Defense Media Network

China’s Military Modernizes, Declares Regional Strength

Robust Investments in hardware, technology, and modern operational concepts are yielding major benefits

Questions persist over how quiet the PLAN’s nuclear submarines operate, Erickson said. Acoustic levels of selected Chinese nuclear- and diesel-powered submarines published by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence compare acoustic signatures with Russian submarines. This assessment reveals that China’s conventional submarines are becoming extremely quiet. “Indeed, China has two variants of the Kilo-class diesel submarine that score very well. The Type 093 and 094 nuclear-powered boats, however, are not especially quiet and the PLAN is struggling to reduce noise from their reactors,” Erickson said.

Pleased with its conventionally powered submarines, the PLAN has built 13 Song-class boats and several Yuan-class submarines, considering them much more relevant to scenarios in the near seas – the Yellow, East, and South China seas, Erickson said. The Yuan may also have an air independent power system. “They don’t need the long range of nuclear power, and quiet conventional submarines perform very well in the near seas,” Erickson said.

Qingdao destroyer

The Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) destroyer Qingdao (DDG 113) sails away at the completion of training with the guided missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon (DDG 93). Chung-Hoon conducted a communications and passing exercise, with the Chinese Navy oiler Hongzehu (AOR 881), and Qingdao. The Chinese ships were on a good will cruise to the United States in 2006. Tensions between the two nations have ratcheted up in the intervening years. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ben A. Gonzales

The former Soviet Union ship Varyag, a ski-jump aircraft carrier purchased stripped down and reportedly without engines from Ukraine, is a new element of the PLAN’s surface fleet. With sea trials under way, this Admiral Kuznetsov-class carrier is outfitted with new engines and state-of-the-art technologies.

The J-15 short takeoff but arrested landing (STOBAR) aircraft – Chinese versions of the navalized Russian Su-33 Flanker D – for these carriers already are flying from land-based ski-jump ramps to train pilots for shipboard operations, Erickson said.

“There appear to be no major problems with the J-15 Flying Shark, a multirole air-superiority fighter for China’s first aircraft carrier. Since this will be their first carrier-capable aircraft, the real challenge will be integrating it with the platform. The J-15 is fully capable; however, mastering the system of systems for air operations could prove difficult for the PLAN,” Erickson stated. “Integrating the aircraft with the carrier will be time consuming and costly to achieve a high level of proficiency within a certain time frame. Accidents are inevitable, so the PLAN may go much slower.” A carrier wing is likely to be equipped with 24 Flying Shark aircraft.

China already is using its new Huludao navy airport on the Bohai Gulf to train J-15 pilots with ski-jump takeoffs and arresting gear landings. Other aircraft that could be deployed on the carrier have also been photographed at the air base, Erickson added. The J-15 is equipped with improved Chinese avionics, radar, and missiles, but continues using Russian AI-31F engines. This is another application of foreign technology, and the aircraft’s capabilities are likely to be at least on par with the Su-33. However, China is domestically developing the WS10 turbofan engine that may eventually be installed in the J-15.

“Perhaps we could see a J-15 takeoff and landing on board the Varyag [said to have been renamed Shilang] by early next year [2012]. The PLAN is unlikely to rush the process, understanding how difficult and dangerous it could be. They are aware of carrier aircraft histories and know that the U.S. Navy lost many good pilots and aircraft during carrier operations,” Erickson said.

The real question with China’s aircraft carriers is what the next ship will look like. The PLAN requires at least three carriers in the fleet. There are inherent limitations with short takeoff and arrested-landing aircraft. Shifting from a ski-jump configuration to a catapult and arresting gear deck would provide many advantages in terms of aircraft performance – payload, range, and time on station, Erickson said.

Another potent element of A2/AD is the development and deployment of a Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM). This system of systems is designed to attack a moving aircraft carrier battle group from long range, using land-based mobile launchers, Erickson continued. This DF-21D ASBM, with its maneuvering re-entry vehicle warhead’s radar and terminal infrared guidance and on board processing, has moved from concept to operational capability in just over a decade, he said.

Space-based and land-based over-the-horizon (OTH) sensors augment ASBM targeting, according to Erickson. “Still unclear is how China’s OTH radar and ocean surveillance satellites work together, especially when the architecture is divided among various service arms. China has a less-than-stellar history in joint operations, although they are rapidly improving as they move toward real-time capabilities,” Erickson said.

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Clarence A. Robinson, Jr., is the author of Battleground High, a book in progress on...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-27055">
    Scott W. Schenk

    One question comes to mind: How are relations between China and North Korea? If there is a battle to be waged, we had better clear out. Personally, I think The USA should embrace China’s attempt to militarize itself. It matters not if we agree politically. They, being a super duper power, should allow us to share the oceans. Nobody owns oceans. They just assume they do. Just keep at least 200 miles between us(US) and them

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-27117">

    Well, that’s a question on a lot of people’s minds. What goes on behind the scenes between North Korea and China is unknown. I’ll agree that no one owns he oceans. But China’s neighbors will also attest to the fact that China seems to think it owns the entire South China Sea. If China decides it also owns the entire Pacific, then where does that leave us?