Destroyers and Frigates
Modern PLAN surface warships are quickly emerging to fulfill air defense, escort, and perhaps in the future, anti-missile and anti-submarine missions. The PLAN is slowly retiring its long-serving Luda class destroyers, of which 17 built during the 1970s and 1980s. About 14 remain in service, equipped mainly with anti-ship missile and gun armament, intended mainly to extend further out to sea previous PLAN doctrines of sea denial. As it acquired four Russian-built 1980s technology Sovremenniy class destroyers, from 2000 to 2006, the PLAN was developing three new classes of air defense destroyers that used purchased and co-developed sensor and weapon systems. Starting in 2003 the PLAN launched its new stealthy Type 054 Jiankai frigate, and a second class of stealthy frigate is expected before the end of the decade.
It appears that in building two ships each of three classes of air defense destroyers, filling a long-standing gap in capability, among the PLAN’s possible goals were to build different capability levels and to test different technologies and weapon-sensor combinations. The Type 051C, based on the transitional Type 051 Luhai class hull, features the high performance Russian Fort vertical-launched SAM system, which could deal with some tactical ballistic missile threats and high-speed cruise missiles. Then the Type 052B Luyang I featured the medium range Russian Shtil rail-launched SAM, and medium-range ASMs, perhaps also offering a more cost effective design. The Type 052C Luyang II was more ambitious, featuring an Aegis-like phased array radar and the HHQ-9 vertical-launched SAM co-developed with Russia’s Almaz-Antey SAM company. This SAM may have some ATBM capability, a feature that the PLAN will likely further develop for future destroyers.
The next class of PLAN destroyer is the subject of constant speculation by Chinese military magazines and websites, but there is little indication from open sources what capabilities it will stress. A recent issue of Shipborne Weapons, which seems to specialize in such speculation, posited a future PLAN destroyer class that apparently utilizes a smaller more capable version of the phased array radar of the Type 052C, and the new vertical launched SAM that equips the new Type 054A Jiankai II frigate. It would appear to be quite similar to the later versions of the U.S. Burke class air defense destroyer. It also features a larger bow sonar dome, indicating it may have a much improved anti-submarine capability. Such a ship would appear to be designed for carrier escort missions among others, but again, this is just speculation from one popular Chinese military magazine.
The PLAN frigate force now includes over 25 1970s vintage Jianghu class ships and 14 Jiangwei I and Jiangwei 2 ships, built from the late 1980s up until 2004. Both classes are ill equipped for modern naval warfare but could help enforce blockades if covered by land-based airpower. Some Jiangweis have been seen undergoing refurbishment while some Jianghu’s have been converted to carry 122mm multiple artillery rocket systems to perform amphibious fire support missions. The 2003 arrival of the Type 054 signaled the PLAN’s intention not to ignore this warship class. Having a similar stealthy shape to Taiwan/French LaFayette class frigate, the Type 054 and especially the later Type 054A with a new vertical launched SAM, they are a more capable though less expensive compliment to the PLAN’s new destroyers. The PLAN is expected to build up to 12 Type 054A frigates. In 2007 a European source told the author that Germany’s MTU maritime engine concern had won the competition to provide co-produced diesel engines for the next class of PLAN frigate, also expected to number 12 when completed.
Future issues: The PLAN follows closely global naval development trends and Chinese academic and popular military literature reflects an interest in how foreign navies are applying new technologies to produce more combat and cost effective solutions to naval challenges. It should be expected that future PLAN warships will make greater use of stealth, advanced electronics, automation to reduce crew size and Chinese-developed gas turbine engines. Future PLAN warships could also feature much longer range SAMs, new supersonic anti-ship and land-attack missiles, new laser or railgun weapons, and make greater use of UAVs and UUVs.
In the 1960s and 1970s the PLAN build hundreds of fast attack craft (FAC) based on Soviet Komar and Osa class FACs armed with HY-1 copies of the Soviet Styx early anti-ship missile. Tied to coastal defense “People’s War” doctrines these FACs were intended to operate in large numbers in conjunction with mines, submarines and air forces to thwart invasion from the sea. The decline of this threat from the 1980s onward also saw a decline in PLAN FAC numbers.
However, the PLAN has revived interest in this class of warship during the 10th and 11th five year plan. In 2004 the PLAN launched its first Type 022 stealthy wave-piercing catamaran FAC and in early 2009 Jane’s Fighting Ships estimated that about 60 had been built, out of a potential requirement for 100. Based on a fast-ferry design developed by the Australian AMD Corporation, the 220 ton Type 022’s wave-piecing catamaran configuration gives it a high 36 kt speed and offers such smaller ships better sea keeping ability in higher sea states. The Type 022 also uses stealth shaping, stealth coatings and disruptive camouflage to reduce its radar and optical signature. It is armed with up to eight YJ-82 anti-ship cruise missiles though it only has very light defensive armament consisting of one 25mm gun turret and MANPADS. This means that Type 022s can be used to add scores of ASMs to surface action groups for operations within the First Island Chain. In November 2007 Type 022s did join a surface action group consisting of larger destroyers and frigates for naval exercises in the South China Sea. However, the large missile bays could be configured for other types of missile ordinance, such as 300mm artillery rockets to assist amphibious operations. With adequate external cuing the Type 022 could also carry longer range land attack cruise missiles.
Future issues: Of some importance the Type 022 points the possibility of the PLAN building larger wave- piercing catamaran ships for more diverse missions. Starting in 2005 China has built a rescue ship and a fast ferry using a wave piercing catamaran hull, both roughly in the 300-400 ton range. The first fast ferry may have been launched on June 2, 2009. It appears to be able to carry 200-300 passengers. This is not as large as the 950 ton Joint High Speed Surface Vessel (JHSV) wave-piercing catamaran to be built for the U.S. Navy, but it does indicate the PLA could opt to build larger similar warships to enable high speed troop and material movement for amphibious operations. In early 2008 the popular Chinese military magazine Shipborne Weapons printed a speculative article exploring future versions of the Type 022, to include a larger “corvette” version which could carry unmanned helicopters or small manned helicopters, to perhaps serve as a command ship.
A rapid buildup of logistic supply and other auxillary support ships would be a key indicator of the PLA’s intension to assemble a navy increasingly capable of regional and extra-regional power projection. But so far into this decade, it would appear that the PLAN is not yet ready for a significant expansion of its logistic support fleet, though it has demonstrated a clear capability to do so should it make that decision. From 2002 to 2003 the PLAN built two 23,000 ton Fuchi class modern underway replenishment ships (AORs). Based on an earlier design produced for Thailand, the Fuchi is a modern AOR capable of underway transfer of fuel and solid stores. These ships have supported PLAN naval diplomatic deployments to Europe and Asia, and also supported the first anti-piracy deployment in December 2008. Prior to this the PLAN built two 21,000 ton Fuqing class underway replenishment ships in the 1970s, and acquired the Ukraine-built 37,000 ton Nanyun underway refueling tanker in 1993.
Smaller versions of the Fuchi hull appear to forms the basis of two other new auxiliaries. In 2006 the 14,000+ ton Danyao class was launched. While its primary mission was not readily apparent, Chinese sources have pointed to its being designed to replenish Paracel and Spratly Island outposts. It can lower smaller cargo landing craft into the water to move supplies to the shallow water islets in the Spratly group, or use a helicopter. This ship would also seem suited to for potential future missions to deploy or tend underwater sensors in the South China Sea. Then in 2007 the PLAN launched its first purpose-built 14,000+ ton Type 920 Anwei class hospital ship. While its medical support capabilities have not been reported, this ships gives the PLAN a hefty tool play a major role in future humanitarian relief operations. It can also serve to raise combat morale by offering a greater assurance of medical support for military personnel deployed for Taiwan, regional or extra-regional military operations.
Land Based Naval Air Forces
The People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force (PLANAF) consists mainly of land-based fighters, attack fighters, bombers, refueling tankers, plus land and sea-based helicopters. These units are assigned to the three PLAN fleets and the PLANAF conducts most of its own training. As the PLA becomes more comfortable with joint operations, and to realize command and personnel efficiencies, it is possible to consider the PLAN narrowing its types of land-based air assets and devoting most of its resources to new carrier based air wings. While the PLAN would be loath to reduce its combat capabilities, it is possible to consider the PLA Air Force lobbying to have the Navy give up most of its land-based fighters and bombers should it start building politically attractive aircraft carriers. The PLAAF’s 3+ and 4th generation fighters and attackers, approaching 500 in number, are capable of mounting effective naval strikes. The PLAAF also has increasing numbers of AWACS and other support aircraft to better control naval air operations. The PLA Air Force may also be doubly sore, as its apparent attempt to control a possible future “Space Force” may not be meeting with success. It is also possible to consider the PLAN’s coastal defense cruise missile forces being transferred to the Second Artillery.
For the current period however, it appears that the PLAN is intent on improving both its air forces and coastal defense missile forces. In the last decade the PLANAF has acquired one regiment of Su-30MKK2 fighter bombers, and may have three to four regiments of the Xian JH-7 and JH-7A fighter bomber. The Sukhoi is the more capable of the two and the PLAN may want to retain these, especially if the PLA opts to purchase Su-33s for its early aircraft carriers. The JH-7 approaches the performance of the British version of the McDonnell-Douglas F-4K Phantom, and uses the same Rolls Royce Spey 202 engines. In fact, a 1998 agreement between Rolls Royce and the PLA to revive a failed attempt of the 1970s to buy this engine led to a successful co-production agreement, which made the newer JH-7A possible. The PLA has recently revealed that it has equipped the JH-7 with new electronic warfare pods, in a manner similar to the U.S. E/A-6 electronic warfare aircraft. Chinese sources have recently revealed a possible 1990s design effort to develop a more advanced stealthy version, called the JH-7B. This could also be Xian’s attempt to compete with Shenyang’s new J-11BS or another unknown stealthy attacker program.
Earlier this decade the PLANAF introduced a new version of the long-serving Xian H-6 bomber, this time armed with four wing-mounted 200+km range YJ-83 anti-ship cruise missiles. In small numbers, this bomber would not survive long in a modern combat environment, but it may meet with success as part of a larger coordinated massed launching of anti-ship cruise missiles from air and sea platforms. The PLANAF also uses small numbers of HU-6 aerial refueling tankers which serve a small number of Shenyang J-8 fighters equipped with refueling probes.
One area of deficiency for the PLANAF is in maritime patrol and anti submarine warfare aircraft. It does have a small number of Shaanxi Y-8 four-turboprop transports outfitted for maritime surveillance missions, and a small number of Y-8s also carry British Searchwater AEW radar. More recently the PLANAF has acquired new special mission Y-8s equipped for electronic warfare missions. Earlier interest in buying or co-producing the Russian Beriev Be-200 turbofan powered patrol seaplane has not materialized, and the PLA may instead be designing a new turboprop powered seaplane. The PLANAF does not have a dedicated ASW aircraft like the Lockheed Martin P-3 or the Russian Ilyushin Il-38.
The PLAN has also maintained a small but widely based number of coastal defense units armed with anti-ship missiles. Asian military sources have told the author in 2008 that the PLAN had upgraded its coastal artillery units near Taiwan with a new version of the YJ-62 long-range anti-ship cruise missile. The transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) for this cruise missile has since been revealed by Chinese sources, showing it is now a mobile missile, compared to previously fixed PLAN coastal missile emplacements. The long range of the YJ-62 raises interesting questions. Will the Second Artillery press to control these assets, inasmuch as the SA is also building its force new strategic land attack cruise missiles? Or instead, could the PLAN coastal defense force justify its acquiring new ASBMs, which are thought to currently be controlled by the Second Artillery? The latter possibility would increase should the PLAN successfully press for a submarine or ship launch capable ASBM.
Future issues: So far the PLANAF has not purchased the newer Shenyang J-11B or the Chengdu J-10 fighters. However, it may be attracted to the new twin-seat J-11BS, which would offer a better attack and training platform for carrier based pilots. In addition the PLANAF can be expected to take a strong interest in emerging UAV and UCAV programs of the PLA. Chengdu’s large surveillance UAV would be ideally suit PLANAF desires to more closely monitor disputed territories in the East and South China Seas, down to the Malacca Straits. Inasmuch as China may now be developing a new four-turbofan engine transport aircraft similar in size to the Boeing 767, it is likely that the PLANAF will be an early customer for aerial refueling version of this airliner. In addition, China’s intention to build a new competitive 150+ passenger airliner by 2014 or 2015, similar in size to the Boeing 737 or Airbus 320, could provide a useful long-range platform for a dedicated ASW, patrol or electronic support aircraft.
Meeting the Challenge
China’s potential to build a large power-projection navy by the 2020s will significantly alter the balance of power in Asia and globally. Should this new power be controlled by the same Chinese Communist Party that tolerates no legitimate opposition forces in China, is profoundly hostile to democracy, remains ready to militarily end democracy on Taiwan, and seeks to displace American power in Asia, there are bound to be opportunities for future conflict between China and the democratic states. However, in 2009 China has not yet assembled the myriad elements to build and sustain a global power projection navy. The U.S. Pacific Command controls the most powerful and deployable naval and air combine in Asia, which gives the leadership of the United States great flexibility to address challenges to its security and to exercise regional leadership.
Though the U.S. now faces a period of significant economic turmoil, which is in no small part responsible for recent decisions to curtail several expensive U.S. weapons programs, it is also short sighted in the extreme to dismiss the requirements for many of these systems as “next war-itis.” China, North Korea, Iran and others are not giving the U.S. the luxury to ignore their increasing high-technology threats so the U.S. can better prosecute the low-tech wars of counter-insurgency. Sustaining the ability to deter China and others will only be increasingly difficult and expensive. The following are some key concerns and suggested responses:
--As it has been the U.S. experience, the PLA apparently has come to realize that a globally capable military requires access to space and perhaps control of space. The range of PLA military space programs designed to attack U.S. space assets means that an adequate U.S. defense and deterrent offensive military space capability is a requirement to sustain the U.S. ability to conduct global military operations.
--China’s potential to develop a defended “Bastion” for future SSBN operations in the South China Sea raises the possibility of China’s seeking to impose unacceptable controls over the commercially vital sea lanes of this region. This requires both a diplomatic and a military response if the U.S. truly values its traditional defense of “freedom of the seas.” It would be ideal if China were to accept Western concepts of transparency and verifiable nuclear weapons controls but that is not likely. Absent this, it is necessary for the U.S. to change its longstanding neutrality regarding the South China Sea disputes and to work with regional allies to ensure that China is deterred from imposing control over this region.
--As the PLA builds an increasingly capable phalanx of anti-access forces, to include unique weapons like the ASBM, it also apparent that the PLAN hopes to have carriers that can dominate regions in which the U.S. Navy has been deterred from or made ineffective. The ASBM threat makes more necessary the planned railgun and other energy weapons that would have best been enabled by the now curtailed DDG-1000 class destroyer. The advent of a Chinese carrier navy raises the issue of whether the U.S. Navy should develop its own long-range anti-ship ballistic missile for ship or submarine use, and sale to allies.
--At the same time, the advent of China’s carrier navy raises the need to both consider the expansion of the U.S. carrier fleet in terms of numbers and capability, or the development of new sea-based platforms that are both more survivable and able to deliver effective air power. Though the U.S. Navy may be quite comfortable with its affordable fleet of F/A-18E/F combat aircraft, these may prove increasingly inadequate in the face of new Chinese Su-33, and future Chinese and/or Russian 5th generation carrier fighters. It not the time to limit the number of U.S. Air Force F-22 5th generation fighters or limit their sale to allies. The U.S. should also begin investing in a 5+ or 6th generation combat aircraft. It is also necessary for the U.S. to develop new compact but highly capable UAVs and UCAVs which can be deployed from a wider range of smaller ships and submarines, to supplement the increasingly vulnerable aircraft carrier.
--China’s buildup of increasingly capable non-nuclear submarines challenges regional navies as it does U.S. naval forces deployed to the Western Pacific. Part of the U.S. response is the commit greater resources to restore anti-submarine capabilities to the fleet. There is a growing need for a carrier-based long range anti-submarine aircraft, either manned or unmanned, which has been lost by the retirement of the Lockheed-Martin S-3 Viking. There is also a growing need for the U.S. explore options to more economically compliment its expensive SSN fleet. This could include forward deployment of high-tech non-nuclear submarines, large UUVs and rapidly deployable seabed sensors. Washington should also follow through on its 2001 commitment to sell new submarines to Taiwan, and improve ASW cooperation with its allies.
This testimony benefits from the author’s review of these open sources on China’s naval modernization trends as presented in his recent book, China’s Military Modernization, Building for Regiona888l and Global Reach, Westport: Preager Security International, 2008, Chapters Five, Six and Seven. The section on aircraft carrier developments draws from the author’s “China’s Carrier Progress,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, (forthcoming).
 See “China forges ahead with new carrier,” Jane’s Intelligence Weekly, June 3, 2009, p. 10
 See author, “Secret Sanya—China’s new nuclear naval base revealed,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, May 2008.
 National Air and Space Intelligence Center, Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat, NASIC-1031-0985-09, p. 17.
For a recent review of China’s microsatellite efforts see the author’s “China’s Growing Microsatellite Prowess,” for the Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis in New Delhi (forthcoming).
 For a review of the PLA’s UAV sector and recent UAV developments see the author’s “Maritime Employment of PLA Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” for the U.S. Naval War College (forthcoming).