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Warship Modernization

The Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) capabilities will surpass most other navies by 2020. China would have as many aircraft carriers as Britain and India, more nuclear attack submarines than either Britain or France, and as many AEGIS-like destroyers as all the other non-US navies combined. China would have two aircraft carriers, 20-22 AEGIS like destroyers and 6-7 nuclear attack submarines, while United States would have eleven aircraft carriers; 88 AEGIS like destroyers; and 48 nuclear attack submarines. While China would still be considerably behind the US Navy, its growing capabilities could already begin to have significant consequences for the United States and other countries.

According to Chinese military experts Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, by 2015, China will likely be second globally in numbers of large warships built and commissioned since the Cold Wars end . . . by 2020, barring a U.S. naval renaissance, it is possible that China will become the worlds leading military shipbuilder in terms of numbers of submarines, surface combatants and other naval surface vessels produced per year. The Office of Naval Intelligence projects China will have between 313 and 342 submarines and surface combatants by 2020, including approximately 60 submarines that are able to employ submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles or antiship cruise missiles and approximately 75 surface combatants that are able to conduct multiple missions or that have been extensively upgraded since 1992.

The U.S. Navy aims to increase its presence in the Asia Pacific from about 50 ships in 2013 to 60 ships by 2020 and rebalance homeports to 60 percent in the region by 2020. If fiscally constrained to the revised 2013 discretionary caps, over the long term (20132023), the Navy of 2020 would not be able to execute the missions described in the Defense Strategic Guidance. One potential fiscal and programmatic scenario would result in a 2020 Fleet of about 255260 ships, about 30 less than 2013, and about 40 less than the US Navys 2014 budget submission. These are not apples-to-apples comparisons with the Chinese Navy, for many of the same reasons the Soviet Navy looked bigger than it was. The coastal defense requirementns of both China and the Soviet Union result in fleets consisting of large numbers of small vessels, unlike the US Navy, whose vessels are generally larger than those of the Chinese navy.

The PLA Navy has the largest force of principal combatants, submarines, and amphibious warfare ships in Asia. As of 2010 China's naval forces included some 75 principal combatants, more than 60 submarines, 55 medium and large amphibious ships, and roughly 85 missile-equipped patrol craft. The force strength in 2009 consisted of approximately 26 destroyers, 48 frigates, more than 80 missile-armed patrol craft, 58 amphibious ships, 40 mine warfare ships, 50 minor auxiliaries, and over 250 minor auxiliaries and service / support craft.

As of 2007 the PLA Navy numbered 290,000 personnel. According to the US Department of Defense's Annual Report to Congress on The Military Power of the People's Republic of China for 2006, the PLA Navy had 70 principal combatants (25 destroyers and 45 frigates), 55 submarines (50 diesel and 5 nuclear), some 50 medium and heavy amphibious lift ships (an increase of over 14% since 2005), and about 45 coastal missile patrol craft. In May 2007, the Annual Report noted that the PLAN had 72 principal combatants, 58 submarines, some 50 medium and heavy amphibious lift ships, and about 41 coastal missile patrol craft.

Military Power of the People's Republic of China
Type2007 20082009201020152020
Nuclear Ballistic Submarines22233545
Nuclear Attack Submarines556668 69
Diesel Electric Submarines535454545762 5964
Aircraft Carriers000011-2
Destroyers252927252832 3034
Amphibious Ships5355 5055
Tank Landing Ships25262727
Medium Landing Ships25282828
Coastal Patrol (Missile)414570858585

In addition, there is a large fleet of about 600 landing craft, both military and civilian, that could be used for ship-to-shore operations, as well as a handful of air cushion vehicles. Using these assets, China can sealift about one division of 10,000 men. The PLAN also has hundreds of smaller landing craft, barges, and troop transports, all of which could be used together with fishing boats, trawlers, and civilian merchant ships to augment the naval amphibious fleet. The size of the major surface combatant fleet has been relatively stable, with older ships slowly being replaced by newer Chinese-built destroyers and frigates.

In the mid-1980s, the development of second-generation warships was included in the Seventh and Eighth Five-Year Plans as a key area of endeavor in the development of new weapons and equipment. After the reduction of the military forces by one million men in 1985, the Chinese military placed more attention on qualitative army building and on assisting new and high-technology arms and services. Beijing's naval modernization program is designed to prepare the PLA to conduct regional active defensive warfare in support of Chinese economic interests and sovereignty claims--a doctrinal shift away from a focus on the large-scale, land-based guerrilla warfare of Mao's classic "People's War." This approach potentially will give Beijing the "credible intimidation" needed to accomplish political and military goals without having to rely on overwhelming force-on-force superiority. China's modernization programs thus seek to realize short-term improvements in anti- surface warfare (ASuW) and precision strike warfare. Concurrently, the PLAN is acquiring weapons that would be useful in countering potential adversaries operating on naval platforms or from bases in the East and South China Seas, particularly stand-off weapons such as anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and long-range land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs).

In 1988, the PLAN began to re-develop its initial plans for a frigate specialized in both anti-air and anti-ship capabilities.

By the early 1990s, PLAN had a line-of-sight air defense capability out to 13 kilometers and up to 8 kilometers in altitude. Its missiles are judged effective against aircraft as well as sea skimming surface-to-surface or air-to-surface anti-ship missiles. More sophisticated radars reach to the horizon and allow the identification of targets for anti-ship SSMs. Electronic countermeasures have also improved, and the electronic warfare capabilities of the new vessels are a dramatic improvement over the old vessels. Nevertheless, the PLAN continues to lag behind other regional navies, including that of Taiwan, in most technological areas, especially air defense, surveillance, and C4I.

The PLAN continues to have longstanding concerns about its capability to engage enemy aircraft, cruise missiles and precision-guided munitions. This problem is becoming more significant as the Navy strives to operate away from the protection of land-based air defenses. PLAN surface combatants have a limited, and primarily self-defense, anti-air warfare (AAW) capability. Only about twelve of its destroyers and frigates are outfitted with SAM systems; the others are armed only with AAA and possibly man-portable air defense systems. In addition, PLAN warships lack the modern air surveillance systems and data links required for area air defense missions. The combination of short-range weapons and lack of modern surveillance systems limits the PLAN to self-defense and point-defense anti-air warfare only. Consequently, except in unusual circumstances, no PLAN ship is capable of conducting air defense of another ship. Additionally, the PLAN could not reliably defend against either current or projected anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM). China has recognized the importance of countering low-observable aircraft and cruise missiles. Engineering efforts to develop air defense systems capable of detecting and eventually engaging these systems are underway.

Over the course of the 1990s the Navy streamlined and modernized its forces by eliminating large numbers of older ships and replacing them with fewer, more modern units. The number of submarines has declined by about one-half. The PLA Navy's force modernization has emphasized the addition of new, indigenously built destroyers, frigates, supply ships, landing ships, and other smaller vessels. The new Luhu-class destroyers and the new Jiangwei-class frigates represent a substantial improvement over the Navy's current fleet of destroyers and frigates. The PLAN is now better able to defend itself, even in the absence of air cover, in contested waters such as the South China Sea.

The size of the major surface combatant fleet has been relatively stable, with older ships slowly being replaced by newer Chinese-built destroyers and frigates. To increase the survivability of its surface combatants, the Navy seeks to acquire modern antisubmarine and antiaircraft systems. It has had little success in developing these systems and now seeks technical assistance from Russia and, reportedly, Israel. In the interim, China has purchased a few modern systems from Western sources, such as the French-built Crotale air defense system and the Whitehead A244S antisubmarine torpedo.

China's modernization efforts likely are focused on developing torpedoes with state-of-the-art homing and propulsion systems capable of operating in acoustically challenging shallow-water environments. China also may seek advanced torpedo countermeasures like mobile decoys and hard-kill anti-torpedo torpedoes to increase the survivability of its surface ships and submarines.

During 2003 construction began on about 70 military ships, mainly smaller units such as landing craft. By early 2004 China was considering acquisition of another pair of Russian Sovremenny-class destroyers, in addition to the two already purchased. The purchase of additional Kilo-class submarines is under negotiations, on top of the four bought in the late 1990s. China launched 13 attack submarines between 2002 and 2004.

During the period 2001 through 2005, China moved ahead with one of the most ambitious military buildups in the world - including building 23 new amphibious assault ships that could ferry tanks, armored vehicles and troops across the 100 miles to Taiwan. Nearly all of the PLAN's inventory of US-built, World War II-vintage landing ships have been replaced by similar numbers of domestically-produced vessels. These new, larger, and more specialized vessels, combined with the new Dayun-class supply ships, will form the basis of a more modern and expanded fleet. Shortcomings in long-range lift, logistics, and air support, however, hinders China's ability to project amphibious forces.

The PLAN's amphibious fleet provides sealift sufficient to transport approximately one infantry division, although it has yet to conduct training exercises on this scale. The PLAN also has hundreds of smaller landing craft, barges, and troop transports, all of which could be used together with fishing boats, trawlers, and civilian merchant ships to augment the naval amphibious fleet. While in principle large numbers of troops could be transported by such expedient means, in practice such a "human wave" assault would be a high-risk undertaking, particularly in the absence of rehearsed air and sea cover.

China likely has enough mine warfare assets to lay a good defensive and a modest offensive minefield using a wide variety of launch platforms. China is believed to have a variety of mine types available including bottom and moored influence, mobile mines, remotely controlled mines, and propelled-warhead mines. China recently has begun advertising some advanced mines, indicating it may have even more sophisticated mines in its inventory.

Projected Warship Modernization

  Submarines Destroyers Frigates
  Huludao Wuhan Jiangnan Dalian Jiangnan Hudong Huangpu
  Nuclear Diesel Diesel    
Date SSN SSBN                    
2007 1 2 2 1 1 1 1
2008 2 1 4 4 2 2 2 2
2009 6 6 3 3 3 3
2010 2 8 8 4 4 4 4
2011 3 10 10 5 5 5 5
2012 3 12 12 6 6 6 6
2013 14 14 7 7 7 7
2014 4 4 16 16 8 8 8 8
2015 18 18 9 9 9 9
2016 5 20 20 10 10 10 10
2017 5 22 22 11 11 11 11
2018 24 24 12 12 12 12
2019 26 26 13 13 13 13
2020 6   28   28 14   14 14   14

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