For the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), 2022 was another banner year. Although the largest navy on the planet did not commission as many ships and submarines as in 2021, it continued to outproduce the U.S. Navy in total numbers of ships, tonnage, and supersonic antiship cruise missiles.
The PLAN returned to sea with expanded “far seas operations” highlighted by PLAN carrier operations outside the first island chain, along with support to the PLA’s Taiwan-focused combined arms firepower exercise and increased combined operations with Russia and others. All in all, the PLA demonstrated why it may be the most dominant naval force in the western Pacific and is able to execute all orders—including the increasing likelihood of an invasion of Taiwan.
China commissioned ten warships and one submarine in 2022: one Type 075/Yushen-class amphibious assault (LHA) ship; three Type 055/Renhai-class cruisers; four Type 052D/Luyang III–class guided-missile destroyers; one Type 054A/Jiangkai II–class frigate; and one Type 039C/Yuan-class air-independent propulsion submarine.1 Collectively, these displace more than 110,000 tons. The PLAN continues to commission the most annual tonnage globally, as it has done for at least the past five years. The outlook for PLAN production and commissioning in 2023 is on track to exceed that of 2022.
The highlight of PLAN shipbuilding in 2022 was the launch of China’s most technologically advanced aircraft carrier, the 80,000-ton Type 003 Fujian, the largest warship any Asian nation has ever built. Commissioning and sea trials should occur sometime this year. Electromagnetic catapults will allow the Fujian to launch heavy aircraft such as fixed-wing airborne early warning platforms, which will give it a much greater combat capability than the ski-jump-equipped, 50,000-ton Liaoning and Shandong.2
The PLAN likewise has been productive with amphibious ships. In September 2022, the PLAN commissioned the third Type 075 LHA (in just 18 months), the 45,000-ton Anhui, which was launched in January 2021 and began sea trials in November 2021. Along with two 25,000-ton Type 071 amphibious transport docks (LPDs) commissioned since 2020, the PLAN’s commitment to developing a robust expeditionary strike group (ESG) capability should be apparent.
It was reported in August 2022 that China has resumed mass production of a class of ships thought discontinued, the Type 052D/Luyang III–class destroyers; five were imaged under construction at the Dalian Shipyard. Twenty-five are already in service. At least one more is being built at the Jiangnan Changxing Shipyard in Shanghai, a shipyard that Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro has noted is larger than all seven U.S. shipyards combined.4
The PLAN continues to close the gap with the U.S. Navy submarine force. China has been building new construction halls at the Bohai Shipyard at Huludao, the PLAN’s only nuclear submarine production facility.5 These new buildings are estimated to be large enough to allow construction of between four and five nuclear submarines at a time, including both ballistic-missile (SSBNs) and attack submarines (SSNs). In October, commercial images revealed new and larger pressure hulls, indicating construction of a new Type 095 (SSN) or 096 (SSBN), which are expected to be larger, quieter, and more capable than current PLAN submarines.6
Activity in Huludao also observed in May 2022 revealed a submarine in dry-dock incorporating what is assessed to be a vertical launch system. The imagery did not clearly show if this is a refit of an existing SSN or the first of the new class, but either possibility signals a concerning capability.
In November, U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Samuel Paparo acknowledged that the PLAN has fielded the JL-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on its six operational Jin-class nuclear-powered SSBNs.7 Its predecessor, the JL-2, had a range of about 7,200 kilometers (4,464 miles), which would require PLAN SSBNs to operate east of Hawaii to reach the U.S. East Coast. With an estimated range of 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles), the JL-3 allows PLAN boomers to strike all of the continental United States from bastions in the South China Sea. As Admiral Paparo noted, the JL-3 SLBM was “built to threaten the United States.”
Carrier and Missile OPs
The PLAN will remember 2022 as the year of its first “blue-water” aircraft carrier operations. Remarkably, in little more than a decade, the PLAN went from having no aircraft carriers to having three in the water, with two—the Liaoning and the Shandong—assessed as fully operational. The PLAN has formed its carrier strike groups (CSGs) along the lines of the U.S. Navy’s, with a Type 055 guided-missile cruiser acting as the antiair warfare commander; screening ships such as the Type 052C guided-missile destroyers and Type 054A frigates; and a Type 901/Fuyu-class supply ship.
The PLAN conducted several 2022 CSG operations outside the first island chain after conducting fixed-wing flight operations more than 330 nautical miles east of Okinawa in December 2021. (See Commander Mike Dahm’s “Lessons from the Changing Geometry of PLA Navy Carrier Ops,” January 2023, for a thorough analysis of these operations.)
In the wake of former U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s 24-hour visit to Taiwan on 2 August 2022, the PLA conducted large air-missile-maritime exercises around Taiwan from 4 to 10 August. These tested new PLA joint force operations by employing coordinated use of missile, space, cyber, air, army, and naval forces designed to isolate Taiwan and minimalize coastal resistance to invasion forces.8 PLAN contributions to what some have described as a Taiwan invasion dress rehearsal included an average of 13 to 14 warships per day, including Type 055 cruisers, Type 052D destroyers, Type 054 frigates, Type 056A corvettes, and possibly one SSN.9
Around Japan with Russia
PLAN operations in and around Japan’s waters have increased, many in conjunction with the Russian Navy. In April and December, PLAN warships transited the Osumi Strait, heading into the Philippine Sea.10 Despite China complaining when foreign warships transit the international waters of the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea, Japan’s Defense Ministry reported two PLAN warships entered Japan’s territorial waters off Kuchinoerabu Island south of Kyushu.11
In December, while China’s three-ship 41st Naval Escort Task Force returned to the East China Sea via the Miyako Strait and two other PLAN warships passed eastward through the Osumi Strait into the Philippine Sea, three Russian Navy ships concurrently crossed the same waters in the East China Sea.12 The cruiser Lhasa and a PLAN destroyer also passed through three of Japan’s strategic straits—Tsushima, Soya, and Tsugaru—completely circumnavigating Japan, as a Chinese-Russian joint flotilla did in October 2021.13 Many of these operations occurred well inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, something else China complains about anytime foreign warships enter the South China Sea or Taiwan Strait.
In August, the PLA dispatched forces to join Russia’s Strategic Command Exercise Vostok 2022. Following this, a combined force of PLAN and Russian warships conducted additional joint patrols.14
Near Hawaii during RimPac
In July, for the fourth time, the PLAN dispatched an intelligence collection ship (AGI) to collect on the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise in the waters surrounding Hawaii. Given the plethora of new platforms and weapons being used by the 26 nations participating in exercise, the PLAN once again reminded us of its dual-standard of condemning foreign military collection operations inside the First Island Chain while conducting their collection operations in U.S. and allied waters.
Ready for War
Now into the second year of Russia’s devastating invasion of Ukraine, the world wonders if China might similarly invade Taiwan. During the March 2023 National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference—known as the “two sessions”—Chinese President Xi Jinping gave four speeches saying he is preparing for war.16 Given the PLAN’s production and activities in 2022, if Xi is asking Central Military Commission leaders if the PLA is prepared to invade Taiwan, the most probable answer will soon be yes.
1. 覃俞盛 [Tan Yusheng], “2022年中国海军装备发展回顾 [A Look Back at Chinese Navy Equipment Development in 2022],” 舰船知识, Naval and Merchant Ships, no. 2 (2023): 75.
2. Zhao Lei, “China Unveils Giant Aircraft Carrier CNS Fujian,” China Daily, 18 June 2022; and Liu Xuanzun, “PLA Naval Aviation Force Gets Carrier-based Early Warning Aircraft, Trainer Jets,” Global Times, 8 September 2022.
3. Liu Xuanzun, “China Restarts Mass Production of Type 052D Destroyers, Media Report Says,” Global Times, 23 August 2022; and Brad Lendon and Haley Britzky, “U.S. Can’t Keep up with China’s Warship Building, Navy Secretary Says,” CNN.com, 22 February 2023.
4. H. I. Sutton, “Chinese Increasing Nuclear Submarine Shipyard Capacity,” USNI News, 12 October 2020.
5. Tom Shugart (@tshugart2), Twitter, 19 November 2022, twitter.com/tshugart3/status/1594030283279503361.
6. Anthony Capaccio, “China Has Put Longer-Range ICBMs on Its Nuclear Subs, U.S. Says,” Bloomberg, 18 November 2022.
7. Liu Xuanzun, “PLA Aircraft Carrier Shandong Holds Drills in South China Sea in Full Combat Group,” Global Times, 25 August 2022.
8. Richard D. Fisher Jr., “As China Begins Its Active War Against Freedom, the Biden Administration’s Response Is Insufficient, To Be Kind,” Taipei Times, 15 August 2022.
9. “China Sends Ships into Pacific Amid Japan Security Moves,” Associated Press, 16 December 2022.
10. “Chinese Navy Ship Enters Japan Waters Near Kagoshima Pref Islands,” Kyodo News, 27 April 2022.
11. Dzirhan Mahadzir, “Chinese Warships, Russian Bombers Operate Near Japan,” USNI News, 15 December 2022.
12. Thomas Kika, “China and Russia Alarm Japan with Navy Drills South of Tokyo,” Newsweek, 18 June 2022.
13. Dzirhan Mahadzir, “Chinese, Russian Warships Hold Live Fire Drills off Japan as Part of Vostok 2022,” USNI News, 5 September 2022.
14. John Pomfret and Matt Pottinger, “Xi Jinping Says He Is Preparing China for War,” Foreign Affairs, 29 March 2023.