Learning by Doing: PLAN Operational Innovations in the Gulf of Aden

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 21

The type 903 Qiandaohu replenishment ship practices at-sea supply transfer.

Chinese planners were seriously concerned about logistical and operational challenges associated with anti-piracy missions near Somali waters long before the first People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships were deployed in 2008. In particular, trends in PLAN Far Seas logistical support and surface platform deployment demonstrate how China has gradually streamlined the  underpinnings of its anti-piracy missions. As a result of becoming more efficient, China’s calculus vis-à-vis the costs and benefits of these distant sea nontraditional security missions continues to evolve.

China’s Anti-Piracy Engine

China’s anti-piracy task forces rely on a combination of underway replenishment and port visits for fuel and stores. When escort duties are handed off to an incoming task forces, the outgoing group transfers “materials, equipment and spares” to its relief, such as in the twelfth/thirteenth task force handover (Liberation Army Daily, November 23, 2012).

Sustained overseas deployments are difficult and require multiple skills that the PLAN had not developed prior to the Gulf of Aden (GoA) deployment. While  the most advanced navies may consider these routine, the PLAN is learning them incrementally. Executing replenishment at sea is far more difficult than logistics, which can be planned in advance, or ship handling and cargo transferring, which can be simulated and practiced in the Near Seas. It requires maintaining schedules, planning stores distribution, and exercising the supply system—repeatedly—as well as improvising, e.g., when a ‘just in time’ delivery to a transfer port fails to occur. Unlike during training simulations at home, poor performance in the Far Seas generates real consequences, often before the eyes of other navies or nations.

PLAN anti-piracy task forces rely partially on underway replenishment to supply critical fuel and stores. When task forces transfer escort duties, outgoing PLAN warships usually convey materials and equipment to incoming vessels. The PLAN is learning the craft of blue water at-sea replenishment, albeit gradually. One U.S. Navy helicopter pilot whom the authors consulted has witnessed Chinese ships conducting at sea replenishment in the GoA by halting and tying up. U.S. ships, by contrast, usually maintain 13 knots.

Refueling and maintaining ample stocks of high-quality water, food, and medicine on board have also been enduring challenges. Food supplies often spoil and maintaining ample water supply is apparently a particular problem. According to a June 2011 article in Modern Navy, in the PLAN all drinking water for the duration of five- or six month-escort deployments is obtained from shore, sometimes via replenishment ships, as water purified from saltwater tastes bad and is used only for bathwater.

One major trend in logistical support has been the PLAN’s growing reliance on foreign ports where its ships can moor temporarily for maintenance. For example, during the inaugural anti-piracy deployment, only the supply ship Weishanhu made two brief stops, for replenishment, at Port Aden; while destroyers Haikou and Wuhan received only at-sea replenishment and made no port visits, apparently because Chinese decision makers were concerned about the possibility of local opposition. [1] This unusual initial approach surprised some American naval observers with whom one of the authors spoke, who had expected that the destroyers would enter port repeatedly.

Warships within escort task forces are now, in contrast, relying increasingly on overseas ports for supply and replenishment. For this reason, some Chinese scholars are calling for a more systematic overseas replenishment mechanism for PLAN escort operations. [2] One driver of this trend is the extended duration of recent operations—the inaugural task force was at sea for 124 days, whereas the most recent deployments task have averaged roughly half a year away from their home ports.

Of course, an underlying, pragmatic rationale for increasing the frequency of PLAN port calls is that Beijing uses anti-piracy missions to pursue broader diplomatic objectives along the Indian Ocean littoral and in the Middle East, such as enhancing bilateral ties with important energy suppliers. Since 2011 the “normalization” (changtaihua) of PLAN port calls has occurred rapidly; warships in recent escort task forces have stopped in foreign ports an average of once per month, typically staying in port for five days. While on land in other countries, crews often participate in group shopping, sightseeing, and other collective activities.

A third option for resupplying task forces in the GoA has been to rely on Chinese SOEs whose vessels operate out of coastal-state ports. As People’s Navy explained in 2010, China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company (COSCO), the PRC’s largest shipping company, has working relations with husbanding agents and suppliers in most foreign coastal states (Xinhua, January 6, 2011). Apparently a COSCO subsidiary, COSCO West Africa, Ltd., has become the PLAN’s largest partner in procuring supplies for escort ships (Global Times[PM1] , December 24, 2012). According to COSCO’s website, at the close of fiscal year 2011 the company operated a fleet of 157 vessels, which were active at 159 ports in forty-eight countries. These preexisting relationships have helped facilitate coordination between PLAN ships at sea and suppliers in littoral states. They also embody the PRC’s growing comprehensive overseas presence in regions viewed as critical to China’s future economic and energy security.

Surface Platform Trajectories

Nearly all PLAN task forces have employed some combination of Type 052 Luyang-class destroyers and Type 054 Jiangkai-class frigates, some of China’s most advanced primary surface combatants. Considering the lack of other opportunities to deploy naval platforms in the Far Seas, it is understandable that the PLAN is eager to send elite platforms to the GoA.[PM2] 

Meanwhile, the largest platforms used in China’s anti-piracy operations have been those performing supply and replenishment functions. With displacements of twenty-three thousand tons, Type 903 Qiandaohu-class replenishment ships were the PRC’s most experienced replenishment ships at the outset of the anti-piracy mission. In 2007, for instance, Weishanhu [PM3] participated in both the Sino-British Friendship and Sino-French Friendship 2007exercises in the English Channel and Mediterranean Sea, respectively. [3]

Three Yuzhao-class Type 071 LPDs, the PLAN’s largest vessels aside from the recently commissioned aircraft carrier Liaoning, remain the most formidable platforms available for supporting PLAN anti-piracy operations in the GoA. Type 071 flagship Kunlunshan participated in the 6th escort task force. It was deployed to the GoA in 2010, shortly after being commissioned in late 2008, reflecting the PLAN’s eagerness to deploy its best platforms in the Far Seas. Jinggangshan, a 200m-long Type 071 commissioned into the South Sea Fleet in October 2011, engaged in joint training with PLAN helicopters in February 2012 and is likely to participate in future task forces (Liberation Army Daily, February 8, 2012). As several analysts have noted, Type 071 ships, in addition to supporting the PLAN’s current anti-piracy missions, move China’s navy closer to an ability to assemble a comprehensive carrier group (South China Morning Post, April 16, 2011). [AS4] Type 071 LPDs provide anti-piracy task forces with unprecedented capacity—one ship can hold fifteen to twenty amphibious armored vehicles, a number of landing craft, and helicopters for extended voyages. As Dennis Blasko points out, these features give the PLAN “its first true ‘blue water’ amphibious capability.” [4]

The commissioning of China’s first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, on September 25, 2012, coupled with the present lack of overseas bases, begs the question of whether the PLAN might eventually use that carrier to support anti-piracy efforts and collect experience in the process. A PLAN officer told one of the authors in 2011 that the naval platforms China then possessed were “still not enough” to achieve its security goals: “The majority of our ships are small, and can’t navigate on the high seas. Even the GoA task groups had a very hard time. In the future, China will have three or four carrier groups, with one operating at a given time.” Similarly, Chinese naval expert Li Jie believes China should possess a minimum of three aircraft carriers “to accomplish sea combat missions and fulfill international obligations” (People’s Daily Online, November 30, 2012). The same article suggests a greater role for larger PLAN warships in future nontraditional security operations, such as anti-piracy: “As a responsible major power and one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, China will shoulder more international responsibility in various fields such as disaster relief and combat against terrorism and piracy. Therefore, the country’s naval force, particularly large warships, will become more and more useful.”

Initial Chinese scholarly reactions describe China’s first aircraft carrier, the 990-foot-long then-Varyag, purchased for twenty million dollars from Ukraine in 1998, as a necessary step in China’s self-defense-based military modernization and not as a resource for winning bilateral regional disputes (Outlook Weekly, September 9, 2012). [AS5] Chinese carriers may add substantial value when deployed abroad for contemporary noncombat operations, such as peacekeeping, disaster relief, and anti-piracy, at least in the near term (People’s Daily Online, September 25, 2012). Indeed, when Liaoning was delivered to China’s navy, People’s Daily noted the carrier’s importance for developing Far Seas cooperation and the nation’s ability to respond to nontraditional security threats. Even so, deploying a carrier out of area would not simply entail “showing the flag” but reflect China’s arrival as a blue-water naval power (Beijing Youth Daily, September 26, 2012).

Regarding the benefits of deploying a carrier near the GoA, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) researcher Wang Hanlin wrote in 2009 that “the rotation of warships sent to the region has also revealed the necessity of an aircraft carrier for China. . . . It will be much easier for an aircraft carrier combat unit to safeguard merchant vessels in such a remote area” (Xinhua, April 2, 2009). Similarly, a China Daily op-ed stresses the relationship between carrier deployment and nontraditional security: “The increasing threat from nontraditional elements like terrorism and piracy also require China to have its aircraft carrier to ensure the security of its transportation in the sea”(China Daily, September 27, 2012). Of course, rather than simply enhancing global maritime security, CCP and PLA officials may view this option as a convenient way eventually to gain invaluable operational experience under the legitimate mandate of promoting SLOC security and making an even greater contribution to the fight against regional piracy.

Moreover, if China fields a fixed-wing, carrier-deployed aircraft or an unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in operating it Liaoning would provide the Chinese anti-piracy mission with much greater aerial coverage, in addition to alleviating the limitations imposed by limited deck space of other surface vessels. Additionally, anti-piracy operations could also represent an excellent opportunities to learn important lessons on logistics, training, and operations. Relatively low-risk missions against pirate crews could serve as effective training. Carrier crewmembers at all levels would benefit substantially from participation in PLAN efforts off the Horn of Africa. Already, GoA deployments allow experimentation with PLAN task group composition, as will be necessary when new vessels enter the fleet, particularly in preparation for a carrier group.

Although Liaoning has dominated Chinese and international media coverage of China’s naval modernization, the reported development of the Type 081 landing helicopter dock (LHD) is another advanced platform suitable for GoA and other anti-piracy missions. As was revealed at the International Maritime Defense Exhibition and Conference (IMDEX) in May 2007, China is developing a LHD landing ship. A Global Times article reported that the ship was identified as the rumored Type 081 and that it will be comparable in displacement and size to the Type 071 LPDs, which carry helicopters and transport and deploy ground forces, but with a flat, or “flush,” helicopter deck (Global Net: Military, March 28, 2012). The same article, citing Jane’s, suggests that the Type 081 will possess greater aviation capabilities than its Type 071 predecessor and that the PLAN may construct from three to six of them. According to Jane’s World Navies, the Type 081 will be able to transport twelve helicopters and a crew of over a thousand uninterruptedly for approximately one month. Chinese analysts such as Ye Qi have suggested that further development of amphibious ships would make great contributions to anti-piracy operations (Modern Navy, November 11, 2011).

Logistical and Operational Trends: Costs and Benefits

Despite valuable opportunities related to logistical and operational innovation, Chinese planners are keenly aware of the immense costs of sustained Far Seas anti-piracy missions. In May 2011 PLA Chief of General Staff Chen Bingde suggested that China’s navy may not be able to support the GoA mission much longer. Referring to deploying naval power to protect the maritime commons, Chen acknowledged, “if the situation continues like this, it will create great difficulties for us to continue with such operations.” He added, “Then we have this dilemma: on the one hand, if we continue to build new ships we will have constraints of national defense budget. And what is more, it will lead to the issue of hype of the ‘China threat’ again because of our growing capabilities. On the other hand, if we stop building those new ships, we will not only be unable to send more ships to GoA, but we will find it even difficult to protect and maintain our own maritime interests. So I think we still need a long-term solution to that.” Not to mention, as Somali piracy has plummeted since 2012, high profile PLAN deployments of larger platforms may hardly be desirable since they might be viewed as excessive rather than helpful.

It is understandable that Beijing was initially willing to pay a premium to send forces to the GoA given the invaluable experience and operational benefits accrued during anti-piracy missions. After all, absent these operations there would have been virtually no other near-term opportunities to project military power outside China’s immediate maritime periphery. However, the PLAN’s learning curve has flattened progressively. High-ranking PLAN officials are quickly becoming more proficient in shipboard diplomacy, and China’s navy has a growing list of completed joint exercises and anti-piracy operations with foreign navies. Similarly, many of the PLAN’s modern surface platforms have accumulated Far Seas experience. All of this begs the larger questions: Do the benefits of future escort task forces outweigh the costs, and, if so, to what extent, using which metrics?

Direct costs include fuel, food, and health supplies, and the ammunition and equipment used in training exercises and live fire, as well as PLAN vessel and equipment depreciation. Additionally, Chinese naval planners are surely calculating the opportunity cost of deploying supply and landing ships to the GoA when these ships could be preparing for more regionally based operations, such as a potential Taiwan contingency or, even more likely, a militarized South China Sea dispute or an escalation in the East China Sea. Some basic operational procedures applicable to the GoA mission may be transferrable to these hypothetical regional initiatives, but amphibious vessels like the Yuzhao-class Type 071 landing platform dock (LPD) could derive more strategic benefits from specialized training in regional waters.

That said, Beijing may view its GoA cost structure quite differently. The PLAN may well desire to continue spreading experience and operational gains from GoA mission farther through its ranks. China is clearly using its GoA mission to provide learning experiences for its most advanced surface vessels.

Andrew S. Erickson, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College and a founding member of the department’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI). He is a Fellow in the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program, an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, and a Fellow in the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations’ Public Intellectuals Program. Erickson is coeditor of, and a contributor to, the Naval Institute Press book series, “Studies in Chinese Maritime Development,” comprising China, the U.S., and 21st Century Sea Power (forthcoming 2010), China Goes to Sea (2009), China’s Energy Strategy (2008), and China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force (2007). He can be reached through www.andrewerickson.com. The views represented in these articles are his alone, and do not reflect the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.

Austin Strange is a researcher at the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) of the U.S. Naval War College and a research associate at AidData. He is currently a graduate student in nontraditional security studies at Zhejiang University.


  1. You Ji, “PLA Navy’s Gulf of Aden Mission as Capability Building against NTS Threats,” in Lyle J. Goldstein, ed., Not Congruent but Quite Complementary: U.S. and Chinese Approaches to Nontraditional Security, Naval War College China Maritime Study 9 (July 2012), p. 38.
  2. Jing Aiming, “Zhongguo haiwai junshi jidi jianxing jianjin” [China’s Overseas Military Basing Proceeding Gradually], Wanxia [Sunset], no. 2 (February 2012), p. 25.
  3. Huang Li, “Jian zhi yadingwan: zhongguo haijun yuanyang liangjian” [Sword Pointed at the Gulf of Aden: The Chinese Navy’s Bright Far Seas Sword), Guangzhou, China: (Zhongshan Uni­versity Press), 2009, pp. 214–16.
  4. Dennis Blasko, “China in 2012: Shifting Perspectives—Assessing the PLA from the Ground Up,” China Brief, Volume 12, Issue 2.