In his first months leading the Chinese Communist Party, General Secretary Xi Jinping has continued and expanded his predecessor’s emphasis on naval development. Under Hu Jintao’s leadership, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) began continuous deployments to the Gulf of Aden that arguably established a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean, regularized fleet operations beyond the First Island Chain, and hosted a 60th anniversary international fleet review attended by ships from 14 nations. Last year, it commissioned the aircraft carrier Liaoning and commenced limited fixed-wing flight testing and training operations. The internet meme of Chinese citizens imitating the Liaoning’s aircraft launch officers’ hand signals—dubbed “aircraft carrier style”—points to the tremendous popularity of the new PLAN flagship. Buoyed by new capabilities and missions, the service has grown more prominent in the Chinese military hierarchy and the public eye.
While PLAN operations continue to expand rapidly, the time involved in creating, building, and mastering naval technologies means that any modern, successful navy is a creature of long planning and deliberate execution. Indeed, current Chinese naval operations continue a trend with roots dating at least to the mid-1980s. Admiral Liu Huaqing, commander of the PLAN from 1982 to 1987—sometimes called “the father of China’s aircraft carriers”—articulated a vision of a PLAN that would transition from a coastal force to an offshore defense force operating throughout the First Island Chain and into the northern part of the Pacific.1
In the coming decade the U.S. Navy will face a PLAN that continues to develop and improve. What form this modernized navy will take is critical to long-lead-time U.S. choices about investment and ship building. Chinese writings, while essential to our understanding, sometimes represent the country’s aspirations rather than authoritative choices. Operational patterns provide insight, but can change abruptly and often follow the development of new capabilities. The most definitive expression of a navy’s long-term strategy and mindset is its force structure, and the PLAN has made deliberate choices in its development over the last decade. A careful examination of these force-structure choices indicates that the PLAN of the future will most likely be similar in overall size to today’s, but will operate an increasing number of sophisticated multi-mission platforms beyond the First Island Chain.
Order of Battle
Order of battle remains the fundamental metric of a navy. In considering the PLAN order of battle, analysts are challenged by a pervasive lack of Chinese transparency. While the sea service has publicized some individual ship commissionings in recent years, it does not publish an equivalent of the U.S. Navy Naval Vessel Register. The most recent Defense White Paper from the People’s Republic of China provides the first-ever official end-strength numbers for PLAN personnel but provides essentially no insight into the order of battle. Until the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) embraces transparency, understanding of its naval order of battle will be based on outside compilations of official and unofficial unclassified sources.
In providing its first report to Congress on Chinese military power in 2002, the U.S. Department of Defense stated that the PLAN had “approximately 60 destroyers and frigates, about 50 diesel and six nuclear submarines, and some 40 amphibious landing ships.”2 Since 2005, the annual DOD report has provided a more thorough breakdown of the PLAN by ship type, which provides a starting point for analysis. However, in the case of submarines, the preponderance of open sources suggests the DOD reports underestimate their total numbers. The DOD numbers are sufficient to determine a significant increase in the number of PLAN “major surface combatants”—from 64 in 2005 to 79 in 2012—and that the total size of the Chinese submarine force has remained stable.3
Beyond these basic figures, analysts are challenged to find a common basis for comparison between PLAN and U.S. Navy order of battle numbers. This task is complicated by significant differences in ship types and classifications. A comparison based on overall displacement, for example, is skewed by the U.S. Navy’s fleet of aircraft carriers and large auxiliary ships, and one based strictly on total numbers falls victim to the PLAN’s force of small units, mostly patrol craft and combatants, mine-warfare craft, and coastal auxiliary ships. While the total number of patrol combatants and small craft in service has dropped significantly in the last decade, the Chinese continue to maintain a patrol combatant force centered on approximately 60 Houbei (Type 022)-class guided-missile patrol craft (PTGs). Built between 2004 and 2008, construction of this class stopped short of the 100 or more projected in the mid-2000s as equal-number replacements for obsolete Osa PTGs. Their coastal orientation is not consistent with the PLAN’s emphasis on distant seas operations, and the service has shown no interest in coastal missile combatants since ending the program. However, their continued presence in the order of battle skews a comparison based on number of ships alone.
A more meaningful comparison of order of battle numbers can be created by applying U.S. Navy rules for battleforce ship counting to the PLAN. Admittedly, battleforce is a U.S. Navy standard, but one that is meaningful and well understood by U.S. decision makers. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus considers the battleforce “combat capable ships that contribute to warfighting missions, specified combat support missions, or service support missions.”4 The U.S. battleforce count includes not only aircraft carriers, major surface combatants, submarines, and amphibious ships, but also mine warfare, combat logistics, and Fleet support units, which the annual DOD report on China does not include (see Figure 1).
Emerging from this analysis is a naval force structure that can conduct operations beyond the Chinese littoral—the ocean-going PLAN. With this common frame of reference, it is possible to produce a meaningful comparison of the relative size of the U.S. Navy and the PLAN (see Figure 2).
What should be counted in the PLAN battleforce is a judgment and subject to some interpretation. Even given the limitations of public sources, however, most estimates of PLAN order of battle elements fall in a consistent and limited range. More important than the exact totals are trends in the order of battle over time. For example, the total number of major surface combatants—a main focus of China’s shipbuilding effort—has increased by approximately 30 percent (18 units) since 2005, while the battleforce in total has increased at a significantly slower rate.
Beyond the Numbers
Order of battle numbers provide only the most basic insight into capability. Chinese combatants built in the last decade bring significantly increased capability, and a common characteristic of these new ships is their larger size compared to their predecessors. The turn to larger units is consistent with a PLAN that places a premium on operations at a greater distance from the Chinese mainland.
In 2002, a PLAN destroyer had an average displacement of 3,537 tons full load, and a typical frigate averaged 1,865 tons full load. Later Luyang I/II-class destroyers weigh in at approximately 7,000 tons, while the Jiangkai II (Type 054A) guided-missile frigate (FFG), backbone of the PLAN Gulf of Aden deployments, tips the scale at slightly over 4,000 tons. This increase in size naturally yields more usable payload space and provides increased on-board stores, allowing for longer underway time without resupply, as well as helicopter facilities absent on many legacy PLAN destroyers and frigates.
The newest surface combatant class to enter service, the Jiangdao (Type 056)-class light frigate, continues this trend. Weighing in at 1,440 tons, the class could be seen as China’s version of a littoral combat ship for use in regional waters and for export to countries that do not have or cannot afford a full-size frigate. The Jiangdao is discussed in the Chinese media as a blue-water-capable replacement for vessels such as the Hainan (Type 037)-class patrol craft, which is not capable of conducting the offshore patrol missions that Chinese maritime claims enforcement requires. In this context, the class is a continuation of the trend toward larger blue-water-capable ships.
Another emerging characteristic of PLAN investment is a preference for multimission general-purpose forces. While operations against Taiwan remain the PLA’s most critical operational requirement, the navy is opting for units that can fulfill a broad range of naval missions, from peacetime presence to open-ocean naval warfare, with capabilities in all major warfare areas. In building this force, it has moved rapidly to address critical capability gaps.
A decade ago, PLAN surface forces faced a pressing deficiency in air-defense capability. At the time, approximately one fifth of destroyers and frigates mounted some kind of short-range surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and DOD assessed that no PLAN ship was capable of providing air defense for another unit in company.5 As a rapid means of filling this capability gap, the PLAN adopted the expedient of mounting the highly capable Russian S-300 SAM on the Luzhou (Type 051C) guided-missile destroyer (DDG). Parallel to this improvisation, the PLAN developed an indigenous answer to its fleet air-defense requirement, introducing the Luyang II (Type 052C)-class DDG in the mid-2000s. Dubbed the “Chinese Aegis” by online enthusiasts, its Dragon Eye phased-array air-search radar provides surface formations with both air surveillance and weapons control for the HHQ-9 SAM. Expected to become operational by late 2013, the new Luyang III (Type 052D)-class DDG will include a multipurpose 64-cell vertical-launch system, providing increased weapons stores and potential payload flexibility.6 While initially the PLAN produced only two Luyang II DDGs, at least one more was commissioned in early 2013, and between three to eight additional vessels will enter service in the next several years. As a result, every future PLAN surface action group will have a significant area air-defense capability.
In addition to its growing destroyer force, the service has built to date at least 16 Jiangkai II frigates, with a number more under construction. Known as the workhorse of the PLAN, these units have been key in sustaining continuous counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. While likely not capable of true area air defense, they mount a capable medium-range SAM.
Amphibious forces also made a shift to high end, multimission capability in the mid-2000s when the Chinese completely halted production of landing ship tanks and smaller amphibious units. Rather than focus on short-range lift, the PLAN commissioned three Yuzhao-class amphibious transports. With a displacement of approximately 20,000 tons, these units are China’s largest domestically produced warships. Seemingly well suited for expeditionary operations, they have deployed regularly in the South China Sea and once to the Gulf of Aden.
While the overall number of submarines in the order of battle has also remained stable, the submarine force has seen a similar significant turnover in platforms and a resulting improvement in capability. Faced with limitations in building its nuclear submarine force, the PLAN has mitigated its shortfalls by building a conventional submarine force that increasingly features air independent propulsion and antiship cruise-missile capability. DOD reports suggest that the Julang-2 (JL-2) submarine-launched ballistic missile may reach its initial operating capability in the next one to two years, ultimately allowing the PLAN’s force of Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines to establish a constant at-sea nuclear-deterrent capability.7
A Question of Quality
Assessing the construction quality of PLAN units is challenging, but not impossible. U.S. Navy officers who have visited modern PLAN surface combatants (including the author) often fall back on the phrase “built to commercial standards” to describe what they see. In most cases, the phrase conveys the impression that Chinese combatants’ ability to sustain damage and conduct damage control is less than the highest level of U.S. Navy standards. While this statement is arguably true, it minimizes China’s status as the world’s largest shipbuilder. Chinese shipyards have full access to state-of-the-art commercial shipbuilding technology, including international classification standards. There is no reason to doubt the construction fundamentals of the PLAN surface fleet. While submarine construction is more specialized, improvements in general shipbuilding capabilities suggest submarine-force construction standards are also improving.
To develop overall quality and capability, the PLAN has been willing to decommission older, less capable units. For decades, the Luda-class destroyers (DD) served as the backbone of the PLAN surface force. A copy of the Soviet Kotlin class, the first Luda-class DD was completed in 1971 and the ships continued to be built into the early 1990s. In 2002, DOD estimated that “by 2020, China probably will have phased out most of the Luda-class DD.”8 In fact, by 2013 only a few Luda I DDs remain in PLAN service, replaced by multimission Luyang I/II-class DDGs.9 PLAN willingness to decommission the Luda indicates a clear choice to direct finite resources to develop modern ships capable of high-end operations, rather than maintain a numerically more impressive order of battle.
Future Order of Battle
Stability in PLAN total order of battle numbers does not minimize the challenge that a modernizing Chinese naval force presents to the region. Even if PLAN order of battle numbers remain the same, the navy’s capabilities will improve with each modern, multimission combatant or more capable submarine that joins the force. Having reached an international standard of construction and an increasing level of mission flexibility, PLAN combat effectiveness will hinge on payloads, not platforms. The vertical-launch cells on the Luyang III DDG and possibly the Jiangkai II FFG could in principle accommodate long-range antiship cruise missiles, vertical-launch anti-submarine weapons, and land-attack cruise missiles as well as long-range surface-to-air missiles. The incorporation of unmanned aerial vehicles and shipborne helicopters into PLAN surface-action groups introduces a new element of flexibility.10
What does the development of the present PLAN order of battle suggest about the size of China’s future navy? Clearly, force-structure estimates based on China’s massive shipbuilding capability are not defensible. Throughout the last decade, China has had the capability to build significantly more warships than it has. Increased domestic production of shipboard systems has removed many limitations on production of key components. Industrial capacity defines one physical limit of what the PLAN could achieve, but the choice of what to build is one of strategy and politics. While a change in China’s assessment of its security needs could cause the PLAN to both modernize and expand, the PLAN appears content with a limited increase in the total size of the battleforce but a significant increase in the number of units the U.S. Navy considers “major surface combatants.”
The PLAN remains a force in development, with significant areas, such as undersea warfare, lagging behind the U.S. Navy. While the Chinese navy has not achieved all of its goals for modernization, it continues to build toward its long-standing aspiration to operate in the distant seas. Its shipbuilding choices in the past decade indicate that it plans to meet the challenges with a deliberately sized, multimission force based on growing technical sophistication. In short, it is a navy that looks increasingly like ours.
2. Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2002.
3. The U.S. Navy generally considers surface combatants as any CG, DD, FF, or in the USN case, LCS.
4. SECNAVINST 5030.8A.
5. Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2003.
6. “China’s New Guided Missile Destroyer Ready for Debut.” Central News Agency, 24 December 2012.
7. Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving China 2012.
8. Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2002.
9. In several recent cases, Ludas have been transferred to China Marine Surveillance to begin a second career as an arm of Chinese maritime claims enforcement. This shift follows the successful transfer of two aging Jianghu FFs to the China Maritime Police (China Coast Guard).
10. China Security Report 2011, (Tokyo: National Institute for Defense Studies, 2012), 11.