As the world was blindsided—and largely incapacitated—by the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) virus, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) strove (in its own words) “for ocean-oriented strength.”1 In U.S. parlance, this would be called “striving for maritime power,” and, in that regard, the PLAN’s striving (and spending) to expand its size and capabilities continued throughout 2020 despite the economic impacts of the virus.
For example, in May, the National People’s Congress (NPC) for the first time in 28 years did not issue a target goal for gross domestic product growth, yet the country confidently declared that it would increase PLA spending by 6.6 percent for the year.2 A clearer, more ominous, statement of national will would be hard to find, given the lack of similar increases in other Indo-Pacific nations’ defense spending and the absence of threatening actions toward China.
The results of the economic prioritization strategy are reflected in the number of new PLAN warships in 2020. According to state press, the PLAN commissioned 23 cruisers, destroyers, corvettes, amphibious ships, and logistic ships, while the U.S. Navy commissioned just 5, a ratio consistent with recent years.3 Since 2015, the PLAN has commissioned 120 combatants, compared with just 34 for the U.S. Navy.4
This led the Department of Defense (DoD) to declare for the first time that China “has the largest navy in the world” and is “the top ship-producing nation in the world by tonnage.”5 Further, the DoD’s 2020 report on China’s military and security developments points out that China continues to increase its shipbuilding capacity and capability across all classes of naval ships. This increase is a harbinger for the remainder of the “Decade of Concern” (2020–30), as China builds the naval power needed to achieve its self-proclaimed great rejuvenation and restoration.
The PLAN is putting its shipbuilding pedal to the metal just as the U.S. Navy begins retiring a large number of ships. A critical metric is the number of vertical launch system (VLS) cells. As Dr. Jerry Hendrix notes: “When you are decommissioning 122-cell Ticonderoga-class cruisers and 154-cell Ohio-class [guided-missile submarines] and replacing them with 96-cell Arleigh Burke–class destroyers and 12-cell Virginia-class [submarines,] you are losing ground every day.”6 By contrast, in January 2020, China commissioned the first Type 055/Renhai-class cruiser Nanchang, with 112 VLS cells—the first of a planned 16 ships in the class—and the 64-cell Type 052D/Luyang III–class guided-missile destroyer Zibo. (See “Need to Know, p. 10, in this issue, and “Combat Fleets: Threat Assessment,” pp. 92–93, January 2020, for more on these new ships.)
Going to Sea
Not all the year’s “striving for naval power” was confined to shipbuilding and commissionings. It also included the most important facet of naval power—going to sea. Whether deploying the 35th and 36th Naval Escort Task Forces to the Gulf of Aden or conducting dual-carrier operations in the Bohai and South China Seas, the PLAN accomplished a growing number of operations at sea. The ultimate purpose of these operations is to deter or defeat the U.S. Navy.
For instance, in February a South Sea Fleet–based surface action group (SAG) consisting of a Type 052D destroyer, a Type 054A Jiangkai II-class frigate, a Type 815A Dongdiao-class spy ship, and a Type 901 Fuyu-class replenishment oiler conducted a 41-day, 14,000-nautical-mile “far sea joint training fleet” deployment. This operation had unique significance: For the first time, a Chinese SAG crossed the International Date Line in a “combat-ready state.”7
According to the PLA Southern Theater Command, the SAG conducted more than 30 training evolutions, including live-ammunition firings, wartime replenishment, and rescue, culminating in an air-defense exercise in “the far seas of the Pacific Ocean.”8 The PLAN understands that as its carrier and expeditionary strike groups operate farther from the Chinese mainland, they will face an increased threat from U.S. Navy and Air Force air attacks.
As such, this deployment tested the PLAN’s capability to detect targets and apply a “multidimensional air defense system” as if in combat.9 According to reports, the SAG intercepted multiple waves of incoming target drones using a “combination of missiles and the close-in weapon system.”10 Chinese media reporting about specific tactics, especially in a fleet air-defense exercise of this nature, is rare and should be considered the tip of the iceberg in what is happening.
Especially noteworthy: This exercise was conducted closer to Hawaii than to Guam. For elected officials, policymakers, and strategists, this should sound alarm bells regarding the strategic and systematic trajectory of the PLAN’s development and China’s intentions.
Carrier Strike Groups
The PLAN’s aircraft carriers also were active at sea in 2020. In March, the PLAN—in what can be called an information warfare operation to contrast with the U.S. Navy’s disastrous experience with the coronavirus on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71)—dispatched the aircraft carrier Liaoning to the Bohai Sea to “minimize the impact” of the virus.11
By April, the Liaoning Carrier Strike Group (CSG), comprising the Liaoning, two Type 052D destroyers, two Type 054A frigates, and the PLAN’s other new Type 901 replenishment oiler, was monitored by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force operating near the Miyako Strait.12
Following its eastward transit of the strait, the strike group passed through the Bashi Channel and into the South China Sea.13 Interestingly, in a first, Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense released a surveillance photograph of the Liaoning as it passed Taiwan’s southeast coast, demonstrating Taiwan’s capability to monitor and track the PLAN.14
During this portion of the carrier’s transit, the PLA’s Southern Theater Command dispatched air forces (H-6 bombers, J-11 fighters, and KJ-500 airborne early-warning aircraft) into Taiwan’s southern air-defense identification zone.15 The strike group returned to port in the North Sea Fleet following nearly a month at sea. China highlighted the deployment to proclaim the PLAN’s superiority over the virus, but a more sober assessment is that it was all about improving operational readiness for a Taiwan invasion.
The PLAN’s other active carrier, the Shandong, also operated in the Bohai Sea in April. In July, the PLAN commander in charge of carrier aviation training reported that two J-15 Shark aircraft had successfully completed nighttime buddy refueling training—“marking a new breakthrough in their all-weather long-range combat capability”—as well as day and night carrier landings, demonstrating the PLAN’s determination to improve the J-15’s limited combat range and capabilities.16
Regarding the PLAN’s third carrier, commercial satellite imagery from August revealed that this second indigenously produced Type 002 carrier’s hull blocks were laid out in order of construction and measured roughly the same size as the PLAN’s first two carriers.17 Given this, expect to see the third launched and a fourth beginning construction in 2021.
One of the most important military events to affect the U.S. Navy in 2020 was the firing of a salvo of Dongfeng antiship ballistic missiles at targets in the South China Sea. The Pentagon confirmed that two DF-21D (range: 780 nm) and two DF-26 (range: 2,675 nm) missiles were fired into the South China Sea on 26 August 2020, and other reports say the missiles scored hits on moving ships at sea.18
While U.S. naval intelligence had been anticipating this event for more than a decade, the importance of what occurred is striking. The implications of China successfully targeting ships at sea and in motion place an extra sense of urgency on the U.S. Navy and Department of Defense to field effective countermeasures.
Under the PLA Southern Theater Command Navy Aviation Force, new PLAN Air Force (PLANAF) H-6J bombers simulated all-weather, day-night attacks on moving maritime targets in the South China Sea.19 Based on the Soviet Tu-16 Badger, the H-6J carries seven YJ-12 supersonic antiship cruise missiles, about twice the capacity of the H-6G, with 50 percent greater combat radius (1,900 nautical miles).20 These PLANAF aircraft are another significant (and likely underappreciated) indicator of the efforts the PLAN is taking to win a war at sea against the U.S. Navy.
1. “Strive for ocean-oriented strength,” PLA Daily, 23 April 2020, http://en.people.cn/n3/2020/0423/c90000-9683229.html
2. Xin Zhiming, “NPC opens, no growth target set for 2020,” and Zhao Lei, “China boosts defense budget by 6.6%, lowest in over 30 years,” China Daily, 22 May 2020.
3. Nicholas J. Myers, “2020 Diplomacy,” www.warvspeace.org, 2020.
4. Compiled from: CAPT James E. Fanell, USN (Ret.) “China’s Global Navy—Today’s Challenge for the United States and the U.S. Navy,” Naval War College Review 73, no. 4 (Autumn 2020); Nicholas J. Myers, “2020 Diplomacy,” www.warvspeace.org; Manfred Meyer, Modern China’s Maritime Forces: a Compilation of Ships and Boats of the Chinese Navy, Coast Guard, Maritime Militia and other state authorities (The Admiralty Triology Group, 2020).
5. Department of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” U.S. Department of Defense, 2020.
6. Dr. Jerry Hendrix, CAPT, U.S. Navy (Ret.), personal communication, 27 January 2021.
7. “Chinese Naval Fleet Wraps up Far Sea Exercise Deep in Pacific Ocean,” PLA Daily, 26 February 2020, http://english.chinamil.com.cn/view/2020-02/26/content_9753144.htm.
8. “Chinese Naval Fleet Wraps Up.”
9. Liu Xuanzun, “Naval Drills Enhance Ability in Pacific Ocean,” Global Times, 17 February 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1179922.shtml.
10. Xuanzun, “Naval Drills Enhance.”
11. “Aircraft carrier Liaoning Hosts Fighter Jet Drills amid Epidemic,” PLA Daily, 25 March 2020,
12. “Trends of Chinese Naval Vessels,” Japan Ministry of Defense Press Release, 11 April 20202, https://www.mod.go.jp/js/Press/press2020/press_pdf/p20200411_01.pdf?fbclid=IwAR3bmSZgkcxdGb6jIMfPcUvA4ySW2mzzcGqYaLsTKxTGTNfwVi0SxNaKG74.
13. “Chinese Aircraft Carrier Liaoning Conducts Exercises in South China Sea: PLA Navy spokesperson,” Global Times, 13 April 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1185471.shtml.
14. Matt Yu and Joseph Yeh, “Military releases surveillance photo of Liaoning aircraft carrier,” The China Post, 23 April 2020, https://chinapost.nownews.com/20200423-1199992.
15. Liu Zhen, “Taiwan Scrambles Warships as PLA Navy Aircraft Carrier Strike Group Heads for the Pacific,” South China Morning Post, 12 April 2020, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3079546/taiwan-scrambles-warships-pla-navy-aircraft-carrier-strike.
16. “PLAN carrier-based fighters complete nighttime buddy refueling in flight,” PLA Daily, 29 July 2020, http://english.chinamil.com.cn/view/2020-07/29/content_9868547.htm
17. “China’s 3rd Aircraft Carrier Makes ‘Significant Progress’ Amid Conflict With India, Taiwan,” Eurasia Times, 21 September 2020, https://eurasiantimes.com/chinas-3rd-aircraft-carrier-makes-significant-progress-amid-conflicts-with-india-taiwan/.
18. Bill Gertz, “Pentagon Confirms China Missile Test in South China Sea,” Washington Times, 26 August 2020, https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2020/aug/26/china-test-fires-carrier-killer-missile-us-announc/; Kristin Huang, “China’s ‘Aircraft-Carrier Killer’ Missiles Successfully Hit Target Ship in South China Sea, PLA insider Reveals,” South China Morning Post, 14 November 2020,
19. Guo Yuandan and Liu Xuanzun, “PLA Navy’s new bomber debuts in South China Sea drills,” Global Times, 30 July 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1196230.shtml.
20. Yuandan and Xuanzun, “PLA Navy’s New Bomber.”