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China is building more modern surface combatants and expanding its aircraft carrier and logistics force to grow its naval influence further from shore, according to the Pentagon’s annual report on Chinese military power.

By 2025, the People’s Liberation Army Navy is expected to grow to 400 hulls, up from its fleet of 340, according to the Pentagon’s annual China military report estimates released on Tuesday.

“The PLAN is an increasingly modern and flexible force that has focused on replacing its previous generations of platforms that had limited capabilities in favor of larger, modern multi-role combatants,” reads the report.
“As of 2021, the PLAN is largely composed of modern multi-role platforms featuring advanced anti-ship, anti-air, and anti-submarine weapons and sensors.”

The report, which sums up Chinese military developments in 2021, pegs the growth to the PLAN adding more major surface combatants. The ship total dipped last year from 355 due to a transfer of more than 20 older corvettes to the China Coast Guard.

“At the close of 2021, the PLAN was building an aircraft carrier, a new batch of guided-missile destroyers (DDG), and a new batch of guided missile frigates (FFG),” reads the report.

The bulk of the surface expansion is contained in two programs, the 7,500-ton Luyang III guided-missile Type-52D destroyers and the larger 13,000-ton Type-55 Renhai-class guided-missile cruisers, according to the report.


Renhai-class cruiser

The Luyang III destroyers are built around a dual-band active electronically scanned array (AESA) air search radar and a 64-cell vertical launch system for multiple missiles similar to the Mk-41 VLS on U.S. surface ships.

The Renhais are much larger with a similar radar and 112 cell VLS cells “and can carry a large load out of weapons including [anti-ship cruise missiles], surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), torpedoes, and anti-submarine weapons along with likely [land-attack cruise missiles] and anti-ship ballistic missiles when those become operational,” according to the report.

As of May, the Chinese have five of the Renhai-class cruisers in commission, according to the South China Morning Post.

The newer classes of ships, with a variety of anti-surface and anti-air missiles, allow the PLAN better protection as its task groups venture farther from the protective umbrella of its shore-based air defense systems and mimic the basic construct of the American Aegis Combat System.

The emphasis on the platforms are anti-surface weapons, according to the report.
“The PLAN recognizes that long-range ASCMs require a robust, over-the-horizon (OTH) targeting capability to realize their full potential. To fill this capability gap, the PLA is investing in joint reconnaissance, surveillance, command, control, and communications systems at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels to provide high-fidelity targeting information to surface and subsurface launch platforms,” reads the report.

The PLAN is developing new submarines more slowly than it’s developing surface ships, “as it works to mature its force, integrate new technologies, and expand its shipyards,” reads the report.
“The PLAN currently operates six nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN), and 44 diesel-powered/air-independent powered attack submarines (SS/SSP). 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.”

The Pentagon speculated in the report that China is developing a nuclear guided-missile submarine that would field both anti-surface and land-attack cruise missiles, a new addition this year.


Type-093A Shang-class attack submarine

“By the mid-2020s, China will likely build the SHANG class (Type 093B) guided-missile nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSGN). This new SHANG class variant will enhance the PLAN’s anti-surface warfare capability and could provide a clandestine land-attack option if equipped with land-attack cruise missiles,” reads the report.

In terms of amphibious ships, the report highlighted not only the rapid development of the Yushen-class of big-deck amphibious warships, but also the increased use of civilian roll-on/roll-off car carriers that can go into service for military operations.

“This flexibility decreases the requirement to build additional PLAN amphibious ships to successfully assault Taiwan. This operational flexibility also provides operational and logistics units within the [PLAN Marine Corps] the training and proficiency to move between military and civilian vessels not just in a Taiwan scenario, but in any maritime environment where civilian transport vessels are available to the PLANMC and PLAN amphibious ships are not,” reads the report.

In late August, the PLAN held a major amphibious drill using civilian ferries to launch landing craft from sea, USNI News reported.

The PLAN has two operational aircraft carriers, Liaoning and Shandong, based on the Soviet Kuzenetzov, a short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR). Both carriers have been active in the Western Pacific. A third carrier, Fujian, will feature a catapult launch and arrested landing and is expected to be operational by 2024.

“This design will enable it to support additional fighter aircraft, fixed-wing early warning aircraft, and more rapid flight operations and thus extend the reach and effectiveness of its carrier-based strike aircraft,” reads the report.

The PLAN continues to refine its carrier aircraft – primarily the Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark, which is an unlicensed copy of the Russian Sukhoi Su-33 fighter.


A People’s Liberation Army Navy J-15 carrier fighter takes off from Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning (16) during a December 2021 deployment. PLAN Photo
“In addition to the standard J-15 fighter that currently operates from PLAN carriers, there is a catapult-capable J-15 variant in development,” reads the report.
“The aircraft is currently testing from land-based steam and electromagnetic catapults. A third J-15 variant, the J-15D, is a two-seat aircraft equipped with wingtip electronic support measures/electronic intelligence gathering pods as well as several conformal antennas. The aircraft is intended to fill a dedicated electronic attack role. China is also developing a carrier capable variant of the fifth-generation J-31 fighter.”

All told, the report concludes that the PLAN is working toward deploying an operational carrier battle group in the next several years beyond the first island chain that doesn’t need the shore-based defenses of the rest of the PLA.

“The PLAN’s ability to perform missions beyond the First Island Chain is modest but growing as it gains more experience operating in distant waters and acquires larger and more advanced platforms,” reads the report.
 
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Fujian

Type 003 Fujian launch ceremony
Type 003 Fujian launch ceremony
Most prominent event this year was the launch of CV-18 Fujian, the third aircraft carrier for PLAN. Launched on the 17th of June in Shanghai, Fujian represents multiple firsts for PLAN, being the first fully indigenous design constructed, the first CATOBAR — meaning catapult equipped — aircraft carrier and already featuring electromagnetic catapults comparable to the new “EMALS” system on US Navy “Ford”-class carriers. The ship is now fitting out at Jiangnan Shipyard, and state media reported in September that mooring trials have begun. A reasonable estimate would be that fitting out will take up most of 2023, with sea trials to follow.


Amphibs
Type 075 LHD Hainan (31)
Type 075 LHD Hainan (31). Note the many Changhe Z-18 helicopters on deck.
In further carrier aviation-related developments the third and final Type 075 amphibious assault carrier, hull number 33 Anhui was commissioned on the 10th of November. Whether further hulls will see construction is not yet confirmed. Hudong Shipyard in Shanghai is also finishing work on a Type 071E dock landing ship (LPD) ordered by Thailand. The ship appears to have finished her sea trials and received a hull number. Commissioning may follow soon, although some equipment such as sensors and communication suites have not been installed yet.

Interestingly construction also appears to continue for Type 072A tank landing ships (LST), with the launch of one hull circulating on Chinese social media in July this year. It is unclear at this stage if further LST will be built but this may be a case of recapitalising the existing fleet on a one for one-basis.

Surface combatants
Type 055 Destroyer Nanchang PLAN
Type 055 destroyer Nanchang. Image via Icloo/PDF
Three programs for major surface combatants saw further developments. The Type 055 “large destroyer” had three more hulls out of eight built commissioned with PLAN, with only one ship still awaiting handover to the Navy. While no visual confirmation exists yet for further vessels under construction, the American Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) claims that production for the type is indeed currently underway.

The second destroyer-program, for further Type 052D multirole destroyers has seen renewed construction after a short pause. Previously 25 Type 052D were built at Jiangnan and Dalian shipyards. Production is now again underway at both yards for seven or more units according to ONI. Five hulls are can be spotted at Dalian, with two of these at a very advanced stage of construction, suggesting a launch soon. Jiangnan appears to be building a further two hulls, with more ships likely to come. It is not yet clear how much these new destroyers will differ in configuration to preceding units, though it is safe to assume they will feature extended flight decks to also accommodate the new Z-20 naval helicopter.

Finally, more units of the Type 054A multirole and ASW-frigate have been built at Hudong in Shanghai and Huangpu in Guangzhou. Initially speculated to comprise a batch of 20 new frigates, bringing the total 054A program up to 50 units, it appears now this effort may be cut short after ten hulls and be followed by the much speculated on Type 054B-frigate. Several hull modules not matching the beam for 054A have been spotted at Hudong, though their identity as 054B remains unconfirmed as of this writing. At least one hull of the new 054A build program, 522 Ziyang, has been commissioned already, suggesting rapid integration of all new frigates into PLAN. This is likely aided also by the Chinese Navy having passed on 22 Type 056 corvettes to the Coast Guard, freeing up resources to focus on designs suitable for antisubmarine (ASW) duties.

Hudong Shipyard is also finishing a contract order for four Type 054AP for Pakistan, with two ships already handed over and another two following soon.

Submarines
Information is less forthcoming on submarine construction. A further modification of the Type 039B “Yuan” diesel-electric submarine, with at least two boats built, was seen in 2021, but details on current production remain uncertain. More importantly however the enlarged construction facilities at Huludao for nuclear powered attack and ballistic missile submarines (SSN & SSBN) appear to have commenced construction. One unidentified SSN was seen on satellite imagery at the facility in April this year. However, whether this indicates construction on a larger scale anytime soon is yet to be confirmed.
Outlook
The outlook for 2023 suggests further notable modernisation and growth for the Chinese Navy. This assessment is based on, but not limited to, construction of 052D destroyers, possibly the new 054B frigate and developments with the facilities for nuclear powered submarines. Any indication of renewed construction also for amphibious hulls or the Type 055 destroyer would only enhance this solid trend further.
 
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