A race with US: Beijing plans to project military power in the ocean

China is currently capable of deploying from 3 to 6 naval strike groups over several weeks at distances of 2500 to 3000 nautical miles from the mainland throughout the Indian Ocean. These compounds will mainly consist of Type 054A frigates and Type 052D destroyers.

Source: AP

The original article has been published in Gazeta.ru. Translation and editing by Defenseweek’s team.

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The ongoing modernization of the Chinese Navy and its growing activity in the Indian Ocean region today is largely due to strategic competition with India. Moreover, India’s fears about the possible geopolitical encirclement of the country by China are quite real, given the possibilities of Beijing in Pakistan, as well as competition for influence among small states in the Indo-Pacific region. Jane’s experts, who analyzed the construction trends of the PLA Navy, believe that for a successful confrontation with New Delhi on the seas and oceans of the PLA Navy, approximately three aircraft carriers, 41 destroyers, 77 frigates and 87 submarines are required.

Jane’s recently published report focuses on developing China’s expeditionary capabilities, especially those related to the United States.

Nevertheless, a comparison with the Indian Navy is an indicator of Beijing’s broader capabilities and intentions to strengthen its presence in remote areas of the oceans.

For example, if China’s naval expeditionary capacity is insufficient to support large-scale military operations against India until about 2025–2030 in the Indian Ocean, Beijing will also not be able to withstand large military expeditions against the United States, American experts say.

The bottom line is that if China wants military dominance in the Indian Ocean, it will need a much larger navy and the corresponding logistics infrastructure, which significantly exceeds Beijing’s current capabilities.

Operations lasting more than two to three weeks are likely to require support for supply ships, including merchant ships, and / or overseas bases and / or civilian ports, which were previously deployed in the operational areas.

Relying on civilian ports during a conflict with another state would be very risky, given that the use of civilian ports by the PLA Navy may give the enemy an opportunity to consider a foreign state as a country participating in hostilities on the side of China.

China is currently capable of deploying from 3 to 6 naval strike groups over several weeks at distances of 2500 to 3000 nautical miles from the mainland throughout the Indian Ocean. These compounds will mainly consist of Type 054A frigates and Type 052D destroyers.

Such groups have growing, but still limited capabilities for the implementation of anti-submarine defense. Recently, the PLA Navy received the first “stretched” type 052D destroyer with an expanded flight deck, designed for the naval version of the Z-20 medium-duty helicopter.

The Z-20 naval helicopter will probably need an integrated reconnaissance radar, sonar and the ability to carry anti-submarine torpedoes. However, the capabilities of the PLA Navy helicopters for the implementation of anti-aircraft defense remain limited.

According to Jane’s estimates, in 5-10 years, these groups will begin to receive new destroyers of type 055. However, the ability of naval strike groups to conduct combat operations will significantly depend on the number of integrated supply vessels and / or foreign bases.

In order to increase the combat capabilities of the PLA Navy, it is planned to accelerate the construction of integrated supply vessels of type 901 in excess of the amount necessary to ensure the combat operations of carrier strike groups.

The Chinese fleet is supposed to have ships of the following classes: destroyers of type 052D and 055, frigates of type 054A (and potentially promising frigates of the next generation). These ships can be deployed in remote areas of the ocean.

Type 055 destroyers look more optimized for anti-submarine defense. However, they can inflict crushing blows on surface ships. At the same time, ships of this type significantly improve the capabilities of the PLA Navy to launch missile strikes on coastal targets.

At present, the capabilities of Chinese aircraft carrier strike groups are very limited, especially for long-term operations in remote areas. For example, an aircraft carrier type 001A (or 002) is equipped with a conventional liquid fuel boiler turbine plant. He retained the takeoff springboard from the Soviet prototype, which limits the capabilities of the combat use of aircraft carrier aircraft and the number of aircraft wings to helicopters and fighters of the Shenyang J-15 type. In future generations of Chinese aircraft carriers, it is planned to use only catapults that will allow the launch of heavier aircraft.

The PLA Navy is less likely to use its type 001 and type 002 aircraft carriers as expeditionary forces beyond the seas adjacent to mainland China. Most likely, in order to achieve these goals, the Chinese fleet will expect a promising aircraft carrier of the 003 type to enter the combat structure of the Navy.

This ship will be equipped with a nuclear power plant and electromagnetic catapults, which will allow the launch of heavier aircraft with a greater combat load and a significant combat radius. The commissioning of the first aircraft carrier of this project is expected by the end of the 2020s. According to preliminary data, a total of four ships of this type will be built.

By 2030–2035, the introduction of type 003 aircraft carriers and type 901 integrated support vessels into the Chinese fleet could allow the creation of 2-3 aircraft carrier strike groups, each of which will have approximately 50 strike, anti-submarine, and reconnaissance aircraft of the J-15, J-20 type. or J-31.

Also, the Chinese fleet will need a variety of auxiliary vessels, including:

  • hospital ships (today the Navy PLA has only type 920 Daishan Dao);
  • rescue ships for submarines (in China, three such ships, type 926 “Dalao”);
  • semi-submersible vessels (designed to move bulky, extremely heavy loads, such as sections of offshore platforms and oil platforms, submarines, cranes, ships, moorings, etc.).

According to Jane’s forecasts, in 2035 the PLA Navy will have the following ships:

  • 12 type 055 destroyers (a promising large 4th generation destroyer destroyer);
  • more than 17 destroyers of the 052D type (the 052D multipurpose missile destroyer is a deep modernization of the well-proven Project 052C ship);
  • 28 frigates of type 054A (type of frigates with guided missile weapons);
  • 4-6 aircraft carriers;
  • 6-8 universal landing ships of type 075;
  • 8-10 amphibious assault ships of type 071;
  • 4-8 type 901 and 9 type 903A integrated supply vessels;
  • more than two promising frigates, replacing the ships of type 054A.

In the meantime, the structure of the PLA Navy, predicted until 2030, involves the focus of the fleet’s efforts to protect Chinese foreign investment, including physical infrastructure abroad, sea trade routes and Chinese citizens abroad.
Chinese Marine Corps Deployment

Without significant marine contingents, talking about the projection of military power in any region of the globe is irrelevant, as well as discussing possible expeditionary operations. And in China, they are well aware of this.

Since 2017, the strength of the PLA Navy Marine Corps has been growing rapidly. Three years ago, it ranged from 10 thousand to 12 thousand people, and now it reaches 35 thousand soldiers and commanders. The Chinese marines managed to achieve such a significant increase in numbers, mainly due to the transfer of PLA ground forces to its composition. Ultimately, the number of naval infantry in the PLA Navy can be 40 thousand. Fighters, and it will include six brigades with the appropriate aviation units and special forces.

Due to such a rapid increase in the number of Chinese marine corps and an increase in the number of landing platform / dock (LPD) type 071 in the Navy, there is a possibility that the state’s marine corps may adopt a concept of operations similar to the concept of combat use of expeditionary units US Marine Corps.

A ship of type 071 has a displacement of up to 20 thousand tons, has a crew: ship’s crew – 120, landing force – 500-900; carrying capacity: up to 15-20 armored vehicles; landing craft: 4 hovercraft and 2 landing craft; air group: 2-4 helicopters Z-8 Super Frelon.

This would allow the PLA Navy’s marines to carry out combined-arms operations, including evacuation of non-combatants (NEO) from the war zone, humanitarian aid / disaster relief (HA / DR), and limited operations to combat rebels without advanced ground weapon bases and material and technical means.

The expeditionary detachment of the marine corps usually consists of amphibious assault transport docks (LPD) and amphibious assault ships (LSD), as well as airborne and amphibious platforms on board. The strength of such a compound is approximately 2,600 sailors and marines. The detachment is capable of conducting hostilities for up to 15 days with appropriate supplies of food and other materiel.

By 2030, China will be able to stage an amphibious compound at the theater of operations, the presence of which will allow Beijing to conduct air and ground operations in emergency situations abroad.

Currently, ships of the 075 type (the universal landing ship of the Chinese Navy, a helicopter carrier with a continuous flight deck, LHD) are receiving equipment from the PLA Navy. The construction of a series of amphibious transport docks of type 071 (LPD) is ongoing. In addition, the PLA Navy has a significant number of large amphibious assault ships of the 072A type. With a similar fleet of amphibious assault landing craft, the Chinese fleet will be able to conduct naval amphibious and ground operations. In this regard, the PLA Navy will enter the indicators of the expeditionary forces of the United States Marine Corps.

The PLA Navy launched its first ship of the 075 (LHD) type in September 2019. It is likely to be commissioned in 2020 or at the beginning of 2021. According to Jane’s, three ships of this class are already under construction at the Hudong-Zhonghua shipyard in Shanghai. The Type 075 Universal Landing Ship can be equipped with 36 helicopters, approximately ten hovercraft (LCAC), and probably more than 30 amphibious amphibious infantry fighting vehicles.

UDC of type 075 has a maximum speed of 23 to 25 knots (similar to the integrated supply ship of type 901, and this is very important), which allows it to cross the Taiwan Strait during the day. However, the introduction of the UDC type 075 into the combat squad should be considered not only in the context of unforeseen circumstances around Taiwan, but also regarding possible expeditionary operations far beyond the Chinese coast.

At present, China is likely to be able to deploy two amphibious task forces of limited composition anywhere in the Middle East, the Indian Ocean region, or, possibly, in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Ocean.

By 2030–2035, the PLA Navy and the Marine Corps will be able to form up to six amphibious expeditionary marines. First of all, this will be determined by the presence in the combat structure of the fleet of universal landing ships of type 075.

The future China Marine Expeditionary Force may consist of one ship of type 075 LHD and two LPDs of type 071 (or one LPD of type 071 and large amphibious assault ships of type 072A). On equipment, such a connection can have approximately 35 helicopters, 50 amphibious armored combat vehicles of type 05 and ten air hovercraft (LCAC) of type 726, as well as about 2,500 marines and sailors.

However, there are many problems that China must overcome before using various types of landing ships in operations and combat operations, as well as related weapons and military equipment. As usual, for the entire PLA, the Chinese marines have no combat experience. Many Marines of the PLA Navy are new recruits or have been transferred to the Marines from the PLA ground forces.

In addition, neither the PLA Navy nor the marines today have the required number of modern helicopters, sufficient for the successful implementation of naval landing operations. Any of the Chinese expeditionary marines will require a significant number of transport and attack helicopters. In this regard, the Marines may compete with the PLA for the right to receive new helicopters.

While the 5th generation F-35 fighter can be based on the US Wasp LHD class universal landing ship, it is expected that only a helicopter wing can be based on the Chinese UDC type 075 (LHD). This suggests that even in future naval infantry the PLA Navy will be very difficult to operate without the support of aircraft carriers in the presence of strong enemy air defense.

In addition to the well-known projects currently underway in China, the inclusion of unmanned assets in the PLA’s naval forces should be expected. Most likely, the PLA Navy marines will use the experience of organizing unmanned landing assaults of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory (MCWL), an American laboratory established in 1995 at one of the bases of the US Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia.

Marines of the Navy PLA are already experimenting with unmanned amphibious platforms. For example, in April 2019, the Wuchang Corporation (under the control of China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) announced the creation of the world’s first unmanned assault reconnaissance landing boat-trimaran Marine Lizard.

“With regard to the development of the marine corps as a branch of the PLA’s Navy, China’s approach based on the experience of the US Marine Corps, which is very rich in experience, seems more than reasonable,” the former deputy chief of the Main Operations Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces told Gazeta.ru RF Lieutenant General Valery Zaparenko.

Analyzing the reality of Chinese plans to create a powerful ocean fleet capable of challenging the strongest American in the world, it is enough to recall the recent statement by President Xi Jinping. In his speech on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, he said: “No force can stop the advancement of the Chinese people and the Chinese nation.” [end]