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I’ve been compiling this for some time, on and off, and it’s just such a massive topic I cannot do all the illustrations I’d like or publish in one go. I figured I had to put it down now or I’ll never finish it – some of the illustrations are years old already – and follow up with Part 2 later. Part 2 will include major warships (AEGIS comparison etc) and how China could invade Taiwan.
INTRO: The Chinese navy, more properly known as PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy), is among the world’s largest and most powerful, but suffers from the stigma of a legacy of outdated designs and limited training and employment. There are clear signs of this changing and the latest Chinese combatants, both indigenous and imported, closely match Western equivalents in several areas. What sets the PLAN apart from Western navies, and causes so much controversy, is the rate at which it’s updating and expanding its capability.
1. PLAN carrier program
2. Nuclear deterrence
4. Missile boat menace
1. PLAN Carrier Program
Spearheading the Chinese carrier program is the single ‘Varyag class’ carrier obtained, unfinished, from the former USSR. The Chinese service name for the Varyag has yet to be confirmed. Varyag is a Admiral Kuznetsov class aircraft carrier (more properly Project 1143.5, but I prefer the now old NATO reporting name of Kremlin Class).
Although Varyag is undoubtedly an aircraft carrier, it is not designed to operate in the same manner as American carrier battle groups – it is designed around Soviet doctrine and can better be described as an aircraft carrying cruiser, escorting offensive assets, rather than the centre of the task force itself. Therefore the Varyag was intended to field an air-superiority (Su-33 Flankers) and anti-submarine (Ka-28 Helix) focused wing, rather than the multi-role/strike focused US air wings of today. People often debate why the Soviets’ chose that path, but the fact remains that Varyag was not designed to operate in the Western CV mold. At any rate budget is probably the biggest factor affecting the Russian air-wing since the collapse of USSR, and finally Russia shows signs of changing this doctrine.
But this essay is about China not Russia; in Chinese service I expect her to operate more like a Western carrier with a general purpose air wing, generally similar to France’s Charles De Gaulle in overall throw-weight. Evidence from the training facilities now taking shape in Wuhan, China, suggest that the heavy anti-ship cruise missiles, located in VLS on the forward deck at the base of the ski-jump, will not be retained (at any rate China was unlikely to purchase the Russian Granit (SS-N-19) cruise missiles). Similarly the Flankers onboard, notionally Su-33s but possibly a local derivative, are shown with YJ-83 anti-ship missiles unlike their purely anti-air equipped Russian counterparts.
A recent photo of Varyag in dry dock in Dailan, Northern China – brave cameraman! In recent months the island has been partially remodeled and a new mast added.
The Varyag was towed from Ukraine to China, and moved around Dailan docks to a new pier built for her. She is currently in dry dock again.
Famous image of the part finished Varyag under tow on her way to China.
The deck-plan and flight operations of the Varyag are likely to remain as per those of the Russian sister ship, with a ski-jump on the bow to assist takeoff (no catapults) and three take-off positions, as shown below. There are two deck-edge lifts (green) and a regular angled landing strip:
Varyag is likely to be commissioned in late 2010 or 2011, and enter service in 2012-13 timeframe. This is painfully slow for some observers but quite reasonable for PLAN. In the meantime PLAN is ramping up training to prepare, including the innovative full size deck mock-up complete with island at the 701st Institute in Wuhan. This most likely intended for deck handling practice and establishment of deck routines.
The Wuhan facility is not for actual aircraft launch or recovery, which is being trained on a mock-up ski-jump at Yanliang AB, Shaanxi. This facility is similar to those used by the Russian Navy in Ukraine, and the Royal Navy/Air Force at Yeovilton in UK. Although Google Earth imagery has yet to be updated to show the ramp, satellite imagery and photos can be found on Chinese military forums:
There has been a lot of speculation as to the composition of the Varyag’s air wing when she enters service. The safest bet remains a derivative of the Su-27/33 Flanker, with persistent reports of China ordering a batch of Su-33s from Russia. The specification of these naval flankers is unclear but it is likely to be somewhat more modern that Russia’s own 1980s legacy Su-33s. The mock-up Flanker used a Wuhan suggests a Chinese version, perhaps most closely related to the J-11B. The Flanker photographed at Yanliang does not have the canard fore-planes of the regular Su-33.
The deck model at Wuhan (above) is armed with Chinese YJ-8 series missiles, probably representing anti-ship versions, or possibly land attack, and what appears to be PL-8 short range missiles. This non-Chinese weapons fit suggests both a multi-role capability (unlike Russian Navy Su-33s) and Chinese manufacture. It’s not clear if the model’s wing folds.
The air wing is also likely to include Helix ASW, Z-9 (Aerospatiale Dauphin/Cougar) for ASW and/or SAR, and an AEW platform, most likely based on the Z-8 (Aerospatiale Super Frelon) airframe. The deck model Super Frelon at Wuhan does not have this radar.The Super-Frelon AEW radar system is mounted similarly to the French Horizon system:
Speculation that the L-15 trainer may be used, possibly as a light strike fighter, seems plausible. I am less convinced that a version of the J-10 fighter will be employed. The L-15 is a two-seat advanced trainer based on the Russian Yak-130 series, but more closely equivalent to South Korea’s Golden Eagle. It is not hard to imagine single and twin seat versions operating in the light strike and deck training roles.
For defencive armament I suspect the Varyag will be equipped with relatively few Type-730 CIWS and possibly a medium SAM system such as the HHQ-16, a derivative of the SA-11/17 family. This will contrast with the immense close-in defences of the Russian sister ship Admiral Kuznetsov which is bristling with Kashtan CIWS, Klinok SAM complex and AK-630 CIWS.
I’ve created a model of Varyag with provisional air-wing and defensive weapons and uploaded it to Google Earth. She is escorted by a Type-052B destroyer. Download it HERE
Excellent source for following Chinese Carrier developments: http://www.china-defense.com/smf/index.php?topic=155.0
Reports and speculation abound of the indigenous carrier program, with at least one hull reportedly laid. Separating credible reports from fanciful speculation can be difficult, with ideas ranging from amphibious carriers to full blown CVNs. I’d expect the carriers to be similar in size to Varyag and possibly using a catapult launching system (China has the technology from their experience with the Australian carrier HMAS Melbourne). A mixed fleet of ski-jump (STOBAR) and catapult equipped (CATOBAR) carriers would be a training issue, but that does not rule this out.
2. Nuclear deterrence
The mainstay of Chinese nuclear deterrence is land based mobile ICBMs, but the PLAN has long harbored the desire to carry its load of the burden. The first ballistic missile submarine was a sole Golf class diesel boat built with Russian assistance. The boat never became operational, instead being a testing boat for subsequent designs.
The Golf class boat was widely reported inactive but has recently be refitted, probably to assist in the JL-2 ballistic missile program. Due to its limited endurance and stealth the boat is unsuitable for operational employment except from Chinese waters from where, with JL-2s, it could hit Australia, Japan, Taiwan and some Russian and US overseas/Alaskan targets, but not mainland US. Compared to modern SSBNs to golf only carries two missiles verses a more typical load of 16.
The Golf was superseded by the altogether more modern Type-092 Xia class, with nuclear power and a hull form not unlike contemporary British and French SSBNs. The Xia class was comparatively unreliable and rarely ventured out of Chinese waters, it’s relatively short ranged JL-1 missiles not posing a serious threat relative to other SSBNs of the 1980s. Two boats were launched but one was lost and only one remains. This was reported out of service but has recently been refitted, repainted and as far as we can tell, returned to service possibly with upgraded missiles. The remaining Xia Class boat is ported near Qingdao:
Reports that the Xia class boat has been converted to a cruise missile carrier are interesting but unconfirmed.
The follow-on to the Xia class is the Type-094 Jin class SSBN. Compared to the Xia class these are of a similar design but significantly longer with the missiles placed further aft, and general improvements. The boats are overall comparable to Western SSBNs such as the French Le Triomphant class, although a notable characteristic is the older-generation conventional screw propulsion rather than the increasingly common pump-jet arrangement.
At least two boats have been commissioned with a total of 5 expected. Armed with just 12 SLBMs the Jin’s continue to carry fewer missiles than their western and Russian contemporaries, but the reported 8,000km range of the JL-2 is very formidable. It is unconfirmed as to whether they have MIRVs.
8,000km is not far enough however to hit mainland US from Chinese waters.
In order to threaten mainland US targets the Jin would have to make it past the formidable submarine tracking assets of US forces in the region (we can speculate bases in Guam, the tip of Alaska and Hawaii) and other ‘western’ allies such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and Taiwan. In essence the Chinese naval bases are every bit as ‘encircled’ by Western forces as the Soviets were, however unlike the Russians they cannot escape under the ice of the North Pole. China’s natural “bastion” is the Bohai Gulf to the west of Dalian, where we can reason that Chinese subs are relatively safe, but this does not offer the range advantage inherent of ocean-going submarine operations.
Perhaps a more likely operational patrol might be sailing south into the deep water of the South China Sea, or carefully sneaking into the Gulf of Thailand or Java Sea to target India from another less predictable angle, perhaps circumventing India’s growing anti-ballistic missile defences. There are reports of Type-094 SSBNs porting at the new submarine base on Hainan in southern China which lends itself to this latter scenario.
As well as the modest force of SSBNs described above, PLAN has a relatively large and increasingly modern submarine fleet of both nuclear and conventional attack boats. These are of both Chinese and Russian designs and all could be modified to carry land attack cruise missiles, which China almost certainly has the technology for, if desired. Since around 2000 China has built several new submarine bases to accommodate the enhanced fleet.
3.1 Nuclear Attack Submarines (SSN)
5 x Type-091 ‘Han’ Class
2 + (est 5) x Type-093 ‘Shang’ class
The primary SSNs of the PLAN are the Type-093 Shang Class boats. These are generally thought to be equivalent of early Los Angeles class American SSNs and pose a serious threat to even the most modern adversary, especially with recent years of neglect in ASW circles. The PLAN has been using its submarines more aggressively, or rather more confidently, lately with high-profile incidents such as trailing US carrier battle groups. In this game, the Shang’s are China’s most potent submarines. Specifications and armament are not known but probably includes supercavitating torpedoes(Russian VA-111 Shkval-E) and anti-ship missiles, and possibly land attack cruise missiles. All torpedo tubes are mounted in the bow.
The Shangs are supported by 4 aging Han class. These were China’s first generation SSNs and share much in common with the Type-092 Xia class SSBN. A 5th Han has been retired as the newer Shangs join the line. The Hans are 1970s designs but remain a credible threat and satellite imagery confirms at least one boat undergoing refit recently which may include unknown upgrades.
3.2 Conventional attack submarines (SSK)
4+ x Type-041A/B Yuan class
10 x Type 636 ‘Kilo’ class
2 x Type 877-EKM ‘Kilo’ class
16 x Type-039/G/G1 Song class
10-15 Type-035 Ming class (retiring/reserve?)
5-8 Type-033 ‘Romeo’ class (retiring)
The most formidable SSK in Chinese service is the indigenous Type-041 Yuan class boat, which is clearly based on the Russian Kilo class but with extensive modifications similar to Russia’s own Kilo follow-on, the Lada class. The Yuan differs most noticeably in sail-mount hydroplanes and more conventional tail. The Yuan is also reported to have an air-independent propulsion system similar to those on the latest western SSKs for quieter running. There are two distinct models, -A & -B, with future boats expected to feature pump-jet propulsion.
The Yuans serve along side a large fleet of Russian designed Kilo class submarines.
The Kilos are known to carry Shkval rocket-torpedoes and Club anti-ship cruise missiles, and represent a very potent striking force within the confines of Chinese littorals. The main base for PLAN Kilos is near the town of Qiangtouzhen south of Shanghai.
The other modern SSKs of the PLAN are the Type-039 and Type-039G/G1 Song Class. These were built in the mid 1990s to present and show French influence, but also some characteristics of the older Romeo and Ming class boats.
The original Songs featured a stepped sail similar to the Mings, but more recent boats of the ‘G’ and ‘G1’ variants have a more conventional sail to reduce noise.
China also operates a number of increasingly obsolete Ming and Romeo class diesel boats. The Mings are improved Romeo class produced in China but from a modern perspective are virtually inseparable. Most of the Romeos have now been retired and the Mings may be following suit.
China is not reported to employ any midget submarines but they cannot be ruled out. There were some midget submarines in the past, possibly prototypes, and one sub may be visible in Google Earth.
4. Missile Boat Menace
4.1 Type-022 stealth
China maintains the world’s largest fleet of missile boats, rivaled numerically only by Iran. The backbone of the PLAN missile boat flotillas is the extremely modern, and potent, Type-022 ‘Houbei’ class stealth catamaran.
The biggest deal about the Type-022 is not its stealth, or its innovative wave-piercing catamaran hull, or its powerful anti-ship punch; it’s that there are around 70 of these boats in service!
The Type-022 has program has maintained relative secrecy with no official figures of the number of boats ordered, and most observer’s estimates are around 40 hulls. My analysis suggests a figure higher still. The Type-022s rarely have hull numbers painted on them, but the Chinese have inadvertently assisted the most dedicated amateur analysts by painting each in a unique camouflage scheme – no two boats are painted the same! So someone with a enough patience could filter through the masses of photos of these boats and catalogue the ‘signature’ camouflage, thus allowing a reasoned estimate of force strength. I am that sad, although I gave up after the first few hundred photos! I’ve identified 64 distinct profiles.
We can speculate that the USN could use similar analysis of the upper deck camouflage to use satellites to automatically identify and track each of the class.
Errors, such as double-counting a hull, repainting of hulls etc, are probably cancelled out by the fact that I stopped my analysis without studying every available photo, and that there are boats out there which I simply haven’t seen. 70 is pretty reasonable, and whatever the figure it amounts to a huge fleet and reflects incredible resource dedication and industrial capacity given that it has amassed over just 5-6 years!
The hull of the boat is based on wave-piercing catamaran technology transferred to China from Australian firm AMD Marine Consulting (not Austal!) for fast ferries. A very similar AMD design shows the characteristic twin hull form:
Civilian models are powered by diesels and can achieve 35-40kts, typical of missile boats. The large exhausts of the Type-022, which vent between the hulls to reduce infrared signature, suggest gas turbines, potentially increasing top speed and acceleration. There are several related designs in Chinese civilian service as ferries or rescue boats.
The program started at least in 2000 when satellite imagery of the lead yard, Jiangnan in Shanghai, shows a slightly smaller catamaran design in civilian colours. In 2004 production Type-022s started to be turned out at Jiangnan. The Type-022s are significantly larger than the “prototype” or proof-of-concept hull at about 45m length. Production was extended to other yards to meet demand. By 2008 building of Type-022s at Jiangnan had slowed to a trickle or ceased completely, and the yard is now being redeveloped. It is not clear whether construction ius continuing elsewhere but it appears that the bulk of the fleet has been built.
The boats were also produced in Guangzhou starting in 2005/6.
Each Type-022 boat carries 8 x JY-83 anti-ship missiles. These have a range of about 200km with external targeting, or about 18-25km when relying on the boat’s onboard radar for targeting (depending on size of target. Calculation using http://radarproblems.com/calculators/horizon.htm)
External targeting is more probable, certainly in optimal employment, and the Type-022 has various sensors including a stealthy fold-down datalink antenna. Variants of this missile are generally claimed to have been responsible for the striking of Israel’s corvette Ahi Hanit off the Lebanese coast in July 2006, although that was possibly a much smaller missile.
Operationally the Type-022 appears to operate using pack tactics with four or more boats. With each boat carrying 8 missiles, that equates to up to 32 anti-ship missiles per attack. Saturation attacks have long been discussed but are obviously hard to pull-off and have never been employed in a real war. Type-022 appears to be built and operated with such attacks in mind. A typical Type-022 base has at least 8 boats based there, such as this one:
The Type-022 compares favorably to other missile boats in many respects. Of particular relevance is the new Kuang Hua IV class of the Taiwanese navy. On paper these are also stealthy, though less so than the Type-022. Stealth is such a large part of Type-022’s design that even small details like the windows have RCS reducing saw-tooth edges.The Kuang Hua is significantly smaller, particularly in internal volume, and less well armed in both anti-ship missiles (4 x HF-II) and guns (1-2 crewed 20mm guns or more commonly 2 crewed .50cal machine guns).
Although the 30mm AK-630 CIWS is reasonably effective against aircraft and missiles at point range, it has a limited arc of fire the Type-022 lacks any air-defences at the rear:
Generally there is a school of thought that missile boats are not a serious threat to ‘real’ navies. One popular theory propagated by the Royal Navy is that the missile boats would be easily sunk by shipboard helicopters before they could get within range of launching their missiles. This is a valid argument for a RN frigate operating in the Arabian Sea, approached by Iranian boats. Indeed RN Lynx helicopters armed with Sea Skua missiles proved very effective in both the Falklands and Gulf wars. But this argument appears less convincing when the Type-022 is taken as the adversary. It is relatively stealthy, operating in littorals, employing data links to achieve long range targeting and deployed in huge quantities. It’s also worth remembering that in a scenario where China was facing a major navy (even Taiwan’s) the opposing helicopter force would be subject to distraction of submarine hunting, and quite possibly air-supremacy. Most countries do not equip their shipboard helicopters with anti-ship missiles anyway.
Regardless of the above assessment, many observers regard the Type-022 as a doctrinal dinosaur, a hang-over from the PLAN’s Soviet influenced strategies of the past and that PLAN should only be spending on blue-water assets. An interesting perspective worth thinking about.
I created a model of Type-022 missile boat for Google Earth, it’s far from perfect but if you are curious you can Download it HERE
4.2 Other missile boats
In the 1990s many observers expected the Type 520T HOUJIAN class (aka Type-037-II) missile boats to be the next major production FAC (Fast Attack Craft) of the PLAN. Only 5 were eventually built, of which one was nearly sunk in a collision and had to be extensively rebuilt. These boats are larger than previous PLAN missile boats and carried 6 YJ-8 series anti-ship missiles (probably YJ-82). The vessels also have heavier anti-air weaponry than previous designs with two twin 30mm AAA and one twin 37mm gun.
One vessel was fitted with a Russian AK-176 76mm gun, and another tested the FL-2000 SAM system. The vessels are based in Hong Kong and Guangzhou on rotation.
The PLAN also operates a large fleet of Type 037-IG (Houxin Class) Missile Corvettes which are essentially Type-037I (Haijiu class) sub-chasers with YJ-8 series anti-ship missiles bolted onto the stern. The Type-037I was produced in much larger quantities than the more advanced but contemporary Type-037-II described above, with 18 in service with the PLAN. All are serving with the Southern fleet.
The PLAN also has a large number of obsolete Soviet-era Osa class missile boats (locally produced as Type 021 Huangfeng) and Type-024 Houku class boats (based on Soviet Komar class). All are retired or in reserve and do not pose a credible threat in today’s battlefield.
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