Saturday, March 21, 2015

Myanmar and Kokang

In this past month, Myanmar air force has apparently waded into Chinese territory 3 times as part of its ongoing struggles with Kokang rebels. In the most recent time, bombs were dropped which killed 5 Chinese citizens. Due to the fact that the vast majorities of Kokang population are ethnically Han Chinese and use RMB as their currency, there is understandably a lot of sympathy in China toward the plight of Kokang. Many people have compared this to Russia and Crimea and others wonder if China should do more in this conflict.

As usual, China keeps to its official stance of not interfering with another country’s internal affairs while building up air defense capabilities in the border area. China painstakingly makes it clear that it’s not supporting Kokang rebels causes, because it has relatively good relationship with Myanmar and does a lot of business in the country. In the future, it is also possible that China would want to set up base in Myanmar to access Indian Ocean. So it should be quite understandable that PLA does not devote much resource in this area. There is 2 regiments stationed in the area, but they are quite a distance away from where the bombings took place. A lot of people were wondering about the readiness of PLAAF to respond to intrusions, but it seems like they really didn’t have that much time based on where the intrusions happened.

The interesting part is that Myanmar first reacted to these bombings by putting the blames on the rebels and absolving itself of all responsibility. They have since toned down their accusations and may have even offered compensations to the victim’s families, but I think they really looked quite foolish in the process. A swift apology and some kind of pledge to investigate the matters would have done a lot to pacify the anger in China right now. As it is, the Chineses gov’t is under pressure to do something.

So far, it looks like they have told Myanmar that this kind of action is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. And I think that if China wants to be the leader in this region, it certainly cannot allow repeated incursion of its airspace and bombing of its citizens. The way to do that is by building up more air defense weapon systems and installing more early warning radar in the range. If China’s radar cannot reliable track Myanmar’s Mig-29s, then they need to improve those radar systems. And if another deadly bombing does occur, then they probably need to launch strikes against certain Myanmar military targets. Other than that, it is in China's interest to keep this as low-key as possible.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

What's most shrouded in secrecy

The Chinese navy has long been accused of not showing enough transparency. While that has certainly really improved in the recent year, there are still plenty of areas that's hard for a blogger like myself to follow. Certainly, most of the surface combatants are easy to track, since many photos are released of them. Most of the subsystems and weapon systems on these ships are also quite transparent with some version of them offered for exports. There are some many news reports giving even more information on various naval ships and their subsystems. So which programs are noticeably absent from all these photos and news releases?

The most obvious answers would be their strategic platforms. Certainly, CV-16 is a strategic platform, but it also happens to be one of the more transparent programs due to how it has captured the imagination of the ordinary people. At this point, I don't see them introducing any significant secrecy to CV-16 or aircraft carriers in general due to the excitement it has generated. Certainly, the nuclear submarine programs are probably the most secretive platforms amongst all of the naval ships. We very rarely see pictures of under construction nuclear submarines, but we do get some pictures of them at the naval bases and out on patrols. Also, 093 was officially declassified a few years ago, which allowed for some more pictures to come out. As shown in my previous blog entry, we get enough information about 093 and 094 from China themselves and Google Earth photos in addition to ONI reports to make some educated guesses on where they are at.

So, what else are really hard to get any kind of useful information on? The first would be the ASBM project. I've written numerous articles on it back in 2009. Such articles were written based on work already done by Chinese bloggers on the same topic. Even though numerous articles were written by people like myself, Andrew Erickson and numerous other PLA followers, much of what we gathered were based on our observations of various support systems that were developed. Certainly, we get more information on China's satellite programs, ELINT programs and UAV programs than DF-21D missile itself. We know that it is an active program, but the actual operational status is unknown at this point. It certainly makes sense that such secrecy is given to this program because of its strategic nature against US aircraft carriers. Due to the amount of attention I've seen USN given to this program, it seems like China would be wise to continue the secrecy here.

Secondly, What caused me to write this blog is the secrecy in China's torpedo programs. First thing to note is the different levels of transparency given to light and heavy torpedoes. We have not only seen many photos of Yu-7 carried by helicopters and launched by naval ships, but we've also seen export versions (ET-52) of Yu-7 and pictures of the Yu-7 seeker. It would make sense for Yu-7 to be more transparent since it's unlikely to be very helpful against nuclear submarine and more likely to be used to counter conventional submarines. At the same time, its kinetic performance can be estimated based on that of MK-46 and A244-S. Basically, the Chinese navy don't have as much to loose by giving Yu-7 greater transparency. It will be interesting to see if the next generation of light torpedo will be given the same level of transparency. It certainly seems like they are not investing as much in them. Heavy torpedo on the other hand have been extremely secretive. In the past 5 years, we've seen photos of Yu-6 and Yu-3A loaded onto conventional submarines. There have been no export versions of 533 mm torpedoes anywhere. There have been little to no articles on the usage and test firings of 533 mm torpedoes. Even the status and performance of a rather old torpedo like Yu-3A is completely off limits. I do suspect that they should have the necessary kinetic performance to sink conventional submarines and most surface combatants provided that the Chinese submarine can reliably track them. Based on that, it seems like these torpedoes will remain in service at least with the conventional submarines.

Since the wide introduction of Yu-6 is the past decade, there have apparently been 2 new heavy torpedoes in development that are either in service of close to service Yu-9 and Yu-10. In case you are wondering, I just read them off reasonably reliable Chinese bbs sources that these torpedo programs do exist and have gone through test firings. These were probably done in China's underwater weapon test range in South China Sea. It's no wonder why China is so concerned about American spy aircraft and ships around that area. Considering that there have not been any photos of them anywhere, I certainly don't have any details on their kinetic performance. So, the question is why there are so much secrecy toward these 533 mm torpedoes. I think China has correctly identified USN nuclear submarines as their biggest threat. After all, Chinese submarines cannot leave their naval bases without getting tracked by USN subs. Even though the top speed and operating depth of USN subs are classified, I would imagine that China needs something like MK-48 ADCAP that can sustain high speed over long range to chase down a modern USN submarine. The actual performance of something like the MK-48 mod 7 CBASS is classified (as is its advanced processing capability), but i would imagine it's capable of chasing down and destroying Russian and Chinese nuclear submarines that are within certain range. So I do think these new torpedoes will take over from Yu-3A/6 as the primary weapons on the Chinese nuclear submarines. On top of that, USN aircraft carriers are extremely fast and well protected against strikes for anti-ship missiles. A heavy torpedo is sure to do much greater damage than even multiple hits from anti-ship missiles. Therefore, new heavy torpedo development would also have double strategic value in usage against carriers. Now, I'm not saying the Chinese nuclear submarines are quiet enough to get within torpedo launching distance of a USN carrier, but numerous ambushing conventional submarines equipped with new torpedoes would be credible threats. So, I think these usage cases against strategic platforms explain their classified nature.

Another torpedo system that we have very little information on is China's version of ASROC. Since 054As have joined service, there have been many photos, articles and TV interviews revealing the many capabilities of this class of ships. We knew very early on that 054A's VLS could launch HQ-16 missiles and have seen many photos of live firing of HQ-16. However, it was only recently confirmed on Chinese online sources that these VLS could also fire anti-submarine missile (given possible designation Yu-8). We first heard on a TV interview of PLAN commander that such ability does exist, but I did not know at the time whether this Yu-8 was fired from the VLS or some other launcher. I just have not seen any photos of Yu-8 at this point. Based on articles regarding the new VLS on 052D, it seems like that VLS will also be capable of firing some types of anti-submarine missile. There are certain advantages to VL anti-submarine missile vs normal shipborne torpedo launchers, since it gives surface combatants additional quick reaction, standoff ASW capability on top of shipborne helicopters. As I mentioned, we are still waiting for first public photo of such missile.

On top of the classified nature of torpedoes, information on the new sonar system that China has developed for its surface combatants and submarines are also classified, but not to the same degree. I think it's clear that the Chinese Navy sees ASW as its biggest weakness. They have spent a lot of money in developing sensors to track advanced submarines, but more resources is spent on the weapons against them. Even as they show more transparency, torpedo programs are still very secretive.