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South Sea Fleet [SSF]

The South Sea (Naihai) Fleet traces its lineage to the establishment of the Central China Military Region Navy Headquarters in December 1950 in Guangzhou where it incorporated former KMT vessels. In October 1955 the unit was redesignated as the South Sea Fleet and sometime therafter the headquarters was relocated to Zhangjiang.

While the PLA Navy may not be able to justify force modernization in response to a Taiwan contingency, planning for a South China Sea contingency have evidently been given high priority. The first unit of the new Type 071 Yuzhao class of landing ships dock, commissioned in 2007, would have no application to Taiwan, but would be essential in an island-hopping South China Sea operation. Of equal but generally unappreciated significance, the Type 920 Anwei-class Hospital Ship, launched in August 2007, would not seem necessary equipment in an amphibious invasion to Taiwan, since the island is so close to the mainland. However, for operations in the more distant waters of the South China Sea, it would be essential.

The commander of the South Sea Fleet was also the deputy commander of the Guangzhou Military Region. The flagship of the fleet is the AOR/AK 953 Nanchang. The SSF is responsible for defending the sector from the Fujian/Guangdong provincial border southward to the Vietnamese border. In 1993, SSF headquarters, located at Zhanjiang, exercises operational and administrative control over one submarine, one destroyer, and two missile/torpedo attack boat flotillas, as well as naval bases, support facilities and communications outposts.

The current organization of the SSF was not thought to have changed much since 1991 though there are two points in question. The first concerns the number of destroyer flotillas under the South Sea Fleet. Jane's Fighting Ships 2002-2003 indicated that the South Sea Fleet has three destroyer/escort flotillas. Kondapalli lists two destroyer/escort flotillas as does Chinese Defense Today who indicates that one is a destroyer flotilla and the other is a frigate flotilla. The Directory of PRC Military Personalities only clearly identifies one destroyer flotilla. Cole in his article on PLAN organization concurs.

The number of submarine flotillas was in question, with both Jane's Fighting Ships 2002-2003 and Kondapalli listing two flotillas but with Cole identifying the 32nd and indicating the possibility of a second flotilla. Jane's Sentinel only identifies the 32nd which it describes as having two squadrons and roughly 10 Romeo class submarines and more than 4 Ming's. There was also some question over how many amphibious flotillas there are as most sources indicate the existence of one while Jane's Fighting Ships 2002-2003 states that there are two. The South Sea Fleet is also believed to have one mine warfare flotilla and roughly two fast attack or patrol boat flotilla.

The SSF expanded significantly since its early days. China captured the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974 and occupied a number of islands in the Sprately Archipelago in 1988. Both island groups were placed under the countrol of Zhangjiang. Since the late 1980s, changes in Chinese threat perceptions, coupled with increased interest in the South China Sea, have caused China to begin to shift its priorities to the SSF.

The unidentified minesweeper formation (which either is the mine warfare flotilla or is an element of that unit) conducted a variety of training exercises around January 26, 2003 in the South China Sea. The unit was ordered to proceed to a certain quadrant in the South China Sea and to conduct mine sweeping exercises. The article goes on to indicate that the unit was not previously informed of the exact locations of the mines. The unit is reported to have conducted more night/day operations and has worked to improve its ability to sweep multiple types of mines at the same time. [People's Navy 18 Feb 2003 (PLA Activities Report February 2003)]

The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) on 27 August 2020 "expelled" a US warship that "trespassed" into China's territorial waters in the Xisha Islands in the South China Sea, near an ongoing Chinese military exercise zone that reportedly featured live-fire anti-ship ballistic missile launches. The USS Mustin, a US Navy guided missile destroyer, "trespassed" into the China's territorial waters in the Xisha Islands, and the PLA Southern Theater Command dispatched naval and air forces to track, identify and warn it leave.

Chinese military observers said it is very dangerous for a US warship to sail near a PLA exercise zone that possibly features anti-ship missile launches, and such a provocative act could risk accidents. The guidance system on anti-ship missiles could mistakenly recognize the unexpected intruding ships as its training target, as such targets are likely designed to simulate potentially hostile ships, and the ship could be unintentionally sunk, analysts warned.

This was the second time in a week that the US has conducted risky operations in or near a PLA exercise zone. On 5 August 2020, a U-2 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft trespassed in a no-fly zone that was hosting a live-fire drill by the PLA Northern Theater Command, said Defense Ministry spokesperson Wu Qian in a statement on that day. The U-2 plane could easily have caused misunderstanding and misjudgment, and even triggered an air and maritime accident, Wu said. Chinese military experts said that, as in the warship case, the spy plane could have been mistaken as a training target and shot down.


  • Chinese Defence Today "PLA Navy South Sea Fleet"
  • Bernard D. Cole. "The Organization of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)" The People's Liberation Army as Organization: Reference Volume v1.0, James C. Mulvenon and Andrew N. D. Yang eds. (Santa Monico: RAND; 2002)
  • Bernard D. Cole. The Great Wall at Sea: China's Navy Enters the Twenty-First Century (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press; 2001): p.83
  • Directory of PRC Military Personalities Serold Hawaii Inc, November 2002
  • Directory of PRC Military Personalities Serold Hawaii Inc, June 2000
  • Jane's Fighting Ships 2002-2003
  • Jane's Sentinel - China and Northeast Asia: January 2001 - May 2001; p. 109
  • Srikanth Kondapalli. "China's Naval Structure and Dynamics" Strategic Analysis (October 1999)
  • United States Navy. Office of Naval Intelligence. Worldwide Threat to U.S. Navy and Marine Forces; Volume II Country Study: China (December 1993) [ONI-2660S-007-93-VOL II]
  • "People's Liberation Army - Order of Battle" by Xinhui @ China Defense.com 6 Aug. 2002

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Page last modified: 01-08-2021 14:08:23 ZULU