It was a noteworthy year for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). In April, it celebrated its 70th Anniversary in Qingdao, and in October, the navy was on display at the 70th Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing. If one thing was clear about the PLAN in 2019, it was that despite economic growth slowing to its lowest level in nearly 30 years, the Chinese Communist Party continued to place a high priority on allocating resources for the PLAN, resulting in a substantial increase in size and capability. In 2019, China outpaced the United States, building 23 surface ships against 9 for the U.S. Navy. (The U.S. ships include one attack submarine.) In terms of tonnage, the ratio was 4 to 1, and China also built antiship missiles at a rate orders of magnitude higher than the United States. The strategic impact of PLAN growth in 2019 is all too apparent as China enters the “Decade of Concern” (2020–30) and increasingly contemplates the country’s rejuvenation and restoration.
While 2019 events spanned a wide variety of activities—from the testing of an electromagnetic railgun to a Jin-class ballistic-missile submarine surfacing among Vietnamese fishermen in the South China Sea—the most important Chinese naval activities in 2019 were the development of power-projection capabilities, the testing of the next-generation sea-based nuclear ballistic missile, and expanded operations and exercises around the globe.
Forging the Foundations of Global Naval Power Projection
The centerpiece of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s) emerging power projection strategy is the aircraft carrier. In December 2019, China commissioned its first indigenously built carrier, the Shandong. The ship is the PLAN’s second aircraft carrier, following the Type 001 Liaoning, a retrofitted Soviet-era Admiral Kuznetsov–class aircraft carrier.
In June, the Liaoning transited the Miyako Strait and entered the Pacific Ocean for only the second time since the PLAN began operating aircraft carriers. It will not be long before the Shandong likewise operates in the Pacific, and perhaps even dual carrier operations will occur, as Beijing seeks to create perceptions about its carriers.
The Shandong has inherent limitations when compared to U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, such as the ski-jump assisted short take-off barrier-arrested recovery (STOBAR) system for the short-range J-15 Shenyang carrier-based fighter.
Yet, the strategic importance of a Chinese aircraft carrier was immediately exhibited, as the Shandong conducted a northbound transit of the Taiwan Strait just two weeks before Taiwan’s national elections. This followed a southbound transit that ended with photos of the ship in port on Hainan Island with seven J-15 fighters and four Z-18 helicopters.
In 2019, the PLAN increased aircraft carrier pilot recruiting by more than 40 percent over 2018, indicating not only the increasing size of its aircraft carrier fleet, but also plans for its future aircraft carriers as the PLAN moves into “high seas” operations around the world.
In April, a massive bow and hull section of a third aircraft carrier, the new Type 002 class, were photographed at Jiangnan Naval Shipyard in the East China Sea. The number of future Chinese aircraft carriers is assessed to be from four to six, although there is some speculation that China’s goal for aircraft carriers is to have one more than the U.S. Navy.
That speculation may have some basis in reality, considering the commissioning of the PLAN’s newest surface combatant, the Type 055/Renhai-class Nanchang. (Some sources classify it as a guided-missile destroyer [DDG] while others have it as a cruiser [CG].) As the China Maritime Studies Institute recently reported, the 12,000-ton Type 055 represents a “qualitative leap for the Chinese Navy into the forefront of surface combatants.” Its 112 vertical-launch cells fire surface-to-air, land-attack cruise, and advanced antiship cruise missiles, as well as antiballistic missile interceptors and antisubmarine rockets.
With 7 more Type 055s under various stages of construction, and potential plans for up to 24, combined with an estimated two dozen Type 052D/Luyang-III DDGs, these platforms will provide the foundation for a fleet of Chinese aircraft carrier strike groups that will be able to project naval power beyond the “home waters” of the first and second island chains, where they enjoy protection of the PLA Strategic Rocket Force umbrella of missiles (such as the DF-21D and DF-26).
PLAN strike group advancement was not limited to aircraft carriers, but also included the August launch of the Type 075 helicopter-carrying amphibious assault ship (LHD), a first for China. The rapid construction of the ship (just five months from first pictures of the keel being laid to launch), indicates China’s increasing ability to project power from its shores. The Type 075, strangely similar to the U.S. Navy’s Wasp-class LHD, is much larger and more capable than the Type 071 amphibious transport docks (LPDs) that had been the PLAN's largest amphibious ships. The Type 075, with a hangar deck below its flight deck, is estimated to carry up to 30 helicopters to support amphibious landings as well as smaller scale operations in the East or South China Seas.
The PLAN has begun to demonstrate it understands the necessity of having the capability to conduct underway replenishment. To that end, in 2019, the PLAN’s first Type 901 fast combat-supply ship Hulunhu conducted an unprecedented aircraft carrier strike group resupply mission in inclement weather on the high seas. The Hulunhu has already become a PLAN workhorse and is reported to have spent more than 200 days at sea conducting resupply operations in 2019.
The PLAN also demonstrated an innovative use of civilian ships to resupply PLAN combatants. According to China’s Naval Research Institute and Northern Theater Command, a portable and modular system has been developed and tested that allows the massive Chinese commercial shipping fleet to replenish and extend the range and scope of PLAN warships at sea.
China’s Strategic Naval Weapons
For the sea-based portion of China’s nuclear triad, the big news in 2019 was three reported tests of the JL-3 “Giant Wave” submarine-launched ballistic missile. The JL-3 is expected to be operationally deployed on China’s newest nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine (SSBN) under construction, the Type 096, sometime in the next five years. While there is still debate and uncertainty about the exact range and number of multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), the JL-3 is expected to provide China with the ability to strike the continental United States from within “bastion waters.” This raises the stakes for the U.S. Navy submarine force, with an increasing requirement for holding PLAN SSBNs at risk during times of conflict.
It was reported that, between 29 June and 3 July 2019, China test fired a series of medium-range, anticarrier missiles into an area in the South China Sea. If the reports are true, then this would represent the first full flight test of the DF-21D antiship ballistic missile over water. This implies that the strategic weapon may have reached initial operational capability.
PLAN Global Naval Operations in 2019
The PLAN deployed its 30th, 31st, 32nd, and 33rd naval escort task forces to the Gulf of Aden, part of its decade-long presence in the region. PLAN naval escort warships also showed the Chinese flag in many ports around the globe including Cambodia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Somalia, Australia, and the Baltic (St. Petersburg, Russia).
The PLAN also conducted joint naval exercises closer to home, as well, working with six Southeast Asian nations. According to PLAN commander Admiral Shen Jinlong, a total of 13 warships and 4 helicopters drilled in the waters off Qingdao, to celebrate the PLAN’s 70th anniversary. This exercise was a clear extension of the China-ASEAN Maritime Exercise conducted in October 2018 and demonstrates China’s efforts to transform the perception of the PLAN in the South China Sea.
This exercise was followed by Joint Naval Interaction 2019 exercises with the Russian Navy, again off Qingdao. Two other noteworthy exercises between China and Russian navies included November’s training event with South Africa off the waters of Cape Town and December’s with Iran in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman. Coming after several attacks against international shipping in and around the Strait of Hormuz, the latter exercise signaled a strengthening cooperation among China, Russia, and Iran and a willingness to use the PLAN to project foreign policy. Expect to see a more of this in the coming years.
The PLAN training ship Qi Jiguang conducted a cruise to a number of Asia-Pacific countries including Brunei, East Timor, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, and Fiji. Again, this training cruise contributes to showing China’s flag and projecting the “blue economic passage” into the South Pacific.
Beyond showing the flag, these global operations afford the PLAN invaluable training and experience in operating on the high seas for extended periods of time. There is no substitute for being at sea, and 2019 demonstrated the PLAN is committed to that age-old maritime maxim.
While the PLAN has embarked on developing power-projection operations with carrier and amphibious strike groups, it also continues to refine sea-based nuclear-missile capabilities and expanded use of its warships to implement foreign policy. All these events are made possible only by the country’s significant shipbuilding capability.
In terms of firepower, the 23 new surface ships outshoot the U.S. Navy’s 9. In terms of antiship missiles, the U.S. Navy’s newest ships (an LCS, seven Zumwalt and Arleigh Burke DDGs, and one Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine) have only limited or no antiship cruise missiles, while the 23 new PLA Navy combatants come to the fight with a potential total of 720 missiles.
Suffice it to say, 2019 marked a banner year for the PLAN, one that represents a strategic trendline in naval modernization and the forging of a foundation for China’s naval power projection around the globe.