Join our DC chapter for its January DC-area informal happy hour. We will be meeting on the second floor of Lola’s Barracks Row Bar and Grill for an informal discussion on the latest developments of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) with CAPT Jim Fanell, USN (ret.). Jim is a Government Fellow with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, having spent 30 years as a naval intelligence officer specializing in Indo-Asia Pacific security, with an emphasis on the Chinese navy and its operations.
Time: Monday, 23 January 6:00-8:00pm Place: Lola’s Barracks Row Bar and Grill (2nd Floor), 711 8th Street SE Washington D.C. 20003
Chinese Naval Shipbuilding Capability: An Uncertain Course, adds the most recent volume to Dr. Andrew Erickson’s excellent edited collections on the increase of the People’s Republic’s military, economic, and industrial power published by the Naval Institute Press. Erickson’s credentials include a professorship in strategy at the Naval War College, a research associateship at Harvard’s Fairbank School for Chinese Studies, and a regular congressional witness on areas pertaining to Chinese capabilities and strategy. He is a giant in the field. The work combines seventeen articles written by thirty-two authors, among them storied names such as CRS naval analyst Ronald O’Rourke and former former Director of Intelligence and Information Operations (N2) for U.S. Pacific Fleet CAPT James Fanell (ret). The volume provides a nuanced and insightful view of a major Chinese strategic investment, its shipbuilding industry, and is required reading for anyone, academic or laymen, trying to understand the associated capabilities and implications of the People’s Republic’s maritime rise.
The three hundred-forty-page tome is broken into five sections, describing the PRC’s shipbuilding industry’s foundation and resources, infrastructure, approach to naval architecture and design, remaining challenges, and a section which provides strategic conclusions and predictions for the future of American naval and maritime power. The articles are easily readable, each approximately ten to fifteen pages of crisp, synthesized content, with end notes allowing readers to further explore the author’s research, although most references are translated from Mandarin Chinese. The works also feature multiple graphs, tables, and illustrations, providing further resources for students and researchers. While each article provides fascinating insights into the past, present, and future of Chinese shipbuilding, four areas of study especially stood out as enjoyable, informative, and useful.
First, Christopher P. Carlson and Jack Bianchi’s Chapter I review of the People’s Republic’s naval and maritime history from the formation of the communist state to Xi Jinping provides a concise review of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) strategic development. Carlson and Bianchi first review the PLAN’s operational shift from Near Coast Defense, to Near Seas Active Defense, and finally to Near Seas Defense and Far Seas Operations, as the PLAN’s resources, capabilities, and objectives adapted to match the nation’s goals. The pair provide an excellent linkage between China’s strategic situation since Mao’s victory and the requirements of PLAN platforms as the force shifted from a coastal force to a limited blue water force and finally to a force intended to defend Chinese interests on both the near and far seas. This evolution brought an increase in the complexity and technical sophistication to the Chinese military shipbuilding industry.
Second, Leigh Ann Ragland-Luce and John Costello provide insight into a major limitation of Chinese military shipbuilding: combat electronics. Ragland-Luce and Costello point out that, while PLAN hull and mechanical systems are regularly manufactured using modern industry standards such as modular construction, the PLAN remains unable to field a top-tier indigenously developed combat control system. The authors use the Jiangkai-II (054A)-class guided missile frigate, a modern warship by any standard, whose combat control system (CCS) is based upon the French TAVITAC, vice a comparable Chinese design. This potential lack of integration between the French CCS and developing Chinese weapons and sensor systems might well prove a combat handicap for PLAN forces in future conflicts. Similarly, editor Andrew Erickson with Jonathan Ray and Robert T. Forte provide an excellent dissertation on the limitations of Chinese propulsion plant designs. According to the trio, the PLAN appears proficient in coastal diesel submarine propulsion technologies. The PLAN effectively integrates Sterling Engine Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) systems into its Yuan-class diesel-electric boats (SSPs), and it leads research into safe Lithium-Ion battery storage systems, potentially increasing coastal submarine endurance. It still lags considerably in both modern integrated surface propulsion plants and nuclear powered propulsion designs.
Third, the work uses present shipbuilding capacity to extrapolate future PLAN capability and force structure. CAPT James Fanell (ret) and Scott Cheney-Peters (Founder of CIMSEC) provide a realistic warning regarding the long-term challenge of Chinese strategic depth in military shipbuilding. Ronald O’Rourke caps the work with a set of implications for the U.S. Navy if PLAN force structure continues to expand.
Fourth, the work also provides an excellent overview of the curious public-private nature of an industry. The ten-year old split of Chinese shipbuilding into competitive public-private corporations Chinese State Shipbuilding Company (CSSC) and Chinese Industrial Shipbuilding Company (CSIC), induced formidable challenges to reintegrate as demand for commercial Chinese-built shipping demand drops and the People’s Republic attempts to cut excess overhead in its public ventures. The work also appropriately conveys the confusing and byzantine structure of the Chinese military-industrial complex, broken into multiple institutes and directorates with potentially overlapping responsibilities.
The edition could have improved by better integration between authors. Several articles re-visit the growth of PLAN naval strategy over the PRC’s history, which becomes redundant. Secondly, in some cases, it is difficult at times to compare Chinese shipbuilding structure and practices to those of other industries worldwide. Is China’s anticipated post-merger structure in line with other shipbuilding industries? The work does not, at times, draw clear comparisons.
Overall, Chinese Naval Shipbuilding provides a very useful window into an area of intense Communist Party strategic investment. The work gives the reader an excellent overview of the industry as a whole, overlapped with strategic context and geopolitical implications. As discussed, the volume also provides a unique look at the industry’s challenges, including increased engineering costs, poor integration with modern combat systems, and challenges in surface ship engineering plants and nuclear propulsion technologies. Nuanced and complex, it describes both the accomplishments of an industry that now leads the world in commercial tonnage produced, but also lags behind in critical areas mastered by much smaller and less-rich nations. Erickson’s volume is a worthy addition to his series and an enjoyable read.
Read CIMSEC’s interview with editor Dr. Andrew Erickson on this book here.
Michael DeBoer is a U.S. naval officer. The views herein are his alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or any other organization.
Featured Image: China’s first indigenously produced aircraft carrier CV-17/001A under construction at Dalian shipyard. (CJDBY.net)
The following article is part of our cross-posting partnership with Information Dissemination’s Jon Solomon. It is republished here with the author’s permission. Read it in its original form here.
By Jon Solomon
There was a pretty lively debate in the comments to Chris Mclachlan’s post last month about the Combat Logistics Force. No one took issue with his observations that the CLF might be undersized for sustaining high-tempo forward U.S. Navy operations in the event of a major Sino-American war. Nor did anyone contest his argument that our replenishment ships lack the basic self-defense capabilities their Cold War-era predecessors carried. Instead, the debate focused on Chris’s assertion that CLF ships ought to be escorted during wartime by a small trans-oceanic surface combatant possessing medium-range anti-air and anti-submarine capabilities.
Needless to say, I agree with Chris’s view. Such an escort would be a necessary part of the overall combined arms solution set to protecting not only CLF assets but also the shipping that would surge reinforcements and materiel to embattled U.S. allies in East Asia, provide steady logistical sustainment to the U.S. and allied forces deployed to or based in those countries, and maintain the flow of vital maritime commerce to and from those countries. One rarely sees any of these four critical tasks acknowledged in discussions within the security studies community. I believe that represents a dangerous analytical oversight, as an American failure to adequately protect its own and its allies’ sea lines of communications in a war with China would be strategically disastrous. In today’s post, I’m going to outline China’s ability to threaten these lines in a notional major war. On Thursday, I’ll outline how the U.S. and its allies might offset that threat.
Let’s first look at the strategic geography of the problem. The sea lanes in question pass through the waters between the First Island Chain and the line stretching from Hokkaido through the Bonins and Marianas to the Palaus (e.g, the “Second Island Chain”). I’ve recently written about the PLAAF’s effective reach into the Western Pacific, and it’s been widely understood for years that late-generation PLAN submarines possess the technological capability to operate for several weeks in these waters before having to return to port. China would be hard-pressed to achieve localized sea control anywhere within this broad area; its own surface combatants and shipping would be just as vulnerable to attack. It wouldn’t need sea control, though, to achieve its probable campaign-level objectives of bogging down (or outright thwarting) an effective U.S. military response, or perhaps inflicting coercive economic pain upon one or more embattled American allies. The use of PLA submarines and strike aircraft to pressure U.S. and allied sea lines of communications would be entirely sufficient. And as Toshi Yoshihara and Martin Murphy point out in their article in the Summer ‘15Naval War College Review, these kinds of PLA operations would be consistent with the Mao-derived maritime strategic theory of “sabotage warfare at sea,” albeit at a much greater distance from China’s shores than the theory originally conceived. Such operations have been widely discussed in Chinese strategic literature over the past two decades.[i]
It bears noting that our East Asian treaty allies like Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines would have inherent roles and responsibilities defending their sea lines of communication. Nevertheless, they probably would not be able to fulfill the mission entirely on their own given their maritime forces’ sizes and capabilities. There would probably need to be a geographical line of responsibility similar to what the U.S. and Great Britain worked out in the Atlantic during the Second World War; shipping protection west of the line would primarily be the ally’s responsibility, and the U.S. would be primarily responsible for shipping protection east of the line. Even so, the U.S. would probably still need to contribute escorts and supporting forces to assist the ally in protecting sea lanes that were within some threshold distance of the Chinese mainland. Shipping protection in the approaches to the Ryukyus, Taiwan, or western Luzon particularly come to mind.
While it is true that U.S. and allied forces could probably pressure the PLA’s ability to push submarines and aircraft through the Ryukyus’ various straits or the Luzon Strait in a war, they would probably not be able to fully seal those doors—at least not during the conflict’s early phases. The biggest reason for this would be the straits’ sheer proximity to the Chinese mainland: PLAAF/PLAN fighters would be readily able to escort their strike aircraft brethren out into the Western Pacific and back, not to mention threaten any U.S. or allied anti-submarine aircraft or surface combatants patrolling the straits. Granted, Chinese fighters would be exposed to any sea-based and mobile land-based area air defense systems covering the straits and their approaches. They might also be confronted by U.S. or allied fighters operating from austere island bases in the vicinity of the straits, or from aircraft carriers or land bases located at various distances “over the horizon” to the east. U.S. and allied defenders could additionally use any number of countertargeting tactics to reduce their susceptibility to attack.
However, even if the PLA could not damage or destroy many of these forces per raid, it could still take actions that effectively suppressed the straits “guardians.” One tactic might be to salvo land-attack or anti-radar missiles to distract the defenders or induce them to keep their “heads down” shortly before or during a straits transit. Another might be to damage runways or austere airstrips as possible in order to constrain the defenders’ air operations; repairs could take precious hours. Electronic attacks and tactical deception could also be used to screen transiting PLA aircraft and submarines. Periodic PLA suppression raids would neither be small undertakings nor without risk to the forces performing them, but they might be sustainable on an as-needed operational tempo for several weeks or months at minimum.
The other factor that would make it impossible to hermetically seal the First Island Chain barrier would be the difficulty in maintaining persistent U.S. or allied submarine coverage in all of the requisite straits. The U.S. presently has thirty-one non-special-purpose SSNs stationed in the Pacific; three are homeported in Guam and twenty in Pearl Harbor. Only a small number would be deployed at sea within quick steaming of the straits, though, unless timely indications and warning of an impending crisis or conflict were received and then acted upon by U.S. leaders. The high-readiness Guam boats would be able to arrive on scene fairly rapidly once sortied, but it would take several more days for them to be reinforced by Pearl Harbor boats—not all of which might be immediately surgeable due to inter-deployment maintenance. Japan could surely contribute a number of its sixteen modern SSs in active service, but again not all of them might be surge-ready at any given time. And while the U.S. and Japanese fleets will be receiving additional boats over the coming decade, it will not be at a rate and scale that would dramatically change the straits coverage math. Hypothetical seabed-mounted sonar arrays in these straits or their approaches might help improve these odds by cueing available U.S. or allied submarines (or other anti-submarine forces) to a PLA submarine transit. The probability of a friendly submarine intercepting a PLA submarine detected this way, though, would depend upon the time between when the cue was broadcast and when it was received by the friendly sub, how the friendly sub’s effective sonar ranges in those waters affected its ability to redetect the trespasser, and whether the friendly sub could cover the distance from its starting point to have a chance at redetection before the cueing data “aged out.” More than one boat might be required to cover any particular strait with a certain margin of confidence; this would be especially true for the wider straits. Nor would anti-submarine patrols in the straits be the two sub fleets’ sole mission at the beginning of a major war: there would be equal if not greater demands for land-attack strikes, anti-submarine and anti-surface patrols inside the First Island Chain, anti-submarine patrols between the two island chain lines, special forces insertion/extraction, and far-forward intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance. U.S. and Japanese submarine coverage of the straits simply could not be absolute.
It would be excellent if U.S. and allied forces could attrite the PLA forces making or supporting straits transits by a few percent each time without suffering equivalent attrition; the cumulative effects on the PLA’s overall warmaking capacity would be significant. But it would take weeks if not months for those effects to really show. That’s why the ability to logistically sustain the land-based forces waging the protracted frontline fight would be so crucial to U.S. war strategy. If the PLA were to inflict enough pressure on these logistical flows, the barrier defense would eventually wither on the vine.
It’s also important to remember that this imperfect barrier would only function in an open war—not during a crisis. Any PLAN submarines sortied prior to the outbreak of open hostilities could in theory patrol between the two island chain lines for campaign-significant amounts of time before having to hazard a trip back through the First Island Chain gauntlet. Modern PLAN SSNs like the Type 093 and its Type 095 follow-on would have an obvious endurance advantage over Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) boats like the Type 041, but even the latter could probably remain underway for a few weeks before requiring a return to port. During that time, the mere fact that PLAN submarines were unlocated in the Western Pacific would undoubtedly affect U.S. operations (and tempo) in theater. The Royal Navy’s experience coping with a single unlocated Argentine submarine during the Falklands War is instructive on that point.
It would not take many PLAN submarines to generate such effects. For instance, let’s assume that the PLAN allocated its Type 041s, Type 093s, and Type 095s for war-opening operations between the two island chain lines while simultaneously holding its Type 035A/B/G, Type 039, and Kilo-class diesel-electric boats back for operations within the East and South China Seas. Let’s also assume China had its planned twenty Type 041s and five Type 093s in commission, plus perhaps five Type 095s as well, when a conflict erupted. Lastly, let’s assume that these boats’ material conditions of readiness were high enough to sortie two-thirds of them into the Western Pacific as the crisis phase peaked. Thirteen AIP boats and six SSNs might not seem like a lot within such a broad expanse. However, as Julian Corbett pointed out a century ago, the most “fertile” areas for hunting ships are “the terminals of departure and destination where trade tends to be crowded, and in a secondary degree the focal points where, owing to the conformation of the land, trade tends to converge.”[ii] If the PLAN followed Corbett’s logic, it might position its submarines in waters the U.S. and its allies would have to traverse to access (or break out of) selected major ports along the First Island Chain during the war’s first weeks. Or it might assign those duties to the Type 041s and deploy its SSNs in the waters just west of the Marianas that shipping from Guam, Hawaii, or the continental U.S. might seek to traverse. Or if the Chinese Ocean Surveillance System’s (COSS) coverage between the island chain lines remained adequate after the war started, China might try to steer its SSNs into mid-transit contact with U.S. or allied shipping.[iii] What’s more, the lingering effects of a PLA conventional first strike against major U.S. and Japanese bases in the Japanese home islands and Okinawa, subsequent PLA suppression operations against U.S. or allied straits-guarding forces along the Ryukyus-Luzon line, and in-theater U.S. and allied anti-submarine-capable forces’ sheer combat load prior to the arrival of reinforcements from the U.S. suggest that at least some PLAN submarines could complete at least one full cycle from their patrol areas to port for replenishment and then back into the Western Pacific before the “happy time” window began to close. This would especially be true for PLAN submarines patrolling the approaches to the Ryukyus, Taiwan, or Luzon.
Add the PLAAF/PLAN strike aircraft threat back into the mix and it should be apparent that U.S. and allied use of the Western Pacific’s surface between the two island chain lines would likely be opposed early in a notional war. The key variables driving China’s anti-shipping potential within these waters would be COSS’s ability to provide PLA aircraft and submarines with actionable targeting cues despite intense U.S. (and possibly allied) efforts to degrade and deceive this system-of-systems, the PLA’s ability to push those forces through contested First Island Chain straits when and where needed, and the operational range and endurance of those forces.
Jon Solomon is a Senior Systems and Technology Analyst at Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. in Alexandria, VA. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and are presented in his personal capacity on his own initiative. They do not reflect the official positions of Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. and to the author’s knowledge do not reflect the policies or positions of the U.S. Department of Defense, any U.S. armed service, or any other U.S. Government agency. These views have not been coordinated with, and are not offered in the interest of, Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. or any of its customers.
Featured Image: QINGDAO, CHINA – JULY 02: (CHINA OUT) CNS Harbin DDG-112 frigate fires a missile during live-fire drill on Yellow Sea on July 2, 2015 in Qingdao, Shandong Province of China. Naval vessels and soldiers mainly from China people’s Liberation Army Navy North Sea Fleet and part of soldiers of China people’s Liberation Army Navy East Sea Fleet, the Second Artillery Force of the PLA, Chinese PLA Shenyang Military Region and Chinese PLA Jinan Military Region attended the live-fire drill on Yellow Sea on Thursday. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
Week Dates: July 18-22, 2016 Articles Due: July 17, 2016 Article Length: 800-1800 Words (with flexibility) Submit to: Nextwar@cimsec.org
In mid-July CIMSEC will be launching a topic week on the security situation in the South China Sea. Tensions are on the rise as China continues to defend its nine-dash claim in the South China Sea while most other claimants and regional powers strengthen security cooperation agreements with the United States. Rules based international order is being challenged as numerous militaries in the region modernize with growing defense budgets.
How may South China Sea disputes animate the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region? How may crises and flashpoints come about, be diffused, or escalate? How can claimants restore trust? How is the regional military balance of power trending, and what would conflict look like? How can rules based order be preserved in Asia’s maritime domain, and what does its violation warrant for the future?
Contributors are encouraged to answer these questions and more as they seek to understand the complexity of the strategic crossroads that is the South China Sea. Please submit draft contributions to Nextwar@cimsec.org.
Editor’s Note: This topic week has since concluded and the writings submitted in response to this call for articles may be viewed here.
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. He may be contacted at Nextwar@cimsec.org.
Featured Image: Aerial view of the Yongxing Island, also known as Woody Island in the South China Sea on June 19, 2014 in Sansha, Hainan Province of China. ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images