Thursday, November 28, 2013

CV-16 Liaoning's sea trial in South China Sea

This week, CV-16 sailed forth with 2 051Cs and 2 054As escorts to South China Sea for what China calls a scientific and training mission.

There are some concerns that CV-16 was sent there for political purposes to intimidate neigbhouring countries. I personally think that's wildly inaccurate. As I talked about in the previous entry on 091, No. 404 (the first production version of Type 091) was sent to South China Sea for testing at PLAN's deep water testing facility in Hainan. It should not be a surprise that China's first carrier would spend time here given how little space it has to operate around the Qingdao naval base. One of well known posters on Chinese military forum recently posted the following list of uncompleted tests that will need to be carried through this time.

  1. Temperature related tests - Due to the colder temperature of north, certain tests that require hot climate (like air conditioning systems and refrigeration equipments) can only be completed in South China Sea at this time of the year. All of this will happen in the relatively high water temperature of South China Sea, which cannot be replicated around Qingdao.
  2. Deep water tests - The Bohai sea shelf around Qingdao is generally pretty shallow. South China Sea has long stretches of water depths of greater than 100 m (several hundreds of meters in many cases). ASW tests, especially against deep diving submarines, can really only be carried out here. Other tests including under water communications, acoustic countermeasures testing and deep water anchor testings,
  3. Testing command & control - As part of having 2 051C and 054A in this sea trial, CV-16 will be able to test the command & control systems leading a flotilla formation. More C&C tests can be completed in South China Sea given the concentration of new combat aircraft and naval ships in the area (including the nuclear submarines stationed at Sanya naval base). He also listed that 054As are part of the flotilla due to their strong ASW suites, which is important given the number of foreign submarines that will be looking to gather CV-16 acoustic signatures. I tend to that's a lost cause.
  4. Testing the new Carrier base - There is a new carrier base being constructed in South China Sea. Having this flotilla there will test out the ability of the new naval base to support a carrier group.

So there are a number of tests that will need to be carried out this time. In the long term, there will be probably multiple carriers home based in the carrier base in South China Sea. After all, there is far more room to operate there than around Qingdao. I think this will be the first of many trips that CV-16 makes to South China Sea until SSF gets its own carrier.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Other new Chinese military projects

Recently, I’ve talked about future projects for PLAN’s nuclear submarine fleet and surface combatant fleet, because they have been the hot topics that have grabbed the attentions of PLA followers. This blog entry will focus on several other important projects that are under way.

The first of which is the next generation of diesel submarines. At the current time, 12 Yuan class submarines have joined service with PLAN. Out of which, the first 8 (including the original + 3 improved 039As) joined the 22nd flotilla replacing the 8 Song class submarines that were there. These boats are 330 to 337. Two of them were visited by the Deputy Chief of US Naval Operations very recently. The next 4 (338 to 341) joined service with NSF. Based on what I can gather from Chinese sources, it looks like we should be seeing the next generation of diesel submarine come out shortly. Although, we will probably see a few more Yuan (probably 4) join NSF to complete that flotilla. Back when Type 032 came out, I thought it might be the next generation of submarine, but it turned to be a replacement for the Gulf class missile test bed. One thought is that the next generation will be collaboration with the Russians based on the Amur class submarine. As I talked about in a previous blog entry, this project would make sense due to access to Russia’s latest generation of noise isolation technology along with single hull design. From all I have heard, the negotiation over this collaboration is continuing, but has not been signed off. China is looking to put its own engine (with AIP technology), sensors, combat system and weaponry on the boat. Due to the normal protracted pace of negotiation on an export deal, this project will not get under way for a couple of years even if it gets signed off. Also, something based on Amur class would be smaller in size than China’s existing fleet of Yuan and kilo submarines. I think PLAN will only be looking for a limited fleet of this type of submarine (maybe 4 boats) for shallow waters rather than as a replacement for the larger and more ocean-going Yuan submarine. From this deal, it will be looking for technology transfers in hull design and noise isolation technology that it can apply to future classes. If China does launch a new submarine class in the near future, the production of this boat must have started while Yuan class submarine is still ongoing, which means the design work would have started a while ago. From this, I would infer that the boat would have minimal input from any possible deal for the Amur class. Since the conventional submarines of SSF need to be replaced and submarines there have much greater room to operate, I think this new class will probably be a large conventional submarine like Yuan. It will be smaller than the Type 032 class, but building larger conventional submarines seems to be the direction that PLAN is going.

The other project that is already bearing fruit is the KJ-500 AEWC&C aircraft project. It is PLA’s second generation of AEW aircraft based on the Y-8/9 airframe. Unlike KJ-200, which sports balance beam radar, KJ-500 will be housing a large AESA disk like KJ-2000 plane. Until more IL-76 or Y-20 airframes become available for china, PLAAF is unlikely going to get any new KJ-2000 aircraft. At this point, we have more identified KJ-200s in service with PLANAF than PLAAF (although PLAAF unit does have more hangars). This could indicate that the radar of KJ-200 may not fully satisfy the requirements of PLAAF. A more powerful AESA radar using newer generation of T/R modules is developed and housed on the Y-8/9 airframe to produce KJ-500. We have already seen pictures of this radar on a Y-8CE test bed a couple of years ago. This year, we are seeing the first two prototype units of KJ-500 in the airfields. It will probably go into service with PLAAF over the next couple of years. By the end of this decade, China should have more IL-76 and Y-20 airframes, which would usher in a replacement for the KJ-2000 aircraft.

And finally, we have recently seen the second generation Soaring Dragon (Xiang Loong) prototypes appearing in the Chengdu air fields. We saw the original back in 2011 doing high speed taxiing runs, but it disappeared after a while. It may have been a technology demonstrator. The second generation prototype appears to be much smaller in length and wingspan. It also uses the canted vertical stabilizers + ventral stabilizing fins vs the single vertical stabilizer in the original. This and other more subtle changes indicate a stealthier profile than the original. It also features fairings in the fuselage that could house different types of sensors. Due to its smaller size and less powerful engine, it's unlikely to have the range and endurance of a predator, but should be more than sufficient for PLAAF at the moment. The partnership of 611 Institute/GAIC has already produced the Wing Loong/Pterodactyl UCAV (similar to MQ-1 Predator). With the Soaring Dragon project, it looks like they have won the competition to develop a HALE UAV for PLAAF. Similarly, the 601 Institute looks to have won the competition for long range UCAV with the appearance of Sharp Sword project. At this point, I think Soaring Dragon will probably join service earlier than Sharp Sword due to the greater complexity in the UCAV project, but it will probably take at least another 3 to 5 years for Soaring Dragon to join service.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The future of PLAN destroyers

Most recently, the 4th 052C joined service with PLAN as 151. Over the next half a year or so, the final 2 052Cs should also join service in the same flotilla. The first 052D started sea trials a little while ago and the construction for this program is proceeding very nicely. We have 3 052Ds launched along with modules for 2 others in JN shipyard. There is also speculations that Dalian shipyard also got works for 052Ds. The product run for 052D is expected to reach 8. That would mean a total of 16 052B/C/Ds. A big question is what will happen after this production run is over. These 16 ships will form 4 destroyer flotillas. At this point, 052D is already as fully loaded with weapon/sensor as its hull could handle. As part of PLAN's continuous modernization, a new Type 055 class is expected to be built to lead the next generation of PLAN surface warship.

There is a lot of discussions on SDF recently regarding whether or not this Type 055 class is needed, so I'm going to just jump in here to talk about what i think of this speculated class. If we look at recent new classes, typically the first one or two ship of a particular hull type gets produced with current generation of sensors of weapons. In the case of 054, it was equipped with radars, missiles and close in weapon systems that were already on other ships. In the case of 052B, it was equipped with newer subsystems than 051B and 052, but they were proven Russian or Chinese copy of Russian subsystems that were on Sovs. Although both 054 and 052B were said to use a newer generation of combat systems, the visible weapon subsystems were already mature. And the reason for that is PLAN generally does not like to create a new surface ship hull type (with new propulsion system) and also putting new weapon or sensor subsystems on there. When one considers how new some of these subsystems are to PLAN, it certainly makes sense that they would want to be conservative and evaluate them on existing platforms first. As a result of this, the new VLS, radar suite and CIWS were installed on 052C and 054A class.

And with the introduction of the impressive 052D class, a even more complete VLS (and associated radars) along with a new main gun, the HQ-10 CIWS and new type of variable depth sonar are squeezed onto this existing hull after already getting that new generation of 052C subsystems. I would expect this new VLS to be on all future major PLAN surface ships. From that stand point, any new missiles that's designed for this VLS would be usable by all PLAN surface ships post 052D. I do expect that the first 055 will use a lot of the subsystems that we already see on 052D, but with more VLS and larger radar or one with higher placement. The first couple of ships will be used to test out a new larger and more stealthy hull using a new propulsion system. There has been quite the discussion on SDF on whether this class is needed when China can just keep on mass producing 052D like it is doing with 054A. I think it's important to note that 8 052D + 6 052C is quite an extended production run for this class of ships. As PLAN becomes more of a blue water fleet, it believes that a larger platform with more modern propulsion system is required to be better suited for blue water operation. This would allow better speed and manueverability in escorting carriers, smoother operations in bad weather conditions/sea state and greater ability to lead a flotilla. On top of that, 052D's hull has very little left for expansion in the future and would not be able to support any future weapon system like laser or a more powerful ABM radar that would have greater power requirement than what the current propulsion system offers. The 055 platform does not need to be the size of a 12000 ton cruiser like some have suggested. Something along the lines of Arleigh Burke class or Kongo class with future expansion possibilities would more than satisfy PLAN requirements. Once PLAN is satisfied with the 055 platform, it will then proceed with installing new weapon subsystems.

Similary, although 054A has been one of PLAN's most successful program, it will need to be succeeded by a new platform using the new standard VLS along with a new type of propulsion system.