Saturday, October 16, 2010

Current status of MCM ships with PLAN

There is a new minesweeper class coming into service with China recently. I thought it would be a good time to go through the history of PLAN mine warfare development.

MCM operation has long been a huge weakness in PLAN. If ASW is widely viewed as the Achilles Heel of PLAN, then MCM is not that far behind. As numerous navies started to develop a new generation of MCM ships in the 70s and 80s built with glass-reinforced plastic material, equipped with remotely operated vehicle mine neutralization system and advanced minehunting and classification sonar, China was stuck with Soviet 50s era T-43/Type 6610 minesweepers.

China bought the licensed production to Project 254K and 254M minesweepers in the 50s. The first 4 vessels that were built with Soviet supplied kits were Type 6605. After that, China started to build Type 6610 based on Soviet documentations to Type 254M minesweepers. As time went on, China eventually indigenized everything after the Soviet-China split and made more modifications to turn Type 6610 into more of a patrol boat.

A total of 33 Type 6610 vessels were built all the way up to 1987 and several of which were even involved in real combat against Vietnamese Navy. Even now, PLAN still operates about 15 of these Type 6610 minesweepers including the frequently photographed No. 830 to 834 of East Sea Fleet.


By the late 1970s, China started development of a new type of coastal minesweeper. This class, known as the Type 082 Wosao class, first joined service in 1988. They are 44.8 m long, 6.2 m wide and have a draft of 3.7 m. They were the first sign of a post T-43 + modernized minesweeping design by China. They were equipped with Type 316 mini contact sweep, type 317 magnetic sweep, type 318 acoustic sweep and type 319 infrasonic sweep. These vessels can also be used to control the Type 312 remote minesweeping drones. This ship class basically consists of the original Type I variant ships (No. 801 to 803) and the improved Type II variant (No. 806、807、816、817, 820 to 827). You can recognize the difference just by looking at the bridge. Here are some of the ships from this class.




As we arrived at the current wave of PLAN modernization, MCM was clearly a huge weakness in PLAN. The Type 082 class is modern compared to T-43, but they are only suitable for coastal operations and are not modern by international standard. PLAN needed MCM vessels that would push it to the modern level of MCM ships that came into service with different NATO navies in the 80/90s like the Avenger class, Tripartite class, Sandown class and Type 343 Hameln class. PLAN has kind of moved into this new era of MCM operation with 2 new classes in the past few years. The first one is the Type 081 minesweeper. They are built more for seagoing mine warfare operations than Type 082. They are larger, probably close to the size of T-43s, equipped with more modern sweeping systems, mine detection sonar and modern command system (like GPS, radar, display console, combat system). At the current time, we know of at least 4 units of this class (805, 810, 839 and 840). Each of these ships cost around $37 million in 2008. The second MCM class is the Type 082II (or another designation) minehunter. So far, there is only one unit of this ship built. As you can see with the photos below, it is very similar in size to Type 081. I would say they are both around 550 to 600 ton in displacement.




I think it has taken a while for the next ship of this class to come out, because it represented too much of an advancement in PLAN. Similar to other ship series, this first unit is testing out a lot of new equipments and concepts before further units are built. This is probably the first MCM ship in PLAN system that does not use any kind of mechanical sweep and probably the first one to be built with Glass reinforced plastic. As shown below, it is also the first MCM ship to be equipped with mine disposing ROV (+crane to lower ROV) and advanced sonar management system. The sonar system is reported to be able to track and identify everything with several hundreds meters. In fact, one of the pictures showed a scale of up to 200 m, but I'm not sure if they have a longer tracking mode.




As it happened, we saw a new class of remote controlled minesweeping drones recently. This development is kind of interesting, because China has been studying different navies around the world for ideas in improvement. In most cases, PLAN follows the path of USN (like 052C + combat system, 071/LCAC, Type 920 hospital ship). In this case, it seems like PLAN found German navy's Ensdorf class to be the one that would be the best for its given requirements. The dimensions of 804 is very similar to Ensdorf class and the dimensions of this new Type 8041 drone is very similar to Seehund drones. It looks like 804 will be operating with 3 or 4 of these drones + ROVs in disposing mines.

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