China‘s navy is now the world’s largest maritime military force and will deploy 460 warships by the end of the decade, according to the Pentagon‘s latest annual report on Chinese military power.
The current warship arsenal for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) includes 355 naval platforms, including major surface ships, submarines, aircraft carriers, amphibious warships and mine warfare craft.
By contrast, the U.S. Navy currently has 296 warships, but that arsenal includes 11 aircraft carriers capable of projecting power at long distances. Other Navy ships include 115 cruisers and destroyers, 68 submarines, 31 amphibious warfare ships and 59 small surface combatants and combat logistics ships.
U.S. analysts say the PLAN, financed by China‘s growing economic might, is building new warships at a rapid pace, mainly guided-missile cruisers and destroyers and corvettes, while its submarine force continues to expand.
“These assets will significantly upgrade the PLAN‘s air defense, anti-ship, and anti-submarine capabilities and will be critical as the PLAN expands its operations beyond the range of the PLA’s shore-based air defense systems,” the Pentagon report, made public last week, states. “By the end of 2019, the PLAN had commissioned its 30th Jiangkai II class guided-missile frigate (FFG), completing the production run while it finalizes a follow-on class with additional units under construction.”
As part of its drive to control the South China Sea and East China Sea, the PLAN is beefing up its littoral warfare capabilities with large-scale production of missile-firing corvettes. At least 70 of the ships will be built. Those vessels complement the force’s 60 high-speed, missile-firing catamarans.
Construction of eight Renhai-class missile cruisers began last year with the first new cruiser entering service. Each Renhai warship comes with 113 missile launch tubes capable of firing anti-ship cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles, torpedoes and anti-submarine weapons, as well as land-attack and anti-ship ballistic missiles.
Newer warships are armed with 215 nautical-mile-range YJ-62 anti-ship missiles, and the newest missile, the 250 nautical-mile-range YJ-18A, the report said. Several modernized destroyers are outfitted with supersonic YJ-12A anti-ship missiles that have a range of 290 nautical miles.
The long-range missiles will allow the Chinese navy to threaten U.S. warships at greater distances and are likely built in anticipation of a U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan.
To support its strike missiles, the Pentagon says, the PLAN is building advanced reconnaissance, surveillance and command and control systems to provide targeting information to its warships and submarines.
“The addition of land-attack capabilities to the PLAN‘s surface combatants and submarines would provide the PLA with flexible long-range strike options. This would allow the PRC to hold land targets at risk beyond the Indo-Pacific region from the maritime domain,” the report said.
A focus on subs
Submarines remain a priority development for the PLAN, with new undersea warfare technology and an expansion of shipyards to manufacture underwater vessels, according to the Pentagon report.
“The PLAN currently operates six nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), and 46 diesel-powered attack submarines (SSs),” the report said. “The PLAN will likely maintain between 65 and 70 submarines through the 2020s, replacing older units with more capable units on a near one-to-one basis.”
A major concern is the growth of China‘s anti-ship cruise missile firing submarines that include 12 Russian Kilo-class subs, most of which fire anti-ship missiles. China‘s missile-firing submarine fleet includes 13 Song-class boats and 17 Yuan-class boats, with production of 25 additional Yuan-class subs planned by 2025.
Its nuclear submarine fleet includes 12 vessels, including six attack submarines and six nuclear-missile firing boats that the report described as the country’s first credible sea-based strategic nuclear strike vessels.
A total eight nuclear-missile submarines are planned by 2030 as part of a plan announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping for “stronger growth” in nuclear missile submarines. Additional nuclear attack submarines are being built that “could provide a clandestine land-attack option if equipped with land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs),” the report says.
The Chinese submarine force is expected to surpass the number of American submarines by 2030. But analysts say U.S. underwater warfare capabilities, including nuclear missile-firing subs, attack and non-nuclear missile submarines, will remain greater.
To bolster expeditionary warfare skills, the PLAN is rapidly building amphibious warfare ships, including a new category called the Yushen class. Yushen class are highly capable large-deck amphibious ships that will provide the PLAN with an all-aspect expeditionary capability,” the report said. “The Yushen class can carry a large number of landing craft, troops, armored vehicles, and helicopters.”
The navy already has seven large Yuzhao class amphibious transport docks with an eighth ship undergoing sea trials last year.
The amphibious warship “provide the PLA with greater capacity, endurance, and more flexibility for long-range operations than the PLAN‘s older landing ships,” the report said.
The amphibious ships are deployed with marines and equipped with air-cushioned landing craft, helicopters, tanks, and armored vehicles.
PLAN aircraft carriers include the first domestically built ship, the Shandong, a modified version of the Soviet-built Liaoning sky-jump decked carriers. A third carrier is being built and will be larger than the two earlier carriers and be equipped with a catapult aircraft launcher.
Additional carriers are planned along with new carrier-based aircraft, the report said. The current jet is the J-15, with versions currently being modified for electronic warfare.
The PLAN also has built a prototype of a carrier-based airborne warning and control aircraft that the Pentagon said “appears externally similar to the E-2C/D Hawkeye.”
PLAN marines also have been expanded from two brigades of about 10,000 marines to eight brigades to be used for expeditionary, conventional and irregular warfare. PLAN marines are deployed at China‘s first overseas base at Djibouti on the Horn of Africa.
The marines there provide “the PRC with the ability to support a military response to contingencies affecting the PRC’s investments and infrastructure in the region and the approximately 1 million PRC citizens in Africa and 500,000 in the Middle East,” the report said, using the acronym for People’s Republic of China.