How the Chinese navy competes with Russia?
In principle domestic researchers generally bypass Chinese naval thought with their attention, while Western researchers are just beginning to approach it
China is rapidly increasing its naval power – the country is setting records for the pace of commissioning of new warships. What kind of warships do the Chinese prefer to create, whom do they consider as an adversary – and what does the Russian military shipbuilding program look like against this background?
On December 26, 2019, two warships were launched at a Chinese shipyard in Dalian – the destroyer of project 052D (well known to the Russian Navy for joint exercises and friendly calls at our ports) and the latest strike missile ship – the destroyer of project 055.
The latter, many experts simply refuse to call the word “destroyer”, because in size it exceeds any cruiser. By the number of missiles, too, the ship has 128 launch cells, from which missiles of any type can be launched. Only monstrous South Korean destroyers of the King Sedgon type have the same number of universal cells, and, for example, American missile cruisers of the Ticonderoga type have only 122. And destroyers of the Arly Burke type generally 96.
In terms of displacement and size, Project 055 is even superior to the domestic Atlant-class missile cruisers, Project 1164, of which Russia has three units in service – Moscow in the Black Sea Fleet, Marshal Ustinov in the North and Varyag in the Pacific. The Chinese have only one 055 in service, but five more are under construction and there are plans for another 10.
The Chinese are building their Navy at a pace that even the United States is unable to withstand today. Of course, the Chinese fleet has a lot of technological problems, no experience, no traditions – but potentially China has the second most powerful surface fleet in the world. If this goes further, then, firstly, the separation of China from the countries closest to the naval power will be consolidated to insurmountable values, and secondly, sooner or later they will “pull up” the submarine fleet to the modern level, which will finally fix behind the Chinese fleet the second place in the world in strength. Most likely – for a long time.
The history of Chinese naval success contains useful lessons for Russia as well.
The beginning of glorious deeds
The impetus that made it clear to the Chinese elites that the sea needs to intensify was the 1979 war with Vietnam. It was then that the USSR Navy, by its actions, ruled out the very possibility for the Chinese to somehow use warships against their neighbor. However, then Soviet submariners even wrapped up an American aircraft carrier group, whose task was to “crush” the former enemy – Vietnam, supporting its ally – China.
As a result of the war, Deng Xiaoping was able to defeat competitors in the struggle for power in China, and the argument about the low effectiveness of the PLA in the battles played an important role in his victory. Having concentrated all power in his hands, he proceeded to his famous economic reforms.
After 12 years, the USSR collapsed. By that time, China was still a poor country, but mass export of consumer goods to the whole world and the mass production of consumer electronics starting to unfold has already shown – the country’s role in the world will grow. Under these conditions, China invested in updating its armed forces. Russia, which was in a severe crisis, was ready for any deals, and China managed to get huge volumes of modern weapons from the Russian Federation at that time, including naval weapons.
So, until the mid-nineties, China received two submarines of project 877E, then immediately the first two Varshavyanks of project 636. In the nineties, four destroyers of project 956 turned out to be in China (still in service, undergoing modernization). Anti-submarine helicopters and torpedoes went offshore, and it was better in technical level than the Russian Navy, components for ships. In the 2000s, China bought eight more Varshavyanka. But the most important thing that he started buying is technology. Radar, sonar systems, general ship systems, various types of weapons – this was supplied by Russia. She taught the Chinese how to make rockets, from anti-aircraft to analogs of the Caliber. Gas turbine production technology was obtained from Ukraine, with which China also actively collaborated.
But then, in the 2000s, China, already firmly on its feet, was still moderately investing in naval power. The Third Taiwan crisis passed, the need for the Navy after the humiliating voyages of American aircraft carriers near the Chinese coast was already obvious, but so far there was not enough strength, experience and money. The Chinese built small series of destroyers, two to six units each, built primitive and ineffective frigates, trained, worked out technical solutions and gained experience. A large series was built only “consumables of the war” – Project 022 missile boats.
But by the end of the 2000s, everything had changed.
Essential for creating a successful fleet is the presence of a national marine doctrine. And this should not be a formal dry document drawn up by a group of officials – it should be an ideology shared, if not by the masses, then by the elites. For the United States, for example, this is global dominance through the projection of forces from sea to land and the suppression of any potential competitors. Once upon a time, such an ideology for Britain was the idea of supremacy on the seas, that is, full control over all maritime communications.
Without such an ideology, a fleet cannot be built – because in its absence there is no criterion for the correctness of decisions made in the process of building a navy. Why do we need a fleet, what will it do, where, against whom, why, and why does the fleet need to do this? “Ideology” answers these questions, and the questions how many ships are needed and which ones, it answers too. If there is no ideology, then there are no answers, and one cannot understand whether the right ships are being built or not. Russia, for example, does not have such a doctrine.
In principle, domestic researchers generally bypass Chinese naval thought with their attention, while Western researchers are just beginning to approach it. The Chinese are studying everything and everyone. And, I must admit, judging by indirect signs, they have a doctrine, and they studied foreign (primarily American) experience very deeply. Yes, and Russian, probably, too. The fact that behind all the Chinese actions in naval construction is an extremely well-thought-out plan is obvious.
Since the late 2000s, the expansion of China’s naval power begins. At this point, China already had all the components for success – money, technology, shipbuilding capacities, an understanding of why they needed all this.
The first signs were frigates of project 054 (then 054A). These ships, which were to become the most massive units of the Chinese Navy, the Chinese deliberately made simple. Following the example of the American admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the Chinese have relied on a massive cheap ship, capable of, nevertheless, perform tasks in the distant sea zone and make ocean crossings.
If Russia turns its frigates into sophisticated “mini-destroyers” that are at the peak of progress, but are being built in a series of several ships for 10–12 years, then the Chinese put simple and massive weapon systems on their frigate. They quietly launched their shipbuilding conveyor, knowing that they would not meet difficulties with these simple ships. To date, 32 units have been built by these frigates (054 and 054A). The Chinese did not change the design of the ship from one unit to another, did not fit into the project 054A brought to mind, but simply built and built. As a result, they have more of these frigates than all warships “from the corvette to the aircraft carrier” in the Russian Navy.
But they are not the only ones. The Chinese built the same massive series of the same type and simple warships to protect their coastal waters.
Since 2012, 44 have been built at Chinese shipyards for the Chinese fleet and two more corvettes of Project 056, light and simple ships of the near sea zone, are being completed. In addition, they are also built for export.
As in the case of frigates 054 and 054A, these ships are intentionally made simpler than the Chinese could do with their capabilities – but there are really a lot of them. And they are really cheap, because with such mass character and almost complete identity of each “unit”, the savings on each ship can exceed 20% of the initial price. And the cost of maintaining a fleet of the same type of ships is much less than that of the “zoo” of dozens of different projects, as, for example, in the Russian Navy.
But in the case of the destroyers, the Chinese did not stint on high-tech. Before the appearance of aircraft carriers in their fleet, it was the destroyers that were intended as the main attack ships of the surface fleet. Therefore, China put on these ships the very best that it had. It is not surprising that China had fewer of these ships than simple and cheap frigates and corvettes. They, however, are many. From the beginning of the 90s, China built one or two destroyers of its original projects, and so on until the 052C series of six ships, which became the last Chinese “training” destroyers. After them went a series of modern, equipped with radars with phased antenna arrays, destroyers 052D, which are already mentioned above.
These are already very modern ships, which made a huge impression on the Russian sailors who became acquainted with them. Russia will receive ships of the same class at best in the second half of the 2020s, when the projected now “large” frigates of project 22350M will begin to surrender. If the project is called, “go.”
Two aircraft carriers became the “cherry on the cake” of the PRC Navy, one of which, Liaoning, began to be built in the USSR, and the second, Shandong, was completely built in China, but on the basis of the Soviet construction. Today, only three countries in the world have more than one aircraft carrier, and China is one of them. Soon, China’s aircraft carrier fleet will replenish with a much more powerful ship – a large aircraft carrier with catapults, very similar to American ships of this type. Together with the giant destroyers of Project 055 and numerous destroyers of other types, these ships will become the basis of strike groups. Which will be able to fight for supremacy at sea near Chinese territory and to prevent the blockade of China from the sea, as American strategists are fantasizing about today.
And simple tasks in secondary areas can be accomplished by the huge masses of frigates and corvettes – as Admiral Zumwalt once wanted to do in the US Navy.
Of course, it doesn’t boil down to these ships – China is building huge universal landing ships comparable only to the American ones, ships of the floating rear, which make it possible to ensure autonomous operations of the Chinese naval groups in different parts of the world. The Chinese fleet has long been no longer coastal and not weak – it is a powerful, albeit not fully balanced, fleet that is developing intensively.
In its capabilities to build surface warships, China lags only behind the United States. The Chinese are left to master nuclear power plants, and countries such as Japan, France, and Russia will remain behind China in their shipbuilding capabilities. While the Chinese do not know how to make atomic submarines, what they do does not impress either probable opponents or potential allies. But this is a matter of time.