For the second year in a row, much of the world remained constrained by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, the growth the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has enjoyed over the past two decades continued. Not satisfied with just adding more platforms and weapon systems to the world’s largest navy, the PLAN expanded operations at sea, including complex war-at-sea exercises, showing the Chinese flag around the Indo-Pacific, threatening Taiwan, and—perhaps most important—conducting combined exercises with Russia in the Far East waters around U.S. allies and bases in Japan.
In 2021, China commissioned 22 warships: one Type 094/Jin-class ballistic-missile submarine (SSBN), two Type 075/Yushen-class amphibious assault (LHA) ships; three Type 055/Renhai-class guided-missile cruisers (CGs), seven Type 052D/Luyang III-class guided-missile destroyers (DDGs), and nine Type 056A/Jiangdao-class corvettes (FFLs).1 In contrast, the U.S. Navy commissioned just three warships: one DDG (the USS Daniel Inouye [DDG-118]) and two littoral combat ships (LCSs)—the USS Oakland (LCS-24) and Mobile (LCS-26). That is a ratio of seven-to-one; in 2020, the ratio was five-to-one.
In the first four months of 2021, China showcased its growing ability to dominate the high seas of the western Pacific and, in the process, negate the power and influence of the U.S. Navy. On 23 April 2021—the 72nd anniversary of the PLAN’s founding—the self-proclaimed “helmsman” of the People’s Republic, Xi Jinping, oversaw the commissioning of two surface warships and a submarine at the naval base on Hainan Island.
As noted by the PLA Daily, this ceremony contained three “firsts”: “the first time that China’s top commander conferred flags to three large vessels at the same time; the first time the PLA Navy commissioned three vessels at the same time in the same day; and the first time three surface and underwater vessels were commissioned to the same naval fleet.”2
The three commissioned naval combatants—the Dalian, Hainan, and Changzheng 18—augment the PLAN’s warfighting capabilities in unique ways.
The 12,000-ton Dalian, a Type 055 guided-missile Renhai-class cruiser, is the most powerful cruiser on the planet: It boasts an unparalleled 112 vertical-launch cells for antiship and land-attack missiles. The Dalian is the third ship of the Renhai class and the first commissioned to the South Sea Fleet. Five more are in varying stages of production and will likely be commissioned by 2025. The Type 055 cruisers are the “shotgun” escorts for the PLAN’s new aircraft carrier strike groups (CSGs) and expeditionary strike groups (ESGs).
Xi also commissioned the 35,000 to 40,000-ton Hainan, a Type-075/Yushen-class amphibious assault ship very similar to the U.S. Navy’s Wasp class. By the end of 2021, the PLAN had launched three Type 075s: The second is expected to join the operational PLA fleet in 2022, and the third has held sea trials.3
The Hainan can deploy a wide range of manned helicopters, such as the Z-18J airborne early warning helicopter, the Z-9 antisubmarine helicopter, and the Z-8C transport helicopter. In addition, the Type 075 will likely be equipped with armed reconnaissance helicopter drones.4
The Hainan conducted its first-ever helicopter aviation combat drills at sea just two months after commissioning. Worth highlighting in the report of this training, a slogan was noted on the bulkhead of the Hainan’s hangar bay that read: “The victory of the landing troops is our victory.”5 Such internal propaganda constitutes another reminder of the PLAN’s major focus on amphibious warfare and territorial acquisition.
The Type 075s will be paired with the 25,000-ton Type 071 amphibious transport docks (LPDs) and escorted by Type 055 cruisers. These will form the core of the PLAN’s ESGs, designed for missions to seize Taiwan or other islands.6 These ESGs will also play a particularly important role in political warfare operations, including psychological warfare and coercive diplomacy efforts.
By December 2021, the Hainan passed an assessment focusing on multidimensional combat landing, featuring the integration of sea, land, and air units. The assessment tested the integration of air-cushion landing craft and amphibious armored vehicles. Public reports indicated sortie timelines were greatly reduced. Expect the PLAN’s first amphibious assault ship to reach initial operational capability in 2022.
The PLAN also received its fourth operational Type 094A Jin-class SSBN, the Changzheng 18. The U.S. Department of Defense assesses that the Type 094 can carry 12 JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), but according to a source close to the PLAN, the Changzheng 18 can also fire the JL-3, or Julang (Big Wave), SLBM with a range of more than 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles). Armed with 12 JL-3 multiple, independent reentry vehicle (MIRV) missiles, the Changzheng 18 can patrol within the waters of the western Pacific while affording China a nuclear strike capability against the United States. At least six Jin-class SSBNs are expected in total, to be followed by the newest PLAN SSBN, the Type 096/Tang-class, which is expected carry 24 JL-3 MIRVed SLBMs.7 The first Tang-class SSBN likely began construction in Huludao in 2020 and should be launched in 2022.8
This pattern of the PLAN outproducing and outcommissioning the U.S. Navy has been going on for the past decade. Consequently, DoD now acknowledges the PLAN as the largest navy on the planet.9 Based on all evidence, the gap between the size of the PLAN and U.S. Navy is expected to continue to grow throughout the decade, by the end of which it is estimated the PLAN will possess 550 warships and submarines.10
CSG Operations 2021
In addition to increasing its ship numbers, the PLAN has also been very busy operating its warships in the “far seas.”11 For example, in early April, China dispatched a six-ship CSG to the South China Sea for the first time. Led by its first operational aircraft carrier, the Liao-ning, this deployment was also noteworthy for the first deployment of a Type 055 CG, the Nanchang.
The inclusion of the Nanchang greatly enhances the strike group’s offensive and defensive capabilities, thanks to the Type 055’s “more powerful radar systems, battlefield information management systems and stronger firepower” compared to the Type 052D/Luyang III-class destroyer.12 As the Global Times notes: “[The] Type 055 can not only lead naval flotillas, but can also accompany aircraft carriers and build up China’s far sea combat task groups.”13
During this CSG deployment, the Liaoning transited the Miyako Strait for the first time since April 2020, just days after a U.S./Australian exercise in the eastern Pacific.14 By operating off Taiwan’s east coast, the Liaoning CSG demonstrated that China could threaten the island nation from the east and west.15
Interestingly, following the Liaoning CSG’s operations, the PLAN’s second aircraft carrier, The Shandong, led a CSG in May 2021 to the South China Sea for combat training operation as the Liaoning CSG returned to homeport.16 In May 2021, the Global Times reported that the PLAN “held a mock battle between a group of aircraft carrier-borne fighter jets and land-based joint warplane formations,” as each side honed their skills in both countering and using aircraft carriers.”17
These back-to-back CSG deployments to the South China Sea, mock carrier air warfare exercises in the Yellow Sea, and operations off Taiwan are a clear harbinger of a future where PLAN CSGs will patrol the high seas, projecting naval power in support of Beijing’s “Great Rejuvenation” and dominating the waters of the first island chain.
Regarding the PLAN’s third aircraft carrier, commercial satellite imagery taken in July 2021 allowed refined assessments of the size and capability of this new Type 003 aircraft carrier. The length is assessed to be 320 meters (1,045 feet) and width is 73 meters (240 feet), slightly smaller than the U.S. Navy’s Gerald R. Ford class.18 In terms of tonnage, the Type 003 is assessed to be about 80,000 tons, smaller than the U.S. Navy’s 100,000-ton super carriers.
Expect to see the third carrier launched and a fourth carrier beginning construction this year. And expect to see PLAN dual-CSG operations within the first or second island chain within the year.
Showing the Flag
Of the many “far seas” naval exercises the PLAN conducted in 2021, the joint China-Russia naval exercise Joint Sea–2021, which began in Peter the Great Bay near Vladivostok on 15 October, stood out. Given the subsequent Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is no surprise the aim of the joint exercise, according to the PLA Daily, was to “consolidate and develop the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation for a new era, strengthen mutual trust, deepen friendly and pragmatic cooperation, and improve the capabilities of the two navies to jointly respond to maritime security threats and maintain regional peace and stability.”19
Operationally, the most important aspect of this exercise was its focus on antisubmarine warfare (ASW). The PLA Daily reported that a PLAN command post coordinated fixed-wing antisubmarine patrol aircraft “through the real-time command system” in the deployment of sonobuoys searching for “enemy submarines.” PLAN helicopters conducted ASW drills over Russian airspace for the first time and benefited from “the continuous enhancement of the integration of the China-Russia naval systems and the in-depth development of the comprehensive strategic partnership.”20
Following the end of the ASW exercise, a combined fleet of ten PLAN and Russian combatants headed eastward through the Tsugaru Strait, between Japan’s main island of Honshu and the northern island of Hokkaido. The PLAN group consisted of five warships: one Renhai cruiser, one Luyang III destroyer, two Jiangkai frigates and one Fuchi replenishment oiler. The Russian contingent included two Udaloy-class destroyers, two Steregushchiy-class frigates, and one Marshal Nedelin-class missile-tracking ship. This is the first time that Chinese and Russian warships are known to have passed the Tsugaru Strait together.21
After passing down the east coast of Honshu, the combined ten-ship flotilla completed its circumnavigation of Japan when it passed through the Osumi Strait off Japan’s southwestern prefecture of Kagoshima on 23 October, another first in Sino-Russian history. It once again demonstrated the close military coordination of the two totalitarian regimes.22
The PLAN displayed aggressive, novel capabilities and intentions aplenty in 2021. In April, PLAN Type 022/Houbei-class fast-attack missile catamarans were involved in an incident around the Second Thomas Shoal. The fact that these Houbei were caught within the Philippines exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea demonstrated how the PLAN has militarized China’s three naval bases in the Spratly Islands at Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi Reefs, something U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Commander Admiral John Aquilino confirmed in March 2022.23
In July, China dispatched two intelligence collection ships (AGI) to survey the combined Australian-U.S. exercise Talisman Saber.24
In August 2021, four PLAN warships—one Renhai-class cruiser, one Luyang III-class destroyer, one Fuchi-class replenishment oiler, and an intelligence collection ship—were detected within the U.S. Alaskan exclusive economic zone. According to Global Times, this PLAN deployment was meant to counter U.S. Navy operations in the South China Sea, which China illegally asserts is its territorial water.25
In September the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force detected a PLAN submarine and a guided-missile destroyer operating within the contiguous zone of Amami Oshima Island in the Kagoshima Prefecture.26
In October, the PLA conducted an integrated military-civilian cross-sea troop transportation exercise. This exercise employed a large civilian ferry, Chinese Rejuvenation, with a displacement of 45,000 tons. More than 1,000 personnel and vehicles of the 81st Group Army traveled more than 1,000 kilometers at sea on this ferry.27
The PLAN has continued its three-ship naval escort task-force operations in the Gulf of Aden for the 14th year, with the dispatching of the 38th, 39th, and 40th task forces since the start of the year.28
And between August and October, the PLAN dispatched at least two Type 093/Shang-class fast-attack nuclear submarines to stalk HMS Queen Elizabeth (and its embarked U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs) during its inaugural operations in the Pacific.29
The China Maritime Dream
Since January 2021, the Chinese Communist Party has demonstrated its continuing commitment to transform China into the world’s premier maritime power and to achieve its expansionist goals regionally. China has devoted the resources to build its naval power and has increasingly dispatched this increasingly capable force to the high seas, especially through the Indo-Pacific. With the world watching the war in the Ukraine, it is worth considering what additional lessons General Secretary Xi and the Central Military Commission are learning and will apply to the PLA as it sharpens its capabilities and readiness. In particular, the United States should expect that the distraction of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine combined with an increasingly dominant naval capability may encourage Xi to accelerate his timetables for completing the so-called Great Rejuvenation.
1. Commander Salamander, “Fullbore Friday: Give Credit Where Credit <Spit> Is Due,” cdrsalamander.substack.com, 7 January 2022.
2. Guo Yuandan, “Three New Warships Commissioned to PLA Navy, Creating Three ‘Firsts,’” PLA Daily, 25 April 2021.
3. Liu Xuanzun, “PLA’s First Amphibious Assault Ship Passes Multidimensional Landing Combat Assessment,” Global Times, 7 December 2021.
4. Xuanzun, “PLA’s First Amphibious Assault Ship.”
5. Liu Xuanzun, “PLA Amphibious Assault Ship Hainan Stages Chopper Drill, Shows Confidence in Performance,” Global Times, 22 June 2021.
6. Liu Xuanzun, “China’s Newly Commissioned Amphibious Landing Ship Joins Exercises ‘to Form Powerful Partnership With Amphibious Assault Ship,’” Global Times, 6 May 2021.
7. Minnie Chan, “China’s New Nuclear Submarine Missiles Expand Range in U.S.: Analysts,” South China Morning Post, 2 May 2021.
8. Annual Report to Congress: Military and Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China (Washington, DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2020), 45.
9. Annual Report to Congress: Military and Developments, VI.
10. 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 (Fall 2020): 25.
11. Roderick Lee and Morgan Clemens, China Maritime Report No. 9: Organizing to Fight in the Far Seas, The Chinese Navy in an Era of Military Reform, Navy War College China Maritime Studies Institute, October 2020.
12. Liu Xuanzun, “UPDATE: PLA Aircraft Carrier, Type 055 Destroyer Hold Exercise near Taiwan island amid U.S. Warship Provocations,” Global Times, 5 April 2021.
13. Liu Xuanzun, “PLA’s Type 055 Destroyer Enters Sea of Japan for 1st time,” Global Times, 19 March 2021.
14. Ken Moriyasu, “Chinese Aircraft Carrier and 5 Ships Pass Okinawa on Way to Pacific,” Asian Nikkei, 5 April 2021.
15. Brad Lendon, “China Flanks Taiwan with Military Exercises in Air and Sea,” CNN, 7 April 2021.
16. “Chinese Naval Aircraft Carrier Battle Group Conducts Maritime Training,” PLA Daily, 6 May 2021.
17. Liu Xuanzun, “PLA Holds Mock Battle between Carrier-Borne, Land-Based Aircraft over Yellow Sea,” Global Times, 11 May 2021.
18. H. I. Sutton, “China’s New Super Carrier: How It Compares to the U.S. Navy’s Ford Class,” Naval News, 2 July 2021.
19. “China-Russia Joint Naval Exercise Kicks Off,” PLA Daily, 15 October 2021.
20. “China-Russia Naval Exercise Enters Stage of Joint Anti-Submarine Drills,” PLA Daily, 18 October 2021.
21. “Chinese, Russian Warships Jointly Pass Japan Chokepoint for 1st Time,” Asian Nikkei, 19 October 2021.
22. “Chinese, Russian Warships Pass through Osumi Strait for 1st Time,” Kyodo News, 23 October 2021.
23. Thomas Newdick, “Now China Has Cruise Missile Carrying Catamarans Chasing Away Ships in the South China Sea,” The War Zone, 8 April 2021; Jim Gomez and Aaron Favila, “AP Exclusive: U.S. Admiral Says China Fully Militarized Isles,” Associated Press, 20 March 2022.
24. Andrew Greene, “Second Chinese Spy Ship Approaches Australia to Monitor Military Exercises after Being ‘on Our Radar for Some Time,’” ABC News (Australia), 17 July 2021.
25. Joseph Trevithick, “Chinese Warships Sailing near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands Shadowed by U.S. Coast Guard,” The War Zone, 13 September 2021.
26. “Japan Says Suspected Chinese Submarine Seen near Territorial Waters,” Reuters, 12 September 2021.
27. Liu Xuanzun, “PLA Practices Cross-Sea Troop Transport with Large Civilian Ferry,” Global Times, 17 October 2021.
28. “13 Years on: PLA Navy Continues Escorting in Gulf of Aden,” PLA Daily, 27 December 2021; “40th Chinese Naval Escort Task Force Departs for Gulf of Aden,” PLA Daily, 16 January 2022.
29. Marco Giannangeli, “Chinese Nuclear Attack Subs ‘Stalking’ Britain’s New Aircraft Carrier across Pacific,” The Express, 9 August 2021.