A new class of guided-missile destroyers with Aegis-like technology, the Type 052C, may revolutionize fleet air defense for China's People's Liberation Army Navy. Will these ships be enough, however, to rectify one of China's most serious vulnerabilities at sea?
The People's Republic of China (PRC) is entering the 21st century seeking great-power status, and its current military modernization is an important part of that quest. The expansion of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is in keeping with that modernization. The PLAN has shed its strictly coastal defense force structure in favor of acquiring larger and more modern fighting vessels capable of blue-water operations. It also has acquired several new guided-missile destroyers from Russia and embarked on a construction program of several new classes of modern, indigenously designed multimission destroyers and frigates of increasing size, complexity, and capabilities. This shift in strategy, however, has exposed a significant vulnerability—the PLAN'S inability to provide a sophisticated, layered air defense for these new forces. Fleet air defense is the Achilles' heel of the 21st-century Chinese Navy.
On General Liu Huaqing's rise to command of the navy in 1982, the strategic shift began in earnest toward the "offshore defense" concept.1 This new strategy entailed an outward extension of the maritime defense perimeter of China, along the lines of what then was being practiced by the Soviets under the strategic guidance of Admiral Sergei Gorshkov.2 The purpose of offshore defense is to engage an enemy at a much greater distance from shore, which allows for defense in depth while minimizing the proximate threat to the mainland. Moreover, Liu envisioned a three-tiered expansion of the PRC's area of sea control. Phase one of the strategy called for exercising immediate sea control within the "First Island Chain," which includes the Yellow, East, and South China Seas, Taiwan, and Korea, out to about 600 miles. By 2020, phase two was to extend this boundary eastward to approximately 1,500 miles. By 2050, it was to culminate with the PLAN being capable of global naval operations.3
As the PLAN'S ships increased in size, capability, and endurance, and with operational deployments taking them well beyond the navy's traditional mainland-based air defenses, a challenge not faced previously became apparent: having to defend these units from air attack in the event of hostilities. Response to this concern has been slow and inadequate at best, and serious consideration to providing the surface navy with the kind of air defense systems one normally associates with modern naval fleets has only begun. Not until the late 1990s was an effort made to outfit PLAN destroyers and frigates with an antiair "point defense" system, giving them some measure of self-defense. Most Chinese major surface combatants now are equipped with such systems, of which the sevennautical-mile-range HQ-7 (the Chinese-built version of the French Crotale) surface-to-air missile system is the most common. The PLAN surface fleet, however, still lacks "modern air surveillance systems and data links required for area air defense missions. The combination of shortrange weapons and lack of modern surveillance systems limits the PLAN to self-defense and point-defense [antiair warfare] only. As a result, except in unusual circumstances, no PLAN ship is capable of conducting air defense of another ship."4
The PLAN'S two Sovremennyy-class guided-missile destroyers each carry 48 of the 13.5-nautical-mile-range SA-N-7 semiactive radar-homing missile.5 While not a true area defense system, the SA-N-7 provides a small antiair umbrella, with some area defense characteristics. The system, however, has its limitations: it has no capability to screen in-depth landing operations, and is even less capable of penetrating strike-plane attack zones in the coastal waters of an adversary.6 Until recently, the two Sovremennyys (the Hangzhou and Fuzhou) represented the PLAN'S best available shipboard antiair warfare platforms.
In 2002, two indigenously designed and constructed guided-missile destroyers were unveiled. Known as Type 052B, their sensor and weapon suites seem to indicate the PLAN is taking seriously the shipboard area air defense deficiency in the surface fleet. They are outfitted with both the Top Plate three-dimensional air search radar and the medium-range HQ-16 surface-to-air missile system, which reportedly has a range of 50 miles and the ability to hit both high- and low-flying targets.7 A more radical step, however, was taken in 2003 with the appearance of the two Type 052C guided-missile destroyers. Although both types have a common hull form, the Type 052C will carry the HQ-9 theater air defense missile system (estimated at about 65-nautical-mile range) housed in a vertical launch system.8 Most important, whereas the Type 052B was built with a conventional three-dimensional air search radar, the Type 052C will be fitted with an Aegis-like phased-array radar system.
For the Chinese, such a system represents a level of sophistication and complexity that up to now has been beyond their grasp. Even though the Type 052C displays physical characteristics strongly resembling those of a U.S. or Japanese Aegis destroyer, its actual operational capabilities may fall somewhat short of its international cousins. Whatever its ultimate effectiveness as a true area air defense platform, with the Type 052C the PLAN has begun—at least for its surface fleet—to acquire an area air defense capability commensurate with the force it must protect. Still, can the PLAN surface fleet do it alone?
PLAN naval aviation has not kept pace with the modernization efforts of the surface fleet. Total fighter aircraft stand at about 300, a threefold increase since 1985, but there is much more to the story than sheer numbers.9 The predominant fighter aircraft in the PLAN inventory is the 3-6, a Chinese-built version of the Soviet-era MiG-19. J-7s (copies of the 50-year-old Soviet MiG-2l) and J-Ss (MiG-21 derivatives) complement this force, but they bring little in terms of additional capability. These aircraft have an unrefueled combat radius of about 500 miles, and only the 30 J-Ss are capable of being refueled in the air.10 Recognizing this weakness, the PLAN in 2003 embarked on an effort to obtain Russian Su-30s, modern and highly capable fighter interceptors with an air-to-air refueling capability. As of May 2004, it had acquired 76 Su-30MKKs and ordered another 24 Su-30MK2 fighters.11
Beyond fighter aircraft, a truly effective fighter-based defense would require some form of airborne commandand-control asset. The Chinese recently purchased the British Skymaster airborne early warning radar for their Y-8 maritime patrol aircraft.12 Although this move improves the range and quality of the air radar picture, use of this asset for airborne warning and control has yet to be confirmed. Attempts to obtain a dedicated system, through purchase or conversion of existing aircraft, have failed.13
The land-based naval aviation component appears bleak, but the prospect for China to build or otherwise acquire and operate its own aircraft carrier appears bleaker still. China's first indication of interest with carrier aviation began with the purchase of the former Australian carrier Melbourne in 1985 (ostensibly for scrapping). The PLAN conducted detailed studies of the vessel.14 Since then, the PRC has purchased the decommissioned Russian carriers Kiev, Minsk, and Varyag, all of which have been equally scrutinized, yet none has been made operational. Despite this ongoing apparent fascination with aircraft carriers, the PLAN has made no serious attempt to refurbish or operate them. In july 2003, the U.S. government asserted, "While continuing to research and discuss possibilities, China appears to have set aside indefinitely plans to acquire an aircraft carrier."15
Without an aircraft carrier to provide an organic, continuous air patrol, Chinese surface groups would be dependent on land-based air cover. Lacking an airborne early warning and control platform, or an otherwise effective means to control and direct fighter aircraft, naval aviation's contribution to a Chinese surface group operating at some distance from the Chinese mainland would be practically nil. Without effective fighter cover, or the ability to perform true area air defense, surface ships possessing nothing more capable than a point-defense missile or gun system would be forced to interpose themselves between the threat and high-value units, thus restricting their freedom of maneuver.
Within Chinese naval and political circles, opponents of acquiring an aircraft carrier as a means of solving the problem of fleet air defense likely cite the high cost of building and operating such a vessel, the additional support requirements for both its protection and replenishment, and the more expedient and less costly shore-based air power alternative. In addition, the Chinese might view the increasing range and lethality of both sea- and shorebased surface-to-air missile systems (such as the Russian S-300) as obviating the need for sea-based defensive counterair fighter patrols. The most prevalent theme, however, may be the perceived inappropriateness of an aircraft carrier in the most likely arena of conflict. "Most importantly, the PLAN is currently focused on Taiwan as its overwhelmingly dominant national security issue," writes PLAN expert Bernard Cole, "and an aircraft carrier is not viewed as especially useful in strait scenarios."16 This view presupposes the success of alternate strategies employing technological and asymmetrical means to defeat the likely opponent in such a conflict: the U.S. Navy.
When searching for historical examples of similar strategies that presumed naval air power would not be decisive or necessary, Chinese planners would do well to consider two from World War II. How might the Battle of the Atlantic looked had the four aircraft carriers envisioned by Grand Admiral Erich Raeder (and approved by Adolf Hitler) in the naval construction "Z-Plan" of 1939 been made operational?17 With the benefit of air cover provided by the Graf Zeppelin and her sisters, the surface raider exploits of the GrafSpee, Bismark, Tirpitz, and others might have turned out quite differently.
The second example—one with characteristics very similar to the Taiwan Strait scenarios debated today—occurred in the Mediterranean. During the war, Italy deployed a powerful and otherwise balanced force of battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. It did not, however, possess any aircraft carriers. Given the geographic location of the Italian mainland and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, the Mediterranean was considered by many Italians, dictator Benito Mussolini among them, to be Mare Nostrum or "Our Sea." Mussolini was persuaded by his navy and air force commanders not to pursue acquisition of aircraft carriers, as Italy itself, they argued, was an "aircraft carrier" strategically situated in the heart of the Mediterranean. As a result, the navy did not have aircraft of its own, and the air force was charged with providing air defense for the Italian fleet. In the event, the air force failed to provide adequate coverage for the navy on numerous occasions, while British naval aviation proved its worth time and again. The Italian response was to change course and finally proceed with the construction of an aircraft carrier, the Aquila. As a result of the delay, however, she was not made ready before the war ended for Italy in 1943. In the end, the unsinkable aircraft carrier of the Italian mainland could not supplant the value of real aircraft carriers.18
In a similar vein, today's PLAN naval aviation forces alone cannot provide fighter coverage for the entire Chinese coast or the fleet, so interceptor duties have been distributed by region between naval aviation units and the PLA Air Force. This increases the number of assets available for the task, but questions remain about joint patrolling, separate chains of command, and air force overwater proficiency.19 When faced with training scenarios that incorporated factors likely found in a modern air combat environment, such as electronic countermeasures or even inclement weather, neither service was up to the task.20 In light of these facts, the potential effectiveness of the cooperation between the two services is doubtful.
Significant gaps exist in the present PLAN fleet air defense posture. Given the forces available today, China cannot adequately defend its fleet from air attack in the modern air threat environment. The incorporation of an aircraft carrier into the Chinese fleet would represent not only a huge step in addressing the PLAN'S fleet air defense needs but a logical addition to its order of battle. Until then, the new Type 052C guided-missile destroyers represent the most serious attempt by the PLAN to address the fleet air defense problem. Questions remain, however, about the actual capabilities and ultimate effectiveness of this complex and as yet untried system. In the end, "Red Aegis" might not close all the gaps in PLAN fleet air defense, but it marks a significant effort to begin that process.
1 Bernard D. Cole, Creat Wall ai Sea: China's Navy Enters the Twenty-First Century (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001), pp. 20, 166.
2 PLA Navy Building at the Start of the New Century: Report of the second Annual Conference on the PLA Navy (Alexandria, VA: CNA Corporation, 2001), p. 21.
3 CoIe, Great Wall at Sea, p. 167.
4 CoIe, Great Wall at Sea, p. 109; The Annual Report on the Military Power of the Peoples' Republic of China (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2003), p. 25.
5 Stephen Saunders, ed., Jane's Fighting Ships 2002-2003 (Surrey, England: Jane's Information Group, 2002), p. 121.
6 "Sovremenny Class (Project 956) Missile Destroyer," Chinese Defence Today, 22 August 2003, www.sinodefence.com/navy/surface/sov.asp/.
7 SA-IV GRIZZLY / Buk-Ml-2 SA-N-12 GRIZZLY /Yezh HQ-16," 15 july 2002, www.globalsecurity.org/inilitary/world/ru.ssia/sa-17.htm/.
8 "Type 052C Guided Missile Destroyer," Chinese Defence Today, 10 August 2003, www.sinodefence.com/navy/surface/052c.asp/.
9 Paul Jackson, ed., Jane's World Air Forces 2002 (Alexandria, VA: Jane's Information Group, 2002), pp. 78-79.
10 Jackson, Jane's World Air Forces 2002, pp. 78-79.
11 "SU-30MKK Fighter Bomber Aircraft," Chinese Defence Today, www.sinodefence.com/airforce/aircraft/fighter/su30.asp/.
12 Kenneth W. Alien, "The People's Liberation Army Naval Aviation Status, Relationship with the PLA Air Force, and Prospects for the Future," unpublished research paper, Center for Naval Analyses, April 2003, p. 2.
13 "The Airborne Early Warning Aircraft Programme," Chinese Defence Today, www.sinodefence.com/airforce/aircraft/special/awacs.asp/.
14 "Aircraft Carrier Project," 16 july 2002, www.globalsecurity.org/military/ world/china/cv.htm/.
15 The Annual Report on the Military Power of the Peoples' Republic of China, p. 25.
16 CoIe, Great Wall at Sea, pp. 148-49.
17 Edward von der Porten, The German Navy in World War Two (New York: Random House, 1969), p. 26.
18 Jack Greene and Alessandro Massignani, The Naval War in the Mediterranean 1940-1943 (London: Chatham, 1998), pp. 109, 112-13.
19 Cole, Great Wall at Sea, pp. 85-86, 148.
20 Allen, "The People's Liberation Army Naval Aviation Status," p. 12.
Commander DeScisciolo is a surface warfare officer in command of the USS Rentz (FFG-46), and previously commanded the USS Gladiator (MCM-11). He is a 2003 distinguished graduate and Mahan scholar of the U.S. Naval War College.