The Modernization of the PLA Navy: Part II

In the previous issue of Chinese Military Update we examined the extensive re-organization of China’s naval strength. This has been facilitated by a transformation of the civilian and military Chinese shipbuilding industry. Chinese naval shipyards are renovating the country’s nuclear fleet and are undertaking joint work with the Russians. By 2008 Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) could have, on combat duty, four ‘093’ nuclear attack submarines and one or two ‘094’ strategic submarines Skval torpedoes and Club anti-ship missiles would make new Kilos the state-of-the-art combat platforms. We continue our analysis with a look at Sino-Russian co-operation in submarine development, which permeates into the development of China’s other naval capabilities.

In April 2002, China and Russia signed the contract to purchase eight Kilo 636 diesel-electric submarines for a total cost of $1.6 billion. These submarines are much more advanced than the four Kilo submarines received by PLAN in 1995-98. Each submarine will be equipped with eighteen standard 533-mm torpedo-launching devices, that could be used both for launching torpedoes and anti-ship missiles as well. Additionally there will be mounted six units SA-N-8 air-defence missile systems (ADMS) on the new Kilo.

Russian naval shipyards held a fierce fighting for Chinese orders. Finally, by mid-2002, orders for new eight Kilo submarines have been distributed in following way: three of them will be built by the Komsomolsk-na- Amure shipbuilding plant (the Khabarovsk region of the Russian Far East), two – by the St. Petersburgbased Admiralteisky Verf plant, one – by the Sormovo shipbuilding plant on the Volga river, in the Nizhny Novgorod region, two - by Northern Machine Building Enterprise (NME) in Severodvinsk city, on White Sea coast. However, additional ‘redistribution’ of Chinese order is not excluded.

The order for eight submarines has been distributed between four Russian enterprises for acceleration of the project’s realization. PLAN is eager to get all eight Kilo submarines by 2006 though the contract contemplates completion of project by 2007. According to preliminary data, at least four of these eight submarines have been launched into the water by mid-2004.

At the same time, in 2002-2003, China was engaged in building of at least six ‘super-Kilo’ conventional diesel-electric submarines. They officially belong to the existing Song 39A project, but their characteristics and weaponry are approaching those of Kilo submarines under construction in Russia. According to the reliable data, their construction could be finished, at Wuhan (Hubei province) naval shipyard by 2006. Reportedly, China got the entire manufacturing technology, including Shkval torpedo and Club missile technology, as part of the contract for Kilo submarines delivery. By August 2004, at least one of these submarines entered PLAN and participated in Dongshan manoeuvres, near the coast of Fun province, not far from Taiwan.

Eventually, by 2006, PLAN could obtain an entire fleet of comparatively advanced diesel-electric submarines: three or four Song-class of older version belonging to the world level of 1980s, four old-generation Kilos received from Russian in 1995-98, eight new-generation Kilos, and at least six Chinese-made ‘super-Kilo’ Song of the new version.

Surprisingly for the foreign defence analysts, PLAN introduced Yuan-class conventional submarine in July 2004. As it immediately became known, there are a lot of similarities between this vessel and Kilo-class submarines, including the torpedo tube system, advanced passive sonar system and a flattened top of the hull. Probably, this submarine would have weapon system and other major systems matching or even surpassing these ones of new Kilo-class submarines.

New destroyers and frigates in PLAN inventory

Officially, at the beginning of 2003, PLAN had twenty-one destroyers; among them, only five that could be considered as comparatively modern ones. (two Sovremenny-class delivered from Russian in 1999-2000, two Luhu-class and one Luhaiclass#167 or 51B project).

In January 2002, Russia concluded with China a $1.4 billion contract for the delivery of two improved Sovremenny destroyers. Their construction started at mid-2002, at mid-2004 they entered the final stage of building, and they could be delivered to China in 2005 or at the beginning 2006. These vessels are designed for countering hostile surface ships and landing craft, countering anti-missile defences of combat and transportation ships, providing fire support to landing units, and patrolling. These destroyer are fitted with advanced missile and artillery assets and torpedo, radar and anti-submarine systems, as well as the Moskit supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles. According to Western experts, new Sovremenny destroyers are the naval vessels of the twenty-first century. Particularly, they are equipped by significantly upgraded, in accordance to special order from China, supersonic anti-ship missiles with the range of 240 km.

However, the programme of ‘Chinese Sovremenny’ construction, initiated in spring 2001, could be an even more expressive one. In 1990s, while building Luhu and Luhai class destroyers, China had to import high capacity DN-80 gas turbine engines from Ukraine. However, in April 2001, Chinese side signed with Ukrainian Nikolaiv city located Zorya Production Association the agreement about transfer of DN-80 gas turbine manufacturing technology. This was done for building four large destroyers, i.e., upgraded Luhai class destroyers with 6000 tons or greater deadweight.

Simultaneously, China started talks with Russian side about installing, on these ‘super-Luhai’ destroyers, RIF-M long-range air defense missile system (ADMS), actually the ship borne version of S300PMU1 ADMS, with 120 km range.

In April 2002 Russia and China signed a 200 million contract for the delivery of two S-300F (RIF) ship-borne ADMS. They have to be installed on two ‘new-generation’ missile destroyers to be finished by construction by 2005 at 436th plant in Dalian city’.

These two destroyers, that have ‘26,700 kW gas-turbine engines manufactured in China with Ukrainian technology’ reportedly, were not inferior to the Sovremenny 956EM, to be built for China in Petersburg.

Corresponding messages emphasized that, by the beginning of 2006, PLAN would have up to nine comparatively modern missile destroyers – two Luhu, one Luhai, two Sovremenny 956E, two Sovremenny 956EM, and two Chinese-made ‘Sovremenny replicas’, thus making a great

challenge to US aircraft carrier groups.

By mid-2003, two Chinese-made destroyers(PLAN specification No. 168 and No. 169) entered the final stage of construction. It became clear that they are not yielding to Sovremenny 956 EM destroyers. Particularly, Chinese ‘super-Sovremenny’ have the same or better anti-ship missiles (evidently, manufactured in China with Russian technological assistance), better ADMS (RIF instead of SA-N-6), better naval electronics and, in addition, have distinctive stealthy features. Moreover, Taiwanese experts supposed that new Chinese-made destroyers would become perfect cell (naval platforms) of the future C4ISR system, covering entire PLA. Probably, two built in Dalian destroyers entered PLAN ranks in 2004 and could even participate in Dongshan manoeuvres in August 2004.

Besides, as it appeared in 2004, two more new PLAN Type 052C destroyers were under building, in 2002-2003, at Shanghai’s Jiangnan shipyard. These two 6500-tonne ships, both launched into the water in 2003, share most of the design with two Type 052 B destroyers, finished by construction at the same Jiangnan shipyard in 2003. Both 052B and one of the 052C destroyers have undergone builder’s trials by mid-2004. 052C destroyers have ‘super advanced’ air defence system, including phased array or planar array radars - a first for the PLAN - and six sets of ADM launchers with a range of 120 km. Evidently, 052C destroyers that are under building at Jiangnan shipyard are close to or identical to the ‘super Sovremenny’ destroyers under building at Dalian shipyard.

In any case, by 2006, PLAN would have, by 2006, ‘enhanced green water fleet’, including several modern nuclear submarines, about twenty comparatively advanced diesel-electric submarines and a group of at least ten modern destroyers. Such a fleet could greatly affect the naval balance not only around Taiwan, but in the South China Sea and East China Sea as well.

Major features of ‘enhanced brown water fleet’ building

According to International Military Balance 2002/2003, PLAN, by the beginning of 2002 had forty-two frigates, including twelve comparatively modern Jiangwei class missile frigates. The same publication notes no change by the beginning 2003. However, in September 2002 Shanghai Hudong Shipyard launched into water the new generation 054-type missile frigate ‘Maanshan’ with stealthy features. This 3500 ton frigate, equipped by advanced ADMS and anti-ship missile, was finished by construction in 2003. Simultaneously, one more frigate of the same class was finished by Guangzhou military shipyard. Generally, Shanghai and Guangzhou shipyards are capable to built at least two missile frigates a year. So by 2006 PLAN fleet of modern frigates could surpass twenty units.

In October 1999, China and Russia concluded the framework agreement about military-technological cooperation in 2000-2004, that envisaged particularly, joint R&D of flying boats’ and ‘principally new missile craft, surpassing a destroyer by combat potential’. Definitely, these agreements have been accomplished.

In July 2001, China imported from Russia ‘flying boat’ manufacturing technology capable to alternate the sea glade with a flight, at 700 km per hour rate, at a height of 10-20 meter over sea surface. Taiwanese experts instantly estimated this ‘flying boat’, equipped with advanced radar and SS-N-22 anti-ship missiles (same as on Sovremenny destroyer) as a ‘serious challenge to Taiwan safety’. The former USSR, at the end of 1980s, successfully tested a 140-ton flying boat. However, the Chinese side intended to build, at the Guangzhou Shipyard, the missile flying boats of 370-400 ton, capable to transport, for sea landing purposes, up to 250 servicemen. Evidently, China has further developed Russia’s technology of new generation flying boat.

In November 2002, China Shipbuilding Heavy Industry Group Corp. (SHIGC) announced that it invested 60 million yuan (about $7.5 million) to establish flying boats design bureau in south-western Chongqing city. It is still impossible to estimate, how many flying boats, and of what kind, PLAN would get by 2006-2008. However, it becomes a significant factor of naval struggle around Taiwan.

In May 1999, Russia successfully tested Molniya (Lightning) missile craft, ‘having no analogues in the world’. Molniya was designed for destroying surface vessels, transporting and landing vessels in the littoral zone and in open sea. Molniya is equipped by SS-N-22 anti-ship missiles, twelve shoulder-launched anti-aircraft Igla missiles and advanced radar system capable to track fifteen targets. It has about 25 ton deadweight and maximal rate of about 50 knots. Molniya has been developed and constructed at Rybinsk city (about 250 km north of Moscow) based Vympel shipbuilding corp.

In June 2001, Vympel corp. shipped on water its first missile craft of Mangust series, even more advanced than Molniya series. Mangust, of 26.1 ton deadweight and 53 knots maximal rate, could be armed by Moskit SS-N-22 anti-ship missiles or even more destructive and longer range Yakhont SS-N-26 missiles. Simultaneously Vympel initiated building next generation Scorpion series missile craft. Both Mangust and Scorpion would go mostly to foreign markets.

According to some data, in 2001-2003, PLAN deployed several dozens missile crafts near the Mainland and at Spratley islands as well. We have only to guess how many replicas of Molniya, Mangust and Scorpion missile craft entered PLAN inventory by mid-2004, and how this fleet would expand by 2006.

Several words about general strategy of PLAN

PLAN priority number one can be described as getting Taiwan, naturally, in the frame of operation to be accomplished jointly with other PLA services. Described above, PLAN development is subordinated exclusively towards this goal. The achievement of this goal is prescribed by CCP programme.

PLAN priority number two is as follows: to establish full, unshared and unchallenged control over southern part of Sea of Japan, entire Yellow Sea, East China Sea (including sea zone of at least 300 nautical miles nm) to the east of Taiwan) and South China Sea. Realization of this task would bring China incalculable economic and geopolitical benefits and could even lift China to the position of ‘second super-empire status contender’.

Both goals are mutually connected: taking over Taiwan is the key to establishing control over the listed above seas, adjacent to the Mainland coast; and at the same time, strengthening the PLAN positions in the seas to the north and south of Taiwan facilitates the naval attack against the Island. The first half of 2004 was characterized by a dramatic rise of China’s crude oil import and, simultaneously, by intensifying of Chinese-Japanese border frictions in East China Sea. Beijing understands the possible hydrocarbon reserves potential of this area and uses PLAN as a pressure tool. This, naturally, pulled some PLA naval forces away from Taiwan.

Still, taking over Taiwan, preparation to the conflict around Taiwan is a priority number one for PLAN. And the item of special importance is how to fight against American aircraft carriers, which would try to approach Taiwan during the conflict?

In 1998-99, PLAN purchased from Russia a lot of ‘aircraft carrier killing software’, i.e., detailed description of the carriers’ most vulnerable points and their hitting expertise.

After the Afghan war, in October-December 2001, when America sent it aircraft carrier groups to Indian Ocean, PLAN researches in this area galvanized greatly. This was exemplified with the publication of articles in the Chinese military media.


One such article considered ‘five assassins of aircraft’ carriers:

1) Aircraft: killer in the air.

2) Submarines: silent killers.

3) Anti-ship missiles: killers on the sea top.

4) Torpedoes: killers in the water.

5) Mines: deepwater killers.


Remarkably, the article cited the Russian weapon most effective in aircraft killing. At the same time, PLAN, particularly its units subordinated to Nanjing Large Military Region (most close to Taiwan) expanded co-operation with Russia in ‘carrier killing’ topics.


Alexander Nemets

The Author is contractor, Foreign Systems Research Center, Scientific Applications International Corp (SAIC)




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