10 April 2015

U.S. Exposes China’s Growing Maritime Power

Andrew S. Erickson, “U.S. Exposes China’s Growing Maritime Power,” The National Interest, 10 April 2015.

Originally published as: Andrew S. Erickson, “Navy Intel Charts Chinese Sea Change: Office of Naval Intelligence Releases First Unclassified PLAN Report in Six Years,” China Analysis from Original Sources 以第一手资料研究中国, 9 April 2015.

What a difference six years makes! Since the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) last issued an unclassified report on China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in 2009, the Middle Kingdom has greatly strengthened and expanded its “Great Wall at Sea” and even built the world’s largest “Great Wall of Sand” in contested waters. Yet even as Internet speculation proliferates spectacularly, highly reliable analysis remains chronically scarce. Even factoring out obvious fallacies and ‘fanboy art’ that clearly violates known facts and laws of physics, this disparity produces what Rear Admiral Paul Becker, Director of Intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, terms a “data glut but an information deficit” on China.

Yesterday, April 9, ONI helped reduce that gap. It released a report documenting the PLAN’s rapid progress, while carefully assessing its remaining weaknesses. Entitled “The PLA Navy: New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century,” the document (interactive version downloadable here) (hi-res version downloadable here) has accompanying videos on “China’s Defensive Layers” and “South China Seas Maritime Claims.” Collectively, these represent an extremely valuable contribution to public understanding of China’s maritime development, both in terms of new details offered and the authoritative assessment that backs them. In what follows, I offer highlights from the report and explain their significance.

Major Revelations

1. Rapid shipbuilding allows the PLAN and China Coast Guard (CCG) to replace old ships with new, greatly improved ones. While the PLAN is only growing numerically in selected areas, by the end of 2015 the CCG will be 25% larger than it was at the beginning of 2012.

2. China has far more Coast Guard ships than Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines—combined.

3. China has deployed the YJ-18, a potent new-generation supersonic anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) that could pose unprecedented challenges to the air defenses of U.S. and allied ships. Everyone serious about understanding Chinese military capabilities must familiarize themselves with this missile.

Structure and Contents

The report’s 49 pages are divided into five chapters:

  • Chapter 1 covers “Naval Strategy and Missions.”
  • Chapter 2, “PLAN Equipment—Building a Modern Navy,” offers order of battle information in unprecedented detail, with naval assets divided among all three fleets for the first time that I have seen in a public U.S. government document since 2009—annual Department of Defense (DoD) reports lump East and South China Sea assets together.
  • Chapter 3 details “Training, Exercises, and Joint Operations.”
  • Chapter 4, “PLAN Structure and Leadership,” offers an unparalleled ‘who’s who’ of PLAN organization. In a move that boosts analytical credibility and will warm the heart oflegendary PLA analyst and former attaché Kenneth Allen (who has made educating U.S. government and other analysts about the subject a personal mission), this section lists admirals’ all-important grades in addition to their ranks.
  • Chapter 5 returns us to a primary mission for the PLAN, CCG, and other Chinese maritime forces: “Maritime Claims—Securing China’s ‘Blue Territory.’”
  • A brief “Outlook” section concludes.

Major bonus (referenced explicitly in Table of Contents, but unfortunately not yet downloadable): posters of Chinese equipment and leadership structure as well as a PLAN and maritime law enforcement platforms recognition guide. This suggests that ONI is making authoritative, carefully-labeled silhouettes of PLAN and CCG ships available publicly for the first time ever. This would be almost like upgrading from bird watchers’ photos on Pinterest—pretty though they may be—to the systematic, comprehensive Peterson Field Guide to Birds.

While the report focuses most extensively on the PLAN, it also devotes important coverage tothe consolidating CCGthe world’s largest blue water coast guard fleet. Like the PLAN, the CCG is active near such disputed features as Scarborough Reef, Second Thomas Shoal, and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands—and may yet (it is to be worried) play even more important roles there. In a typical pattern, “When deployed, the CCG sometimes coordinates with the PLAN, which, when necessary, will deploy destroyers and frigates several dozen miles from the incident to provide a nearby, but indirect presence.” This was precisely China’s division of labor for the March 2009 Impeccable Incident. U.S. policymakers must be wise to a growing Chinese approach in which playing ‘good cop’ allows China’s navy to cultivate closer relations with, and learn from, its American counterpart; while smaller, harder-to-monitor paranaval ‘bad cops’ do the day-to-day ‘dirty work’ of advancing China’s claims.

Home to all China’s unresolved island and maritime claims, the Near Seas (Yellow, East China, and South China Seas) contain numerous flashpoints. Disturbingly, ONI confirms that during the May 2014 crisis surrounding China’s unilateral deployment of oil rig HYSY-981 in waters disputed with Vietnam, both nations sent “dozens” “of coast guard ships, fishing vessels, and some naval combatants….” Ships “frequently and deliberately collid[ed] with one another.” CCG ships “deployed water cannons.” These aggressive activities “creat[ed] the conditions for a rapid escalation.” “The tense situation could easily have escalated into a military conflict.”

Hardware and Software Modernization

Accelerated modernization since roughly 2000 has put the PLAN “on track to dramatically increase its combat capability by 2020 through rapid acquisition and improved operational proficiency.” On the hardware side, it has done so in part by rapidly replacing older ships with larger, multi-mission, blue-water-capable variants with much-improved air defense. Last year alone, China’s navy laid, launched, or commissioned more than 60 vessels; ONI expects similar achievement for 2015. This volume is unmatched: “In 2013 and 2014, China launched more naval ships than any other country and is expected to continue this trend through 2015-16.”

The CCG enjoys a proportionally-even-greater building boom. Even as ship sizes and capabilities increase through replacement, CCG forces are growing at an unparalleled rate. Over the last decade, predecessor organizations (the CCG was not officially established as a unified civil maritime force until 2013) have received roughly 100 new large patrol ships, patrol combatants/craft, and auxiliary/support ships—not to mention additional small harbor and riverine patrol boats. From 2012-15, ONI projects that >30 large patrol ships and >20 patrol combatants will be added, boosting overall CCG force levels by 25%.

Increasingly efficient and capable of supplying China’s maritime forces through series production, Chinese shipbuilding now looms sufficiently large that the Naval War College has made it the topic of its annual China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) conference.

The PLAN is building capacity to use advanced new hardware by training with unprecedented volume, sophistication, and realism, directed in part by Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping. Reflecting consensus among his peers, Xi views maritime power as vital for China’s comprehensive national development and great power status, and calls for Beijing to “strategically manage the sea.” The PLAN is strengthening guidelines; increasing use of training centers and simulators; improving its training cycle and scope; bolstering opposing force, electronic warfare, and logistics drills; and developing a noncommissioned officer corpsto manage important technical tasks. ONI anticipates that 2015 will witness “improved multi-service training,” including through “large-scale transregional exercises” to increase “joint service integration”—one of the PLA’s greatest remaining shortcomings.

Adding Mission Layers

Traditional capabilities to uphold Taiwan and Near Seas sovereignty claims with “the expectation of U.S. military intervention” remain “the PLAN’s primary focus.” ONI foresees increasing likelihood of friction between China and its neighbors “as Beijing seeks to deter rival activities and assert its own claimed rights and interests.” These claims are sweeping: the “three million-square kilometers of blue territory” invoked frequently by Chinese officials and civilians alike “would incorporate nearly 90 percent of the area within the major bodies of water within the First Island Chain,” namely the Near Seas. In the South China Sea, China has moved from occupying only small outposts with a land area of less than five acres” to adding “hundreds of acres of land” constructed by dredging and filling to support new military and paramilitary facilities, activity “unprecedented” in its “sheer scale.” Even within the Near Seas, there are new outer layers to PLAN capability, with the new Jiangdao-class corvette adding Near Seas patrol capabilities beyond the range of the 60 Houbei missile catamarans built in the mid-2000s. Houbeis remain “valuable for reacting to specific threats in China’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and slightly beyond.”

China’s navy remains very different from that of the U.S., but is relatively well-suited for its far more limited focus. For instance, China already has more attack submarines than the U.S., focused on a much smaller area. Chinese submarines “are optimized for regional missions that concentrate on ASuW [anti-surface warfare] near major sea lines of communication (SLOCs).” Also supporting high-end Near Seas operations is China’s “robust mining capability.” It can lay its >50,000 naval mines using submarines, surface ships, aircraft, and “fishing and merchant vessels.” As with other armaments, China is expected to develop still-more advanced variants in the future, including “extended-range propelled-warhead mines, antihelicopter mines, and bottom influence mines more able to counter minesweeping efforts.” As for its own mine countermeasures efforts, China can deploy heretofore simply un-Googleable “remote-controllable WONANG-class inshore minesweepers.”

PLAN capabilities in the “Far Seas” beyond the “Near Seas” are growing too, albeit more slowly and modestly. Already increasing Chinese influence overseas, they ultimately portend more robust protection of resource and trade flows (the latter involve more than 90% by volume and 65% by value transiting major SLOCs). Most new PLAN vessels are suited for both Near and Far Seas. ONI judges that “in the next decade, China will complete its transition…toa navy capable of multiple missions around the world.”

Quality over Quantity… But Some Numbers Increasing, Too

Today, the PLAN has 26 destroyers, 52 frigates, 20 new corvettes, 85 modern missile-armed patrol craft, 56 amphibious ships, 42 mine warfare ships, >50 major auxiliary ships, and >400 minor auxiliary ships and service/support craft. An already high, still-growing majority of these are advanced “modern” systems.

It’s must be emphasized that China’s Navy has an air force of its own, and its portfolio is diversifying rapidly even before a carrier air wing is operational. “An array of relatively high-quality aircraft,” outfitted with increasingly-sophisticated sensors and weapons, pursue “an expanded array of missions, particularly maritime strike, but also including maritime patrols, ASW, airborne early warning, and logistics.”

Chinese undersea warfare ability is being strengthened with 3 cutting-edge Dalao-class submarine rescue ships. Numbers of amphibious vessels remain relatively constant, but China’s four (and counting) Yuzhao landing platform docks offer new capabilities, both for South China Sea island seizure campaigns and potentially even for overseas expeditionary warfare. “Increased intelligence collection deployments in the western Pacific” are being facilitated by a total of four Dongdiao-class intelligence collection vessels (one of which spied on the RIMPAC 2014 exercise off Hawaii, even as four other PLAN vessels participated in it) and the addition of five Kanhai-class survey ships.

Numbers are rising significantly in selected areas. While “at least 20” Jiangdao-class corvettes “are already in operation…30 to 60 total units may be built.” Twelve Yuan-class air independent power (AIP) submarines are in service, “with as many as eight more slated for production.” Rotary wing aircraft numbers will grow, in part to outfit PLAN surface ships, as “every major PLAN surface combatant under construction is capable of embarking a helicopter.” Because the PLAN requires more and better “eyes and ears” to support operations farther from shore, numbers of maritime patrol, airborne early warning, and surveillance aircraft are also growing. The PLAN is now introducing UAVs, with the Camcopter S-100 UAV already deployed and various indigenous systems likely to follow soon.

Finally, with respect to paranaval forces, China already enjoys what can only be described as a staggering numerical advantage in the region, and will soon be second to none in quality. It has many more Coast Guard ships (205) than Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines combined (147). Consider how the CCG compares with neighboring counterparts in hull numbers:

  • China: 205  (95 large [>1,000 tons], 110 small [500-1,000 tons])
  • Japan: 78  (53 large, 25 small)
  • Vietnam: 55  (5 large, 50 small)
  • Indonesia: 8  (3 large, 5 small)
  • Malaysia: 2  (2 large, 0 small)
  • Philippines: 4  (0 large, 4 small) 

No parallel.

Laser Focus: Anti-Surface Strike

Surveying Chinese hardware development reveals an extreme ASuW focus, not only in the submarine force, but also with ship-, aircraft-, and land-based missiles. Even China’s Z-9D helicopter “has been observed carrying ASCMs.” This anti-navy approach is rightly of growing concern to U.S. and allied navies, as it is designed specifically to target their ships precisely from great distances, often from beyond the reach of the ships’ defenses. ONI anticipates continuation of this ASuW trend: “A new cruiser to be built in China in the latter half of the decade will carry a variety of antisurface weapons, some of which will be newly developed.”

YJ-18 ASCM Confirmed on Ships and Subs

While Chinese ballistic missiles—including the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM)mentioned multiple times in ONI’s report—have received considerable coverage, China’s numerous, increasingly potent cruise missiles have not received the attention that they deserve. Here ONI makes a contribution that bears tremendous emphasis. In a major data point never previously reported publicly by the U.S. government, ONI reveals that China’s newest destroyer class, Luyang III, “is fitted with the new vertically-launched YJ-18 ASCM.” It is also apparently deployed on China’s Song-, Yuan-, and Shang-class submarines (exact wording: “China’s newest indigenous submarine-launched ASCM, the YJ-18, extends a similar capability [as the SS-N-27/3M54E Klub ASCM] to the SONG, YUAN, and SHANG classes.”) Such ship and submarine deployment was long discussed inChinese Internet posts, and video of an apparent YJ-18 test launch appeared in November 2014. Previously termed “CH-SS-NX-13” by DoD, the YJ-18 is China’s new-generation indigenous supersonic ASCM. Apparently a Chinese copy of the 3M54E Klub (the SS-N-27B export variant) supplied with the eight Kilo-class 636M submarines China imported from Russia (ONI credits it with “similar capability”), the YJ-18 reportedly has a cruise range of as much as 180 km at Mach 0.8 and a terminal sprint range of 40 km at Mach 2.5-3.0. These high-speed, long-range capabilities (not specified directly in ONI’s report, but infer-able from the comparison to the YJ-18’s extremely close Russian equivalent), together with a sea-skimming flight profile and likely possession of a command data link based on Internet photos, could make the YJ-18 extremely difficult to defend against.

China has thus acquired many advanced pieces of hardware, but their integration and effective employment remains a far greater challenge. For instance, weapons of increasing range need over-the-horizon-targeting to strike their targets effectively. Areas that China wants to cover for this purpose are immense. “Just to characterize activities in the ‘near seas,’” for instance, “China must build a picture covering nearly 875,000 square nautical miles (sqnm) of water- and air-space.” The strategically-situated Philippine Sea “expands the battlespace by another 1.5 million sqnm.” Recognizing these challenges, China “has invested in maritime reconnaissance systems at the national and tactical levels, as well as communications systems such as datalinks, to provide targeting information to launch platforms.” In addition to land-based radars, “China operates a growing array of reconnaissance satellites, which allow it to observe maritime activity anywhere on earth.”

Remaining Weaknesses

For all the progress that ONI documents, it also correctly emphasizes that the PLAN still has considerable work to do to become the world-class blue water navy that its civilian masters desire. In addition to the reconnaissance requirements detailed above, major Far Seas capacity will require substantially more, better nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) than China’s current limited inventory. Since a submarine is useful only to the extent that it can attack undetected, China likely faces an incremental slog: “Following the completion of the improved SHANG SSN, the PLAN will progress to the Type 095 SSN, which may provide a generational improvement in many areas such as quieting and weapon capacity.”

A major blue water navy also requires robust deck aviation. While China has started down the “long and dangerous path” of aircraft carrier development, “it will take several years before Chinese carrier-based air regiments are operational.” China has lagged in open-ocean anti-submarine warfare—essential to protecting high-value surface vessels far from home—but new ships boast “a variety of new sonar systems, including towed arrays and variable-depth sonars, as well as hangars to support embarked helicopters.”

Robust nuclear deterrence is important to any great power, but developing an effective sea leg is most technically challenging in key respects. The U.S. government has long anticipated engagement of the Type 094 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine in deterrence patrols with its JL-2 nuclear ballistic missiles, and ONI believes that this could finally be the year.

Finally, the ground forces remain dominant, and jointness elusive. While the ONI report fails to mention it, the ambitious Xi may seek to tackle these problems with sweeping reforms that ultimately render the “Army” merely one of several services and reduce the number of China’s military regions while making two of the coastal ones more maritime and power-projection focused.

Transformative Trajectory

While U.S. government reports typically contain valuable data often unavailable elsewhere, their textual presentation sometimes leaves something to be desired. Ambiguous wording and conflicting verb tenses provoke endless speculation—likely wholly unintended—e.g., as to whether a particular system is actually deployed yet or not. Correcting a puzzling multi-year discrepancy in DoD reports, for instance, ONI correctly lists the East Sea Fleet as being headquartered in Ningbo (vice nearby Dinghai).

ONI’s PLAN reports benefit from interpretation, but are sufficiently well-written that they can speak for themselves. The final paragraph of the 2015 edition summarizes China’s sea state and trajectory well:

“…it is evident that the PLAN is a navy in transition. …China is only in the middle of its military modernization, with continued improvements planned over the following decades. As we view the past 20 years of PLAN modernization, the results have been impressive, but at its core the force has remained essentially the same—a force built around destroyers, frigates and conventional submarines. As we look ahead to the coming decade, the introduction of aircraft carriers, ballistic missile submarines, and potentially a large-deck amphibious ship will fundamentally alter how the PLAN operates and its viewed by the world.”

Clearly, further ONI reports are warranted. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait six years for the next one. China will certainly have reached many important new maritime milestones before then, requiring intense discussion in Washington about how to respond.