Tag Archives: PLAN

Modern Chinese Warplanes: Chinese Naval Aviation – Aircraft and Units

Rupprecht, Andreas. Modern Chinese Warplanes: Chinese Naval Aviation – Aircraft and Units Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2018. 80pp. $29.95

By Lieutenant Commander David Barr, USN

In the introduction of his latest installment regarding modern Chinese combat aircraft, Andreas Rupprecht correctly assesses the rapid and expansive scope of Chinese air power modernization: “The amount of ‘recent changes’ especially in doctrine, training, and force structure are so numerous that they would easily surpass the available space within one volume, it was decided to separate the naval air component from the regular Air Force and Army Aviation.”1 His thoughtful and deliberate efforts paid off.  In Modern Chinese Warplanes: Chinese Naval Aviation – Aircraft and Units, Rupprecht wisely focuses his efforts solely on Chinese naval aviation, and in the effort, masterfully delivers its stated purpose to “provide an extensively illustrated compact yet comprehensive directory, with in-depth analysis of the organization and equipment of modern Chinese naval air power.”2

In Chapter 1, Rupprecht succinctly explains the origins and history of Chinese naval aviation or what is modernly referred to as the People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force (PLANAF). By reading pages 11-14, one will gain an educational understanding of how the PLA historically placed the PLANAF at a lower priority than that of the more prominent and mightier PLA Air Force (PLAAF). And how, like many a younger sibling throughout history, the PLANAF had to make due from hand-me-downs from its bigger brother. Rupprecht dedicates the remainder of the chapter to his assessment of the PLANAF’s future which he briefly describes as “relatively bright” and further predicts that the PLANAF “will probably be the largest beneficiaries of the recent reform and modernization.”3

J-15 landing on Chinese carrier CV-16. (Photo from Modern Chinese Warplanes: Chinese Naval Aviation – Aircraft and Units)

The “recent reform and modernization” to which Rupprecht refers is part of an ongoing and widespread PLA force modernization program which focuses on giving the PLA capabilities to conduct what Chinese military strategists call informatized, integrated joint operations. China’s 2015 defense white paper, released by the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, directs the PLA to “win informatized local wars” with emphasis on struggle in the maritime domain. Additionally, the white paper addresses the need for further development of PLA Navy (PLAN) capabilities in the face of an expanding mission set, stating the PLAN will shift its focus from “offshore waters defense” to the combination of “offshore waters defense” with “open seas protection.”4 This grander vision for the PLAN aligns with China’s perceived need to protect what it considers its “core interests” – safeguarding its national territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in order to ensure Chinese economic and social development. Toward this end, as Rupprecht’s explains through Andrew Erickson in Chapter 6: “The PLAN is more likely to develop a limited power projection that enhances China’s ability to defend its regional interests; to protect expanding overseas interests; to perform non-traditional security missions.”5 It would seem logical therefore to assess that the PLANAF represents a growth industry for the PLAN over the coming decades.

In Chapters 2 through 5 of Modern Chinese Warplanes: Chinese Naval Aviation – Aircraft and Units Rupprecht offers a solid description of how the PLA is slowly and methodically improving the power projection capabilities and training of its naval aviation combat arm. Chapter 2 briefly provides a helpful explanation of aircraft markings and the serial number system utilized by the PLANAF for its various platforms. Chapter 3 supplies ample information regarding new aircraft variants, improved avionics and sensors, and refueling capabilities of the latest PLANAF fighters, fighter-bombers, bombers, transport, special mission aircraft, helicopters, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Chapter 4 couples the aircraft with ordnance, offering insight into the latest PLANAF air-to-air missiles (AAM), air-to-surface missiles (ASM), guided bombs, electronic warfare (EW) and targeting pods, as well as torpedoes. And, as has become his calling card and his books’ pièce de résistance, Rupprecht once again supports his text with numerous colorful and vivid photographs of the platforms described.

J-15 preparing to take off from CV-16 (Photo from Modern Chinese Warplanes: Chinese Naval Aviation – Aircraft and Units)

At the beginning of Chapter 5, Rupprecht alludes to the notion of “the greatest technology is only as good as the person (or pilot) using it” by stating “the latest developments in tactics and training are probably even more important for the future outcome of any potential operational use” and explains that both the PLAAF and PLANAF have developed less-scripted and more realistic and integrated training for each arm’s respective pilots over the past decade.6 The rest of Chapter 5 outlines the evolution of PLANAF pilot qualifications, training regimens, and platform transition timelines – a critical, yet not widely understood facet of the PLANAF’s modernization effort.

Rupprecht saves the most intriguing issues and subsequently his best writing for Chapters 6 and 7.  Chapter 6, at only four pages long, provides a concise yet wonderful synopsis of the current and future developments within China’s aircraft carrier program.  Most of the chapter’s pages focus solely on the current status and future projections of China’s current aircraft carriers (CV-16, Type 002, and Type 003) and not the associated air wing which currently uses the J-15 multi-role fighter as its centerpiece (best described in Chapter 3). It remains to be seen if the PLAN defines “air wing” like the United States Navy. If so, then a PLAN air wing will theoretically be composed of various airborne platforms that conduct a variety of missions including airborne early warning (such as the KJ-600 featured on page 29), electronic warfare, in-flight refueling, and other specialized aircraft.

The most absorbing content of Chapter 6 (and possibly the book itself) can be found on pages 52-53 in a section entitled “Future Fleet Size and Operational Options.”  Here, Rupprecht’s words echo the sentiments of the late United States naval officer and strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, who consistently argued in the late 19th Century that the United States had a maritime destiny and it could only achieve its national greatness through control of the seas. Addressing similar strategic maritime ambitions of the PLA and the role that a viable aircraft carrier fleet could provide toward achieving those ambitions, Rupprecht states, “A carrier fleet is therefore a consequence of China’s rising ambitions both in terms of the role the country wants to play on the international stage, its role as a premier export nation and, more importantly, its role as a regional power. In order to be able to project these ambitions at any time, a spatially and temporally limited ‘Sea Control’ will be required and a carrier fleet will be a significant tool in building its power projection capabilities.”7

Chinese carrier Liaoning (CV-16) (Photo from Modern Chinese Warplanes: Chinese Naval Aviation – Aircraft and Units)

Chapter 7, entitled “Naval Aviation Order of Battle (March 2018)”, provides much more than a tabular depiction of the PLANAF’s order of battle (OOB), as the title suggests. Just as he did in his 2012 Modern Chinese Warplanes: Combat Aircraft and Units of the Chinese Air Force and Naval Aviation, Rupprecht effectively describes and illustrates, via well-structured text and vibrant pictures and charts, both the operational missions and geographical responsibilities of the three Theater Commands that have a corresponding Fleet Naval Aviation Headquarters (Eastern, Southern, and Northern) thus capturing the growing operational impact of the PLANAF. 

Most intriguingly however, on pages 58-60, Rupprecht provides a brief yet highly insightful assessment of the PLANAF’s seemingly inevitable evolution toward developing into a true “blue water” force.  It is here, in this author’s opinion, in combination with pages 52-53 of Chapter 6 previously mentioned, that Rupprecht captures the very essence of the book for these are the pages that present the strategic and operational impetus of why the PLA is continuing down its path of remarkable military modernization – an effort that may leave it as one of the world’s most dominant military forces. This larger strategic context is far too important to get lost in the pages of latter chapters. It may have been better for this level of analysis to be presented and expanded upon in Chapter 1 if not the introduction.

I applaud and endorse Rupprecht’s decision to narrow the scope of Modern Chinese Warplanes: Chinese Naval Aviation – Aircraft and Units in order to focus solely on the naval aviation component of the PLA.  During a time of a growing perception of a major great power competition between the United States and China, his work is both highly relevant and exceptionally timely.  For any military enthusiast or analyst looking to expand his or her understanding of Chinese naval aviation and how it fits into the PLA’s larger regional and global ambitions, this book provides ample substance and striking illustrations. I equally anticipate reading Rupprecht’s other 2018 work entitled Carrier Aviation in the 21st Century: Aircraft Carriers and Their Units in Detail (as mentioned on page 51) and hope he continues to produce these “extensively illustrated compact yet comprehensive” works of art.8

LCDR David Barr is a career intelligence officer and currently serves as instructor with the National Intelligence University’s College of Strategic Intelligence. All statements of facts, analysis, or opinion are the author’s and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Intelligence University, the Department of Defense or any of its components, or the U.S. government.

References

1. Rupprecht, Andreas. Modern Chinese Warplanes: Chinese Naval Aviation – Aircraft and Units. Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2018. p. 7.

2. Ibid. p. 7.

3. Ibid. p. 14.

4. “China’s Military Strategy,” State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, May 2015. 

5. Rupprecht, Andreas. Modern Chinese Warplanes: Chinese Naval Aviation – Aircraft and Units. Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2018. p. 53.

6. Ibid. p. 45.

7. Ibid. P. 53.

8. Ibid. p. 7.

Featured Image: Chinese Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark (via USNI News)

The Growing Dragon: The Radical Reorganization of the PLA

By Pawel Behrendt

Two years ago, President Xi Jinping announced the reorganization of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the implementation is gaining momentum. The changes, which go far beyond administrative restructuring and equipment modernization, will make the world’s most massive fighting force more modern and flexible. The reorganization gives Xi and his team an opportunity to purge political opponents within the military and address many of the problems that have plagued the military for decades.

During his speech to the National People Congress in 2012, Hu Jintao announced the modernization of the PLA, seeking a modern armed force, able to “win local wars under informationized/hi-tech conditions.” Under Xi Jinping, these modernizations began to materialize. The first noticeable change was the restoration of political officers in the PLA, a clear sign of turbulent relations between the new leadership and the generals. Next, Xi announced a wide-reaching anti-corruption campaign. Most notably, former deputy chairmen of the Central Military Commission, Generals Xu Caihou, and Guo Boxiong, were among those accused of corruption. Their fate was settled in 2016 – Xu died of cancer while under arrest and Guo was sentenced to life in prison.

With the backdrop of the anti-corruption campaign, a real military reform was afoot – in 2014, a reorganization of the command structure was announced. The number of military regions was reduced from 7 to 5, and a joint operation command was established to coordinate actions of ground, air, and naval forces in each area. There was also an increase in the role of the Air Force and Navy, both of which are more prominent in a state with global ambitions as opposed to an Army-dominated system that has long characterized China’s military. In celebration of the 70th anniversary of World War II, Xi Jinping announced the reduction of the PLA by 300,000 soldiers to 2 million standing troops. On the last day of 2015, amid overall personnel reduction, new military branches were established – the Rocket Force and the Strategic Support Force.

2016 brought about important, but less flashy, changes. Specifically, the creation of a DARPA-equivalent research lab was announced in March 2016. The agency was operational in July 2017. In April 2016, military education reform was announced and, as a result, departments related to land forces reduced the number of freshmen by 24 percent and the departments of logistics and support shrunk by 45 percent. Conversely, the number of students admitted to courses related to aviation, Navy, and missile technologies was increased by 14 percent. An increase of 16 percent was planned for departments related to space technologies, radars, and drones.

Further, closer cooperation between universities and training units was also announced. This was the result of increasingly louder complaints that soldiers cannot take full advantage of the increasingly modern equipment. Overcoming this gap is now considered one of the most critical tasks to the PLA. Xi Jinping stressed several times a great need for officers who have a broad knowledge of advanced technologies. Most concerning is the shortage of IT specialists. Like many other countries, Chinese IT companies offer much better compensation and work conditions, robbing the military of talent. Higher military income and attractive career paths are being implemented to prevent the talent bleed. Further, to attract talented college graduates, the draft was aligned with the college graduation season.

In September 2016, the activation of the Joint Logistics Support Force was announced. This step aims to improve the decentralized PLA logistics system. Within each of the military regions, a Regional Joint Logistics Support Center was established with headquarters in Wuxi, Guilin, Xining, Shenyang, and Zhengzhou. Of note, the Joint Logistics Support Force is not subordinate to the PLA HQ, but to the Central Military Commission.

Starting in 2017, even more radical changes were made. In mid-March, a five-fold increase in the size of the Marine Corps was announced. The force now numbers 20,000 soldiers organized in two brigades, but the goal is as many as 100,000 troops in six brigades. The greatly expanded Marine Corps is dedicated primarily to the protection of the maritime thread of the One Belt, One Road, and defense of the overseas interests of the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese Marines will be permanently stationed in Gwadar, Pakistan, and in Djibouti. The African garrison is rumored to have as many as 10,000 soldiers. It is important to mention that, according to media sources, the first Type 075 amphibious assault ship was laid down in March 2017. Specifics on the ship design and numbers are still unknown. The Chinese Admiralty wanted LHDs similar to the American WASP-class but opted for a smaller ship – based on the French Mistral-class – due to financial constraints. Recent information suggests that “something in between” has been chosen.

Amphibious assault ships are necessary if China wants “American style” power-projection capability. The Chinese are well aware of the unique requirements of the Marines, and outdated PLAN Marine Corps equipment is discussed openly. The force has spent years preparing for an invasion of Taiwan and operations in the nearby waters of South and East China Seas requires a thorough reorganization.

The marine brigades of the PLAN are not the only amphibious assault units of the PLA. There are also four amphibious mechanized infantry divisions (AMID) that are part of the PLA Ground Force. These units are essentially mechanized divisions equipped with more amphibious vehicles and river crossing equipment. In effect, the divisions are more suited to crossing rivers and lakes than in taking part in actual seaborne operations. Under the reorganization of the PLAN Marines Corps, the future of AMID is unclear.

Chinese marines storm a beachead (AFP 2018 / Xinhua)

Around the same time that the PLAN Marine Corps reports emerged, PLA Ground Force restricting was also announced. From 1949 through the mid-1980s, the Ground Force was organized into 70 corps. Then, during one of the previous reorganizations, the number was halved and later reduced to 24. At the same time, the corps were renamed “group armies.” During subsequent reductions in the 1990s and 2009, their number fell to 21 and, eventually, to 18 corps. Now, the group armies are returning to corps and further decreased in number to 13. This change, however, has a deeper meaning. Specifically, the 16th and 47th Group Armies will be disbanded. Both are large units and were closely linked to the aforementioned Generals Xu and Guo. According to social media, not all soldiers from disestablished units will leave the military – some may be reassigned, even to the Air Force, Navy or Rocket Force. Some of the other units that will be disbanded are the 14th, 20th, 27th and 40th group armies.

In April 2017, further information was officially disclosed by the Ministry of Defense, when it revealed an even more drastic reorganization. The entire PLA will be divided into 84 corps that will comprise all military branches, as well as garrisons, reserves, military academies, and research units. This means an interruption of historical continuity, cultivated mainly in the Ground Force, in which new army corps will have numbered from 71 to 83. Most of them will be located in northern and western China, opposite the U.S. forces and Japan, but also Russia and North Korea.

Airborne units have also undergone serious organizational changes. Until 2017, there had been three airborne divisions (43rd, 44th, and 45th), organized into the 15th Airborne Corps, subordinate to the PLAAF. Each division consisted of two airborne regiments, a special forces group, an air transport regiment, and a helicopter group. After the recent reorganization, the PLA Airborne Corps was created, and separate divisions were disbanded. Airborne regiments were reclassified as brigades (127th, 128th, 130th, 131st, 133rd, and 134th), and special forces and transport groups were organized into separate brigades. Confusingly, signal, chemical and engineering troops have been assigned into a single brigade. This solution is perceived as the next step in the development of a robust Chinese airborne force and their transformation from light troops into heavily armed units modeled after Russian paratroops.

The large-scale reorganization of the armed forces has also brought about some unexpected personnel problems. Public protests by active duty servicemen and veterans have become common, and the primary cause of dissatisfaction is not only the reduction of posts. Unlike previous cuts, the severance pay program and employment efforts for former military personnel failed. In fact, pay and military pensions sometimes arrived late or in reduced sum. Veterans are particularly embittered, and they accuse the government of ignoring their needs and problems. In October 2017, more than 1,000 vets protested at the Ministry of Defense singing military songs and waving party flags. Police and security officers were confused and surrounded the protesters with buses and police vehicles. On October 11, another protest lasted late into the night, resulting in several arrests. According to human rights organizations, protests are not rare, with over 50 occurring in 2016 alone. As a result, a special Ministry of Veterans Affairs was established in March 2018. The new institution will help veterans to find jobs, lodging, and ensuring their status of “revered members of society.”

Conclusion

A reorganization of a structure as big and complex as the PLA is never an easy task and it is compounded by resistance from active and veteran military personnel. Unlike the USSR, there is no clear division between party, military, and security force. Further, the military has always had a strong influence on the state apparatus. During his second term, Hu Jintao warned about the negative consequences of this system. Despite silencing the most hostile officers whose status and influence were endangered by the reform, protests by lower ranks and veterans show that the Communist Party of China has to be very careful. From the military point of view, the reform aims to convert the force designed primarily to defend Chinese territory into one prepared for expeditionary operations.

Pawel Behrendt is a Political Science Ph.D. candidate at the University of Vienna. He is an expert at the Poland-Asia Research Center and is the deputy chief-editor of konflikty.pl. Find him on Twitter @pawel_behrendt.

Featured Image: Chinese marines (Xinhua)

China’s Base in Djibouti: Lessons from Germany’s Asian Colonialism

China’s Defense & Foreign Policy Topic Week

By Pawel Behrendt

The opening of the Chinese military base in Djibouti on August 1st is a landmark event; China finally has its first overseas military outpost. The parallel of similar activities undertaken by the Germans in China at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries is noteworthy for offering lessons on the relationship between force structure, maritime strategy, and overseas basing.

Djibouti is strategically located on the African shore of the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, which separates the Indian Ocean from the Red Sea, making it proximate to one of the most important sea routes linking China with Europe. For years this small country has hosted military bases of foreign powers such as France, the United States, and Japan. Over the past decade, the existing facilities have offered crucial support to forces fighting Somali pirates. China takes part in this mission, too. However, with the development of the Belt and Road Initiative Djibouti has started to play a vital role on the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century. Since about the year 2000 China has striven to build and secure its own presence in the Indian Ocean basin. After successfully establishing footholds in Pakistan (Gwadar) and Sri Lanka (Hambantota), the next logical step of the Belt and Road Initiative was at the doorstep of the Suez Canal – Djibouti.

Nevertheless, the news of the intention to build a Chinese base came as a surprise in mid-2015. Negotiations proceeded quickly, an agreement was signed in January 2016. The $600 million project was launched the following year. Works on the main body of the facility have already finished, but other parts are still under construction. In reality nobody knows how complex the base is going to be. The first convoy carrying troops to Djibouti departed on July 12 from the port city of Zhanjiang. The base was officially opened on August 1, a very symbolic date – the 90th anniversary of PLA. Beijing is reluctant to use the term ‘military base’ and instead refers to it as a “support facility” that will provide logistical support to forces taking part in UN missions in Africa and the anti-pirate operation. The existing agreement allows the PRC to station 6,000-10,000 troops (sources vary) until 2026. An additional bonus to Djibouti is a $14 billion infrastructure project.

The meaning of the first Chinese overseas base, however, goes far beyond the Silk Road and commerce. China has gained the ability, however limited it may be, to project power in the still unstable Middle East while also strengthening its position against India. Additionally, there are issues of prestige: the PRC has joined the small group of powers that maintain overseas bases. This is very important for a nation that is increasingly self-confident and aims to become a leading power. What most likely accelerated the decision to acquire overseas bases was the Arab Spring of 2011. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) was unable to evacuate Chinese citizens from revolution-torn Yemen and Libya and was forced to ask the U.S. and France for help. Both the Chinese leadership and many ordinary citizens regarded this as humiliation. Thus the buildup of the PLAN initiated in the early 21st century gained wider support and was indicated as one of the key objectives of the modernization and reorganization of the Chinese military. What’s more, a strong navy is seen as a mark of the status of a great power and as a crucial factor in securing crucial sea lines of communication (SLOCs). It must be pointed out that around 80 percent of Chinese oil imports come via the Strait of Malacca. The numbers are even more impressive when it comes to trade: despite extensive land infrastructure programs, around 99 percent of trade exchange with Europe is seaborne.

Historical Parallels with Germany’s Asian Colonialism

It is worth asking whether China really needs an overseas base and what are the chances of sustaining it in the event of a full-scale conflict. Very interesting conclusions come from the history of German colonial presence in Asia. The topic of obtaining an overseas base in Asia was brought up for the first time during the German Revolutions of 1848/49. The colonial idea found many advocates at the National Assembly in Frankfurt. This was connected with the brutal opening of the states of Asia to the world. The Far East was at that time a “Promised Land” where one could sell any amount of cheap European products and in exchange buy valuable tea, silk, and porcelain. However, for exactly half a century since the issue had been raised, Germany had done nothing to get an overseas base, even though the topic kept coming back like a boomerang. The reason was that the “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck saw core German interests in Europe and was strongly against any “colonial adventures” that could antagonize Great Britain.

The situation changed in the late 19th century. Germany was an emerging power striving for a “place under the sun.” The young emperor Wilhelm II was determined to turn Germany into a global power and initiated the “Weltpolitik” (world politics), challenging Great Britain and France. The Kaiser was also influenced by the theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan. He had several copies of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783, and the margins of one of them were densely covered with notes and commentaries. Thus Wilhelm II had a scientific leverage for his passions: a strong navy and colonies. He found a big ally in Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. This politically talented officer was a supporter of the ideas of a naval buildup and obtaining an overseas base in China. What’s more, he was able to convince the Reichstag (parliament) to allocate huge sums of money for this purpose.

The dream of a foothold in the Far East came true in 1898. That is when China and Germany signed a treaty which leased the small fishing village of Qingdao (then Tsingtau or Tsingtao) to the Germans for 99 years. Within 16 years Qingdao evolved into one of the biggest ports of China. There was also a fierce discussion what to do with the overseas base. In official documents the term “Gibraltar of the Far East” began to appear. The German Admiralty wanted to create a mighty fortress and naval base. However, Admiral Tirpitz had different ideas. He was well aware that a globally meaningful Navy had yet to be built, and in the event of war the chances of coming to the rescue of the fortress were negligible. He thought holding Qingdao rested on good relations with Japan. Vice Admiral Friedrich von Ingenhol agreed; he bluntly said that in a full-scale war the base would be useless. Thus Tirpitz decided to create an equivalent of Hong Kong, an important trade port and a center promoting German culture. In this field the Germans managed to achieve quite a lot of success, creating—among other things—one of the first resorts in Asia.

1912 German map of Qingdao.

The admirals’ predictions came true, Japan decided that fighting alongside the Entente was more beneficial than remaining neutral or siding with Germany. So Qingdao played virtually no role in World War I and fell in November 1914 after a two month siege by joint Japanese and British forces. Similarly, the huge fleet of battleships built with a tremendous effort and use of resources, a fleet second only to the Royal Navy, stayed in its bases for most of the war. Tirpitz himself said, after he learned about the outbreak of war, that the Hochseeflotte (High Seas Fleet) would be useless. The main reason was geography. To rule the waves (and support distant basing) any navy needs unobstructed access to the ocean. Meanwhile, the North Sea and thus the main ports of Germany are separated from the Atlantic by the British Isles and Shetland Islands. This allowed the British to establish the effective distant blockade of Germany in 1914 and—save for the battle of Jutland (in German: Skagerrakschlacht)—avoid a major confrontation. The German Navy failed to find a counter for this strategy and as early as 1915 the naval war was ceded to the light forces and submarines. Neither the powerful shipbuilding industry nor the strong merchant fleet, nor the rich maritime traditions of northern Germany, were able to overcome the shortcomings of geography. The same scenario was repeated during World War II even despite the occupation of ports in France and Norway. Germany had remained a land power, and Britain, by virtue of being the dominant sea power, could maintain a network of meaningful military infrastructure across the globe.

China’s Present Challenge and Geographical Constraints

Despite being located on the opposite end of Eurasia, China faces the same problem as Germany due to the crucial role of geography separating the mainland from the Pacific Ocean. The first island chain comprises the Kuril Islands, the Japanese Archipelago, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Philippines, and the western shore of Borneo. The area thus inscribed includes waters directly adjacent to the Chinese coast. Despite the enormous resources invested in the fleet, the PLAN is only now starting to operate outside this border. More southwards China is separated from the Indian Ocean by the Malay Peninsula and the islands of Indonesia. There are also three “bottlenecks” determining maritime traffic between East Asia and Indian Ocean and Europe: the Straits of Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok.

Most of these strategic points on the map are controlled by the United States or its allies. For this reason, China has decided to create A2/AD (anti access / area deny) zones in the East and South China Sea that are to limit the space for adversary maneuver. Moreover, an intensive naval buildup is supposed to make any confrontation too risky by introducing a capability to project power beyond A2/AD zones adjacent to the mainland. In numbers the PLAN is now second only to the U.S. Navy. This resembles similar actions undertaken by Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. The U.S. response is also considering surprisingly similar to the countermeasures used by the British. Scenarios of military exercises conducted in the western Pacific by the United States and its allies do not imply a strike against the Chinese Navy and coast per se, but rather impose a distant naval blockade based on the first island chain.

There are also differences. Tirpitz was an advocate of the fleet-in-being doctrine, wherein the fleet by its existence alone puts pressure on the enemy. Such a theory resulted in building battleships which were not useless but rather not used. The Chinese leadership, among whom Mahan’s theories are gaining popularity like they once did in the German Empire, have learned this lesson. The buildup of the PLAN, besides including impressive programs like aircraft carriers and SSBNs, concentrates on SSKs, SSNs, and surface combatant escorts. The latter are related to the pursuit of strategic security on the maritime routes leading to and from China. Chinese admirals also do not claim to be interested in the fleet-in-being concept. The naval development plan has been described as being divided into stages corresponding to obtaining the ability to conduct operations beyond the subsequent island chains. Currently the stage of going beyond the “first chain” is underway.

The question is whether in the case of a hypothetical war against the U.S. and its allies the PLAN would be able to go beyond the safe haven of A2/AD zones and break through the blockade. Such an operation is feasible, but it would involve significant losses. In addition, the blockade is rarely carried out by the main force. Thus after the “defenders” break out into the open the fresh main force of “attackers” is already waiting for them.

The base in Djibouti is very unlikely to provide any sufficient relief. This is the case not only in the event of a confrontation with the United States, but also a confrontation with India whose prime location would allow it to freshly contest the PLAN if were to succeed in breaking through Asia’s maritime chokepoints.

Conclusion

China is geographically and historically a land power. As has been the case with Germany and Russia, a blue water navy can be an expensive sign of prestige and great power status rather than a real weapon of war. Power projection for a high seas fleet in a benign, peacetime environment is a different matter entirely. Germany’s historical experience with maintaining distant naval infrastructure reveals that such basing is often irrelevant in full-scale war and virtually impossible to sustain or defend against assault. China’s navy will need to grow significant capacity and capability if China wishes to continue establishing distant military bases for the purpose of projecting power while hoping to retain them in conflict. Alternatively, China could moderate its overseas ambitions by accepting that such bases are indefensible and whose loss should be affordable so long as China’s naval power projection can be checked by potential adversaries in both the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Pawel Behrendt is a Ph.D. candidate at the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Vienna, an expert at the Poland-Asia Research Center, and Deputy Chief Editor of Konflikty.

Featured Image: Chinese troops stage a live-fire drill in Djibouti. (Handout)

The Evolution of the PLA Navy and China’s National Security Interests

China’s Defense & Foreign Policy Topic Week

By Steve Micallef

Since the beginning of the 21st century the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has steadily developed into a blue-water force able to rely on an ever increasing amount of modern equipment and platforms. This has been the result of years of intense effort on the part of naval planners in support of a more-forward oriented Chinese foreign and security policy. Indeed, until the 1990s, the PLAN was mostly a littoral or brown-water force tasked with protecting China’s waterways and never venturing far from coastal waters. Today the PLAN is enjoying an influx of money and new equipment as well as the fruition of development programs started in the 1990s and 2000s. All this has resulted in a professional force which is able to protect Chinese interest abroad, further Chinese foreign policy, and build Chinese prestige worldwide.

Strategic Context

The communist victory in 1949 was achieved through the efforts of the Army. The PLA could not project power far beyond Chinese Communist shores, indeed Taiwan remained under Kuomintang rule whilst the Kuomintang navy sailed with impunity, raiding coastal installations, merchant craft, and fishing vessels. The PLAN’s first task was to secure the Chinese coast and the Yangtze River and prepare for an invasion of Taiwan.1

Despite this there was a great lack of amphibious equipment and training, naval transportation and air cover for a successful invasion of Taiwan. Despite this, the PLA did manage to occupy Hainan although at a very heavy cost. Renewed American interest in the area at the start of the Korean War and the perceived American commitment to defend Taiwan stopped any further expansion.2  

This highlighted the main problem that the PLAN has faced since then, that is, it has limited ability to project power beyond its shores. Although during this period it was mostly due to technological and equipment deficits, geographically China is also disadvantaged. Even if it had managed to acquire blue water capability in the 1950s, China is surrounded by U.S. bases and allies checking its expansion. To an extent this also remains the problem today.

Looking outward from China, one immediately realizes how precarious its geographical position is. Its economy depends on the manufacturing of goods and their export.  China depends on oil imports to maintain its economic growth. All shipping movements have to pass through narrow straits and shipping lanes that can be easily cordoned off in case of war. Indeed, the whole of East Asia can be cordoned off through a series of islands that run from north to south, these include the Kuril Islands, the Japanese Archipelago, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Northern Philippines, and Borneo; from the Kamchatka Peninsula to the Malay Peninsula. This is known as the first island chain3 and having control of the features and waterways of the chain effectively means control of access to both the China Seas and the Sea of Japan. Similarly, there is also the Second Island and the third island chains. The second island chain runs from Japan in the North, South towards Indonesia encompassing the North Mariana Islands, Guam, and Palau.4 The third island chain includes the Hawaiian Islands and runs through the mid-Pacific to New Zealand in the South. From Beijing’s perspective these island chains cut off China’s access to the high seas, keeping it isolated.

Understandably, the Chinese are obsessed with these geographical features and their naval strategy is dictated by them. As its economy grew and became more dependent on sea trade, China set out to remedy its weakness at sea. For a traditional continental power like China, what Chinese admirals and generals see looking out from Beijing are concentric rings of American naval power stretching all the way across the Pacific (many would consider the U.S. West Coast as the fourth chain with Naval Base San Diego at its center). All these island chains are either directly occupied by the U.S. or by allies who give the U.S. access to ports and facilities.

The first to envision a shift in role for the navy was General Liu Huaqing (1916-2011) in the mid-1980s.5 Until this point the PLAN’s role was that of a subordinate to the PLA, it was a brown-water navy operating close to shore. Using its small units, it was expected to operate up and down the coast in guerrilla style attacks under the cover of land-based artillery and aircraft. This has been labelled as the “coastal defense” strategy. General Liu was instrumental in shifting the PLAN’s strategy into one of “Offshore Defense” and transitioning the navy from a brown-water force to a green-water force, and subsequently to a blue-water one. For this, he has been labelled as “the father of the modern Chinese Navy.”6

According to Liu, the PLAN should strive to develop four important capabilities: the ability to seize limited sea control in certain areas for a certain period of time, the ability to effectively defend China’s sea lanes, the ability to fight outside China’s claimed maritime areas, and the ability to implement a credible nuclear deterrent.7 To achieve this Liu suggested expanding the Navy and strongly advocated for the PLAN to acquire aircraft carriers. Huaqing outlined a three-step program for the PLAN. In the first phase, which was to be achieved by the year 2000, the PLA Navy needed to be able to exert control over the maritime territory within the First Island China, namely the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea. In the second phase, which has to be achieved by 2020, the navy’s control was to expand to the second island chain. In the third phase, to be achieved by 2050, the PLA Navy is to evolve into a true global navy.8 This is the broad outline of the PLAN’s strategy and since the 1980s it has been gradually acquiring the capabilities to carry it out.

Today we are seeing the outcomes of this strategy. The PLAN has expanded rapidly, acquiring the capabilities for a true blue-water force able to protect Chinese interests abroad while Chinese foreign policy expanded concurrently.

The Early Years of the PLAN

In the early 1950s most of the PLAN’s equipment was taken from the naval forces of the Republic of China as they retreated from the mainland. Officially the PLAN was established in September 1950, grouping together all the regional forces, some of which had defected, into a centralized command. The state of the PLAN was nothing to boast about. It was increasingly dependent on the Soviet Union to provide it with training and advisors, while home-built systems were basically none existent. As many as 2,500 Soviet naval advisers were deployed to China to boost the training of Chinese sailors while the Soviet Union also provided much of the PLAN’s equipment.

With the help of the Soviet Union the PLAN was reorganized in 1955 into three operation fleets9 and divided into five distinct branches. Today, the PLAN mostly maintains the same composition: its units are divided between the Submarine Force, the Surface Force, the Coastal Defense Force, the Marine Corps, and the Naval Air Force (established in 1952). All these fall under the responsibility of the three main commands: the North Sea Fleet, based in the Yellow Sea; the East Sea Fleet, based in the East China Sea; and the South Sea Fleet, based in the South China Sea 

Throughout the 1950s indigenous shipbuilding programs were instituted, shipyards were constructed, and Soviet-licensed designs were constructed without Soviet assistance. In 1958 when the Soviet Union refused to support the development of Chinese SSNs and SSBNs, the PLAN opened up the first institutes dedicated to the study of shipbuilding, naval weapon systems, underwater weapons, hydro acoustics, and other areas in a bid to remove its dependence on foreign designs.

Expansion continued into the 1960s with the Chinese licensing more complex ship designs and weapons from the Soviet Union. By the mid-70s the PLAN could call upon a series of indigenous designs. In 1971 the Type 051 destroyer was commissioned. This was the first modern surface combatant to be designed and built in China, and the first Chinese ship to be fitted with an integrated combat system. This was followed by the commissioning of the Type 053 frigate and its various subclasses for air-defense, anti-surface, and export purposes. In 1974 the first indigenous designed nuclear submarine started service (the Type 091). Together with this a host of other smaller surface combatants, including gun boats and torpedo boats, also entered service.

However, China had little interest in dominating the seas beyond defense. Its large border with the Soviet Union and the Sino-Soviet Split meant that China preferred to spend its resources guarding the border with the Soviet Union and Vietnam. The risk of a land invasion was perceived as a greater threat and  took precedence over maritime power projection. Preoccupied with matters closer to home, the navy continued its training and expansion, competing for resources from other branches.

In the 1980s naval construction fell below the levels of the 1970s. Up until that point the PLAN was still considered a regional naval power with green-water capabilities. Emphasis was placed on personnel development, reformulation of the traditional coastal defense doctrine, and force structure in favor of more blue-water operations; as well as  training in naval combined-arms operations involving all elements of the PLAN (submarine, surface, naval aviation, and coastal defense forces). The PLAN also started to venture beyond coastal waters and into the Pacific. However the strong Soviet presence at Cam Ranh Bay kept most naval units tied down in defense of the coast. It also prevented more Chinese involvement in the various Sino-Vietnamese skirmishes.

Gen. Liu Huaqing in March 1996, at closing ceremonies for the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Beijing. Credit Greg Baker/Associated Press

Spurred in part by the growth of the Chinese economy and the concentration of industry to coastal areas the Chinese increasingly looked at the sea as an economic lifeline. This was also the era when Liu came to prominence. His friendship with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping allowed him to influence the development of the PLAN. His programs included the reorganization of the navy, redeveloping the Marine Corps, upgrading bases and research and development facilities, and reforming the school system.10 These efforts can be considered as the origin of the professional navy that it is today.  

Despite these advances the PLAN was still largely subordinate to the People’s Liberation Army Ground Force until the 1990s. However, during this decade the PLAN continued with its modernization with the acquisition of more modern equipment from Russia and deployments to the Western hemisphere with visits to the U.S., Mexico, Peru, and Chile.

The 21st Century Navy

The PLAN came into its own in the first decade of the 21st century. In terms of equipment the navy is increasingly relying on indigenous constructions. Today, of the entire surface force, only the 4 Russian Sovremenny-class destroyers and a number of Kilo and improved Kilo-class submarines are of foreign origin.11 The PLAN has also managed to acquire an ex-Soviet aircraft carrier from Ukraine which it has commissioned into service as the Liaoning. Whilst its combat capability is limited, it is being used as a testbed and indigenous designs are already under construction.

A number of destroyers and frigates of indigenous design capable of blue-water operations are also in service. The Type 052 destroyers and the Type 054 frigates are all indigenous, proven designs which have been deployed in various operations worldwide. Effort has also gone into the creation of quieter indigenous SSBN.

One may argue that it is not the equipment used but rather the way it is used that is of most interest. While in the early years the PLAN was mostly in charge of coastal defense this has now changed, the main reason being the growing Chinese economy which relies increasingly on the maritime domain for the export and import of goods. The PLAN’s main mission today is to “independently or jointly with the Army and Air Force, to guard against enemy invasion from the sea, defend the state’s sovereignty over its territorial waters, and safeguard the state’s maritime rights and interests.”12

The world got its first demonstration of the PLAN’s new worldwide presence in 2008 when for the first time PLAN vessels were deployed operationally off the Horn of Africa on an anti-piracy mission. PLAN vessels have been escorting merchant shipping in collaboration with other navies ever since.13 The message here is clear, the Chinese leadership is placing the security of its seaborne trade as critical for the overall development of the nation. The sea lines of communication must remain open.14 Overall these missions have been a resounding success for the PLAN and the Chinese have demonstrated remarkable willingness to collaborate on this issue, presenting China as a responsible player on the world stage but also gaining important operational experience in the process. Indeed, short of an all-out war, these operations were the closest that PLAN personnel got to quasi-combat missions.15 The construction of a PLAN base in Djibouti in 201716 is expected to enhance the Chinese presence in the area while also increasing the Navy’s capabilities to project power abroad. This is part of a wider effort to secure vital sea lines of communication through the Indian Ocean.17

The PLAN has been more active worldwide since the first decade of the 21st century. It has been invited and attended RIMPAC in 201418 and 2016,19 and has again been invited in 2018.20 It trained with the Russian Navy during Joint Sea 2016 and 2017 military exercises, the later involving exercises in the Sea of Japan21 and the Baltic Sea.22 The fact that Chinese ships travelled to the Baltic is a testament to how far the PLAN has come. En route the flotilla of Chinese ships made various goodwill visits to Western ports.

Whilst the PLAN has been active in combating piracy abroad, closer to home it has also been employed for less ‘noble’ purposes. The PLAN has been actively supporting the Nine-Dash Line claiming most of the South China Sea. The dependence on seaborne trade, the relative ease by which South China Sea-bound maritime traffic can be blockaded, and the ability of the USN to sail in it without impunity (as during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996 when two aircraft carrier groups were deployed near Taiwan) have reinforced Chinese conviction that it needs to strengthen its defenses. Through its claim of the South China Sea, China has been engaged in a significant land reclamation project and turned minuscule features into military bases, from where aircraft, ships, and shore-based weapons could readily target the shipping transiting the critical waterway. As Admiral Harry Harris put it, the Chinese are building a “Great wall of sand.”23

While the Nine-Dash Line is hardly new, never before has China been able to enforce it. Indeed, after the Second World War, none of the features in the Spratly and Paracel islands were occupied, today various claimants maintain a multitude of facilities.24 This could not have been possible without naval support. China has also demonstrated an unwillingness to compromise, as events regarding Scarborough Shoal, Vietnam’s oil drilling, and the ITLOS ruling have demonstrated. The Chinese Navy and coast guard have steadily pushed out Philippine fisherman from traditional fishing grounds, and China has been left in de facto control.25

In this situation might has made right and China is certainly succeeding in getting its way in the South China Sea. Beyond the protection of trade this could also have other implications. Since the end of the Second World War the U.S. has been able to maintain a permanent presence in the region through a network of alliances and military bases. Under its hegemony the region has prospered economically. A powerful navy would allow China to challenge U.S. dominion in the region and usher in an era where China could be the hegemon in Asia, perhaps even envisioning its own version of the Monroe Doctrine.

Conclusion

The modernization of the PLAN and the broadening of Chinese foreign policy are both linked. A larger, more advanced navy has allowed China to be more present on the world stage. Beyond prestige the PLAN has allowed China to be more engaged and aggressive in its foreign policy dealings. The need to maintain sea lines of communication has pushed China to further develop its navy. One can only speculate on what effect this will have in the long run; whilst some welcome a more present PLAN which can help secure the seas for all, there are those that reason that Beijing will increasingly use its newfound naval strength to expand its sphere of influence, creating an international or regional system that more suits its needs at the expense of others. After all, navies are the chief tool of global power projection and why build capability if not to use it?

Steve Micallef graduated from the University of Malta with a B.A. (Hons) in International Relations in 2015. He also holds an MSc in Strategic Studies from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

References

[1] Cole, B. D. (2010). The Great Wall at sea: China’s Navy in the twenty-first century. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. 7.

[2] Ibid. 8-9.

[3] Yoshihara, T., & Holmes, J. R. (2013). Red star over the Pacific: China’s rise and the challenge to U.S. maritime strategy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. 20.

[4] Ibid. 21.

[5] http://cimsec.org/father-modern-chinese-navy-liu-huaqing/13291

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Cole, B. D. (2010). The Great Wall at sea: China’s Navy in the twenty-first century. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. 176.

[9] https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/china/plan.htm

[10] Ibid. 16.

[11] International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). (2017). The Military Balance, 2017. London: Routledge. 281-283

[12] Zhao, Z., & Luo, Y. (2010). China’s national defense. China Intercontinental Press. 66-67.

[13] Zhao, Z., & Luo, Y. (2010). China’s national defense. China Intercontinental Press. 144-147.

[14] Kamphausen, R., Lai, D., Scobell, A., Army War College. Strategic Studies Institute, Bush School of Government & Public Service, National Bureau of Asian Research, . . . Texas A & M University. (2010). The PLA at home and abroad: Assessing the operational capabilities of China’s military. Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. 296.

[15] Ibid. 301

[16] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-djibouti/china-formally-opens-first-overseas-military-base-in-djibouti-idUSKBN1AH3E3

[17] https://www.csis.org/analysis/issues-insights-vol-14-no-7-revisiting-chinas-string-pearls-strategy

[18] http://www.cpf.navy.mil/rimpac/2014/participants/

[19] http://www.cpf.navy.mil/rimpac/participants/#

[20] https://thediplomat.com/2017/05/rimpac-2018-china-to-participate-in-major-us-naval-exercise/

[21] https://thediplomat.com/2017/09/chinese-russian-navies-hold-exercises-in-sea-of-japan-okhotsk-sea/

[22] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/25/world/europe/china-russia-baltic-navy-exercises.html

[23] http://www.cpf.navy.mil/leaders/harry-harris/speeches/2015/03/ASPI-Australia.pdf

[24] Hayton, B. (2014). The South China Sea: the struggle for power in Asia. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.61.

[25] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-china-philippines-witne/a-journey-to-scarborough-shoal-the-south-china-seas-waterworld-idUSKBN17E09O

Featured Image: Chinese carrier Type 001A is transferred from drydock on April 26, 2017. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)