24 October 2013

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

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin Strange, “Learning by Doing: PLAN Operational Innovations in the Gulf of Aden,” Jamestown China Brief 13.21 (24 October 2013).

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. … … …