Aging Tigers, Mighty Dragons: China’s Bifurcated Surface Fleet

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 19

The rapid modernization of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) relative to the traditional maritime powers raises profound questions concerning the naval dimension of the regional balance of power in the Western Pacific. The image of a downward-trending and upward-trending fleet inventory for the United States and China respectively, as depicted by some Western analyses (The Economist, August 28), underscores one variable in the region’s changing strategic calculus. Quantity is no doubt an important measure of a navy’s ability to project force, but quality, as determined by capabilities, limitations, operational tendencies, and political and military leaders’ confidence in their training, people and equipment, is an equally—if not more—important measure of modern naval warfare.

A survey of open-source reports about PLAN deployments, operations, exercises and movements over the last several years reveals that the PLAN’s force structure should not be seen as a monolith. Rather, it has become a bifurcated force—a navy comprised of modern, highly capable ships and submarines and older, decidedly less capable and seemingly less reliable ones. In other words, the PLAN seems to have adopted a "high mix/low mix" approach to force management. It has created a modern, prestigious "A-team" that is tasked with the most important, highest visibility, most politically sensitive operations and exercises and a far less visible "B-team" that is seemingly restricted in the manner in which it is employed. The first group—the "A team"—might be called the "high confidence fleet" and the second—the "B team"—might be called the "limited capability fleet." 

Recent PLAN Deployments, Operations, Exercises and Movements

Over the past several years, a number of incidents in the greater East Asian maritime region involving PLAN ships and submarines were reported through various media outlets. In one incident in September 2005, a group of five warships, including at least one Sovremenny-class destroyer [1], was detected patrolling the contested Chunxiao gas fields in the East China Sea. In another, in September 2006, a Song-class diesel patrol submarine broached within five nautical miles of the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk in the East China Sea. In October 2008, both a Han-class nuclear submarine and a Song were detected near Japanese territorial waters, apparently observing the U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington. Later that month, a small PLAN flotilla consisting of a Sovremenny destroyer, Jiangkai I and II frigates (the newest, most capable Chinese frigates), and a Fuchi-class replenishment ship (the PLAN’s newest class), transited the Tsugara Strait between the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido [2].

Perhaps most prominent among recent PLAN operations and exercises are the six anti-piracy flotillas that have deployed to the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Aden since December 2008. These flotillas have included Luyang I and II and Luhai-class destroyers, Jiangkai I and II frigates, Fuchi-class replenishment ships, and the Yuzhao-class dock landing ship Kunlunshan—some of the PLAN’s most modern and capable surface ships.

Earlier this year in March and April, two other PLAN flotillas participated in "long range naval exercises" that drew considerable international scrutiny (See "PLAN East Sea Fleet Moves Beyond First Island Chain," China Brief, April 29). These flotillas consisted of similarly modern force mixes: a North Sea Fleet flotilla consisted of six ships including a Luzhou-class destroyer, Jiangwei II and Jianghu III-class frigates, and a Fuqing-class replenishment ship [3]; while an East Sea Fleet flotilla consisted of as many as ten ships that included two (possibly three) Sovremenny-class destroyers, Jiangwei I and II-class frigates, two Kilo-class submarines, and a Fuqing-class replenishment ship [4]. 

In late June and early July of this year, the PLAN reportedly conducted another notable exercise, again with some of the service’s most capable ships as central participants. In an extensive photo composition by Xinhua News, three Sovremenny destroyers, several Houbei-class fast attack craft [5], Jiangwei I and II and Jiangkai I-class frigates are shown in a series of undated photos taking part in a "live ammunition drill" of thirty-plus ships (China Daily, July 1). 

Later, on July 26, the PLAN conducted a "multi-naval-arms combined actual-troop and live-shell exercise" (PLA Daily, July 29). According to a photo essay in the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) journal Modern Ships, participating PLAN units, including Sovremenny, Luyang II and Luzhou destroyers, and Jiangwei II and Jiangkai II frigates, conducted missile firings, anti-aircraft drills and complex electronic warfare exercises in the South China Sea.

Most recently, on August 31, China’s first and only purpose-built hospital ship, the Anwei-class Peace Ark, set sail for its first overseas medical mission (Xinhua News, August 31).  This deployment, in which the ship is scheduled to operate in the Gulf of Aden and provide medical services to the people of Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania, and the Seychelles, represents the only other extra-regional deployment in PLAN history other than the six aforementioned anti-piracy flotillas. 

Figure 1:  Observed Deployments, Operations, and Exercises for PLAN’s "High Confidence (Surface) Fleet," 2005-2010

Surface Ship Class

Near Coast/Near Seas

Far Seas

Destroyers (11)       

 

 

Sovremenny (Project 956E/956EM)

Sept 2005; Oct 2008; Apr 2010 (2-3);

July 2010 (3); July 2010; July 2010

 

Luzhou (Type 051C)

Mar 2010; July 2010; July 2010

 

Luhai (Type 051B)

 

Second APF

Luyang I (Type 052B)

 

First APF; Fifth APF

Luyang II (Type 052C)

July 2010; July 2010

First APF; Sixth APF

Frigates (21)

 

 

Jiangkai I (Type 054)

Oct 2008; July 2010

Fourth APF (2)

Jiangkai II (Type 054A)

Oct 2008; July 2010; July 2010

Second APF; Third APF (2); Fifth APF

Jiangwei I (Type 053H2G)

Apr 2010 (2); July 2010; July 2010

 

Jiangwei II (Type 053H3)

Mar 2010 (2); Apr 2010; July 2010; July 2010; July 2010

 

Fast Attack/Patrol Craft (50+)

 

 

Houbei (Type 022)

July 2010 (?)

 

Amphibious Ships (1)

 

 

Yuzhao (Type 071)

 

Sixth APF

Auxiliaries (5)

 

 

Fuchi (Replenishment Ship) (AORH)

Oct 2008

First APF; Second APF; Third APF; Fourth APF; Fifth APF; Sixth APF

Fuqing (Replenishment Ship) (AORH)

Mar 2010; Apr 2010

 

Anwei (Type 920) (Hospital Ship) (AHH)

 

Aug 2010

Notes:  Each event listed individually by month and year except anti-piracy flotillas (APF). Two or more listings for a given month/year indicate multiple events for the period.  Numbers in parentheses following each event indicates multiple units of the class participated.  An unknown number of Houbei-class fast attack craft participated in the early-July 2010 exercise. 

Two Fleets Emerge

Examined together, these operations and exercises offer three key insights.  First, as noted above, for the most important, highest visibility, most politically sensitive operations, exercises, and movements, the PLAN consistently calls upon its newest, most capable units—the "high confidence fleet." The core of the high confidence fleet includes:  Sovremenny, Luzhou, Luhai, and Luyang destroyers; Jiangkai and Jiangwei frigates; Houbei fast attack craft; the Yuzhao dock landing ship and Yuting tank landing ship; Fuchi and Fuqing replenishment ships; the Anwei hospital ship; and Yuan, Song, Kilo, and Han submarines.

Second, even among the ships of the high confidence fleet, there seems to be some pecking order; in fact, some of these high confidence ships might be considered most preferred, most reliable and even of "highest confidence." The operations and exercises of the past several years in terms of regional or "near seas" operations and extra-regional or "far seas" [6] operations indicate that a select few ship types enjoy high operational tempos in both categories (see Figure 1). The Luyang II-class destroyer, the Jiangkai I and II-class frigates, and the Fuchi-class replenishment ship have not only completed all but one of the PLAN’s far seas missions in its history, they have also been among the most active ships in near seas operations and exercises. 

Third, the rest of the PLAN surface ship and submarine force structure—the "limited capability fleet"—is conspicuous only by its absence in major operations and exercises in recent years. Its ships and submarines rarely appear in prominent official state media reports and are rarely observed by international media outlets. Thus, it appears that the limited capability fleet typically does not participate in overseas deployments, prestigious naval exercises, or ship movements that may draw international scrutiny. It is, in a very real sense, the PLAN’s "B team." Of course, these ships very well may participate in local operations and exercises to maintain proficiency. Nevertheless, their consistent absence in the most significant deployments, operations, and exercises seems noteworthy. 

The limited capability fleet consists principally of Luhu and Luda destroyers; Jianghu frigates; the Nanyun-class replenishment ship; and Romeo, Xia, and Ming submarines.  Indeed, this "low mix" component is a sizable proportion of the total fleet:  42 of 74 (57 percent) PLAN destroyers and frigates and approximately 20 of the PLAN’s 60-plus submarines (33 percent) are in the limited capability category.

If these observations in fact represent larger operational tendencies, it is not unreasonable to assume that the PLAN’s limited capability ships and submarines may suffer from some form of benign neglect, be it calculated or unintended. Because high-confidence ships are more heavily relied upon for the most consequential and most visible naval operations (and may well feature more prominently in Chinese war plans), these newer, more-capable platforms may enjoy an overall higher priority for funding, training, maintenance and logistics. As a result, the limited capability fleet as a whole could be not as well-maintained or well-trained, and therefore less ready than their advantaged sister ships of the high confidence fleet, further limiting their capabilities, utility, and employability. 

Coming Soon, To a (Pacific) Theater Near You

While the full implications of this high/low mix for PLAN capabilities and limitations is beyond the scope of this article, a few points may be worthy of immediate consideration.  First, the limited capability fleet—the "B team"—is hardly "not capable." In fact, these ships can perform a number of highly useful functions. Perhaps most notably, they can collectively fire a large volume of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM), including the YJ -82/YJ-83 series (C-802/C-803 CSS-N-8 Saccade), each with a range of approximately 80 nautical miles [7]. Moreover, these ships can deter, dissuade, even defeat weaker regional navies; augment the PLAN’s mine warfare force; assist the coast guard and maritime enforcement agencies in support of near-coast defense and law-enforcement operations; launch and recover unmanned vehicles; and conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations.

Second, this high/low mix further demonstrates that China’s Navy is still very much in transition. However, the trajectory of this transition—the pace at which the PLAN will replace the "B team" with high confidence hulls—remains unclear. On the one hand, Beijing may conclude that the continued existence of the PLAN’s limited capability fleet is more helpful than harmful; it may decide that these lesser-capable platforms are sufficiently reliable for select near-coast and near-seas operations, effective enough to support limited combat aims (e.g. an anti-access/area denial posture), and consistent with its "peaceful rise" narrative. Such perspectives, therefore, might mitigate the need for a more rapid PLAN build-up. 

On the other hand, Beijing might determine that the ships of the limited capability fleet are increasingly unreliable and ill-suited for an emerging maritime power. In fact, China’s political and military leaders may well view this vintage fleet as a liability with the potential to damage the PLAN’s burgeoning reputation (especially if a symbol of the state—a warship—were to suffer a serious engineering or combat system casualty or otherwise fail to accomplish some critical mission). If such views prevail, Beijing may feel compelled to initiate an accelerated shipbuilding program to rapidly replace the ships of the limited capability fleet with more high confidence fleet hulls. Moreover, such a program would almost certainly demand the PLAN enter serial production for any ship class it identifies as most essential—much as the 50-plus Houbei-class fast attack craft were built to replace most of the PLAN patrol forces. While the Jiangkai II-class frigate may already be at some level of serial production, its numbers could very well increase beyond current projections, perhaps commensurate with an accelerated decommissioning of Jianghu-class frigates [8]. Similarly, the Luyang II-class destroyer, with its phased array radar suite, vertical launch missile launchers, YJ-62 (C-602) missiles, stealth shaping, helicopter support facilities, and "combined diesel or gas turbine" propulsion plant, could be another logical choice for serial production, particularly if Beijing is committed to developing an aircraft carrier capability. 

While the future direction and pace of PLAN modernization remains uncertain, it is becoming increasingly clear that the United States (and the U.S. Navy in particular) can no longer take its heretofore-uncontested command of the maritime commons for granted. The PLAN’s fleet has grown considerably over the last decade and it will surely continue to modernize in the coming years. Yet, ship numbers hardly tell the whole story. To more fully grasp the extent of the challenges (and to better recognize the opportunities) in the Western Pacific, one must also appreciate the PLAN—both the "aging tigers" of its limited capability fleet and the "mighty dragons" of its high confidence fleet—for its specific capabilities, its operational tendencies, and what it is being asked to do by its political masters.

Notes

1. The Russian-built Sovremenny-class destroyers are capable of firing the SS-N-22 Sunburn anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM)—one of the most advanced weapons of its kind in the world. The Sunburn was specifically designed by the Soviet Navy to defeat the U.S. Navy’s Aegis weapons system and, therefore, aircraft carrier battle groups.

2. Peter A. Dutton, Scouting, Signaling, and Gatekeeping: Chinese Naval Operations in Japanese Waters and the International Law Implications, U.S. Naval War College China Maritime Studies no. 2 (Newport: Naval War College Press, February 2009): 1.

3. The two Luzhou-class guided missile destroyers in the PLAN inventory have advanced anti-air warfare capabilities including a vertical launch system (VLS) launchers, a phased array radar (similar to the U.S. Navy’s Aegis SPY-1 radar), and a long-range surface-to-air missile. They also reportedly carry the YJ-83 (C-802/C-803) ASCM. The three Jianghu III-class frigates are not part of the high confidence fleet but unlike the 25 Jianghu I, II, IV and V-class frigates, these ships have, on occasion, operated with the high confidence fleet. The two Fuqing-class oilers, along with the two Fuchi-class ships, represent the core of the PLAN’s underway replenishment fleet despite their age (both in service since 1979) and single-shaft propulsion systems. Yet, unlike the Fuchi oilers that have supported all six anti-piracy flotillas, Fuqing-class ships have operated only in the near seas.

4. It is unclear whether or not a third Sovremenny-class destroyer participated in this operation. As noted in "Chinese navy’s new strategy in action," IISS Strategic Comments, http://www.iiss.org.uk/publications/strategic-comments/past-issues/volume-16-2010/may/chinese-navys-new-strategy-in-action/