Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top stories of 2010 for PLAN

After a couple of relatively quiet years for PLAN, 2010 was the return of naval shipbuilding boom that was prevalent in the middle part of this decade. There were many stories from this past year, but I decided to pick 10 stories to look over.

1) Finally seeing real and tangible progress in the carrier program - We have seen some movements toward the completion of Varyag in the recent year and news about the start of naval aviation school. This year, we saw official acknowledgment of China's carrier program in a book by the State Oceanic Administration, which marks the first such acknowledgment by the Chinese government. We also saw real changes in Varyag throughout the year. We saw a lot of work on the island, including the installation of some important sensors. We saw close-in defense systems like HQ-10, Type 730 gun and Multi-rocket launchers installed. It's hard to think China will put this much sensor and weaponry on Varyag unless they have more plans for it beyond just a training ship. And finally, we saw smoke coming out of the furnace and the auxiliary propulsion unit very recently. I would really not be surprised if this thing gets starts conducting sea trials sometimes next year. On top of that, we are also seeing the first 2 Ka-31s delivered to PLAN from Russia. These are 2 of the 9 early warning helicopters on order to be used on Varyag and possibly other aircraft carriers. We've also seen the Z-8 AEW project under way with the first prototype going through sea tests. I believe a fixed wing AEW project based on the Y-7 airframe is also in development. This does raise the question of what roles do each of these early warning platforms play in the future of PLAN. Will they be used on the Type 071 platform at some point? Will they be used on a future helo carrier platform? Or will they only be used on aircraft carriers.

2) Seeing the introduction of many systems that could be used in the ASBM program - Since we first reported on this program in 2009, ASBM has been mentioned prominently by every article talking about the rise of Chinese threat to US navy in East Asian waters. In many ways, we are seeing many new systems coming out that would be very useful to the ASBM program. In the Zhuhai air show, Chinese weapon manufacturers were openly showing a video of a new type of indigenously developed UAV spotting US carrier group with the satellites' assistance and then feeding the information to shore based anti-ship missiles to attack those targets. I'm not sure how much of this capability has been realized, but it was an unusually open and suggestive display of intention. We saw 5 launches of Beidou Navigation satellites this year, 1 launch of a new data relay satellites and many launches of EO satellites in the Yaogan series, which could all be used to help find targets, relay targeting info and help increase accuracy of missiles. On top of that, the many new recon UAVs and UCAVs shown this year in the Zhuhai air show can all help in identifying targets originally picked up by OTH radars.

3) The restart of 052C production - When 052C class first came out in 2003, it was revolutionary by PLAN standard. These were the first ships to have long ranged vertical launched air defense system. They were the first ships to have modern AESA multi-functional radar and other modern ESM/ECM sensors. And most imortantly, they were the first to have modern combat system. In fact, many China threat analysts dubbed this the Chinese Aegis system. After these ships were launched, they had so many issues to sort out that it took another 7 years before the next ship in this series came out. I'm not sure if this is an indication that China's first attempt at a modern area defense combat system set the bar too high (it normally only takes 3 years or less for other new PLAN ships to work out issues with new capabilities) or that China's previous combat system level was too low. Either way, we have yet to notice any real changes to the new 052C units other than reportedly using domestic production of GT-25000 gas turbines. Many people have expected to see larger improvements like from 052B to 052C. In many ways, I think this is a good sign indicating that they took a lot of time sorting out problems with the new air defense system and really learning lessons from them. It is reported that this 4 052Cs will be produced in this batch. This would mark the start of the mass production of modern DDGs for PLAN to replace the very old and outdated Luda DDGs.

4) Seeing the start of Type 071 mass production after achieving full operational capability - This has been really big year for the 071 class. While 998, the lead ship, has been in service for 3 years now, it spent the first 2 years without the LCAC-like air cushioned hovercraft that are designed for it. This April, the first Chinese LCAC finished all of its sea trials and joined service with 998. In the coming month, we would see 998 and its "LCAC" being deployed to Gulf of Aden. In that deployment, we would see pictures of LCAC and fast patrol boat coming in and out of the well deck. We saw pictures of three helicopters (2 Z8s + 1 Z-9C) on its helipad at the same time about to takeoff and land. These may be quite routine for USMC, but are all first time achievements for PLAN. We also confirmed that the dimensions of Type 071 are about the same as the San Antonio class. As 998 was doing patrols in Aden, the second unit of Type 071 was quietly being assembled in HuDong shipyard. By the end of the year, the second unit was also launched. I found it really amazing the speed at which they assembled the blocks and launched this ship. They seemed to have made some minor changes from the lead ship for the mass production phase of this class. It appears that PLAN is quite satisfied with Type 071 and is starting a large production run. As we move forward, it will be interesting to see how PLA intends to use this class of ships in the future.

5) Continued presence of PLAN around the world and increased cooperation in Gulf of Aden - I don't spend a lot of time talking about PLAN training and deployments, but I do think this year also represented a surge in PLAN cooperation with other navies. For the past year, China has continued sending its latest warships to the Gulf of Aden. We see most of the 054 and 054A class ships being tested out there. They are also having more cooperation with Western navies to help with patrols in that area. According to a Jamestown article, PLAN is also setting up several supply depots along the way to help maintain its patrols. Previously, they had only been protecting Chinese commercial ships. And after deployments to Aden, these ships normally make port calls to different countries on their way back to China. The only ship of the Type 920 hospital ship class, 866, also made a trip to different countries in Africa and Asia as part of PLAN's show of soft power. On top of anti-piracy related activities, we've also seen more naval exercises in the past year with countries like Australia and Thailand.

6) The appearance of the new conventional submarine in Wuhan shipyard - Earlier this year, we saw the launching of a mysterious new class of conventional submarine in Wuchang shipyard. As we've discussed in this blog, this submarine is significantly changed from the Yuan class submarine. It appears to be heavily influenced by the Lada class, and is far more stealthy than the other PLAN submarines like Yuan, Song and Kilo class. From side-by-side shots with a Yuan submarine, we can determine this submarine to be one of the largest submarine classes in the world (comparable to Soryu class). If we go by past PLAN submarine classes, this boat (deemed Type 039B class by some) will probably take 3 years to sort out all of the problems and then start mass production. With the launching of this class, I think it is quite clear that PLAN no longer intends to import submarines from Russia. With the continued mass production of Yuan submarines in Wuchang and JiangNan shipyard, we should see see the complete phasing out of Romeo class and early Ming class submarine in the next 5 years.

7) Massive expansion of the fleet of the maritime agencies - I've written a couple blog entries this year about the maritime agencies this year, because they are really becoming influential in China's maritime dispute with neighboring countries. In the past year, we've seen China having continued disputes with Japan and ASEAN countries. As a result of these disputes, China Maritime Surveillance (CMS), Fishery law enforcement (FLEC) and Maritime safety agency (MSA) have really been getting funding to add new cutters to their fleet. I've recently reported that the largest ever MSA cutter is about to start construction in Wuchang shipyard. FLEC has also been getting some new cutters in the past year. None of these agencies have been expanding as fast as CMS. Just over this year and the start of next year alone, CMS is about to receive 4 new cutters of 1300 ton class from HP shipyard, 2 new cutters of 1700 ton class and 1 new cutter of 3500-4000 ton class from WuChang shipyard. The regional offices of CMS are also getting many 600 ton ships operate. All of this still pales in comparison to the ambitious expansion plan for CMS. It is planning to built over 30 cutters in the next 5 years and also get some new aerial assets. To be fair, I must point out that these are still civilian ships. Their designed speed tops out at around 20 knots and are not equipped with high calibre guns as on naval ships. It will be interesting to see how these agencies influence Chinese maritime policies in the coming years, because they are clearly becoming extremely influential.

8) Continued production of 054A class past original estimation - At one point, I was convinced that the 054A production run would end at 10 ships due to the number of diesel engine kits supplied by Pielstick. It appears that China has either gotten a much larger local assembly contract or have completely indigenized its production, because we've seen recently that an 11th 054A is in advanced stage of construction at HuangPu shipyard. I think that the 054A class has really proven itself to be perfect for the patrols to Gulf of Aden. They have had to send the same 054A frigates multiple times to Aden, because PLAN do not have enough of them in service. 054A would also be very important in any future PLAN carrier group or expedition group (although they are a little slow). At the current time, HP and HD shipyard can produce 054A at fast rate for very reasonable cost (probably < $200 million each), so PLAN has increased its production run. Over the next 5 years, we will be seeing Jianghu class been replaced by 054A class. This replacement truly indicates the change in PLAN. They are going from an archaic class that is barely capable of patrolling within the first chain of island to a new class that is fairly proficient in ASuW, ASW and AAW operations over blue waters. The mass production of 054A have made destroyer classes like 051B, 052, 052B and Sov obsolete, because it has more modern sensors/combat system and can conduct ASW and AAW at comparable or better level than them.

9) The appearance of the 056 class - I maybe getting ahead of myself, because we have not seen any conclusive photo of 056 yet. I have seen a model of 056 class last month and multiple reports that we will see mass production of this class soon. In many ways, I have been waiting for this class for a long time (that is a class between 022 and 054A). I do think that the increasing number of cutters are taking away some of the responsibilities of this 056 class like patrolling East China Sea and South China Sea. However, it appears that this class of ship will come into service to replace the roles of the old Type 037s and some Jianghu class.

10) New toys for the aviation arm of PLAN - In this past year, we have seen KJ-200 and other Y-8 special missions aircraft join service with PLAN aviation. They are important in any kind of operations near the shore, because they would be able to provide targeting information for ships like Type 022 FACs and aircraft like JH-7A. This is part of PLA's move for greater C4ISR capability. We have also seen the first regiment of J-10A and J-11BS for PLAN establishing this year along with another regiment of JH-7A. The addition of these new aircraft will help provide air cover for ships and striking power in conflicts within the first chain of islands (especially around Taiwan and East China Sea.

As I look back in 2010, it was a very fruitful year for PLAN. Many of its new toys like 052C, Type 071, 054A, Yuan class, Type 056 and the new minehunters have entered mass production or are about to enter mass production. They will replace the outdated class like Luda, Jianghu, Romeo, Type 037s and Type 6610. We've also seen one-off ships like the new submarine tender and the new ELINT ship joining service. These new ships are filled with new weapons, new sensors, new combat systems and are designed to operate much further away from the home base. We have already seen Type 071, 054/A and 052B/C class showing their ability to operate far away from home in their missions to the Gulf of Aden. We have also seen auxiliary ships like the Fuchi class replenishment ship and the Type 920 hospital ship operate far from home and been used to spread good wills to different third world nations. I think this is all part of PLAN's effort to expand its presence around the world. However, when I compare PLAN to Western navies, it is still very new to blue water operations and has a lot to do to catch up. At the same time, some other big name programs like the carrier project, the ASBM project and the conventional submarine program are continuing to make solid progress. These along with the mass produced classes are critical for possible conflicts with US over Taiwan, for maritimes disputes with its neighbours and blue water operations. The emergence of the civilian maritime agencies are also complicating China's maritime disputes. These are all areas that we can look forward to in 2011.

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