In 2013, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) commissioned 17 new battle force surface ships.1 These units continue the transition of the PLAN surface order of battle from smaller, Soviet-pattern warships to modern, multi-mission platforms capable of extended deployments. As impressive as these vessels appear, naval professionals are acutely aware that platforms and payloads only represent real capability if they are functioning and available for rigorous training and real-world operations. Modern and sophisticated combatants present complex maintenance challenges that must be addressed if their technological advances are to be anything more than promise and potential.
Ideology vs. Expertise
Western observers have long been skeptical of PLAN maintenance practices—and with ample reason. The PLAN’s early decades were marked by the triumph of ideology over technical competence. Maoist ideology taught that revolutionary fervor was the key to victory and that political purity could overcome material obstacles. The seesaw debates over whether PLAN leaders should be “red” (politically correct) or “expert” (technically proficient) saw red consistently favored. The result was a lack of essential technical expertise, woeful maintenance practices, and a naval order of battle that underperformed its theoretical capabilities.
Starting in the 1980s, Chinese leadership focused the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on developing that expertise. Shaken by U.S. high-tech dominance in the two Gulf Wars, PLA leaders have been tasked with winning local wars under high-tech conditions, later updated to winning local wars under modern “informationalized” conditions. For the PLAN, the result has been not only an infusion of new platforms and weapons, but a service-wide emphasis on improving officer and enlisted education, mastering the network and cyber tools of informatization, and creating support structures that allow sustained naval operations. In doing so, the service not only worked to undo its Maoist legacy and establish the foundation necessary to support the growing technical complexity of its surface fleet, but took significant steps toward establishing the maintenance culture that marks professional navies.
Maintenance Management Reform
This shift in emphasis is manifested in significant recent reforms to the PLAN maintenance management process. In 2011, new guidance established a “Ship Support Path with Chinese Characteristics” that outlined and reformed responsibilities for both maintenance management and the conduct of the actual maintenance across the PLAN.2
At the highest level, the headquarters takes a leading role in maintenance management. PLAN Headquarters itself consists of four departments: Operations, Political, Logistics, and Armaments. The responsibility of the Naval Armaments Department extends well beyond weapons to all platforms and equipment installed on PLAN units. As such, it establishes maintenance policy and conducts force-wide planning for all three PLAN fleets and shore activities. Chinese sources describe these efforts as:
• Programmatic planning
• Equipment work program planning
• Establishing rules and regulations
• Aircraft carrier repairs at the ship-equipment level
• Plans for major ship repairs
• Major imported and domestic parts and materials
The national importance of the PLAN aircraft-carrier program is clearly reflected by the fact that ship-equipment level repairs for the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, are managed at the Navy Headquarters level.
Perhaps the most significant element of the 2011 reforms was the establishment of a Fleet Armaments Department at each of the three PLAN Fleet Headquarters. In some ways, this new structure represents a return to the past. The three Fleets had Logistics Departments until 1985 when PLAN commander Admiral Liu Huaqing disestablished them, placing these responsibilities on shore commands and allowing Fleet Headquarters to focus on at-sea operations. This construct fit a service that was closely tied to shore, conducting distant voyages only in exceptional cases. The PLAN’s move to distant seas operations, however, requires an advanced level of operational and support integration under one command. The new departments are responsible for ensuring this integrated maintenance support informs planning for both peacetime and wartime operations. Their responsibilities include:
• Planning management
• Planning of campaign-oriented equipment work
• Refinement and execution of rules and regulations
• Implementation of repairs
• Organizing materials sourcing
In the East Sea Fleet, the Fleet Armaments Department has established three major expert groups to manage fleet-support operations—two equipment technical support groups dedicated to surface ships and submarines, respectively, and a ship-equipment repair office. In February 2013, these three groups were augmented by six system-technology units, each dedicated to the inspection and assessment of a specific category of shipboard equipment. These six units comprise over 180 experts and technicians.3
Under the 2011 system, actual maintenance is conducted at three levels, which parallel the maintenance-management system. In this construct, PLAN bases provide the highest level of maintenance support. These assigned tasks include:
• Dry dock repairs
• Assisting “relay-level” repairs
• Embarking support ships accompanying ships carrying out major missions
• Undertaking wartime repairs as directed by higher authorities
The relay level likely refers to specialized personnel from ship-equipment repair offices. While these units are subordinate to the Fleet Armaments Departments, there may be a separation between fleet-subordinate planning functions and base-subordinate maintenance execution. The relay level will:
• Provide at-sea mobile repairs
• Work difficult issues beyond ship’s force
• Machine parts for crew-level repair
• Repair equipment removed and turned in by ship’s force
• Conduct initial charging and overhaul of submarine storage batteries
• Assist ship’s force maintenance
• Embark support ships that are accompanying units carrying out major missions
From the Deckplates . . .
As in the U.S. Navy, the crew of each PLAN surface vessel is the critical deckplate-level steward of its ship and equipment. The PLAN, like the overall PLA, has focused on improving the education level of its sailors, working to increase recruiting of college graduates, and replacing conscripts with long-service petty officers. This fundamental transformation of the enlisted force remains a work in progress, but there is no mistaking its official importance. Exemplary enlisted technicians are routinely commended and held up as role models by Communist Party media. In 2011, the PLAN introduced a Navy-wide Surface Ship Crewmember Maintenance Skills Competition, recognizing the technical skills of individual sailors from across the three fleets.4
Shipboard personnel are tasked with conducting maintenance in accordance with the Naval Vessel Repair Regulations and the Naval Vessel Equipment and Technology Management Work Regulations. Chinese accounts of shipboard maintenance indicate three levels of ship’s force repair: peacetime maintenance, repair-period maintenance, and wartime crew-level maintenance. The latter suggests that PLAN surface units are authorized in combat situations to undertake maintenance that would otherwise be referred to a higher-level maintenance organization.
When the official Chinese media discuss specific surface-ship maintenance actions, their stories generally center on so-called heroic repairs made by ship’s crew in the face of considerable challenges or urgent operational needs. For example, in 2012, Renmin Haijun or People’s Navy, the official newspaper of the PLAN’s Communist Party Committee, highlighted Jiangkai II frigate 572. Frigate 572, one of the newest in the PLAN, suffered a casualty to its number two auxiliary engine, resulting in excessive vibration and high exhaust temperature. The crew spent nine hours in an ultimately successful effort to repair the machinery, allowing the ship to make a scheduled replenishment the next day.5
While heroic repairs make good headlines, good maintenance management seeks to minimize catastrophic equipment failure while maximizing equipment availability. It is not clear from PLAN accounts to what extent it has implemented a standardized maintenance program similar to the U.S. Navy’s Planned Maintenance System or if such a system is standardized across all surface platforms. A planned maintenance regime can be implemented with little or no automation, but requires a high degree of attention to the administration of work at the unit level.
What is clear from PLAN sources is that surface-force maintenance in the future will be increasingly based on automated equipment diagnostics rather than an established schedule. The newest Luyang-class destroyers and likely the Jiangkai II-class frigates are outfitted with electronic equipment-management systems, and such systems will likely be standard on all future PLAN surface combatants. These systems monitor and collect key equipment parameters such as oil quality, bearing vibration, noise, temperature, and rotation rate. The collected maintenance history files are used to provide feedback to equipment manufacturers.6 Shore-based equipment technical support groups can also access this information and dynamically manage the maintenance requirements of key pieces of shipboard equipment. In one East Sea Fleet frigate flotilla, implementation of this dynamic maintenance management model reportedly increased equipment readiness rates by 20 percent.7
Up to the Experts
When equipment does fail unexpectedly, the crew may not have the expertise to make repairs. In some cases, it may not even be able to determine the nature of the casualty. When the ship is in port, expert assistance can be found from higher-level maintenance activities or industry. During high-profile at-sea operations, the ship-equipment repair office specialists sometimes embark on the deploying combatants or their accompanying logistics vessels. While to some extent this practice reflects limitations in the crew’s organic capabilities, it is also important to remember that most navies rely on some degree of shore assistance and embarked technical representatives for complex surface-ship repairs and scheduled maintenance.
If embarked experts are not available, the PLAN surface force is increasingly able to rely on reach-back support using modern communications links to provide virtual assistance. The PLAN maintains a blueprint and information center, which is able to provide repair blueprints electronically to deployed units.8 For more complex repairs, assistance from shore-based naval experts and manufacturers is available.
One South Sea Fleet-associated electronics factory established an emergency-response support team that could assemble within ten minutes to provide remote technical support to PLAN surface units deployed to the Gulf of Aden. In 2010, they reported providing remote assistance for ten technical casualties on board units conducting distant operations. The North Sea Fleet reported that prior to supporting its first Gulf of Aden deployment, it worked with the PLAN Naval Armaments Department to assemble a network of over 400 technical experts from military shore commands, institutes, and industry who were available to provide remote maintenance advice. As a result, when the Jiangkai II frigate Yantai suffered an automatic radar-plotting aid failure while in the Gulf of Aden in May 2012, experts based in Shanghai—outside the North Sea Fleet’s usual support base—were available to assist in resolving the fault.9 As Renmin Haijun crowed, “the use of long distance diagnosis is like putting wings on the factory.”10
Coordinating access to these experts is the responsibility of the Fleet Armaments Departments. In March 2012, the East Sea Fleet Armaments Department signed an agreement with 36 local support units. It also established relationships with more than 100 civilian firms and institutions for on-call equipment support. These firms are “able to quickly transition from peacetime to wartime activities to serve as a backup force for when emergencies arise.” A Fleet Civil-Military Combined Equipment Support Command Center provides access to these resources when required.11
Shore Support For the Six Supplies
A key element of improving equipment availability is reducing unnecessary wear on equipment. Until recently, many PLAN surface-force bases were not equipped to provide the utilities necessary for basic maintenance and housekeeping on board, forcing ships’ engineering plants to provide these services. During the 11th Five Year Plan (2006−10), China’s navy established the goal of providing shore services to surface units in their home ports. The navy dubbed these services—fuel oil, potable water, shore electrical power, heat (steam), high-pressure air, and air conditioning—the six supplies. Renmin Haijun emphasized that providing the six supplies in these ports was a personal goal of PLAN commander Admiral Wu Shengli. In many cases, the provision of these services required extensive renovation or complete replacement of the piers, as well as construction of central facilities for utilities management and distribution.
Providing these essential services from central locations significantly reduces wear and tear on the ship’s own auxiliary engineering equipment. It also reduces the crew’s workload, allowing both a better quality of life and more time for ship’s force maintenance. The provision of the six supplies also has allowed surface units to resupply faster. In one case, the installation of hard potable water lines replaced two trucks that had shuttled water to surface ships, allowing the units to resupply water in half the time. It should be noted that while Renmin Haijun consistently refers to potable water, the context suggests that at least in some cases the base is providing feed water for surface-ship propulsion boilers. Naval boilers require treated distilled water for proper function, some of which is lost in normal operations and must be replenished.
Lastly, providing the six supplies from shore saves money. Bases reported consistent savings under the new program, largely because central production of utilities is more efficient than burning fuel oil on board each vessel to produce the same services. In a number of cases, shore-power risers are connected to centralized energy-management systems. Shipboard personnel use smart cards to authorize closing the breakers after connecting shore-power cables, and the base centrally monitors the amount of power used by each unit. If excessive consumption is noted, the shore-support centers are notified in near real time, and controls are put in place. By 2011, the PLAN reported with pride that six-supply support was available for all major combatants at their home ports.12
Maintenance in Combat
A distinctive characteristic of the Chinese navy’s maintenance planning is its emphasis on carrying out support functions while under direct enemy attack. Judging from the official press, PLAN maintenance exercises are routinely carried out under conditions of simulated air raids, in which key roads and piers are destroyed or damaged. In other cases, simulated special-operations forces menace the prompt deployment of critical support to naval units.13
This focus on support under enemy attack creates an emphasis on deployable support services. To some extent, this emphasis is a legacy of supporting a navy comprised mainly of small coastal patrol boats. Under the Maoist “People’s War at Sea” model, these small combatants would disperse away from their bases in conflict, requiring maintenance and logistics support to follow them while operating from crude or unimproved coastal locations. However, the PLAN continues to invest in deployable support systems, indicating a belief that offering a potential adversary a moving target by having an ability to reconstitute damaged capabilities remains a worthwhile investment.14
Ship-repair shelters are a key element of deployable maintenance support. Managed by the ship-equipment repair offices, these modified containers appear to be deployed by truck convoys to offer advanced repair capabilities in remote locations. One such South Sea Fleet group reportedly included 10 trucks and 60 personnel. The shelters offered hull repair and welding capability, as well as the ability to conduct specialized repairs of weapons and electronics. While the shelters could have a role in bringing advanced repair equipment pierside during routine operations, PLAN media emphasize these systems as a battle-damage repair capability.15 As surface-force shore-maintenance infrastructure becomes more advanced, these shelters will likely shift to a strict battle-damage-repair role.
But Just How Effective Is It?
The most vexing problem in assessing the service’s surface-force maintenance is determining its overall effectiveness. Short of access to their equivalent of Board of Inspection and Survey reports, estimates of PLAN maintenance are based on impressions, anecdotes, and Chinese accounts of efforts to improve their systems.
The PLAN has sustained a constant deployed presence supporting anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden since the first task force left China more than five years ago. While the service had conducted previous long-range goodwill cruises, the anti-piracy operations represented China’s first-ever effort to maintain a naval presence beyond its own coast. While there were initial difficulties, the navy avoided catastrophic material casualties while improvising a support system on the fly. It is possible, however, that operations in the Gulf of Aden represent an exceptional case—a single focus of national effort that is not reflective of the PLAN surface force’s true capabilities. However, the scope and tempo of recent surface operations belie that suggestion.
In March and April 2013, a four-ship task force made up of the Yuzhou (Type 071)-class landing ship dock Jinggangshan, the Luyang II-class destroyer Lanzhou, and the Jiangkai II-class frigates Hengshui and Yulin conducted an extended patrol of the South China Sea. The force conducted a well-publicized small-island seizure exercise and a ceremony at James Shoal—the submerged feature that marks the southernmost limit of China’s South China Sea claims. On their return, they were visited by General Secretary Xi Jinping and PLAN commander Admiral Wu Shengli. Seven days later, the Lanzhou and Hengshui departed port for an 11-day patrol, which included passage through the Miyako Strait and near the disputed Senkaku islands.
The Lanzhou’s political officer recalled to Renmin Haijun that in the 1990s ships were permitted an extended in-port period to prepare for each underway operation. “Now, our high-sea training missions are all scheduled so densely that we are required to have sustained combat capabilities.”16
The ability to support a rapid turnaround of high-end naval combatants in support of national requirements—in this case, enforcement of Chinese maritime claims—is a sign of how far PLAN surface-force maintenance has come from its Maoist roots. There are no signs that maintenance poses a significant limitation on current Chinese surface-force operations. No doubt, the continuing introduction of complex new systems and the increasing scope and tempo of operations will continue to challenge the PLAN’s maintainers. The solid progress established over the last two decades, however, offers every indication that they will keep the PLAN surface force ready to answer all bells.
1. “Intensive Commissioning of PLAN Warships in Line with China’s Goal To Safeguard Its Maritime Rights and Interests,” China Military Online, 9 January 2014, http://eng.chinamil.com.cn/news-channels/china-military-news/2014-01/09/content_5727866.htm.
2. “A Ship Support Path with Chinese Characteristics,” ???? [People’s Navy], 11 December 2012, 4.
3. Chen Xiong, Chi Zumin, Liu Yuexiang, Wang Chunfeng, Dai Zongfeng, and Yin Fei, “Sharpening Their Sword, On Course for Victory: An Account of the Armament Department of the East Sea Fleet Leveraging the Advantages of the New System in Order to Improve Equipment Support Abilities,” Jiefangjun Huabao [PLA Pictorial] 2013, issue 7b, 6−17.
4. Jing Enyan and Li Xiao, “The Shenyang—Sharpening a Fine Weapon While Riding the Waves,” ???? [People’s Navy], 3 September 2013, 4.
5. Ji Rulin, He Wei, and Wang Yajun, “Sailing Tracks of Loyalty Are Left at Sea—A Record of Events When Ship 572 in a Certain North Sea Fleet Group Is on Duty in Distant Seas,” ???? [People’s Navy], 20 August 2012, 2.
6. Qiao Changchao and Xiao Delun, “‘Guangzhou’Ship Enters ‘Electronic Era’ in Equipment Management—With Sophisticated Protection, Modern Warship Flashes Sword on Information Battlefield,” ???? [People’s Navy], 26 October 2011, 1.
7. Fang Zhao and Wang Chunfeng, “East Sea Fleet Flotilla Researches and Develops Equipment Information Monitoring and Management System, Adding an Information Component to Open-Ocean Equipment Support,” ???? [People’s Navy], 27 November 2012, 3.
8. Yu Yang and Zhou Huaiping, “Navy Builds Long-Distance Technical Support System for Armaments Maintenance and Repair,” ???? [People’s Navy], 30 August 2011, 1.
9. “Long-range diagnosis done for Chinese naval escort ship,” People’s Daily, 28 May 2012, http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90786/7827774.html.
10. Gu Linghua, Huang Haipeng, and Hu Zhiliang, “Letting Battleships Always ‘See and Hear Clearly’—Record on Zhanjiang Support Base No. 705 Factory’s Improvement to Technical Support Capability,” ???? [People’s Navy], 2 April 2010, 3.
11. Chen Xiong, Chi Zumin, Liu Yuexiang, Wang Chunfeng, Dai Zongfeng, and Yin Fei, “Sharpening Their Sword, On Course for Victory: An Account of the Armament Department of the East Sea Fleet Leveraging the Advantages of the New System in Order to Improve Equipment Support Abilities,” Jiefangjun Huabao [PLA Pictorial] 2013, issue 7b, 6−17.
12. “A Look Back At Achievements in the Navy’s Logistical Construction During the 11th Five-Year Program,” ???? [People’s Navy], 29 October 2010, 7.
13. Sha Zhilliang, “Fraught with Danger, Seeking with One’s Own Eyes the Long-Distance Assistance and Support Commander Exercise of a Certain Naval Logistics Base,”
???? [People’s Navy], 8 November 2010, 2; Feng Zhiyuan, Fang Lihua, and Tan Yina, “Cleverly Borrow East Wind To Sail by Cleaving through Waves,” Jiefangjun Bao [PLA Daily], 27 October 2012, 6.
14. “New Vehicle-Mounted Degaussing Station Enters Naval Service,” Jiefangjun Bao [PLA Daily Online], 24 May 2011.
15. ????????????????????1/3 [“South China Sea Fleet New Equipment Shelters Reduce Repair Time by 1/3”], Sina, 19 October 2009, http://mil.news.sina.com.cn/2009-10-19/0652570525.html.
16. “Chinese Navy Continues High-Sea Training,” Jiefangjun Bao [PLA Daily Online], 15 April 2013.