Friday, December 28, 2012

2012 in Review

2012 was an interesting year to look back on for PLAN and PLAAF. We saw the commissioning of No. 16 Liaoning carrier, the launching of the new 052D class destroyers, the first flight of J-31 fighter jet and what appears to be taxi-run and impending first flight of Y-20 strategic transport. Here are what I think are the 10 biggest story of 2012.

1. The Aircraft Carrier project:
Many of the PLAN followers have waited for the commissioning and the first flight off Liaoning for over 7 years. Since 2005 when ex-Varyag was first moved into Dalian shipyard dry docks for extensive work and painting of PLAN colours, internet forums have been buzzing with questions about when/if this ship will ever join service. The negotiation for 50 Su-33 and the application of the non-skid layer in 2006 further moved us to think that this ship will join service. However, what appeared to be extensive period of inaction in 2007 and 2008 made us question some of those thoughts. When it was moved to dry docks again in 2009, it appeared just a matter of time before this ship will enter service. Much of the outfitting of sensors and self-defense weapons were installed in 2010 to 2011. We even saw a replica of Liaoning in Wuhan. The sea trials for Liaoning started in August of 2011 and it officially joined service on September 24th of this year after 10 sea trials. We did not find out until later, but numerous touch-n-go had already been completed on this ship by that point. The monumental first take-off and landing with J-15 naval aircraft off Liaoning was completed by Nov 20th. More of the photographed take-off and landings of multiple J-15s were accomplished on Nov 23rd. All in all, this marked the completion of the first stage of the carrier project. Now, China begins the long process of developing a fully operational carrier group with its own naval aviation doctrines.

2. Emergence of type 052D class DDG:
While the wait for this was not nearly as long, many PLAN followers have been waiting since at least 2008 for an improved surface combatant to the 052C class. The relocation of JiangNan shipyard and indigenization of DA80/DN80 gas turbine (QC-280) delayed the production of follow-on units for several years. By late 2010, the 3rd unit of the 052C class was launched at the new JN shipyard. Many PLAN followers were disappointed over the fact that the new 052C had no visible external changes compared to the first two 052C. Over the next year or so, 3 more 052Cs were launched in JN shipyard. They are all in various stages of sea trials and fitting out at the moment. By August of this year, we had the long awaited launching of the much anticipated 052D class. As discussed in previous blog entries, 052D class is fitted with an entirely new generation of air defence and combat system. In addition, we saw the introduction of the Chinese version of MK-41 VLS that can launch different types of missiles and fit multiple missiles per launch cell. When we compared the overhead shot of 052D vs 052C, it appears that the size of the ships did not change much, but the new VLS and other weaponry have allowed more capabilities to be packed in the same hull. It appears that at least 4 052D are planned at the moment. Whether or not we will see more of this class depends on the development of PLAN's next generation of large surface combatants. 052D class is not only important in its much improved combat power versus the 052C class, but it's also very important in testing out this new generation of sensors and weapon systems that will likely be used by future surface combatants of different sizes. One thing to look forward to is the different missiles that will be developed and fitted into the new VLS. Another thing to look forward to is whether this will just be an interim class of 4 ships before a new series of surface combatant comes along or will this be part of a much larger part of PLAN's future.

3. Appearance of Y-20 transport:
This is still a very recent story, so its importance has not really been explored much. One only has to look at all the delayed PLAAF programs to see how important this project is. The strategic lift has been so lacking that China have recently been forced to purchase refurbished second hand IL-76s from Russia. At this point, the IL-76 imported in the early 90s may not have much service life left. At the same time, PLAAF currently only operated 4 KJ-2000 AEWC&C, because PLAAF does not have enough remaining IL-76 units. Other projects that would need something like Y-20 include aerial refueling tanker, ABL, next generation AEWC&C and various other special missions project. The successful induction and mass production of this aircraft would provide a huge leap in PLAAF's force projection capabilities. I put this ahead of J-31, because Y-20 would contribute more to PLAAF's desires to transform from an air denial force to air dominance more than any other project. From this point on, it will be interesting to see how fast Y-20 can join services. As shown with other projects like A400M and C-2, a lot of delays can happen in the development of large military transport.

4. Appearance and first flight of J-31 fighter jet:
The appearance of China's second 5th generation project caused a lot of uproar back in September. It had been speculated for a long time that SAC might have a competing project to CAC's J-20. As mentioned in previous blog entries, it's still not clear exactly what will happen to this aircraft. It looks to be offered in the export market. It is probably going to be inducted into PLAAF as a compliment to the larger and more expensive J-20. There might be a naval version that gets developed to replace J-15 as PLAN's second generation of naval aircraft. With its experience from developing J-15, a naval version of J-31 should be well within SAC's capability. As we move forward, it will be interesting to see the installation of a domestic engine option that J-31 was designed for. Clearly, the gap between RD-93 and the exhaust indicates that RD-93 isn't the permanent solution to J-31. There will be sometimes before J-31 is ready.

5. Introduction of Z-10 and Z-19 to the world:
The development for Z-10 started in 1998 and was known to the world by the early 2000s, but was kept almost completely confidential for the past 10 years. It first flew in 2003, but was delayed when the PT6C-76C engines embargo was imposed by the Canadian government. The project was delayed until 2009 when a lighter version was developed using the less powerful WZ-9 engine. Z-19 development started probably late last decade and first flew in 2010. It was not kept to the same level of secrecy as Z-10. In this past year's Zhuhai air show, both Z-10 and Z-19 were unveiled to the world. We saw much TV coverage in addition to flight displays from Z-10 and Z-19 units. The most interesting find of this past year was that Z-10 and Z-19 are far wider deployed than we previously estimated, since both only officially achieved operational clearance in the past 2 years. With pictures of different serial numbers, we are able to identify the existence of Z-10 in 5 different PLA LH brigades and Z-19 in 4 different PLA LH brigades. At the present time, each brigade that has Z-10 and/or Z-19 have 12 of each helicopter. Moving forward, it's likely that Z-10 and Z-19 will be deployed to all of the army aviation brigades in the next couple of years. That would represent quite a jump in the capabilities of PLA LH, which had been relying mostly upon Z-9s and Mi-17s up to this point.

6. The continued high tide of PLAN:
2011 was the start of a new wave of shipbuilding for PLAN. This trend only accelerated into this year. Most of the major Chinese naval shipyards have been very busy with naval and civilian maritime ministry orders in the past year. Part of this could be the downturn in the world's shipbuilding market, but an even larger part is that the time has come for this second wave of PLAN modernization (the first being from 2003 to 2006). JiangNan shipyard has been leading the way with 8 052C/D ships in various stages of completion before commissioning along with construction of 039B submarines and Minesweepers. HuDong shipyard has continued its work with at least 3 054A frigates along with Type 903 AOR and multiple 056 patrol ships. Huangpu shipyard is finishing up on its 054A orders, but is building numerous 056 patrol ships, small specialty naval ships and cutters for different maritime agencies. One of the prominent sightings at HP shipyard is the number of rescue ships and CMS ships that are in various stages of completion. Wuchang shipyard also has its shares of cutters along with 039B submarines and 056 patrol ships. Even the smaller shipyards around the country have been getting many orders for auxiliary ships, smaller combat ships and rescue ship/cutters for civilian ministry. The only one that seems to not be getting much work right now is Dalian shipyard. Going forward, this heavy construction activity should continue into next year with JN, HD and HP shipyard continue being the largest naval shipyards in the country.

7. The 056 program:
This interim class between 022 FACs and 054A FFGs has been speculated since 2007. As we saw large number of cutters entering service with the civilian maritime agencies, the demand for this interim class for patroling nearby waters by the navy seem to no longer be there. But by late 2010, it was quite clear that PLAN intends to build this new class of ships. It is expected to replace the roles of 037s and Jianghu class FFGs to conduct naval patrol in South China Sea and provide littoral defense. I think what surprised me was the huge ramp up in the production of 056s. Back in 2010, I was expecting something similar to 054A with production of a couple of early unit, some testing period and then large scale production. The 056 program seems to follow an even more aggressive production schedule than 022 FACs. We are seeing four shipyards (HuDong, HuangPu, WuChang and LiaoNan) producing 056s simultaneously before the first 056 was ever launched. In fact, the first 056 launched from both HP and HD shipyard had their funnels and the bow section reworked after they were already launched. Even with HP shipyard slowing down a little bit recently, there have been at least 7 056s launched in the past 8 months. One 056 from both HP and HD shipyards have already gone out for sea trials. Going forward, it looks like 056 could easily see a production run of over 30 units. It would represent a huge leap over the performance of 037s and Jianghu ships that it will be replacing. As higher priority projects fall in the hands of HD and HP shipyard, we may see some smaller shipyards (in addition to LiaoNan) get orders for 056.

8. Success of Shenyang AC:
It has been a really good year for Shenyang AC. For the past few years, SAC was loosing out to its little brother CAC, who have been successful with J-10 and J-20 project along with export successes with JF-17 and F-7. The J-11B program was delayed for long periods by production failures of FWS-10. Since 2011, FWS-10 has been put on the right track and J-11B/S can now be considered to be successful. On top of that, the successful take-off and landing of J-15 fighter jet along with the first flight of the two-seated version J-15S show that Shenyang has successfully navalized J-11B/S. The unveiling and first flights of J-31,J-16 (China's Su-30 equivalent) and J-15S this year are all great success stories for SAC. SAC is also reported very active with UAV and UCAV projects, so there is a lot to look forward to out of SAC next year.

9. The expansion of civilian maritime agency: Back in 2010, China announced that it will build 30 marine law enforcement vessels over 5 years. I think this is just the plans for Chinese Maritime Surveillance rather than all 5 of the civilian agencies. We can see this massive expansion just by seeing all of the new cutters that are produced at HuangPu and WuChang shipyard. What we often don't see is the smaller shipyards that are also building smaller cutters (of 600 ton class) for CMS. The smaller shipyards have also been busy building smaller cutters (300 to 600 ton class) for FLEC and Maritime Police. On top of the new ships, numerous naval ships that were decommissioned recently have been sent to shipyards to get refurbished for use by CMS and FLEC. Some of the new cutters are used to patrol the disputed waters with Japan and ASEAN. Other cutters are been delivered to coastal provinces to provide security. So, it's wrong to just think this ramp up is purely targeting Japan and Vietnam. Other than the maritime police, the cutters for other agencies are completely unarmed. So while they can look menacing, they are not military ships.

10. Increased transparency:
While PLA is still less transparent than what Western countries would like to see, it has made a lot of effort in increasing transparency. Online military blogs such as this one are more in touch with PLA programs than ever before. Part of that is due to the amount of photos we get on programs that were previously seen as classified. We see pictures of new aircraft projects well before the first flight. Outside of nuclear submarines, I really can't think of any PLAAF or PLAN project that is hidden anymore. At the same time, the Chinese government is putting more effort out there to explain its defence programs like the carrier project and most recently with the Y-20 project. None of this is done accidentally. PLA has increased confidence over the weapon systems that are being developed and deployed. And it also wants to show that to address concerns from other countries.

There are also stories that haven't been mentioned much, but are very important in my opinion. Below are the top 5 under rated stories of 2012:

1. Production of more 052C and 054A ships:
With all of the new ships coming into service, the continued production of 052C and 054A get overlooked a little bit. The production of 054A is going beyond 16, because PLAN has been so pleased with the cost and capability of this ship. 054A is already the work horse of PLAN in major exercises, missions to Gulf of Aden, and other blue water deployment. By the end of its production run, 054A would effectively have replaced all of the old Jianghu ships while pushing the Jiangwei ships to secondary duties. At the same time, the induction of 052C into East Sea Fleet will make the fleet fully modernized by 2014 (all of the old Ludas, Jianghus and Ming class submarines would be replaced). PLAN is no longer in a phase of discovering new capabilities, but mass deploying these new capabilities.

2. Continued expansion of MCM ships:
Another area where PLAN is continuing to modernize is in mine warfare. Unknown to a lot of observers, 3 new Type 081 minesweepers were launched this year bringing the total to 8. Along with the 2 more advanced Type 082II MCM ships, PLAN's MCM operation is continuing to see quantum leap over the old Soviet era T-43 class minesweepers.

3. Ever increasing complexity of PLAAF exercises:
Along with the impreovement in hardware, it seems like the software part of PLA is also improving. The PLAAF version of red flag exercise at Dingxin is getting more and more complex every year. PLAAF has also introduced it's own Top Gun system with awarding of "Golden helmet" to pilots who perform well in the different combat scenarios.

4. The appearance of Y-8 High New 6 maritime patrol aircraft
ASW has long been PLAN's greatest weakness. A large part of that is the lack of a dedicated maritime patrol aircraft designed for ASW missions like P-3C. Although it has to join service with PLANAF, Y-8 High New 6 should eventually fill that role. Knowing that Shaanxi AC can only produce so many platforms every year, PLANAF will really have to battle out with PLAAF for Category III platforms to be installed for this mission.

5. Increase exports of naval and civilian patrol ships
In this past year, an increased sighting amongst Chinese shipyard are military or patrol ships built for export. Most recently, we have seen patrol ships built for Bangladesh, Namibia and Pakistan and refurbished Jianghu ships for Burma and Bangladesh. On top of that, Pakistan has just signed a contract for 4 more F-22P. Since China doesn't report on its naval exports, we really don't know about those deals until we see them taking shape in one of the numerous naval shipyards around the country.

So, that concludes an extremely eventful year for PLAN and PLAAF. There is certainly a lot to look forward to in 2013. It has also been a big year for me personally and I hope we all have a good end of the year.

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