A comprehensive description of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) order-of-battle
It is no secret that the People’s Republic of China has transformed into an economic powerhouse in the last 20 years following an ambitious economic reform program. It has also meant that the People’s Liberation Army has been similarly transformed into a modern military powerhouse, and is a far cry from the manpower-heavy ‘peasant army’ force posture of years past.
The same can be said of its Navy. The People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN is no longer the brown and green water coastal force of yore. Today, with more than 100 major surface combatants and submarines and a personnel count of about 250,000, the PLAN can justifiably lay claim to being a true blue water Navy and the most powerful on this side of the Pacific.
The PLAN is divided into three major commands; the North, East and South Sea Fleets, and in times of conflict its main role would be to secure the seas within the ‘First Island Chain’ and beyond as part of China’s anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) strategy.
This would see the PLA conducting operations during times of conflict to prevent an adversary’s access to a particular region (anti-access) or to contest its freedom of movement within that theatre (area denial), and is geared to prevent US forces from operating freely inside the First Island Chain to, for example, intervene militarily during an PLA invasion of Taiwan.
The First Island Chain refers to the first chain of major archipelagos out from the East Asian continental mainland coast. Principally composed of the Kuril Islands, Japanese Archipelago, Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan (Formosa), the northern Philippines, and Borneo; essentially the waters between Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and the Malay Peninsula.
To that end, building up the PLAN has been a vital element of that strategy. The aforementioned 100 ships in the PLAN include aircraft carriers, modern cruisers and destroyers, an armada of frigates, corvettes, and submarines.
China’s carrier ambitions have come a long way since the surreptitious acquisition of the former Soviet Admiral Kuznetsov class carrier Varyag from Ukraine in 1998. At the time she was barely more than a stripped-down hulk, work having stopped on the incomplete carrier following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The buyers – a Macau-based company – claimed to be seeking to turn it into a floating casino, but instead the hulk ended up at a shipyard in Dalian. In fact, the vessel had already been commissioned into service when it was revealed in 2015 that the company was a front and the intention all along was to put the ship back into service as the PLAN’s first aircraft carrier.
The carrier, now called the Liaoning, was commissioned into service in 2011. Its Chinese ship class designation is the Type 001 aircraft carrier and is what is known as a Short Take Off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) design, with fixed-wing aircraft taking off with the assistance of a ski-jump instead of using a catapult like the US Navy’s carriers.
As a result of not having catapults, the Liaoning, which measures 304.5 metres (999 feet) at its flightdeck and displaces about 54,000 tonnes full load, is unable to operate heavier and less powerful aircraft. Its air wing is centred around about two dozen Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark multirole fighters, the design of which was copied from the Sukhoi Su-33 which Russia operates form Liaoning’s former sister ship, the Admiral Kuznetsov.
The only other aircraft in its air wing are a mixture of helicopters, with the Changhe Z-18 (a naval variant of the Avicopter AC313 which is a development of the Aerospatiale Super Frelon) and Harbin Z-9 (Aerospatiale AS365 Dauphin) being the types seen operating on board.
The former includes the Z-18J that carries an active-electronically scanned array radar in a deployable belly housing and acts as the air wing’s airborne early warning asset, although the use of a helicopter instead of a fixed-wing asset diminishes the capability due to a helicopter’s speed and ceiling limitations.
Meanwhile, China’s first domestically-built carrier is nearing completion at the same Dalian shipyard that the Liaoning was refurbished. The second carrier, known as the Type 002, is another STOBAR design broadly similar to the Liaoning externally except for a number of design refinements. This ship, which has yet to be named, has already undergone a number of sea trials at the time of writing, and is expected to be handed over to the PLAN soon.
China is not resting on its laurels after these two carriers though. Already, its third carrier is being built at Jiangnan Changxing Shipyard in Shanghai. Open source satellite imagery and photos posted online, some of which were taken from airliners overhead, indicate that hull modules are currently being built at a new purpose-built facility next to the already-impressive naval shipyard which churns out significant numbers of the PLAN’s cruisers, destroyers and intelligence gathering ships.
This third carrier, called the Type 003, is expected to be a larger and more complex ship than the Liaoning and the Type 002, and is widely expected to feature catapults for more efficient launching of its air wing. China has built two land-based catapult launch systems at its carrier aviation training base near Huludao in Liaoning Province.
One is believed to be a traditional steam catapult while the other is an electromagnetic launch system similar to the US Navy’s EMALS. Satellite photos have shown J-15s and an unknown UAV appearing to test them on a number of occasions since 2016.
MAJOR SURFACE COMBATANTS
No aircraft carrier can fulfil its potential without escorts, and over the past decade China has been building a sizeable fleet of modern, increasingly capable surface combatants. The PLAN has been experimenting with small numbers of slightly different destroyer designs since the turn of the century, gradually improving and refining the design and requirements with the Type 051B, 051C, 052, 052B, and 052C classes, before settling on the Type 052D.
The acquisition of two Russian Type 956E/EM (Sovermenny class) destroyers in the late 1990s would undoubtedly also have helped with pointers on warship design, and China built two more Type 956Es before going all-in on the Type 52D.
The first Type 052D named Kunming, was commissioned in 2014 and, as of September 2019, 12 of these vessels are already in service with all three fleets of the PLAN, while 13 more are being built at shipyards in Shanghai and Dalian.
Assigned the codename Luyang III class by the US DoD, the Type 052D is 515 feet long and displaces 7,500 tonnes, and is a surface combatant roughly analogous to the US Navy’s Arleigh Burke Flight II design. Its primary weapons are the 64 vertical launch system (VLS) cells that can fire surface-to-air, anti-ship, land attack and anti-submarine missiles, while a 130mm main gun and close-in weapon systems are also available for other kinetic roles.
The main sensor of the Type 052D is the Type 346 multi-function, dual-band (S and C-band) naval active phased array radar. This is the default radar fitted on China’s naval combatants, being also found on the earlier Type 052C destroyer, the Type 055 cruiser that is entering service and the Type 001 and 002 carriers. In addition, a Type 518 air surveillance radar is also carried, along with towed array and variable depth sonars for anti-submarine work.
The Type 052D also has helicopter facilities, with hangar space and a flight deck for a Harbin Z-9 or Kami Ka-28 helicopter. Twelve of the 13 ships currently being built are of a slightly modified design with a longer flightdeck, increasing the overall length of the ship to 528ft, and it is believed that these will be able to accommodate a navalised Harbin Z-20 helicopter which is very similar in appearance to Sikorsky’s S-70 Blackhawk.
Even as the Type 052Ds were starting to enter service, rumours abounded that the PLAN was planning a larger, more ambitious surface combatant. This manifested itself as the Type 055, a 10,000 ton, 590ft long design described by China as a destroyer, although the US DoD designates it as a cruiser. Initial construction started in 2014 and the first ship, the Nanchang, was launched in 2017. The vessel was commissioned in early 2019 following fitting out and an extensive trials program.
The weapons and sensor fit of the 055 is similar to the 052D, although significantly, the number of VLS cells has nearly doubled to 112 (64 forward and 48 midships/aft). In addition, the 055 also has HQ-10 short-range missile launcher aft and expanded helicopter facilities for up to 2 Changhe Z-18F ASW helicopters.
In a sign of the China’s increasing confidence in its own design and shipbuilding expertise, construction of the Type 055 is now going full steam ahead. At least seven vessels are in various stages of construction at the same Dalian and Shanghai shipyards that are building the 052Ds and carriers which, by western shipbuilding standards, is an impressive feat.
Going forward, the 052Ds and 055s will almost certainly form the major elements of the PLAN CVBG escort component, and no doubt will become a familiar sight in the waters inside the First Island Chain and the Western Pacific in the years to come.
SECOND-TIER SUW COMBATANTS
If the rate of construction for China’s higher-end surface combatants is impressive, then the way China has built its frigates and corvettes can be considered staggering. Since 2013 the PLAN has already inducted 30 Type 054A frigates and 60 Type 056 corvettes into service, numbers that really underline China’s recent naval build-up.
Compared to the destroyers these are less capable ships, although they are perfectly suited to fulfilling lower end taskings that do not require a destroyer or cruiser to tackle. This is something that the US Navy is finding out, with an overburdened cruiser and destroyer fleet leading to shortfalls in crew training and readiness that have contributed to a number of collisions at sea with other ships.
The Type 054A is a 4,000 tonne, 440ft long frigate design that is reasonably well-armed for such a class of ship. It is equipped with a 32-cell VLS that is used to launch either HQ-16 surface-to-air missiles or Yu-8 anti-submarine rockets, while C-803 anti-ship/land-attack missiles are carried in two quadruple launchers amidships.
Other weapons on board include a 76mm main gun, torpedoes, and mortars for anti-submarine warfare. The frigates do not have the phased-array radar, instead using more conventional 3D air search radars and various other sensors for fire-control. There is also a single hangar for a Z-9 helicopter. The Type 054As are distributed throughout China’s three fleet commands, while Pakistan has ordered four ships.
The smaller Type 056s are 295ft, 1,500 tonne corvettes designed for quick mass production, with China continuing to build these useful vessels at four different shipyards. Primary weapons are a 76mm gun, two twin-launchers for YJ-83 anti-ship missiles and eight FL-3000 surface-to-air missiles. The latter are stored in an eight-cell launcher very similar in appearance to the US RIM-116 RAM launcher.
The corvettes carry torpedoes and sonar for anti-submarine warfare, while there is a stern helipad for a Z-9 helicopter, although there are no hangar facilities. In addition to the PLAN, the Type 056 is operated by the navies of Bangladesh and Nigeria, where they are known as the C13 and P18N classes respectively.
The Type 054A has been seen acting as part of China’s nascent carrier battle groups in concert with more capable destroyers, while both classes of ships have been used to extensively patrol the South China Sea and its disputed islands and features, backing up the rapidly-proliferating Chinese Coast Guard and maritime militia in enforcing China’s claims to the features.
Compared to the shipbuilding efforts for the rest of its surface fleet, China’s bid to build up its amphibious capabilities seem almost lacklustre. China’s amphibious capability, or the lack thereof, is one of the key reasons why most analysts believe China will be unable to launch a full-scale invasion of Taiwan anytime soon.
The PLAN’s amphibious force is currently made up of mostly Type 072 LSTs, along with a smattering of Type 073s and 074s. But beginning in 2007, the first Type 071 Landing Platform Dock (LPD) made its debut. With a capacity of 600-800 troops, four Type 726 air-cushioned landing craft and two helicopter spots and stowage for four, the 25,000-ton 071s are the first truly modern amphibious assault ship for the PLAN.
The service has eight Type 071s in service or being built, and already China is moving on to the next class of amphibious assault ships. Known as the Type 075, it is expected to displace between 35,000-40,000 tonnes and is roughly analogous to the US Navy’s Wasp class landing helicopter docks or LHDs.
It will feature a large flightdeck capable of spotting five to six large transport helicopters and parking and hangar spaces for more, and will also have a well dock which is expected to be able to accommodate multiple conventionally-powered and/or Type 726 air-cushioned landing craft.
Recent photos taken at the Hudong-Zhonghua shipyard in Shanghai where the first Type 075 is being built show that it could be launched as soon as later this year. The shipyard is also responsible for building the Type 071, and it is currently not known how many Type 075s the PLAN plans to eventually operate, although some reports have suggested at least three such ships will be built.
The Pentagon’s 2019 China Military Power Report released earlier this year suggests that the PLAN has a near-term focus on building up an amphibious force geared towards smaller-scale expeditionary missions as opposed to a large-scale direct beach assault such as a Taiwan invasion scenario.
The report also said that China has reorganised the PLAN’s Marine Corps, with plans for the force to grow from two brigades with 10,000 troops to seven with more than 30,000 personnel, and an expansion in its mission to “include expeditionary operations beyond China’s borders” by 2020 as part of planned reforms to China’s military.
The PLAN build-up extends underwater. Back during the Cold War, China’s submarines were regarded as something of a joke, often being derided as noisy and unreliable, fatal flaws in the world of submarine warfare. That is no longer the case, with China’s nuclear and conventionally-powered attack and ballistic missile submarines understood to have improved by leaps and bounds as the country has progressed technologically.
This has no doubt been helped by the acquisition of 12 Kilo class diesel-electric attack submarines (SSKs) from Russia beginning in the late 1990s. The two initial boats were of the standard Project 877 export-standard, while the remaining ten are Improved Project 636 Kilos. All ten boats were delivered by around 2007.
The Kilos are armed with a mixture of torpedoes and Russia’s 3M54 Club-S anti-ship/land-attack cruise missile, and are joined in PLAN service by several domestically-built submarine classes. The PLAN still has older Type 035A, B and G SSKs in service, although these are being rapidly superseded by the Type 039 Song class and 039A Yuan class boats.
Despite the similar nomenclature, there are very little similarities between the Types 039 and 039A, with the latter class inheriting only the tail design of the former. The newer Yuan class is bigger, dives deeper and features improved noise reduction features. The class is further divided into four sub-classes with minor differences such as the addition of flank sonar arrays or changes to the configuration of the conning tower.
The PLAN also has nuclear-powered submarines for operations further afield. The early, and very limited Type 091 Han class nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) are quickly being replaced by more modern 7,000 tonne Type 093 and 093G Shang class boats which are equipped with vertical-launch tubes for cruise missiles in addition to conventional torpedo tubes.
Chinese sources say that the 093s are as quiet as the US’s 688I improved Los Angeles or Russia’s Akula SSNs, whereas the US Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) puts their noise level on par with the 1970s-era Soviet Project 671RTM/RTMK Victor III SSN. The Chinese appear to be not fully satisfied with the design, for Type 093G production has stopped after three boats and the PLAN is moving on to developing a new class of SSNs known as the Type 095.
Performing the sea-based nuclear deterrent role for the PLAN is the Type 094 Jin class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). These 11,000 tonne boats each carry 12 JL-2 nuclear-tipped submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), each with a range of more than 7,000 kilometres.
That would mean that, in theory, a Type 094 positioned off the Kuril Islands would be able to strike most of the continental United States, although the ONI’s assessment that these boats are slightly noisier than the Soviet Project 667BDR Delta III SSBN from the late-1970s would make an effort to reach and maintain a patrol line there during times of conflict a challenge for the PLAN.
Owing to a lack of prominent identifying features or pennant numbers painted on China’s submarines, it is almost impossible to independently keep track of the number of submarines in service. However, the Pentagon’s 2019 China Military Power Report says the PLAN has 50 SSKs, six SSNs and four SSBNs.
The PLAN also has a significant air element which, in addition to its carrier air wing and associated training aircraft, also includes several regiments of land-based aircraft spread across the three fleet commands.
In addition to combat aircraft such as the Shenyang J-11 – a Chinese-built Su-27 clone with indigenous weapons and avionics – Xi’an JH-7 fighter-bombers, Shenyang J-8 fighters and Russian-built Sukhoi Su-30MK2 multi-role fighters, the PLANAF also operates the venerable Xi-an H-6 bomber, helicopters and special mission aircraft.
The latter includes the Shannxi KJ-200 and KJ-500 Airborne Early Warning aircraft based on the Y-8 and Y-9 turboprop airlifters respectively which themselves are based on the Soviet-era Antonov An-12. These aircraft have started being assigned to individual PLANAF regiments within the three fleet commands, and have been observed on the airbases at Hainan island on the fringes of the South China Sea, along with GX-6 anti-submarine aircraft.
The Y-8/Y-9 airframe is also the basis of several different special mission aircraft used in the ELINT, COMINT, and SIGINT, with these routinely flying missions off Japan and South Korea where they are intercepted and photographed by the fighter jets of the two US allies.
It is also believed that China is seeking a new carrier-borne combat aircraft to supersede the J-15s currently assigned to the Liaoning and potentially to the Type 002 carrier. The new aircraft is expected to be a stealthy type, and it has been suggesting both Chengdu and Shenyang are developing carrier-capable versions of the J-20 and FC-31/J-31 fighters respectively.
It would appear that the J-20 might have an advantage owing to commonality with the land-based version currently entering service with the PLAAF. But the J-20 is a big aircraft, so the smaller size of the J-31 offering may be better suited to carrier operations and stowage.
But this development may not spell the end of Flanker-derivatives operating from the PLAN’s carriers, with China developing an electronic attack version of the twin-seat J-16 multirole fighter – an Su-30 development – for both land and carrier-based operations. These will find greater utility operating from a CATOBAR-equipped carrier, freed from many of the takeoff weight limitations of STOBAR operations.
A CATOBAR-equipped carrier will also likely mean China will push ahead with the development of a fixed-wing carrier borne AEW platform. In the early part of this decade a non-flying mockup of an aircraft that closely resembles the E-2 Hawkeye was photographed at the airbase at Xi’an-Yanliang, where new aircraft types destined for China’s military are flight tested. But, since that time no further progress has been observed on such an aircraft beyond artists’ impressions of what is tentatively known as the KJ-600.
INVESTING IN THE FUTURE
Going beyond the present, the PLAN is continuing to invest in future technologies. One of its more interesting projects is what is believed to be a ship-mounted railgun, a cannon that uses electromagnetic force instead of gunpowder to launch high-velocity projectiles.
The projectile fired by a railgun normally does not contain explosives, instead relying on the kinetic energy to inflict damage. In early 2018, photographs of a PLAN Type 072III LST mounting a large turret with a large barrel on its deck appeared on the internet. It was speculated that this was a testbed for a railgun, with the spacious hold and deck being the ideal location to place the power sources required to fire the weapon.
Taken together with its increasingly assertive actions in the region and frequent disregard of behavioural norms, China’s increasingly powerful military is certainly one that bears watching. While on paper the PLAN is not expected to be a match for the US Navy, it must be remembered that the PLAN is nowhere as stretched by global commitments and is increasingly gaining operational experience by taking part in operations like anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and a steady operations tempo in the South China Sea.