ASW/SAR) that seem to becoming ready for service. The induction of these helicopters and training on CV-16 is an important part of operationalizing CV-16.
Amphibious Vessels - After a couple of years of rest, they have restarted the production of amphibious landing ships in Type 071 and 072 series. As I wrote the past few years, they have continued to conduct a variety of new amphibious landing exercises with Type 071, 072, Type 726 LCACs, amphibious armored vehicles, Z-18 transports and even Z-10 helicopters in these exercises. I think they needed these years of training and exercises to determine what changes needed to be made to the newer Type 071/072s. It sounds like they originally planned for this new batch of Type 071 to have more firepower but ended up going for more lightly armed version like the earlier Type 071s. It will be interesting to see what differences will be to accommodate their developing amphibious warfare doctrine. I think the deliberate pace of operationalizing and training Type 071 with the marines is a good starting point of reference to see how long it will take them to develop carrier operations. One would obviously expect carrier operations to take longer to develop, but Type 071 spent its first couple of years going through going through long sea trials and commanding flotilla that we are seeing with CV-16 right now. At the same time, we can expect the future LHD design to go through the same process that we have seen with Type 071. They have shown numerous LHD designs for export in various naval exhibit, but it seems like the domestic version will be a lot larger with more landing spots and greater hangar space. Hopefully, we will start seeing that late next year. The other amphibious project is Zubr, which picked up pace this year when the Ukrainians delivered the second one earlier as a result of the Crimea conflict. It will be interesting to see how many Zubrs China end up building.
Large Surface combatant - There were 2 major developments this year with the induction of the first 052D and the appearance of the Type 055 land based simulator. The induction of No. 172 was surprising because the last 2 Type 052Cs had not been commissioned at that point. Even now, the commission status of the last Type 052Cs is a little ambiguous. It seems like the induction of No. 172 was fast tracked to allow PLAN to start testing out all the new systems that they have incorporated onto and developing tactics on using it. The following 052D, especially the 4 other ones that are launched at JN shipyard, could really benefit from the lessons they learnt from PLAN’s experience with No. 172. On the other hand, the last 2 Types 052Cs were under no similar pressure, so they’ve had a much longer induction process. I’m sure the actual crew has already been training on them for a while (based on their photos from the ZhouShan naval base with the 3rd and 4th 052Cs), so they have yet to be inducted. The Type 055 land based simulator really caused a lot of excitement earlier this year, because it had been speculated on Chinese forum for a while now. Considering that PLAN has only built similar simulators for carrier and nuclear submarine project, one can surmise this platform is held with the highest regards. We have yet to see Type 055 modules at JN or Dalian shipyard, but I think that will start to come out next year as Type 052D production start to wind down. Also, it would be interesting to finally see Dalian built Type 052Ds, since JN is already so far along in this program. Finally, it sounds like the Sov program will finally go forward with modernization. There was a picture of one of the Sovs at the shipyard recently with a lot of scaffoldings. Since they will have to replace all the Russian subsystem with Chinese ones, I would think that the modernization would be even more extensive than what we saw with the 2 Type 052A ships. Even though this kind of modernization is quite costly, PLAN does prefer that to decommissioning and building new ones. After that, the only candidate left for modernization will be No. 167. I think retiring this ship in 5 years makes more sense than modernizing it again since it was originally built as more of an experimental platform to test out 6000-ton class of surface combatants for PLAN. At this point, there is not a lot of value to keep around such the only hull of this experimental class.
Smaller Surface combatants - This year, we saw that the new Type 054As been built at HP and HD shipyard had numerous improvements over all of the earlier ones. The biggest change was the installation of the VDS on top of the TAS installation to really improve the ASW capabilities of these ships. I think that the commissioning of the 4 Type 054As at these shipyards have been slow because of the new VDS system. After that, I think they would move on with the next major iteration of Type 054 project, so these last 4 are testing subsystems that will be used there. Also, we saw a bunch of new Type 056s been commissioned this year. HD and HP shipyard have been leading the way, but the other 2 shipyards have also been launching at a fast rate. A new Type 056 variant (dubbed 056A) is now been built that have VDS installed in the back. It looks like this one is just better equipped for ASW mission than the earlier ones. As I talked about in a previous entry, I think we have seen some real development in improving hardware for ASW missions on various ships. This is reminiscent of 5 years ago, when PLAN really started to build ships with technology to handle AAW missions. The other product of the improving Chinese naval ship production is the number of export contract that they have been winning. Just recently, we have seen the launch of the second P-18N OPV for Nigeria and the first export version of Type 056 for Bangladesh. This is on top of the C-28A, P-18N and Ghanaian patrol boat that were built earlier this year. Starting from F-22P project with Pakistani Navy, Chinese shipyard have been doing well in export market of the smaller ship classes (OPVs, light frigates and patrol boats). Going forward, I think the next step is for them to win more contracts of diesel submarines, larger surface combatants and amphibious landing docks. Type 056 is a good design that could be attractive to many smaller navies around the world.
Submarines – I think they have started building a new variant of Type 039B Yuan submarine this year with a more hydrodynamic sail, but it’s hard to quantify how many of these submarines are launched at the moment. We know that at least 4 Type 039A and 8 of the earlier Type 039Bs are in service in East Sea Fleet and North Sea Fleet. After a couple of years of hectic production, Yuan production seems to have slowed down. I hope they are taking the time to develop a newer and more advanced diesel submarine design. It is possible their discussion with the Russians on using the Lada hull will be finalized next year, but China has pretty demanding positions. I think China only want the Russian hull design at this point (and fitted with Chinese AIP engine, electronics, sonar and weaponry), but the Russians might not be happy with such an exchange. There is a lot more secrecy around the nuclear program, but it seems to me that the new modified Type 093 class is still in sea trials. More GE photos are needed to see further progress.
Auxiliary fleet - The large auxiliary ships have also been building across various shipyards. At GSI shipyard, we have seen the 5th Type 903A AOR and the 2nd Type 904 supply ship launched this year. The former should continue to compliment China’s blue water fleet and the latter will join No. 888 in supplying the naval bases that China is building in South China Sea. Going forward, I think larger AORs will be launched, since something larger is needed to support a carrier strike group. At GSI shipyard, we also saw a new large submarine cable laying ship launched recently. Not much more info about it is available at this point. HD shipyard was also busy with these larger ships. We saw the 4th test ship No. 894 join service this year. It’s kind of baffling to me that they need this many test ships, but I guess they really just have a lot of new subsystems to test out. Two Type 815B AGI ships were launched this year. They are an improved version of Type 815 AGI ship that HD shipyard built earlier. They should probably join service next year and augment the three AGI ships that they have in service. And finally, China has continued to build newer Type 081 minesweepers. I think the older Type 6605/6610 minesweepers should be retiring soon, so the Type 081 production should continue into next year.
Cutters – China’s coastal guard fleet (Maritime police agency) has also been really on a massive expansion this past year. HP and WC shipyard have been leading the way with a bunch of 5000-ton, 4000-ton, 3000-ton and 1-ton class cutters for the costal fleet. Prior to the merger of 4 of the 5 maritime agencies, these had already been ordered the expansion of CMS national/regional fleet and FLEC fleet. Since merger, they are being built for the same agency but probably still for the same roles. The many provincial coastal guard flotillas will now be equipped with these new cutters for maritime disputes in East and South China Sea. JN is building two 12000-ton class cutters with the first one recently launched. They are not large warships that will be terrorizing East China Sea contrary to some speculations. Outside of these larger cutters, a lot of smaller 600-ton and 300-ton class cutters are being built in the smaller shipyards around the country. The other thing we see is a lot of rescue ships and scientific research ships being built at HP shipyard and smaller shipyards. Out of all the shipyards, HP seems to have been getting most of the orders and have really been building them at a very fast pace. WC had historically been building most of them, but has been launching them a lot slower than HP.
So overall, another really active year in the Chinese shipyards and things are not likely to slow down in 2015. I will actively looking for the appearance of LHD and Type 055 modules in the coming year along with more news on the nuclear submarine fleet.