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Saurav Jha
Wednesday, October 31, 2012 at 13 : 34

Guest Post 3: 'Dragon on the High Seas' by Rahul M


Much is made of the People's Liberation Army Navy's (PLAN) (actually known simply as the Chinese Navy since 2010) modernisation and the ability of Chinese shipyards to turn out major surface and sub-surface combatants rapidly. However, beyond the hype it is perhaps time to do a more realistic appraisal of whether the PLAN is indeed all that it is made out to be, especially with reference to its purported ability to project power in the Indian Ocean now or in the near future. In this two part guest post, Rahul M takes a closer look at China's naval buildup with the first part focusing on surface capabilities.

China entered the 90's with a navy that was technology-wise still stuck in the 60's and 70's.

In a similarity that it incidentally shared with India, the navy was the most neglected branch of the military and starved of funds for modernisation. While modernisation of the Army and Air Force started in earnest in the 80's, the Navy found little funds to meet its needs, with the exception of the nuclear submarine programme.

In line with Mao's philosophy of 'strength in numbers', it had inherited a large number of obsolescent ships made to old soviet designs that were for the most part too small to operate outside coastal waters. Even worse, training standards were generally very poor with large parts of the fleet rarely venturing out to the sea over a year. The Indian Navy at the same time, similarly starved of funds, decided to opt for quality over quantity. It had far lesser number of warships on its roster than PLAN but these were built to modern designs and crew were in general better trained.

The real impetus for PLAN's modernisation came with the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis. China's decision to intimidate Taiwan with a series of missile tests and military exercises was in turn met by the US sending two aircraft carrier battle groups (CBGs) to the region, in addition to the one already present in Japan.

Realising their vulnerability vis-a-vis the USN fleet, the PRC finally decided to embark on a course of accelerated naval modernisation, a decision that was to have far reaching consequences.

PLAN : Myth and Reality

Majority of the expert opinions on PLAN originate in the US, with its plethora of think-tanks and semi-governmental academic institutions. The popular consensus is that PLAN has a vast and relatively modern fleet which is only a short time away from challenging US (and western) naval supremacy on the oceans.

Taking their cue from US publications, Indian and other regional media portray the PLAN as being so far ahead of other navies in the IOR that any comparison seems to be an exercise in futility.

This article, published in DNA, is a typical example.

This view, as we shall see, is misleading and is meant to serve the interests of certain lobbies and interest groups inside the US and other western countries. With the break-up of the USSR, large swathes of military-bureaucratic complex in western countries became redundant. The threat from China, suitably magnified, serves as an ideal excuse to continue as before and request funds for hyper-expensive military projects.

The object is not to downplay the rapid modernisation of the PRC's military, which deserves to be taken seriously. However, from the Indian point of view, it behooves us to form a more realistic assessment of PLAN's strengths and weaknesses, separate from the american analysis.

PLAN Order of Battle (ORBAT)

A major source of confusion about the actual strength of PLAN is that the designation for capital ships like destroyers, frigates etc as employed by PLAN is different from those of the other navies. Chinese designation system put lighter class of ships in the heavier classes, for example, the Type 051 Luda Class 'destroyers' weigh less than 4000 tonnes and in any other navy would be designated as frigates.

Similarly, ships that are better termed corvettes and missile boats are referred to as frigates, which are a larger and more capable class of ships.

Surface Fleet

A number of parameters need to be considered while estimating the capabilities of China's surface fleet, chief among those are training level of crew, reliability of the ships and the triple qualities of Anti-submarine Warfare (ASW), Anti-Ship Warfare (AShW) and Anti-Air Warfare (AAW).

Training level of Chinese Navy sailors has been poor in general, it was widely reported that PLAN helicopter pilots were incapable of operating at night, the Hainan incident and other similar examples all point to this problem.

A Chinese naval aviation fighter pilot sent to intercept a US Navy spy plane ended up crashing into it and losing his life in the process.

PLAN surface fleet focuses on AShW at the cost of neglecting ASW and AAW(though this is changing), it is primarily geared to take on USN aircraft carriers and escorts. Both the quality and quantity of its ASW fleet is far less than what a fleet its size should operate. This is slowly changing with introduction of more capable helicopters into the fleet.

AAW used to be a major weakness of PLAN but over the last decade, with the introduction of copies of French Crotale SAM, in the form of HQ-7 and later with the copies of the capable Russian origin S-300 SAM, in the form of HHQ-9, the situation has improved significantly. Large parts of the fleet are however still without credible air-defence missiles.

What follows is a break-down of PLAN surface fleet along with a more realistic designation of their classes :

Aircraft Carrier                    
In Service
Liaoning (ex Varyag)
1 in trials
Based on the 67,500 tonne Soviet Varyag class, this would be a significant addition to PLAN's capabilities when inducted. That would take some time as China lacks experience in operating carriers and would need to formulate operating procedures and train its fleet on how to operate around this capital ship. IN's Vikramaditya class carrier is roughly similar albeit smaller. Liaoning should allow ~ 25% more aircraft on board with a commensurate jump in capabilities.

In Service
051 Luda II
Based on a 1960's soviet design, these 3000 tonne ships are better termed as light frigates.
051 Luda III
Improved variant, combat load is somewhere between IN's P25A Kora class corvettes and P16 Godavari class frigates.
052 Luhu
4800 tonne ship armed with 8 SSMs and HQ-7 crotale knock-offs. Equivalent to IN P16A Brahmaputra class frigates.

051B Luhai
A modernised and enlarged variant of the 052 Luhu class, this was generally considered a disappointment and production stopped after 1 ship. Roughly equivalent to the P16A Brahmaputra class frigate.
This capable Soviet/Russian origin ship is the first true destroyer of PLAN. Armed with the supersonic Moskit missile, PLAN's Sovremenny class destroyers are comparable to IN's P15 Delhi class destroyers with better AshW but poorer all round capabilities than the later.
052B Luyang I
Resembling a slightly larger Talwar class frigate in capabilities, this class is considered China's first successful modern design.
051C Luzhou
With a primary AAW role, these multi-role destroyers are built on the same hull design as the 051B with improved equipment and are similar to IN's under construction P15A Kolkata Class destroyers but with lesser surface warfare capabilities.
052C Luyang II
Based on the 052B hull design, the 052C is meant for fleet air defence with limited surface warfare capabilities. The P15A Kolkata is a rough analogue of this class with more all round but lesser AAW ability.

In Service
053H2 Jiangwei-I
Improved variant of the 053 Class , itself based on a 50's soviet design, it is more accurately classified as a corvette. Combat load is similar to the P25 Khukri class corvette although the HQ-61 SAM is considered inadequate.
053H3 Jiangwei-II
Improved 053H2, equivalent to a stealthy P25A Kora class corvette. HQ-61 replaced by HQ-7 copy of French Crotale SAM
054 Jiangkai - I

Modern stealth frigate design similar to Talwar Class but with inferior air-defence capabilities.
054 Jiangkai - II

Upgraded 054 class. Short range HQ-7 SAM replaced with the HQ-16 medium range SAM (based on soviet/russian Buk missile). Similar to Talwar class.

Ship classes smaller than frigates are not considered for the purposes of this monograph since they do not have the endurance to sail beyond China's immediate neighbourhood and are not relevant from an Indian point of view. Similarly, China's amphibious assault ships are ignored since the chances of a Chinese invasion of Indian mainland or even Andaman and Nicobar islands are rather remote.

What emerges from the above table is that, if we apply globally accepted standards of ship classification, PLAN operates only 14 frigates and 8 destroyers. This is a far cry from the dozens that are listed in most military publications under PLAN ORBAT. As we shall see, this number is barely adequate to defend China, let alone provide a flotilla for any significant projection of power abroad.

(Rahul M trained as a theoretical physicist and has been closely following India's security and strategic affairs for the better part of two decades. For the last five years, he has been associated with www.bharat-rakshak.com, where he comments occasionally on various military issues. Some of those can be found at http://brfrahulm.blogspot.in/. He can be reached at rahulm.brf@gmail.com


More about Saurav Jha

Saurav Jha is an author and commentator on energy and security affairs who writes regularly for numerous publications including The Telegraph, World Politics Review, The Diplomat, Le Monde Diplomatique and Nuclear Engineering International. He has degrees in economics from Presidency College, Calcutta and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His first book, The Upside Down Book of Nuclear Power (HarperCollins India) was released to critical acclaim in 2010. His next work on sustainability issues due for release in late 2015 and tentatively titled The Nexus (Hachette India) explains how the nexus between energy, food and water pushes urbanizing economies towards stagflation. He has also co-authored The Heat and Dust Project (HarperCollins India) with wife Devapriya Roy, chronicling a 16000 km long backpacking trip through India on an extremely tight budget.