PLA(N) Makes Worldwide Waves

In October 2006, a Chinese Song-class submarine evaded escorting vessels of the American Kitty Hawk carrier battle group, surfacing 8km away and within torpedo range of the huge aircraft carrier itself.

23rd Apr 2010


PLA(N) Makes Worldwide Waves

In October 2006, a Chinese Song-class submarine evaded escorting vessels of the American Kitty Hawk carrier battle group, surfacing 8km away and within torpedo range of the huge aircraft carrier itself. The ripples from this event reached all the way to the Pentagon, and since then China’s naval forces have continued to make waves around the world. Several recent episodes in the development of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) are causing furrowed brows of U.S. military officials, including its first ever long-range operational deployment.

While the official US position is that they wish to engage with China and encourage it to fulfil its role in promoting regional security, it is clear that strategic competition between Washington and Beijing is emerging. Whereas concern formerly hinged on Beijing’s sabre rattling over the Taiwan issue, it has now developed into a broader rivalry. Rear Admiral (RADM) Rick Wren, commander of the George Washington Strike Group, expressed America’s growing consternation: “We all encourage China to become a responsible global participant. But the way they are growing their military is confusing. Why do you need a missile that can go thousands and thousands of miles if you are a defensive force? The total number of submarines they have and their capabilities sure don’t point to a defensive or even an ‘active-defence force’, as they like to call it. To me, it points to establishing an offensive, blue-water navy.”

The incremental journey towards a blue-water navy made a significant advance on 26 December 2008 when China deployed its first task force from Hainan Island to the pirate-infested waters near the Horn of Africa. The ships began anti-piracy escort operations on 6 January 2009, this action being incredibly significant as it marked China’s first foray in centuries into a potential conflict zone far from its own territorial waters. What instigated this move was the threat to China’s maritime lifeline, for much of its oil comes from the Middle East and North African region. The PLAN claimed 20% of Chinese merchant vessels passing the Somali coast between January and November 2008 were attacked by pirates, including seven ships that were hijacked. The first task force included around 800 crewmembers as well as PLAN Special Forces personnel. From the beginning, Chinese authorities have viewed this as a long-term deployment, and so the first task force was relieved by a second group in April 2009. A third task force arrived in August and a fourth is currently in place. China is just one Asia-Pacific country to send naval ships to the Gulf of Aden, others including Australia, India, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea.

Naval Escort Task Force 529 was China’s third deployment to the Horn of Africa. It consisted of the Type 054A missile frigates Zhoushan (FFG-529) and Xuzhou (FFG-530) plus the supply ship Qiandaohu. The detachment departed its home port of Zhoushan in Zhejiang Province on 16 July 2009. Under the command of RADM Wang Zhiguo of the East Sea Fleet, it arrived at its station off the Somali coast on 30 July, and officially took over patrolling duties on 1 August. During its four-month operational deployment, TF529 conducted 53 escort missions for 582 Chinese and foreign ships, including 146 Hong Kong-registered vessels. The task force returned from the Gulf of Aden in December 2009, incorporating a short port visit to Hong Kong from 14-17 December. The two 4,053-ton Type 054A missile frigates of TF529 measure 134m in length. Four of these new-generation multi-role vessels have been commissioned thus far, and two more are under construction.

The fourth task force currently stationed off the Somali coast encountered the hijacking of the Chinese bulk carrier De Xin Hai on 19 October 2009. It was of interest to see how China would handle the situation after pirates took the vessel to their lair on the Somali coast. The naval task force was too far away to intervene at the time of the attack, but one Chinese official stated, “For us to use force is a very complex matter…it is not just a simple question based on an operational requirement. There are political questions – and these are not issues dealt with by military commanders alone. Our warships off Somalia are very well aware of this. We are fully prepared to use force, but we do not take that step lightly.” In the event, China’s response and rules of engagement were aligned with those of other nations in the region. The De Xin Hai and its 25 crew were eventually released on 27 December. The Chinese government remained mute on how the ship was released, but it was reported a total of USD4 million was paid. However, it did underscore China’s operational restraint and reluctance to engage in open conflict.

Submarines rise to the fore

The surface fleet is not the only element of the PLAN that is extending its reach, since the underwater fleet is also growing in capability and modernity. In fact it is a particular point of contention for China’s submarine fleet is currently the third largest in the world. There was a time when it was joked the biggest threat Chinese submarines posed was to their own crews…but times are changing! One way of combating the USA’s naval superiority and its carriers is through submarines. Another voice expressing growing American unease is that of the U.S. Navy’s Vice-Admiral Jay Donnelly, Commander of the Submarine Force, who said on 7 November 2008 in Canberra, “While the large number of ships being constructed by the Chinese is cause for concern, more important is that we simply don’t understand the rationale for many of their activities.” He warned that China was building up its navy to prevent a third party from intervening in any conflict over Taiwan, and advocated increased regional cooperation with Australia to counter this threat.

Japan has also expressed concern about China’s submarines increasingly skirting its maritime borders in the East China Sea. On 17 October 2008, Japan revealed the presence of Chinese Han-class and Song-class submarines shadowing the USS George Washington on a voyage to Pusan, South Korea. The U.S. Navy has twelve aircraft carriers, with the USS George Washington (based in Yokosuka, Japan) the only one permanently forward deployed. The seriousness of the perceived Chinese naval threat is illustrated by the fact that the USA is moving 60% of its submarine fleet to the Pacific. When the refitted USS Oklahoma City is eventually moved to Guam, it will mean 31 of the USA’s 53 fast-attack submarines will be active in the Asia-Pacific region. Concerning the USS Oklahoma City, Rear Admiral Douglas McAneny, commander of Pacific Fleet submarines, stated “that our most technologically advanced submarines are forward, so we maintain our ability to dominate the sea base and shape potential adversaries.” Of course China was not mentioned explicitly, but the implications are clear – the USA is intent on maintaining pre-eminence in the region’s waters.

The Chinese submarine fleet

A brief survey of the submarine inventory of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) would be beneficial. In terms of conventional submarines, for three decades China relied on obsolete Type 033 Romeo-class and Type 035G Ming-class submarines obtained from the former USSR. Since then, China has introduced the Russian Kilo-class attack submarine (SSK) and indigenously designed Song-class missile submarine (SSG). The Song (also called Type 039) was a new class first launched in May 1994 and first commissioned in 1999. Powered by a German MTU 12V 493 diesel engine, its more hydrodynamic profile and seven-bladed propeller mean it is quieter than the Ming and Romeo classes. Serious design problems meant subsequent submarines were of Type 039G and 039GI design, the first of 13 entering PLAN service in late 2001.

The Russian Kilo-class SSK heralded a significant step forward in the PLAN’s submarine capabilities in terms of propulsion, fire control and weapon systems. The third and fourth vessels imported from Russia were the latest Project 636 model – which are among the quietest in the world. These were delivered in 1997 and 1998, with all four Kilo-class vessels operating in the East Sea Fleet. A further eight were ordered in 2002, their acquisition helping Chinese designers immensely and inspiring the Type 041 Yuan class. The first Type 041 was launched in May 2004, and two more have been built since then, the latest launched at the Wuhan Shipyard in May 2008. This class reportedly employs an air-independent propulsion (AIP) system, and if the Type 041 proves successful, series production will follow.

Turning to the topic of nuclear-powered submarines, China has been giving priority to both nuclear attack submarine (SSN) and nuclear ballistic submarine (SSBN) designs. Only one Xia-class (Type 092) SSBN was built in 1981, with final integration of JL-1 missiles and firing tests taking place in September 1988. This combat system had serious deficiencies, and its refit took three years. It is now back in service carrying JL-1 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) possessing a range of up to 2,000km, plus it serves as a test platform for the PLAN’s SSBN programme. The design has been superseded by the improved Type 094 Jin-class SSBN first launched in 2004. A second and possibly a third vessel are also believed to be in PLAN operational service. It is expected up to five 094 vessels could be built, each carrying twelve JL-2 SLBMs.

The Han-class (Type 091) was China’s first-generation SSN, and it began entering service in 1974. The five Han-class vessels had serious deficiencies and were later upgraded to 091G status. Their more successful replacement was the Type 093 Shang-class SSN, two of which have been launched since 2002, and with a third and fourth predicted to be in service by 2010. Its traditional Russian twin-hull design is essentially the same as the Kilo 636 class. The Type 093 does not offer much in the way of innovation and does not seem to have vertical missile launchers, meaning all weapons are launched through its torpedo tubes. Though fitted with anechoic tiles and being longer than the Type 091G, it gives the impression of still lagging behind Western and Russian submarine designs. So far there are no indications China will build any more 093s, though some commentators say between four and eight may be produced. Alternatively the two existing vessels could be upgraded, and preparations made to build the future Type 095.

Recent developments

China is seeking a credible submarine force to counter perceived potential threats - particularly from the USA and Japan, possibly assisted by Australia. To do so it has been producing submarines at the rate of about 2.5 vessels per year, plus it has been deploying its most modern designs. At the end of 2007, a Type 094 SSBN navigated its way to Hainan Island, and it is surmised it probably conducted a series of deep-submersion and torpedo tests in the South China Sea until April 2008. The Pentagon and Japanese Ministry of Defence simultaneously announced that the PLAN test-fired a JL-2 SLBM on 29 May 2008 in the Bohai Sea. China rarely test-fires missiles, and this was the first test since one from an undersea platform in 2005. The missile’s very low trajectory and impact point in the Yellow Sea suggest this test was a failure. Considering it took nearly five years from sea tests of the Type 092 till it launched the JL-1, at least a similar period of time should be expected before the Type 094 and JL-2 are operationally ready. It can thus be deduced that the JL-2 has not been fitted to the Type 094 yet. The U.S. intelligence community estimates the JL-2’s range at 8,000+km and its single warhead yield of 250-1,000 kilotons is enough to put Alaska and Hawaii within reach from Chinese territorial waters. For a JL-2 missile to reach the continental USA, a Jin-class SSBN would have to sneak out through the Sea of Japan.

Until recently, most SSBNs and SSNs have operated out of Xiaopingdao as part of the North Sea Fleet, but a new underwater submarine base at Yulin on Hainan Island in the South China Sea has been under construction. From here, JL-2 missiles from Jin-class submarines could reach Guam, India and most of Russia. This geographical dispersal of submarines greatly expands the PLAN’s area of operations. Furthermore, if China was to build five Jin-class vessels, it could have a near-continuous sea-based deterrent. With a figure lower than this, China would retain just an operational surge capability with its SSBNs. Intelligence indicates the South Sea Fleet has one Type 091G and one 093, while the North Sea Fleet has two or three 091Gs and one 093. This estimated total of five nuclear attack submarines gives China an underwater capability surpassing that of the UK or France. A Type 093 in the South Sea Fleet could also lend support to any future PLAN aircraft carrier.

Strategic implications

China clearly holds aspirations of becoming a blue-water navy. As the national economy expands exponentially, it is increasingly reliant on imported energy sources plus other raw materials. Considering the fact that more than 50% of the Chinese economy depends on foreign trade, and 90% of this is transported by sea, it is obvious that securing sea lines of communication (SLOC) is vital to the national interest. China is exploiting its own continental shelf with oil and gas fields in the Bohai, East China and South China Seas. There is also territorial conflict over ownership of the Spratly Islands, which are thought to harbour extensive energy resources. China also boasts a vast fishing fleet, and is the world’s largest supplier of seafood. This economic transformation of China has led to altered security requirements.

The Malacca Straits also weigh heavily on the Chinese psyche, for this is the passage that connects the Indian Ocean and oil-rich Middle East with China. More than 50,000 ships ply this waterway annually, and its closure would require rerouting nearly half the world’s cargo vessels. China is certainly fearful the USA could blockade the Malacca Straits in the event of conflict, and a strong submarine force could help allay this threat. China’s most pressing political goal is the reunification of Taiwan, and it has never renounced the use of force to achieve this. It could either enforce a naval blockade of the island or conduct an amphibious assault, and submarines would play a vital role in both neutralising the Republic of China Navy and deterring the USA from intervening.

However, another factor that needs to be considered is the reliability of China’s submarine fleet. According to U.S. naval intelligence, only six patrols (the U.S. Navy does not define “patrol” but it would likely mean an extended voyage away from a homeport) were conducted in 2007 by the PLAN’s entire fleet of 55 or so submarines. This was an increase from just two patrols in 2006 and none in 2005, but it still reflects a poor state of operational readiness, especially when compared to the U.S. Navy’s 100+ annual patrols. No SSBN voyages were logged in 2007, meaning China’s SSBN fleet has never once conducted a deterrent patrol. It needs to be remembered, though, that Chinese submarines are mostly engaged in coastal defence, as opposed to forward-deployed American submarines. For China’s submarine fleet, a total of just six patrols does not provide much operational experience for crews. If China is planning to extend the reach and influence of its submarines, one would expect this rate of patrols to increase in coming years. So far, modernisation has not manifested itself in increased operations, and China has much experience yet to gain in operating nuclear-powered missile submarines.

In response to Vice-Admiral Jay Donnelly’s comments about the Chinese threat, a Foreign Ministry spokesman stated China was pursuing peaceful development and that “China pursues a national defence policy which is defensive in nature. China’s limited military capability is solely for the purpose of safeguarding independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and will not pose a threat to any country.” Andrei Chang, a Hong Kong-based military analyst specialising in Chinese affairs, commented on comparisons between American and Chinese submarines: “I’d say it’s just like a high school student and a post-doctorate student!” When quizzed on whether the USA needs to be worried about the Chinese submarine fleet, Mr. Chang stated, “They need to be. They’re high school, not primary school, students. If a high school student punches you, it’s still painful.”

Despite China’s protests to the contrary, equilibrium in the regional naval power equation is clearly being upset by China’s surface and submarine growth in terms of both numbers and quality. This is indicated by the seriousness with which the USA is treating this matter. Highly sensitive diplomatic and military games of cat and mouse are being played out in the region’s waters, as US and allied naval craft attempt to map and record sonar “signatures” of Chinese vessels. Tensions rose to the fore in March 2009 when Chinese civilian vessels impeded the unarmed surveillance ship USNS Impeccable in international waters between Hainan Island and Vietnam. Contrary to international conventions, China claims these waters are part of its own territory and vociferously resents American passage so close to Hainan Island. When asked whether the USA would continue operating in such areas, RADML Kevin Donegan, commander of the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet, said, “Absolutely, we will continue to operate in international waters…we will operate in areas that we’re allowed to operate in.” One can only expect such “encounters” to increase as these two nations proceed to feel each other out.

APDR at a glance