April 1, 2006  

Plan for growth

China’s surface fleet modernization fits Beijing’s appetite for sea power

During 2005, the Chinese government noisily celebrated the 600th anniversary of the voyages of the fabled Adm. Zheng He. At home and across the Chinese diaspora, the admiral was memorialized for gathering tribute for the Chinese emperor as far away as the Persian Gulf, but also for meting out punishment to those who offended the emperor in what is today Indonesia and Sri Lanka. A not-so-subtle theme of this campaign was to encourage the Chinese to view maritime power as part of their heritage — Zheng sailed well before Christopher Columbus — and so to justify the reality that China is building serious naval forces for the first time in its communist era.

Western analysts rightly view this naval buildup through the lenses focused across the Taiwan Strait, but, as the lionizing of Zheng suggests, China has a larger world in view as well. Beyond denying access to the U.S. Navy, China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) seeks to extend Beijing’s maritime power.

The Chinese have much to be proud of. As recently as March 1997, the PLAN could barely get one Luhu-class destroyer and a tanker to make a courtesy port call at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and San Diego. But if that was hardly a model of maritime power projection, it reinforced several key decisions just taken by China’s leadership. At the urging of former PLAN commander Liu Huaqing, the top-ranking officer in the PLAN’s Central Military Commission, then-Chinese leader Jiang Zemin directed that military spending should favor the largely obsolete Chinese navy and air force. Early in his career, Liu studied in Russia and was deeply influenced by Adm. Sergei Gorshkov, the architect of Soviet blue-water naval ambitions, based on submarines plus the ships and aircraft needed to support them.

Indeed, the period of the late 1990s was also one of deep ferment in PLAN doctrine and operational theory. Under Liu, the PLAN was transforming from a largely defensive doctrine to increasing its combat capabilities within the First Island Chain — running from the Kuriles through Okinawa, Taiwan and down to Indonesia — and raising its sights to the Second Island Chain — essentially, extending this line out to Guam. China’s leadership had committed to a major military buildup by middecade and was doing so to prepare for an offensive, rapid, high-technology and information-intensive war against Taiwan. While the PLAN was embarrassed by not being able to deter the U.S. deployment of two aircraft carrier groups sent in response to the April 1996 missile blockade exercises designed to intimidate Taiwan, the senior leadership learned an important lesson about the true size of the Taiwan battle space and the need for greater maritime power projection. This led to the purchase of two Russian Sovremenniy-class destroyers — ships explicitly designed to attack U.S. carrier battle groups — and to many further developments that were not discovered until more recently.

While the purchase of the Sovremenniys has grabbed most of the headlines, the PLAN’s active preparations to develop new classes of indigenous warships has slipped under the radar and may ultimately prove more important. Indeed, indigenous modernization was well underway when the Sovremenniy deal was consummated. The Luhai destroyer, launched in 1997, was a product of this initial period. The ship featured Ukrainian turbines and German MTU diesels, but only a modest armament of short-range HQ-7 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and C-801 anti-ship missiles, both influenced by French designs acquired in the 1980s.

But the Luhai was more important as a reflection of Beijing’s commitment to building a modern fleet. From 1996 to 2000, after the confrontation with the Clinton administration over Taiwan, the PLAN was racing to design new combatants using new methods of construction. Naval design and development organizations increased their use of computer-aided design technologies, which in turn eased the incorporation of stealth technology and the exploitation of modern modular construction techniques. Importantly, the PLAN’s ability to incorporate these new technologies was a direct result of China’s success in rapidly modernizing its civilian shipbuilding sector, thanks to large investments from Japanese and South Korean shipbuilders. The first Type 052C Luyang II was built in 10 months and commissioned within 25 months — a fast process by modern standards.

Access to foreign technology, as well as foreign direct investment, has also played a decisive role in PLAN success in upgrading its naval combat systems. The Chinese have been particularly interested in picking over the bones of the former Soviet navy. Three new destroyers are based on either directly purchased Russian combat systems or indigenous Chinese systems that are based on Ukrainian or Russian technologies.

In a major advance, the PLAN has succeeded in producing a large naval active phased array radar, a C-Band system that Ukrainian sources say they developed for China. All new PLAN destroyers feature advanced combat control systems and have data links via the Russian Mineral-ME system. The Aegis-style destroyer also features a new vertical-launched SAM that may be the naval adaptation of a new land-based SAM based on Russian S-300 level technologies.

The continuing weakness of PLAN surface combatants is anti-submarine capabilities. There appears to be an emphasis on medium frequency hull sonar that is better suited to shallower depths; perhaps optimal for inshore waters and the Taiwan Strait but less so for the open ocean — and the region just west of Taiwan gets very deep, very fast. While there is evidence of substantial research to develop advanced towed sonar arrays, these do not appear to have been deployed. The PLAN has purchased a small number of Russian Kamov Ka-28 anti-submarine helicopters and their associated APR-3 rocket-propelled anti-submarine warfare (ASW) torpedoes, and is likely to purchase more to support its newer combat ships.


Yet by any standard, this has been an extraordinarily fecund period in the development of Chinese surface naval capabilities, marked by fevered investment and rapid technological change. The process arguably has been more important than the products themselves, but even while experimenting, the PLAN has made itself a regional force to contend with.

Sometime this year, the PLAN should have 10 new destroyers, six built in China since 2002, equipped with modern missiles optimized for medium or long-range air defense. Though a seemingly modest number, this more than doubles China’s rate of destroyer production — and double Japan’s as well. These ships will significantly increase the PLAN’s ability to conduct operations beyond the limits of ground-based air support.

Some of the details: Four of the 10 new destroyers are Russian-made — two Project 956 and two Project 956EM Sovremenniy destroyers. The latter may be upgraded to carry SA-N-12 Shtil SAMs (faster than the current SA-N-7), the extended-range Moskit heavy supersonic anti-ship missile, the Kashtan-E missile/gun close-in-weapon system (CIWS), the Paket-E anti-torpedo torpedo and the Vinietka-EM towed-array sonar. The Sovremenniys also carry one Ka-28 ASW helicopter or the Ka-31 airborne radar helicopter. These are sophisticated and highly capable ships and systems.

Four more are homegrown ships. In what was a rapid schedule even for the Chinese, the navy has built and commissioned two indigenously designed destroyer types based on a common hull and propulsion system and using Ukrainian gas turbine engines, and all built in Shanghai. Two Luyang I destroyers feature two SA-N-12 SAM launchers, with a magazine of 48 missiles. It also carries 16 surface-to-surface missiles, a 100mm main gun and two Type 730 CIWS, and can carry one Ka-28 size helicopter. During this same period, the Shanghai yard also produced two stealthy Luyang II destroyers featuring a Ukrainian-designed Aegis-style active phased-array radar and 48 of a new vertically launched SAM.

Finally, at the very end of 2004 and then later in 2005, the Dalian shipyard launched two of the Luzhou-class destroyers. Based on a larger and modified Luhai hull, these ships are armed with 48 of the Russian Altair RIF-M long-range naval SAMs.

The long-term nature of this amazing ship-building program is somewhat difficult to evaluate. One Asian source recently suggested that China built three classes of air-defense destroyers primarily for the purpose of evaluating their different concepts before either choosing one, or a new combination of their systems, for further production. Either way, the PLAN is probably about to make its next move. It seems likely that experimentation will continue; a U.S.-style modular box vertical launch system may feature into the next PLAN destroyer. However, should Russian naval air-defense maker Altair produce a new naval air-defense system based on the reported 400-kilometer range future Russian SAM, there is a good possibility that China, if it is not already an investor, will be an early foreign customer.


While the larger surface combatants receive most of the attention, the Chinese navy’s plan for its fleet clearly encompasses smaller warships and, perhaps more significantly, the auxiliaries needed for maritime power projection and sustainment.

China’s fleet of 43 frigates is composed of older Jianghus and newer but modestly armed Jiangwei I and II classes. From December 2001 to November 2003, the PLAN produced two new Jiankai frigates in the Shanghai Hudong shipyard and the Guangzhou Huangpu shipyard, the latter using advanced enclosed modular production. The Jiankai bears a striking similarity to the French La Fayette class in its extensive use of stealth shaping.

The specter of Taiwan also figures prominently in China’s investments in fast-attack craft. In April 2004, a new fast-attack craft emerged with aggressive stealth shaping and a wave-piercing catamaran hull for high speeds even in high sea states.

Minesweepers are likewise an important element in PLAN operational plans for Taiwan. After a long hiatus, the PLAN in 2004 launched the first of a new class of minesweepers, dubbed the Wozang class, to replace the elderly Soviet-designed T43 class. The Chinese government has also strengthened the fleets of its maritime safety and patrol agencies. This fleet will grow in importance as China’s resource requirements spiral, increasing its desire to secure maritime resource zones that often conflict with areas claimed by its neighbors. At least two new classes of 1,000-ton patrol ships have been delivered to the Maritime Safety Agency, along with slightly smaller patrol ships. These ships are lightly armed and some are equipped with new Eurocopter EC-135 helicopters — these apparently not subject to the 1989 European Union arms embargo.

The PLAN has started using its new capabilities. In early September, the East Sea Fleet dispatched part of a newly formed contingency group as a show of force against Japan over the disputed Chunxiao gas field.

On top of this, the PLAN has significantly increased its naval diplomacy in recent years. In 2002, a Luhu-class destroyer led a PLAN group on a round-the-world excursion. Since 2003, the PLAN has held simple safety exercises with naval units from Pakistan, India, France, Great Britain and Australia; has participated in multilateral submarine rescue exercises in Singapore; and has conducted reciprocal port calls with the United States, for the first time, to Guam, and then U.S. ships to the South Sea Fleet headquarters of Zhezhang. In 2005, the South Sea Fleet’s Luhai destroyer led a group to Pakistan and then India.

The visit to Pakistan is of special importance because of China’s heavy investment in building a new port in Gwadar, in western Pakistan. It is expected that as this port grows in importance to the economies of China’s western provinces, that PLAN forces will become more frequent visitors, if not a regular presence; imperial naval powers have a need for Mahanian coaling stations.

Richard D. Fisher Jr. is vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Center.