The PLA Navy’s ZHANLAN Training Series: Supporting Offensive Strike on the High Seas

Publication: China Brief Volume: 20 Issue: 7

Image: Vessels from the ZHANLAN-2020A training task force sail in a parallel formation (undated). The FUYU class (Type 901) combat support vessel CHAGAN HU (查干湖) (Hull 967) is identifiable in the center. (Source: CCTV/Youtube, February 25)

Introduction

 In early 2020, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) conducted the fifth iteration of its “ZHANLAN” far seas training series (Ministry of National Defense, February 2, 2019). [1] The PLAN established ZHANLAN in 2016 as an annual far seas training event, with each iteration growing in complexity (Ministry of National Defense, May 27, 2016). Live fire and combat training often draws the most attention during such PLA training events, but the critical highlight of ZHANLAN-2020A was the training focus on combat support, rather than kinetic operations. The key takeaway from this training event is that the PLAN is developing the proficiencies to sustain limited offensive strikes against U.S. forces—perhaps as far out as Hawaii.

This article argues that the PLAN is close to being able to execute offensive naval operations outside of the first island chain (and perhaps beyond the second island chain) in a wartime environment. The PLA has long discussed the concept of conducting offensive naval operations beyond the first island chain, and by comparing observables from the ZHANLAN-2020A training event with the list of proficiencies necessary to conduct deep strike, the PLAN is likely close to operationalizing this concept.

The ZHANLAN-2020A training task force consisted of four vessels: DONGDIAO-class AGI (AGI-857); FUYU class (Type 901) support ship CHAGAN HU (查干) (AOR-967); LUYANG III class (Type 052D) guided missile destroyer HOHHOT (DDG-161); and JIANGKAI II guided missile frigate XIANNING (FFG-500). A fifth vessel, the ocean-going tug NANTUO-195 (南拖-195), took part in a limited role during the task force’s return journey.

A History of the ZHANLAN Series

In 2016, the PLA described a then-South Sea Fleet training deployment as the PLAN’s first “annual normalized far seas training mission” (Ministry of National Defense, May 27, 2016). The PLA subsequently began to refer to the annual Southern Theater Command (STC) Navy (STN) far seas training deployment as “ZHANLAN” (湛蓝). [2] Authoritative press sources have conclusively identified the previous iterations of ZHANLAN-2017A, ZHANLAN-2018A, and ZHANLAN-2019A (China Military Online, September 28, 2018; China Net, February 21, 2018; First Naval Hospital of Southern Theater Command, March 4, 2019).

What About “B”?

Calling these training events “ZHANLAN-(Year)A” suggests that the PLAN also holds a “ZHANLAN-(Year)B” event. Although there is no observable consistent at-sea activity that can be tied to a ZHANLAN-B, one possibility is that phase “B” could be an in-harbor or tabletop event held after the task group completes the at-sea “A” phase.

Although no source identifies the 2020 STN far seas training task deployment as ZHANLAN-2020A, the deployment has all the characteristics of the ZHANLAN series. The following table summarizes the progress seen over the last five iterations of ZHANLAN in order to place the 2020 iteration in better context:

The Concept of Offensive Naval Operations in the Far Seas

The PLA Academy of Military Science’s 2013 edition of Science of Military Strategy (军事战略, Junshi Zhanlue) states that the PLAN should place an emphasis on deep, offensive, joint, and asymmetric operations in the future. [15] This publication characterizes “deep operations” (突出纵深作战, tuchu zongshen zuozhan) as coordinating operations in both near and far seas in order to confront both the frontline and rear areas of the enemy. [16] “Offensive operations” (突出攻势作战, tuchu gongshi zuozhan) are strikes conducted by maritime formations, submarines, and aircraft in order to paralyze the enemy and seize the initiative. [17]

The PLA National Defense University’s 2017 edition of an identically titled Science of Military Strategy (军事战略, Junshi Zhanlue) discusses using maneuver operations in the far seas to keep the enemy away from the near seas. This publication also discusses the need to carry out “far seas sabotage and guerilla attack operations” and to “carry out surprise raids against enemy forces at sea”. [18] These two publications make it apparent that conceptually, the PLA places great value on far seas naval offensive operations.

A RAND Corporation study from 2000 provides a useful framework to understand the prerequisite skills for naval force competencies, to include “deep strike” missions. [19] The study identifies the following technologies and integrating factors as being necessary for “multi-mission air control, limited sea control, and deep strike proficiencies”:

During ZHANLAN-2020A the PLAN conducted training in at least four of the seven integrating factors: jointness, advanced damage control, underway replenishment, and advanced intelligence. The following sections discuss how training conducted during ZHANLAN-2020A is consistent with these factors.

Jointness

The PLAN’s ability to leverage joint PLA assets at the tactical level drops off precipitously beyond the second island chain. However, any PLAN operations in this area during wartime must still be in alignment with the overall joint plan. The PLA recognizes this and states that even relatively independent naval operations in the far seas must still be conducted within the overall joint operational scheme. [20]

To this end, the PLAN elevated the importance of understanding the joint operational picture at the tactical decision-making level during ZHANLAN-2020A. The PLA pushed command staff from STC headquarters down to the task group starting in 2019, but these officers filled relatively minor roles. This year, the STC Joint Staff Department Bureau Director, Senior Captain Ying Hongbo (应洪波), served as the task group’s deputy commander (CCTV/Youtube, February 25). [21] The presence of a senior officer from the STC Joint Staff Department likely ensured that tactical commanders within the task group were constantly aware of the overall joint operational scheme within a training environment.

Image: Sailors of the LUYANG III class guided missile destroyer HOHHOT (DDG-161) man their watch stations during the ZHANLAN-2020A PLA Navy training deployment (undated).(Source: CCTV/Youtube, February 25)

Advanced Damage Control

The PLAN made a notable effort to improve their damage control training during ZHANLAN-2020A. Damaged ships that manage to return to port (either under their own power or under tow) more often than not can be repaired and put back into service quickly. The ability to prevent the loss of a damaged ship to fire or flooding, as well as the ability to recover damaged ships, is a critical element in preserving combat effectiveness. However, doing so far from one’s own shores is extremely difficult.

The PLAN has incorporated a limited amount of damage control training into all of its ZHANLAN iterations, but this year’s iteration featured the most complex damage control training to date. In addition to shipboard damage control, the PLAN also used the ocean-going tug NANTUO-195 (南拖-195) to conduct rescue towing, supplementary damage control, and fleet battle damage control during the return leg of the voyage (Navy News, February 20). Specifically, NANTUO-195 helped put out a simulated fire on the FUYU-class AOR-967, deployed supplemental damage control personnel to help AOR-967’s crew manage simulated flooding, and initiated a rescue tow of AOR-967 (Navy News, February 20). 

Underway Replenishment

A naval formation is lethal only as long as it can keep its magazines filled with munitions. Historically, magazine depth was not a major issue for the PLAN, given its expectation that wartime operations would occur mostly on its own doorstep—where trips back to port would be short. However, in the far seas, the PLAN faces the same challenges as the U.S. Navy when it comes to magazine depth. [22]

The PLAN is at least beginning to think about how to address this problem in the far seas. ZHANLAN-2020A featured the first known instance of the PLAN training to transfer ordnance (besides naval artillery rounds) while underway outside of the first island chain. During an underway replenishment (UNREP) training evolution, the PLAN transferred at least one probable HQ-10 close range surface to air missile canister from AOR-967 to LUYANG III-class DDG-161 through alongside connected replenishment. The PLAN also transferred at least one lightweight torpedo through vertical replenishment using a Z-9 helicopter (CCTV, February 20).

Image: Sailors of the ZHANLAN-2020A training task force conduct underway replenishment (UNREP) operations (undated). (Source: CCTV/Youtube, February 25)

Given the FUYU-class replenishment ship’s primary purpose of providing logistical support to the PLAN’s growing aircraft carrier fleet, this training evolution builds basic proficiencies for replenishment ships to transfer aircraft ordnance to aircraft carriers in future training events. Additionally, UNREP of munitions is also a prerequisite for surface combatants to conduct reloads at sea. Although the PLAN has not demonstrated the ability to reload HQ-10s or any vertically launched munitions at sea, training surface combatant crews to transfer munitions is a step in the right direction. 

Advanced Intelligence

Even if a naval formation is well resourced, the further it wanders from friendly shores, the more it must rely on its own organic capabilities to sense what is around it. Shipboard sensors on major PLAN surface combatants provide foundational situational awareness to the formation commander. However, the PLAN recognizes that it also needs to improve intelligence support for distant seas deployments. [23]

The PLA attached DONGDIAO-class AGI (AGI-857) and elements from the PLA Strategic Support Force (SSF) to the task group during ZHANLAN-2020A, likely in order to provide supplemental intelligence capabilities (Ministry of National Defense, February 21; CCTV/Youtube, January 27). Although Chinese press does not discuss what role the AGI or SSF personnel played during this training event, one can extrapolate reasonable ways that these assets could augment the task group’s organic intelligence capabilities.

Although it is nearly impossible to identify what specific sensors an AGI brings to the table, it is safe to assume that a DONGDIAO-class AGI features additional sensors that are not outfitted on PLAN surface combatants. Furthermore, AGI’s inherently provide additional processing, exploitation, and dissemination capabilities through embarked computing capacity and specialist personnel.

Without additional details, the presence of SSF personnel embarked on a task group can indicate several capabilities. Since the SSF is tasked with space, cyber, and information operations, it is reasonable to assume that these personnel bring at least one of these capabilities to the table. [24] Any one of the three provides supplemental intelligence capabilities not typically available to naval tactical commanders.

Conclusion

The Department of Defense (DOD) already acknowledges in its China Military Power Report that the PLA is “developing power projection capabilities and concepts of operation in order to conduct offensive operations within the second island chain, in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and in some cases, globally.” [25] ZHANLAN-2020A demonstrates that the PLA is probably closer to operationalizing those capabilities and concepts than some DOD officials are comfortable with acknowledging. The evidence from ZHANLAN and other training evolutions suggests that the PLA Navy is making significant progress in joint operations, damage control, logistics, and intelligence—to the extent that they may soon be able to operate on the doorstep of U.S. Navy port facilities in wartime.

This new reality will inevitably present the United States with new challenges. Preexisting time phased force deployment data (the driving information regarding how the United States will get necessary materiel into theater) may require reconsideration as the geographic threat envelope expands. U.S. planners may also be forced to rethink priorities on defended asset lists, as critical assets previously assumed to be safe come under threat from PLAN maritime strike forces. Although the time window in which the PLAN will operationalize the capability to conduct deep strikes still lies in the future, the time for U.S. decisionmakers to fully process this new reality is now.

Roderick Lee is the Director of Research at the Air University’s China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI), where he oversees research on Chinese military aerospace forces and the Chinese civilian aerospace sector as it relates to the military. Prior to joining CASI, he served as an analyst with the United States Navy covering Chinese naval forces. He earned his Master of Arts degree from The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. The views expressed here are his own, and are not meant to represent those of the Air University or any other U.S. government institution.

Notes

[1] Although “ZHANLAN” translates roughly to “Deep Blue” or “Azure”, the article uses “ZHANLAN” to maintain consistency.

[2] The PLAN’s “JIDONG” (机动) training series is not an annual or regularized event.

[3] Ministry of National Defense, May 27, 2015.

[4] Xinhua, February 17, 2015.

[5] People.cn, February 25, 2018.

[6] Ministry of National Defense, January 18, 2019.

[7] China News, May 27, 2019.

[8] Ministry of National Defense, May 27, 2015.

[9] Xinhua, February 17, 2015.

[10] CCTV, February 20, 2018.

[11] Ministry of National Defense, February 2, 2019.

[12] YouTube, February 18, 2019.

[13] YouTube, February 25.

[14] People.cn, February 25, 2018.  

[15] The Science of Military Strategy, pg. 216, PDF pg. 234

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] See the PLA National Defense University’s 2017 edition of Science of Military Strategy, p. 342

[19] Tellis, Bially, Layne, and McPherson, Measuring National Power in the Postindustrial Age (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2000). https://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR1110.html.  

[20] Science of Military Strategy (2013), pp. 216 and 234.

[21] The senior-most STC officer deployed to the 2019 task group was a regiment grade officer serving as the task group’s command group deputy director (编队指挥组副组长). SCAPT Ying Hongbo is a division grade officer- an elevation relative to 2019.

[22] The PLAN is already proficient in conducting underway replenishment of fuel, water, and stores. 

[23] See the PLA National Defense University’s 2015 edition of Science of Military Strategy, pg. 346-347.

[24] Costello, John and McReynolds, Joe China’s Strategic Support Force: A Force for a New Era. Washington, DC: NDU Press, 2018. https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Media/News/Article/1651760/chinas-strategic-support-force-a-force-for-a-new-era/

[25] See Department of Defense, Annual Report: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2019. https://media.defense.gov/2019/May/02/2002127082/-1/-1/1/2019_CHINA_MILITARY_POWER_REPORT.pdf