Alexander Mozgovoi, Observer
For US politicians and mass media, the increasing Chinese military power and especially the "frightening rates" of growth in the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) capabilities are undoubtedly the most popular external irritant after the Iraq war, international terrorism and Iranian nuclear program. Sometimes the topic even comes to forefront leaving the others behind. Indeed, we have been witnessing a rapid renewal of China's Navy since the beginning of the century. But does it really endanger the United States? Let's try to consider the issue.
Since the mid-1990s, the PLAN has been supplemented by nine destroyers (one Type 051B, two Type 052B, two Type 052C, two Project 956E and two Project 956EM), 12 frigates (ten Type 053H3 and two Type 054), and 21 diesel-electric submarines (eight Type 039/039G Song, one Type 041 Yuan and 12 Project 937EKM/636/636M). Missile boats of several types were also built, though the series were rather modest compared to the previous years. According to foreign sources, five Type 094 Jin nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), two Type 093 Shang nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), two type 039G and at least one Type 041 diesel-electric submarines, two Type 051С destroyers and six Type 054A frigates are currently at Chinese shipyards in diverse phases of construction, testing and preparation for handing over to the Navy. In addition to the above ships and submarines, one Type 092 Xia SSBN, four Type 091 Han SSNs, two Type 052 destroyers and four Type 053 H2G frigates built in the 1980s and early 1990s can be classified with great reserve as modern. Foreign experts believe they are far inferior to their Western counterparts in performance. All other combatants and submarines are obsolete. The same is true for the land-based naval aviation as well. Among hundreds of its aircraft, only 24 Su-30MK2 multirole fighters meet today's requirements.
In other words, compared to the US Navy, this "armada" looks more than plainly. With its nuclear component ignored, the PLAN is notably inferior to the well-balanced and equipped Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force as well. Note that high-tech Japan needs a mere year to acquire nuclear capabilities. In its potential, the Chinese Navy (if its nuclear component is not taken into account) is more likely closer to the Republic of Korea's Navy, which has also been rapidly growing in recent years.
Diversity of the PLAN'S ship types comes under notice. Often a series includes a mere two ships. Of course, such a "patchwork quilt" can toss no challenge to the US Navy, the more so on the high seas.
In this context now is the time to recall a "breakthrough" of the Soviet Navy from its shores to the high seas made in the 1950s by ships of four types: Project 68bis cruisers (14 items), Project 30bis destroyers (70 items), Project 611 large diesel-electric submarines (26 items) and Project 613 medium diesel-electric submarines (215 items). They all were far from being state-of-the-art in world shipbuilding, with Project 30bis destroyers meeting the requirements of the first half of the century only. But they were built in large quantities and this allowed them to be deployed and show the flag in water areas distant from the USSR. It is the construction of surface combatants and submarines in large series and weapon standardization that gives the US Navy the strong capabilities and allow it to dominate the world oceans.
The submarine fleet is the major component of the PLAN. It is most advanced with regard to capabilities and armaments. The submarines are built and purchased abroad in relatively large batches, and such an approach yields results. An incident that occurred last October near Okinawa, when a Type Song diesel-electric attack submarine penetrated an antisubmarine screen of a US carrier task force and surfaced near the carrier Kitty Hawk within firing range of its weapons, speaks for itself. Nevertheless, today the Chinese submarine fleet, too, has pronounced defensive rather than offensive capabilities.
So to what end does China need the Navy?
A look beyond the horizon
The US politicians primarily assert that the PLAN is targeted to solve the Taiwan problem in a military manner. Indeed, Beijing does not recognize "two Chinas". And the world community, too, was on the same side of the fence. The United States adhered to the same attitude during the period of violent growth in the US-Chinese friendship oriented against the Soviet Union. Indeed, the PLAN has a certain number of landing ships to transfer its marines to the "rebellious" island. But, first, such ships are clearly not enough for a large-scale invasion. Second, Taiwan itself possesses large and rather strong armed forces and the navy. And, finally, contradictions between Beijing and Taipei are gradually ironed out and they demonstrate more and more common interests. Their economies are being evened up and seek to cooperate. That is why it is quite possible that within ten years or even earlier "two Chinas" will most likely unite peacefully even though by the Hong Kong formula "one country - two systems".
It is quite obvious that "passions" around Taiwan are intentionally whipped up by Washington, for which the possible unification promises no good in the Asia Pacific region. However, to all appearance the United States do not rule out the possible unification of two Chinas either. That is why Washington drags out and disrupts deliveries to Taipei of earlier promised modern, including naval, weapons, confining itself to sales of second-hand weaponry. In parallel, the US is hastily restoring and in fact rebuilding military and technical cooperation with India, especially in the naval area.
Thus, it would be wrong to talk about the Taiwan problem as the main reason for a growth in the PLAN capabilities. On the other hand, it is quite obvious that China seeks to provide security of sea lanes of communications for the normal performance of its economy. After all, this most densely populated
* * *
For fire support
Among arguments for the anti-Taiwan trend in the development of the PLAN capabilities is the interest in fire support ships. Indeed, China gives certain attention to such facilities which, however, looks insignificant compared to that paid to antiship and air defense capabilities. Particularly, tests involving the employment of multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) from transport and auxiliary vessels were conducted. In the first phase, Grad-type MLRSs were simply rolled onto dry-cargo vessels having flush decks like bulkers. Then the launchers were properly secured, much as any wheeled vehicles should be fastened. Approaching a landing zone, where fire support was required, the MLRS crews turned the launchers shoreward and delivered a missile strike. As can be readily guessed, the effectiveness of such fire was low due to aiming difficulties. In addition, such strikes are possible only in calm weather, which seldom happens at sea. One of 27 Type 053H frigates - the Jiujang - featuring a full displacement of 1,700 t and a speed of 26 knots was converted into a fire support ship. All its previous strike and ASW weapons were dismantled and five special-design 122mm MLRSs and new forward and aft twin-barrel 100mm artillery mounts were installed. But the Jiujang still remains the sole ship in its class.
Experiments are currently underway on the PLAN'S training ship Shichang, which also functions as an experimental and transport vessel. It accommodates large-caliber MLRSs in standard containers. The latter also house control facilities used to lay the launchers onto the target. But for now, these are only experiments and no build-up of fire support capabilities can be talked about.
* * *
country lacks natural resources. It suffices to recall that 80 percent of oil coming to the PRC is transported through the Strait of Malacca, an extremely narrow passage. The lion's share of the Chinese products is also carried by sea. Thus, maintaining a favorable regime at seas becomes vital for the country and a priority mission for the Chinese Navy.
Upon Mao Zedong's death, the Chinese military started developing a new naval doctrine of "offshore active defense" that was not officially declared until 1995. The doctrine envisages not only protection of China against invasion from sea, but also preventive strikes at potential adversaries, including those encroaching upon the lanes of communications that connect China with its trade partners. The implementation of the strategy calls for three phases. In the first phase, the Navy is to provide a favorable operating regime within so called the "first chain of islands" - from the Ryukyu Islands (Japan) to the Philippines Islands. The mission is considered to be fulfilled, and now the question is establishing a similar regime in the "second chain of islands" -from the Kuril Islands to New Guinea - before 2020. Implementing the third phase (through 2050) will mean the transformation of China into a first-class Naval Power, the ships of which will sail in any area of the World Ocean.
By the way, the Chinese do not make a mystery of their naval policy and openly proclaim it. So, on December 27, 2006, Chairman of the PRC Hu Jintao said: "We should strive to build a powerful navy that would adapt to the needs of our military's historical mission in this new century and at this new stage." And two days later, on New Year's Eve, Beijing issued a defense White Paper emphasizing that the PLAN should "gradually expand its defensive deep-sea operations and improve its capabilities for the naval warfare and nuclear counterstrikes".
Nowadays China's military power, including the naval might, lags behind its economic power. Essentially, there is nothing fearful about it. The collapse of the Soviet Union is a dismal example of what occurs when military power outstrips the economic capabilities. But ideally military power should correspond to economic power of the state and strengthen it. The Chinese are heading precisely this direction.
Here emerges the question as to why China still builds ships of all kinds in small numbers? Could it be true that the Chinese naval officials are blind to drawbacks of the "patchworky" approach to building the fleet? The issue is not as simple as it might seem.
(To be continued)
* * *
Great wall at sea
In the Mao period, the PLAN was built as the "Great Wall of China at Sea" and regarded as a natural continuation of the PLA in the coastal waters. In line with this doctrine, this was largely a boat fleet comprising more than 1,000 missile, torpedo, ASW and patrol boats, most of which were built to Soviet designs or were their clones. This armada was strengthened by Project 613 and 633 (Type 033) submarines locally built to Soviet drawings and with use of some Soviet components. To show the flag, four 1940s-era Project 7 destroyers transferred by the USSR in 1954 - 1955 and four Project 50 patrol ships assembled in China from Soviet components were used. Both Project 7 and 50 ships were later retrofitted and equipped with the HY-2 antiship missiles, copies of the Soviet P-15 missile system. The Type 051 Luda missile destroyers, based around the Severnoye Design Bureau's Project 41 and 56 destroyer designs, were the highest achievement of the Chinese shipbuilding industry under Mao Zedong. A total of 17 such combatants in various configurations were handed over to the PLAN in the 1970s-1980s.