On 11 May 2004, I led a 12-person delegation from the National War College to the city of Qingdao, in the People's Republic of China. Qingdao is located in northeastern China on the southern coast of Shandong Peninsula. The city was a sleepy fishing village until the second half of the 19th century, when China, then Germany, the United States, and finally Japan made it an important naval base—now one of the largest in the Far East.
Qingdao is the headquarters and the primary home port for China's North Sea Fleet. The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) deploys two other major fleets: the South Sea Fleet, headquartered in southern Guangdong Province, and the East Sea Fleet, headquartered near Shanghai.
Qingdao provides administrative support and berthing facilities for the North Sea Fleet's units. The naval installation is composed of the main base at the innermost of the large port facility moles and the back-bay berthing areas, normally used for auxiliaries (see Figure 1). Training schools for submariners, naval aviators, and the navy's political officers are located nearby, as is the First Institute of Oceanography of the State Oceanic Administration. A hardened and camouflaged base for China's nuclear-powered submarines was completed in the mid-1970s at a nearby inlet; it services nuclear propulsion systems and maintains China's first sea-launched ballistic missile, the JL-1.
Fleet Composition and Weapon Systems
The North Sea Fleet is organized into:
- 3 destroyer/frigate divisions
- 2 nuclear submarine divisions
- 2 conventional submarine divisions
- 1 amphibious division
- Several fast-attack craft divisions
The fleet's air arm consists of:
- 2 fighter divisions
- 1 bomber division
- 1 training regiment
- 1 shipboard helicopter group
- 1 amphibious aircraft group
These units operate Luhu-and Luda-class multipurpose destroyers, Jianghuand Jiangwei-class frigates, several hundred patrol and torpedo craft, and miscellaneous support ships. The submarine squadrons include Ming- and Romeo-class conventionally powered attack boats (the Romeos probably are in reserve status), six Xia-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile subs, and six Han-class attack boats (three of which probably are operational). In addition, China's only Golf-class conventionally powered ballistic-missile trials submarine is assigned to the North Sea Fleet.
The small amphibious force consists of approximately seven medium landing ships. The PLAN's primary midshipman training ship, the Zhenghe, is assigned to the North Sea Fleet because the surface warfare naval academy is located at nearby Dalian. The fleet's aviation squadrons fly H-6D bombers, J-7 and J-8 fighters, Q-5 attack aircraft, and Z-8 and Z-9 helicopters. (Su-27 and Su-30 fighters are replacing the J-7s.)
During our visit to the Qingdao naval base, we visited the Luhu-class Harbin, flagship of the North Sea Fleet. I previously visited the ship and the base in May 2000; thus, it was possible to see changes in her and the shore-side installations. From the vantage point of a "windshield tour," the base had changed little—it was clean, well maintained, and uncrowded. The Harbin was commissioned in 1993 and remains as one of China's most modern multimission destroyers. It is one of two Luhu-class ships built by the Chinese. Each of them has a combined gas turbine-diesel propulsion system that incorporates two of the five LM-2500 gasturbine engines the United States sold to China in the 1980s. The Harbin is 468 feet long, has a beam of 49.5 feet, a draft of 16.7 feet, and displaces 5,700 tons fully loaded.
The Harbin's wardroom looks much the same as a U.S. ship's, with plaques on the bulkheads and a beautiful, four-foot long model of the ship that shows its underwater and above-7 deck features in detail, from keel to the three-dimensional air-search radar. The commanding officer (CO), a captain, welcomed us warmly by briefing us on the ship's characteristics and history and answering questions more forthrightly than I had experienced in previous visits to PLAN warships. The CO was obviously proud, self-confident, and relaxed. He was about one year into a three-to-four year command tour, having previously commanded a Luda-class destroyer.
In response to questions from our officers and civilian officials, he described his most difficult training challenge: training the crew to function as a team. Annual training requirements include at least one replenishment at sea—each of China's fleets has just one replenishment oiler assigned—and a goal of firing one of each type of the ship's missile. The CO said the ship is allotted 16 days under way per quarter and fuel conservation is a concern. The ship normally is scheduled for three to seven days of pier-side maintenance per month, with shipyard overhauls scheduled every three years.
The Harbin's, crew of 230 includes 30 officers and 170 petty officers. Helicopter maintenance personnel are permanent ship's company, with pilots and crewmen coming aboard when aircraft are embarked. No women are assigned; draftees generally spend their entire two-year obligated service on board, while petty officers tend to remain assigned to the ship for their entire four-to-six year enlistments.
From the wardroom, we moved to the pilothouse, which is equipped with standard engine and steering controls, radar repeaters, chart table, gyro repeater, and one chair (for the CO, he said with a smile), although a unit commander often is embarked. The surface-search radar repeater is equipped with a collision avoidance system.
The combat information center is designed around individual stations for surface, antiair (AAW), antisubmarine (ASW), and electronic warfare. There are consoles for the gun mounts and missiles. The focal point is the combat system integration console, a horizontal array around which the CO and two other officers sit during combat operations. He noted this was his normal battle station because the array presented an integrated picture based on inputs from all available ship sensors.
Not surprisingly, main control resembles that of the USS Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7)-class frigate. The ship's engineer clearly took pride in his plant, which was spotless. He complained, however, about difficulty in obtaining spare parts for his U.S.-built engines.
Although the Harbin's weapon and sensors suites are not state of the art by U.S. standards, the ship is quite capable. She incorporates more than 36 foreign systems. This gives the PLAN entry into many foreign defense manufacturers, but also poses considerable maintenance and supply problems. In addition to U.S.-built engines and electronic warfare decoys, the ship is equipped with systems designed and furnished by Russia, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Great Britain.
The Harbin is armed with a twin 100-mm gun mount forward and C-802 surface-to-surface missiles amidships. The AAW suite includes the HQ-7 surface-toair missile system and four 37-mm close-in rapid-fire guns. Her ASW systems use hull-mounted and independent variable-depth sonars for targeting rocket launchers and torpedoes. During my latest visit, the exteriors of these systems appeared well cared for, but none were observed operating. Damage-control stations and the flight deck were especially impressive. This showed marked improvement from my May 2000 visit, when corrosion and excessive over-painting was obvious.
The Luhus operate two Zhi-9 helicopters, which are Chinese versions of the French-designed Dauphin II helicopter. The Zhi-9 is primarily an ASW platform, equipped with a dipping sonar, radar, magnetic anomaly detection gear, and antisubmarine torpedoes. It is capable of electronic warfare and over-the-horizon targeting. In answering a question by one of my students (a light airborne multipurpose system helicopter pilot), the Harbin's, CO stated that the Zhi-9 is not able to link information back to the ship—but "I wish it did." Instead, targeting data must be passed between helicopter and ship by voice communications. The Zhi-9 uses the Samahe recovery system, a French version of the U.S. recovery assistance, securing, and traversing system.
Missions and Training
We departed the ship for a North Sea Fleet briefing by the Director of the General Office of the Fleet (a senior captain1). His canned pitch was followed by a free-flowing question-and-answer period. Fleet headquarters is responsible for "operations, training, administration, organization, logistics, and equipment support." The senior captain described the fleet training program as focused on "meeting the requirements of real war." The "scientific training system" combines the training of academies, training bases, warship training centers, and shipboard training. A unit's ability to meet its goals is measured by underway operations and joint exercises, progressing from individual ship to multi-ship levels, with shore-based trainers used to supplement underway evolutions.
Officer training is to a significant degree patterned after the U.S. Navy's. It includes an extensive, formal examination system, including ship-handling exams for COs, executive officers, and department heads. Junior Command School, Senior Command College, and required sea-duty tours are part of the successful surface warfare officer's career pattern, with command at sea holding the same high status it does in the U.S. Navy. Enlisted men receive 6-12 months of training before reporting to their first ships; technical ratings undergo longer courses.
The fleet briefing officer joined the Harbin's skipper in noting problems with the fleet's support system, which is based on the "fixed point" principle: equipment spares are maintained by the manufacturing yard or factory, which lengthens the time it takes to acquire needed parts. Local spare parts storage is maintained when feasible. (The ancient art of "cumshaw" is no doubt well-known to PLAN sailors.)
The senior captain went on to describe the North Sea Fleet's area of responsibility as the Yellow and Bo Seas, including coastal defense of more than 800 islands and almost 4,000 miles of China's coastline. Operationally, the fleet is organized into task units and task groups, which sometimes operate with China's East Sea and South Sea Fleets. He listed four major fleet missions. The first two are coastal defense—including defense of sea lines of communication and safeguarding maritime rights and interests—and policing functions, including anti-smuggling, antipiracy, fisheries protection, and sea-air rescue. The third and fourth missions are peculiar to China's military services: protect "national unification and stability" and "support and participate in national economic construction." The third mission is code for reuniting Taiwan with the mainland by force and also indicates the military's role in maintaining civil peace. The fourth mission reflects the continuing responsibility of the PLA to assist in the nations economic modernization.
The heart of the fleet briefing addressed missions and was organized around ship type. In each case, "destroying the enemy's important land targets" was included. A question as to how the fleet might accomplish this goal received no clear answer. The senior captain said the North Sea Fleet did not have land-attack cruise missiles. He noted the fleet was capable of executing anti-surface, antiair, antisubmarine, electronic, and mine warfare. In addition, it has limited amphibious competence, analysis capabilities ranging from reconnaissance and communications to navigation and weather, and the ability to conduct specialized equipment maintenance. The briefing concluded with the declaration that the North Sea Fleet aims for "multi-force maritime defense might, with comprehensive offshore operation capabilities ... to win the maritime war in the modern and especially high-tech age." The force was needed "to protect the maritime rights and interests and safeguard our national unification and stabilization."
Our visit to one of China's main naval bases was most informative. We saw that the PLAN continues to modernize and improve its training, facilities, and operating units. It is evident that China's navy is rapidly becoming a modern and highly capable force.
*Names are omitted deliberately. China's military officer ranks include senior captain or senior colonel in the O-7 pay grade. For example, a naval officer is promoted from captain to senior captain; if selected for flag rank, he goes to rear admiral (pay grade O-8, but wearing one star). The two-star rank is vice-admiral; a full admiral wears three stars. A senior captain or senior colonel is not considered to be a flag or general officer.
Captain Cole formerly commanded a frigate and a destroyer squadron. He is a professor of international history at the National War College.