How China’s navy went rogue to get its first aircraft carrier

liaoning aircraft carrier
China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning during a military drill in the western Pacific Ocean, April 18, 2018.

  • China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is a total refit of an incomplete Soviet cruiser-carrier.
  • China’s navy acquired the carrier in the late 1990s, but it did so without approval from Beijing.
  • After a bit of subterfuge and years of delays, the Liaoning was launched in 2012.
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China was proud to launch its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in 2012. This vessel was a refit of an incomplete Soviet Kuznetsov-class cruiser carrier.

However, the story of how China got that ship in the first place may as well be a comedy – because the carrier was actually a rogue acquisition for the Chinese military against the wishes of the government in Beijing. And it was undertaken by a basketball player who claimed he wanted to build a floating casino.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy first became interested in acquiring an aircraft carrier in 1970, when China was still on bad terms with both the Soviet Union and the United States. However few concrete steps were taken, because the cost and complexity of such an endeavor far exceeded the PLAN’s limited capabilities during the Cold War.

The Soviet Navy did deploy its first carriers in the 1970s: Kiev-class vessels that could launch Yak-38 Forger jump jets of limited effectiveness. By the 1980s, the Soviets began construction of two more promising Kuznetsov-class carriers. These had a “ski jump” ramp, allowing more conventional – and much higher-performing – Su-33 Flanker fighters to take off from it.

Like the earlier Kiev class, the Kuznetsov was technically an “aircraft-carrying cruiser” due its powerful armament of 12 P-700 Granit antiship missile systems.

Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning towed through Bosphorus Strait
Tugboats and pilot ships guide the half-built aircraft carrier Varyag under the Bosphorus Bridge, November 1, 2001.

This technicality was important, as “aircraft carriers” proper weighing more than 15,000 tons (which is to say, virtually all aircraft carriers today) were not legally permitted by the Montreux Convention to transit from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean via the Bosporus Straits.

However, the fall of the Soviet Union left the second vessel in its class, the Varyag, only two-thirds complete in Ukraine, lacking its armament and electrical systems. Construction ceased in 1992, and the cash-strapped Ukrainian government did its best to pawn off the 55,000 tons of inoperable metal rusting in its Mykolaiv shipyard. Russia, India and China all passed.

A two-part series in the South China Morning Post in 2015 revealed the machinations behind how the carrier ended up in Chinese service anyway, two decades later.

It turns out the PLA Navy did want the Varyag – the team sent to inspect it recommended purchasing it! But the government in Beijing was worried that acquiring a carrier might increase tensions at a time when it was seeking to further open itself to Western investors.

Instead, in 1996 a group of PLA officers including intelligence chief Gen. Ji Shengde approached Xu Zengping, a former PLA basketball star who had become a successful businessman arranging international events.

The cabal’s proposal: to have Xu purchase the carrier as a private citizen, ostensibly to serve as a casino so as to avoid undesirable scrutiny. Then the PLAN could collect it for its own use once the political winds were more favorable.

This cover story is not as ridiculous as it sounds. Remember those Kiev-class carriers mentioned earlier?

Two of them are now moored in China, serving as amusement parks. The Minsk was actually purchased by a consortium of video-game arcade owners in Shenzhen for $4.4 million and has since been moved to Nantong, north of Shanghai. And the original Kiev? Now a floating hotel in Tianjin.

Russian aircraft carrier Varyag Liaoning in China
The Russian-built aircraft carrier Varyag in Dalian, in China’s Liaonin Province, April 23, 2011.

However, the more modern Kuznetsov-class Varyag was undoubtedly of much greater practical interest for the PLAN than either of those ships.

Xu was down with the scheme and borrowed the equivalent of $30 million in Hong Kong dollars from a friend to help fund the venture – the first expense of which was to create a $6 million shell company in Macau called Agência Turística e Diversões Chong Lot Limitada, in order to maintain the fiction. (Macau was still in its last years as a Portuguese colony at the time.)

In January 1998, Xu arrived in Ukraine and met with the shipyard owners. After four days of negotiations, in which enormous bribes were offered and 50 bottles of 124-proof baijiu liquor were consumed, he reached an agreement to purchase the carrier for $20 million – well below the cost of a single jet fighter today. He wasn’t able to make the payment until a year later, with a $10 million extra late fee tacked on.

Some international observers smelled something fishy in the arrangement – Xu’s company did not actually have a gambling permit in Macau, nor a listed phone number or address. Ironically, however, a Jane’s analyst interviewed by The Washington Post at the time stated it was “farfetched” that the PLA Navy would try to operate the Varyag due to its decrepit and incomplete condition.

By June 2000, everything was ready to go. The carrier’s four engines were packed in grease seals (they had yet to be installed), several tons of blueprints were sent overland to China by truck, and a Dutch towing company was ready to tug the 306-meter-long vessel all the way back to China. What could go wrong?

Ever been stunned by the towing fee after your car breaks down far from home? Imagine that, but around 500 times worse. Why 500? Because that equals the roughly 500 days the Liaoning was stuck being towed in circles off Istanbul, after the Turkish government denied it passage to the Mediterranean via the Bosporus Straits.

Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning docked in port
The Liaoning, left, berthed at the People’s Liberation Army Navy base at Dazhu Shan, March 1, 2013.

The Turkish maritime minister argued that should there be a mishap towing the 306-meter-long carrier – which could not maneuver or move on its own power – it might spin around and block the Bosporus straits to all shipping, or run into one of the bridges connecting the two halves of Istanbul.

The straits are only 700 meters wide at their narrowest point and require at least six major course corrections to navigate. Hundreds of ships had suffered accidents there in the past. Curiously, the Chinese appear to have perceived the Turkish refusal to be in retaliation for China’s opposition to the NATO air campaign in Yugoslavia the previous year.

The Liaoning spent 16 months racking up $8,500 a day in towing fees. Finally, Beijing had a change of heart on the matter, and stepped in on August 2001, promising major concessions on tourism to persuade the Turks to let the Varyag pass.

Finally on November 1, in an operation involving more than two dozen tug and emergency vessels, the Varyag was towed through the Bosporus without incident, and traversed the Dardanelles the next day. The hard part was over.

Except for the sea storm with 60-mph winds that struck the rudderless vessel off the island of Skyros two days later, causing it to snap its tow lines. It took two more days to recover the runaway carrier. Tragically, a Portuguese sailor fell to his death while helping reconnect it to its tugs.

Once under power, a normal vessel could have taken the shortcut through the Suez Canal and straight on back to China via the Indian Ocean. But the canal would not accept powerless vessels such as the Varyag, so it had to cruise all the way around Africa, Vasco de Gama-style, chugging along at a brisk jog of 7 mph.

Chinese J-15 fighter jets waiting on the deck of the Liaoning aircraft carrier
China has two carriers, the Liaoning and the Shandong, but a third one is on the way.

In March 2002, the carrier finally arrived at the port of Dalian in Liaoning province, which would lend the carrier its name in Chinese service. Three years later, it was put into a dry dock to allow for an extensive refit process, including sandblasting away all the rust and restoring and installing the engines in 2011.

The PLAN intended to operate the vessel as a pure carrier, rather than as a cruiser-carrier hybrid, so the shipbuilders didn’t bother with the enormous anti-ship missile systems. They instead confined its armament to a trio of short-range HQ-10 air-defense missile launchers and a few close-defense guns. The vessel’s primary weapon, of course, would be its complement of 24 J-15 Flying Shark fighters.

The Flying Sharks are domestic copies of the Russian Su-33 fighter, a prototype of which was also acquired from Ukraine in 2001. The Liaoning also flies six Z-12F anti-submarine helicopters, four airborne early-warning variants and two Z-9 rescue choppers.

The Liaoning was commissioned on September 25, 2012, and the first J-15 landed on it a month later. A home-built carrier based upon the Liaoning will soon put to sea this year; those blueprints must have proved useful.

The Liaoning is hardly equal to a US supercarrier – in addition to its smaller air wing and lack of a nuclear power plant, its steam turbines are prone to breaking down and the ski-jump deck limits the fuel and weapons load its fighters can carry.

However, it afforded China a leap forward in its naval construction program – which now includes five more carriers in the coming decade of increasing planned capability. According to Xu Zengping, a naval officer told him that the Varyag saved China 15 years of research and development.

J-15 fighter jets are seen on the flight deck of the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning
Chinese J-15 fighter jets on the flight deck of the Liaoning.

So was Xu richly rewarded for his initiative? He was rewarded with bills: $120 million in all in Xu’s estimation, forcing him to sell his decadent home in Hong Kong and spend all of the intervening years paying his lenders back.

You see, Gen. Ji was jailed in 2001 for his involvement in a massive smuggling ring in the city of Xiamen – so the cabal of officers that set Xu up for the task was no longer around to see that he was compensated.

Beijing did pay for the $20 million value of the carrier – but argued that it couldn’t cover other costs because he lacked receipts. Apparently, invoices – or fapiao in Mandarin – don’t come standard with bribes paid to Ukrainian businessmen. And, as one quickly learns in China, you always need the official fapiao.

So if there’s a moral to the story of the Varyag, it’s not to expect too much gratitude for your good deeds … and always keep the receipt.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States.

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Changes to the ocean around Taiwan may mean China has to change its submarine warfare plans

A Chinese diesel electric submarine
A Chinese diesel-electric submarine.

  • Chinese military scientists have spent over a decade studying the Kuroshio Current, or black stream, off Taiwan’s east coast.
  • Recent changes to ocean temperatures will affect the stream, which could be a key battlefield in the event of an invasion.
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The Chinese military has been warned that changes to the currents and temperatures off Taiwan’s east coast mean it will have to adapt its submarine warfare plans in the event of an invasion.

A recent report posted on the South China Sea Wave, an anonymous social media account dedicated to military analysis, said the changes to the conditions in the Kuroshio Current – also known as the black stream – could hamper any attempted invasion by mainland China, but also offered new attacking opportunities.

The eastern side of the island is harder to attack from the mainland and is the site of many major Taiwanese military bases – making it key to the PLA’s invasion plans.

China regards the island as a breakaway province and has never renounced the use of force to bring it under Beijing’s control. In recent years the PLA has stepped up its activity in the skies and waters around Taiwan, including more exercises along its east coast, as part of its efforts to step up the pressure.

The Kuroshio Current is a warm ocean current that originates off the Philippine island of Luzon and flows toward mainland Japan in a similar fashion to the Atlantic Gulf Stream.

The South China Sea Wave report said increasing volcanic activity on the ocean floor near Okinawa had led to changes in the water temperature off the east coast of Taiwan, which in turn has had an effect on the currents.

Taiwan Strait
The Taiwan Strait is an important shipping route.

The report said these changes could help submarines to conduct offensive operations, but if they came under attack and tried to escape back to the Chinese mainland, it would be harder to escape because they would be running against the current.

The report also said that eddies and reverse flows would affect the course of torpedoes fired under water and could see them missing their targets without adjustments being made.

Collin Koh, a research fellow with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the PLA Navy Submarines Academy had spent more than a decade studying the impact of the Kuroshio Current on submarine operations.

“The PLA Navy will expect submarines to put into effect [the mainland’s] counter-intervention strategy against American and allied forces in a Taiwan contingency,” he said.

“The subs, of course, will also play a vital role in the blockade against Taiwan in a bid to cut off external aid, trade and commerce with the aim of slowly strangulating Taipei into submission.”

Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung, said: “The east coast of Taiwan will become the key battlefield if a Taiwan contingency [an attack from the mainland] happens.”

He added that the Taiwanese navy has a base on the northeast coast of the island at Suao which houses its 168th Fleet, including its anti-submarine Knox-class frigates, and the area hosts an annual Taiwanese training exercise.

“The PLA has conducted submarine drills in waters near the east coast of Taiwan, where the mean depth is over 1,000 metres,” Lu continued.

Chinese China navy submarine
A Chinese submarine during an international fleet review off of Qingdao in Shandong province, April 23, 2009.

In the 1970s, the then Kuomintang administration realised its defences on the west coast of Taiwan Strait that face the Chinese mainland were vulnerable to attack due to the shallow waters in the area and shifted key bases to the east – which are easier to defend.

Along with naval bases, they include the air force command centre at Chi Hang Air Base, which has extensive hangars built into a mountain side.

In April, PLA navy announced the Liaoning carrier strike group had conducted “combat drills” in the east coast of Taiwan, and claimed that this kind of training would become a regular event in the future.

Macau-based military analyst Antony Wong Tong said the presence of three types of advanced warship – a Type 094A nuclear submarine, Type 075 amphibious assault ship and Type 055 destroyer – at an event in April to celebrate the PLA Navy’s anniversary offered a hint at the formation an amphibious strike group attacking eastern Taiwan would take.

“Both the Type 075 and Type 055 are US warship copycats, while the addition of the Type 094A sub will make the amphibious strike group more powerful,” Wong said.

“The calculation that the US would intervene in a cross strait war is the key reason behind the formation of the powerful amphibious strike group … Well, the only place the PLA marines could land and the huge ships could operate is the east coast because of its water depth.”

Taiwan Navy's Perry-class frigate launches an ASROC (anti-submarine rocket) during the annual Han Kuang military exercises, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014, off the east coast of Hualien, central Taiwan.
A Taiwanese Navy frigate launches an anti-submarine rocket during an exercise off of Taiwan’s east coast, September 17, 2014.

To prepare for a possible war, Lu said the mainland Chinese, US and Taiwanese had all sent ships to carry out a hydrological survey off the east coast of Taiwan.

Water pressure, depth, temperature, currents, salinity and other hypnological phenomena will all affect ships’ sonar systems.

Koh said Taiwanese military had spent decades practising anti-submarine warfare, with the help of US technology, but the rapid development of the PLA’s naval strength in recent decades poses fresh challenges.

“The [Taiwanese] navy’s tiny submarine force is ageing … and the PLA Navy definitely enjoys a yawning quantitative advantage in the subs it can deploy,” he said. “These developments definitely pose a clear challenge to [Taiwan’s] undersea warfare capability.”

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The Chinese navy is building destroyers so quickly that it’s running out of cities to name them after

Chinese navy Type 052D destroyer Taiyuan
Chinese navy Type 052D guided-missile destroyer Taiyuan in a naval parade near Qingdao, in eastern China’s Shandong province, April 23, 2019.

  • The new Type 052D guided-missile destroyer Nanning is the third of its class to enter service this year.
  • The Chinese navy’s expansion is so rapid that it’s running out of big cities to name certain warships after.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Chinese navy is sailing its new destroyers in the South China Sea as its shipbuilding spree continues, state media reported.

The Nanning, a new type of 052D guided-missile destroyer made its public debut in a four-day real combat training exercise in the South China Sea after it entered service with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the PLA’s official website said.

The Nanning, bearing hull number 162, was photographed joining Type 901 comprehensive supply ship Chaganhu and Type 071 amphibious dock landing ship Qilianshan of the PLA Southern Theatre Command to carry out a drill in disputed waters that are also claimed by five other nations.

“After gaining combat capabilities, the South China Sea-based Nanning will play an important role in safeguarding China’s territorial integrity, national sovereignty and development interests,” the state-run Global Times said.

The Nanning was reportedly commissioned in April at Zhanjiang port in Guangdong province and is the third of its class to enter service in 2021, following the Suzhou and the Huainan, bringing the number of Type 052D vessels in service to 18.

Chinese navy Type 052D destroyer Yinchuan
Chinese navy Type 052D destroyer No. 175 Yinchuan enters Hong Kong waters, July 17, 2017.

Meanwhile, two other ships have been photographed finishing sea trials, suggesting they will be soon delivered to the Chinese navy.

Type 052D – or Luyang III-class as Nato calls it – was designed to match the US Navy Arleigh-Burke class destroyers. It is equipped with advanced radars and electronics comparable to the US Aegis system, as well as 64-cell vertical missile launchers. The first ship of its class was commissioned in 2014 and in August 2020 the 25th Type 052D was launched.

Nanning belongs to the upgraded version of the 7,500-tonne guided-missile destroyer, the PLAN’s second-largest destroyer after the Type 055.

Sometimes also referred to as Type 052DL, the variant has an extended rear helicopter flight deck and a new radar to improve its anti-submarine and anti-stealth capabilities.

Besides Type 052D, the PLA navy has also planned for at least eight type 055 destroyers – two commissioned and six under construction. This year, it is expected to have at least three more delivered.

So rapid is the Chinese navy’s expansion, it is running out of names for its new warships.

According to PLAN ship-naming rules, Type 052D and Type 055 vessels should be named after big cities, such as provincial capitals. However, Nanning, the capital of Guangxi province, was the last name available. Future ships will have to be named after smaller cities.

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China has a new ship to hunt the US Navy’s submarines

Navy submarine USS Ohio
US Navy Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Ohio off the coast of Okinawa, February 2, 2021.

  • A March report showed that China had recently launched its third anti-submarine detection ship.
  • Those ships are meant to augment China’s sub-detection abilities and erode one of the US Navy’s biggest advantages.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A new open-source investigation has revealed that China recently launched their third anti-submarine detection ship at a shipbuilding facility in Wuhan, augmenting Beijing’s ability to detect submarines.

The ship is most likely a SWATH design, or Small Waterplane-Area Twin Hull. The twin-hull design is both very stable, even at high speeds or in rough seas, and is also known for being very quiet, a useful quality to have for a ship intended to use sonar and other acoustic listening devices to detect submarines.

The Chinese design is likely broadly similar to American SWATH designs, which are noted for having long-range and high endurance.

SWATH-type ships track submarines by trailing towed sonar devices behind them on long spools of cable, and can actively detect submarines by shooting “pings” into the ocean and listening to the bounce-back for submarines hiding in the deep.

USNS Able SURTASS ocean surveillance
US Military Sealift Command ocean surveillance ship USNS Able with SURTASS equipment visible, March 18, 1992.

Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces operate SWATH ships as well, known as the Hibiki-class, with the third of the class just recently entering service.

The Cold War-era class’ operating costs are reportedly split between the United States and Japan, and the data swept up by the Japanese ships is shared with Washington as well. This gives the United States in effect more ears in the water at a lower cost.

One of the United States’ ocean surveillance ships made headlines in the late 2000s when it was repeatedly harassed by both Chinese ships and aircraft during a submarine observation mission in the South China Sea.

Though the area the ship had been operating in is widely recognized as international waters, China claims sovereignty to wide swaths of the South China Sea and insisted it was defending waters within its exclusive economic zone.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy has a history of dropping in on American Navy ships and aircraft. During a 2014 US-led multinational naval exercise, the PLAN quietly slipped an electronic surveillance ship near the USS Ronald Regan aircraft carrier and its carrier strike group, presumably to scoop up electronic data.

Japan navy Hibiki ocean surveillance ship
JS Hibiki, a Hibiki-class ocean surveillance ship of Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.

Despite the threat of detection posed by ocean surveillance ships, submarines in American naval service are progressing.

Construction has already begun on the new nuclear-powered Columbia-class ballistic submarines, which are slated to enter service in the early 2030s. Thanks to a new electric drive design, the Columbias are anticipated to be the quietest submarines ever built for the US Navy.

One of the United States’ primary advantages over other countries like China is the US Navy‘s advanced and hard-to-detect submarine assets, which could be used to restrict Chinese surface vessel movement in the event of a conflict.

This new ocean surveillance ship indicates that China is putting real effort into offsetting or eliminating that advantage, in the event that a conflict with the United States would break out.

Caleb Larson is a defense writer based in Europe. He holds a master of public policy and covers US and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

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China has proved it can build warships. It faces another challenge if it wants to catch up with the US.

Liaoning China Aircraft Carrier
The Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, sails into Hong Kong for port call, July 7, 2017.

  • As the People’s Liberation Army Navy expands its fleet, maintaining the right numbers of ships is a vital consideration strategically and to control cost.
  • Beijing plans further aircraft carrier strike groups, so it needs numbers of aircraft carriers and submarines to keep pace with those of surface warships.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As China plans to add more mini-aircraft carriers and assemble at least six carrier strike groups by 2035, it faces the vital task of maintaining the right number of each type of ship.

The Chinese navy has undergone considerable expansion, with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) estimating that it will receive nearly 100 new ships by 2030 to give it a total of about 425 battle-force ships.

Part of the motivation is to catch up with the United States, which has 11 aircraft carriers, outnumbering China by nine, and more than a dozen amphibious assault ships to support its global strategy.

But a military source and observers said Beijing’s strategy would be not just a matter of the number of ships, but ensuring the fleet combinations were well balanced, to avoid bearing a hugely costly fleet.

Type 075 (rendering)
A rendering of China’s Type 075 amphibious assault ship.

China has commissioned its first Type 075 amphibious assault ship, which sources said would be used as a mini-aircraft carrier.

Previous reports said new naval vessels would include four next-generation aircraft carriers, an unspecified number of next-generation nuclear-powered attack and strategic submarines, as well as the amphibious assault ships and upgraded Type 076 platforms with electromagnetic catapults for fixed-wing aircraft operations – making them more like aircraft carriers.

That is in addition to the six aircraft carrier strike groups by 2035, raising concerns over whether China will adopt a global strategy like that of the US and even the former Soviet Union, which during the Cold War planned to build more than 200 nuclear submarines to counter the US’ aircraft carriers.

But a military source told the South China Morning Post that China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) would not follow those templates, and was simply assessing which numbers of surface ships and nuclear submarines would suffice to defend national interests at home and overseas.

“China now has enough conventional surface warships, like the cruisers, destroyers, frigates and corvettes, but the numbers of [nuclear-powered] aircraft carriers and submarines need to be increased,” the source, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said.

A Chinese Type 055 destroyer
A Chinese Type 055 destroyer.

Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Tong said the task of building a well-balanced fleet was the toughest for all the big powers.

He said one of the reasons for the collapse of the former Soviet Union was its costly nuclear submarine strategy.

“It’s impossible for the PLAN to copy the US navy’s aircraft carrier strategy, too. The US has several huge naval bases in the Indo-Pacific region, including the Guam base, Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and the 7th fleet’s headquarters in Japan’s Yokosuka, enabling it to form several containment arcs to contain a rising China,” Wong said, referring to the so-called island chain strategies that targeted the communist alliance led by the former Soviet Union in Asia during the Cold War.

“Unlike other surface warships, both aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered submarines need specific and dedicated ports for logistic support and maintenance when sailing farther from home waters, but so far China just built its first and only military outpost, in Djibouti [on the Horn of Africa].”

Wong said Beijing had been planning to set up overseas military outposts in Myanmar, Pakistan and other Beijing-friendly African countries since the mid-1990s when China became a net oil importer, but progress was limited almost two decades later.

“Besides ‘China threat’ theory, the Chinese foreign ministry’s Wolf Warrior diplomatic policy should also be blamed, causing many countries to remain suspicious about the ambitions behind Beijing’s naval expansion,” he said.

chinese submarine
Chinese sailors salute on a submarine during a joint Chinese-Russian naval exercise in the Yellow Sea, April 26, 2012.

In an effort to become a real blue-water navy, Beijing adjusted its military policy in 2015, placing more stress on active offshore water defence and open-seas protection.

“In the foreseeable future, both active offshore defence and far-seas protection would carry similar strategic weight in importance, ” Collin Koh, a maritime security analyst with Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said. “This is surely enabled by growing the PLAN’s blue-water capabilities, not least a more robust aircraft carrier capacity.”

In current peacetime, Koh said, the PLAN might be able to secure continued access to facilities in Beijing-friendly Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, or even Iran, as well as some other Middle East and East African countries via economic investments, but that would be unsustainable in wartime.

The PLAN has two active conventional aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and the Shandong. A third, with electromagnetic catapults, is expected to be launched this year.

The most likely contingency for the PLA would be a war over Taiwan, given that Beijing sees the self-ruled island as a breakaway province to be returned by force if necessary. All the giant platforms and the expected near-dozen amphibious assault ships would be expected to take part in any potential conflict over Taiwan.

“We can see both Liaoning and Shandong ships are used as training and ship-borne weapon systems testing platforms, indicating they are still operating like the Soviet aircraft cruisers during World War II,” said Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at the Taiwanese Naval Academy in Kaohsiung.

“The PLAN’s aircraft carriers can’t compete with the offensive USS Nimitz-class aircraft platforms … of course, Beijing’s future defence policy will be clear when the mainland discloses details of the third next-generation carrier.”

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China’s new nuclear submarine carries missiles that can hit more of the US, military source says

A Type 094B Jin-class ballistic missile submarine
A Type 094B Jin-class ballistic missile submarine.

  • The JL-3 ballistic missile can deliver multiple warheads – including nuclear – 10,000 km, a navy source says.
  • Naval engineer Rear Adm. Ma Weiming has led work to fix the problem of Chinese submarines being too noisy and easy to detect.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

China’s newly commissioned nuclear-powered submarine is armed with the country’s most powerful submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) capable of hitting the US mainland, according to a military source and analysts.

The Type 094A, or Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), was presented last Friday as part of the celebration to mark the 72nd anniversary of the PLA Navy. It was capable of firing the JL-3, or Julang (Big Wave) SLBM with a range over 10,000km (6,200 miles), a source close to the navy said.

“The Type 094A is an upgraded version of the Type 094 that overcame one of the key problems – noise – by improving hydrokinetic and turbulent systems, allowing it to carry the more powerful JL-3,” said the source, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

“Before the upgrade, the submarine was armed with the inferior JL-2 that could only hit the northeast United States, but now it’s able to cover the whole American continent.”

According to Forbes, before entering striking distance of the continental United States, the Type 094A subs would have to slip past a cordon of US military bases in the Pacific dubbed the first island chain – exposing the subs to detection and attack by American P-8 anti-sub patrol planes, surface warships and other undersea reconnaissance capabilities.

Chinese submarines have been dogged by the problem of being too noisy and easy to detect but that has largely been remedied in recent years by Chinese naval engineer Rear Adm. Ma Weiming, who is now taking the lead in a cutting-edge propulsion technology, according to state media.

Chinese navy missile submarine Type 094A
A nuclear-powered Type 094A Jin-class ballistic-missile submarine in the South China Sea, April 12, 2018.

The JL-3 is able to deliver the same multiple warheads, including nuclear warheads like the JL-2 does, the source added without giving more detail.

Each JL-2 missile can be armed with either a single megaton-yield warhead 67 times more powerful than the Little Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima – or three to eight smaller multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) that can each strike different targets, according to a Forbes report in May last year.

Macau-based military expert Antony Wong Tong said the news indicated that some technical breakthroughs had been achieved to make the JL-2 fit the silos of the Type 094A.

“The original design and size of the JL-3 should be adjusted, but those changes do not reduce its firepower and range – a significant breakthrough,” Wong said.

Former PLA instructor Song Zhongping did not say what type of SLBM the Type 094A was armed with but said it would boost China’s second-strike capability – its ability to retaliate after a nuclear strike.

“The new SLBM with MIRVs with a firing range over 10,000km is the basic technical requirement for an upgraded Type 094 SSBN to cause nuclear deterrence,” he said. “China promises not to use a nuke first but a powerful SSBN fleet will help the PLA strengthen their second-strike power against rivals.”

China has six Type 094 and Type 094A SSBNs and plans to build a further two to replace the Type 092 SSBNs, according to the source.

Sources said last year that the PLA planned to arm the Type 096 submarine with JL-3 missiles, a process that could take years to complete.

Each Type 094 submarine is able to carry 16 JL-3 missiles, but the upgraded Type 096 could carry 24 JL-3s, according to a Pentagon report on China’s military capabilities.

The Type 094A was one of the three new warships put into service on the same day. The others were the Type 075 amphibious helicopter assault ship and the Type 055 Renhai-class guided missile cruiser.

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The game of chicken the US and China are playing in the Pacific looks worryingly familiar

Biden and Xi Jinping
Joe Biden, then US vice president, and Chinese President Xi Jinping in California in 2012.

  • The US and Chinese militaries have been operating in close proximity in the waters and airspace of the Pacific Ocean.
  • US and Chinese may not be seeking a war, but the interactions between their forces, and the close calls they sometimes have, could lead to one.
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The leaders of China and the United States certainly don’t seek a war with each another. Both the Biden administration and the regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping view economic renewal and growth as their principal objectives.

Both are aware that any conflict arising between them, even if restricted to Asia and conducted with non-nuclear weapons – no sure bet – would produce catastrophic regional damage and potentially bring the global economy to its knees. So, neither group has any intention of deliberately starting a war.

Each, however, is fully determined to prove its willingness to go to war if provoked and so is willing to play a game of military chicken in the waters (and air space) off China’s coast. In the process, each is making the outbreak of war, however unintended, increasingly likely.

History tells us that conflicts don’t always begin due to planning and intent. Some, of course, start that way, as was the case, for instance, with Hitler’s June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union and Japan’s December 1941 attacks on the Dutch East Indies and Pearl Harbor. More commonly, though, countries have historically found themselves embroiled in wars they had hoped to avoid.

This was the case in June 1914, when the major European powers – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire – all stumbled into World War I. Following an extremist act of terror (the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo), they mobilized their forces and issued ultimatums in the expectation that their rivals would back off.

None did. Instead, a continent-wide conflict erupted with catastrophic consequences.

Navy destroyer Mustin China aircraft carrier
US Navy officers aboard guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin monitor Chinese ships in the Philippine Sea, April 4, 2021.

Sadly, we face the possibility of a very similar situation in the coming years. The three major military powers of the current era – China, the United States, and Russia – are all behaving eerily like their counterparts of that earlier era.

All three are deploying forces on the borders of their adversaries, or the key allies of those adversaries, and engaging in muscle-flexing and “show-of-force” operations intended to intimidate their opponent(s), while demonstrating a will to engage in combat if their interests are put at risk.

As in the pre-1914 period, such aggressive maneuvers involve a high degree of risk when it comes to causing an accidental or unintended clash that could result in full-scale combat or even, at worst, global warfare.

Provocative military maneuvers now occur nearly every day along Russia’s border with the NATO powers in Europe and in the waters off China’s eastern coastline. Much can be said about the dangers of escalation from such maneuvers in Europe, but let’s instead fix our attention on the situation around China, where the risk of an accidental or unintended clash has been steadily growing.

Bear in mind that, in contrast to Europe, where the borders between Russia and the NATO countries are reasonably well marked and all parties are careful to avoid trespassing, the boundaries between Chinese and US/allied territories in Asia are often highly contested.

China claims that its eastern boundary lies far out in the Pacific – far enough to encompass the independent island of Taiwan (which it considers a renegade province), the Spratly and Paracel Islands of the South China Sea (all claimed by China, but some also claimed by Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines), and the Diaoyu Islands (claimed by both China and Japan, which calls them the Senkaku Islands).

The United States has treaty obligations to Japan and the Philippines, as well as a legislative obligation to aid in Taiwan’s defense (thanks to the Taiwan Relations Act passed by Congress in 1979) and consecutive administrations have asserted that China’s extended boundary claims are illegitimate.

There exists, then, a vast area of contested territory, encompassing the East and South China Seas – places where US and Chinese warships and planes increasingly intermingle in challenging ways, while poised for combat.

Probing limits (and defying them)

blinken anchorage
US and Chinese officials had a tense first meeting in Anchorage, Alaska.

The leaders of the US and China are determined that their countries will defend what it defines as its strategic interests in such contested areas.

For Beijing, this means asserting its sovereignty over Taiwan, the Diaoyu Islands, and the islands of the South China Sea, as well as demonstrating an ability to take and defend such territories in the face of possible Japanese, Taiwanese, or US counterattacks.

For Washington, it means denying the legitimacy of China’s claims and ensuring that its leadership can’t realize them through military means.

Both sides recognize that such contradictory impulses are only likely to be resolved through armed conflict. Short of war, however, each seems intent on seeing how far it can provoke the other, diplomatically and militarily, without triggering a chain reaction ending in disaster.

On the diplomatic front, representatives of the two sides have been engaging in increasingly harsh verbal attacks.

These first began to escalate in the final years of the Trump administration when the president abandoned his supposed affection for Xi Jinping and began blocking access to US technology by major Chinese telecommunications firms like Huawei to go with the punishing tariffs he had already imposed on most of that country’s exports to the US His major final offensive against China would be led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who denounced that country’s leadership in scathing terms, while challenging its strategic interests in contested areas.

In a July 2020 statement on the South China Sea, for instance, Pompeo slammed China for its aggressive behavior there, pointing to Beijing’s repeated “bullying” of other claimants to islands in that sea.

Pompeo, however, went beyond mere insult. He ratcheted up the threat of conflict significantly, asserting that “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law” – language clearly meant to justify the future use of force by American ships and planes assisting friendly states being “bullied” by China.

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi shows the way to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before a meeting in Beijing.

Pompeo also sought to provoke China on the issue of Taiwan. In one of his last acts in office, on January 9, he officially lifted restrictions in place for more than 40 years on US diplomatic engagement with the government of Taiwan. Back in 1979, when the Carter administration broke relations with Taipei and established ties with the mainland regime, it prohibited government officials from meeting with their counterparts in Taiwan, a practice maintained by every administration since then.

This was understood to be part of Washington’s commitment to a “One China” policy in which Taiwan was viewed as an inseparable part of China (though the nature of its future governance was to remain up for negotiation).

Reauthorizing high-level contacts between Washington and Taipei more than four decades later, Pompeo effectively shattered that commitment. In this way, he put Beijing on notice that Washington was prepared to countenance an official Taiwanese move toward independence – an act that would undoubtedly provoke a Chinese invasion effort (which, in turn, increased the likelihood that Washington and Beijing would find themselves on a war footing).

The Trump administration also took concrete actions on the military front, especially by increasing naval maneuvers in the South China Sea and in waters around Taiwan. The Chinese replied with their own strong words and expanded military activities. In response, for instance, to a trip to Taipei last September by Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs Keith Krach, the highest-ranking State Department official to visit the island in 40 years, China launched several days of aggressive air and sea maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait.

According to Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang, those maneuvers were “a reasonable, necessary action aimed at the current situation in the Taiwan Strait protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Speaking of that island’s increasing diplomatic contact with the US, he added, “Those who play with fire will get burned.”

Today, with Trump and Pompeo out of office, the question arises: How will the Biden team approach such issues? To date, the answer is: much like the Trump administration.

In the first high-level encounter between US and Chinese officials in the Biden years, a meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, on March 18 and 19, newly installed Secretary of State Antony Blinken used his opening remarks to lambaste the Chinese, expressing “deep concerns” over China’s behavior in its mistreatment of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang Province, in Hong Kong, and in its increasingly aggressive approach to Taiwan. Such actions, he said, “threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability.”

Blinken has uttered similar complaints in other settings, as have senior Biden appointees to the CIA and Department of Defense. Tellingly, in its first months in office, the Biden administration has given the green light to the same tempo of provocative military maneuvers in contested Asian waters as did the Trump administration in its last months.

‘Gunboat diplomacy’ today

Navy destroyer John McCain South China Sea
US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain in the South China Sea, April 7, 2021.

In the years leading up to World War I, it was common for major powers to deploy their naval forces in waters near their adversaries or near rebellious client states in that age of colonialism to suggest the likelihood of punishing military action if certain demands weren’t met.

The US used just such “gunboat diplomacy,” as it was then called, to control the Caribbean region, forcing Colombia, for example, to surrender the territory Washington sought to build a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Today, gunboat diplomacy is once again alive and well in the Pacific, with both China and the US engaging in such behavior.

China is now using its increasingly powerful navy and coast guard on a regular basis to intimidate other claimants to islands it insists are its own in the East and South China Seas – Japan in the case of the Senkakus; and Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines in the case of the Spratlys and Paracels.

In most instances, this means directing its naval and coast guard vessels to drive off the fishing boats of such countries from waters surrounding Chinese-claimed islands. In the case of Taiwan, China has used its ships and planes in a menacing fashion to suggest that any move toward declaring independence from the mainland will be met with a harsh military response.

For Washington in the Biden era, assertive military maneuvers in the East and South China Seas are a way of saying: no matter how far such waters may be from the US, Washington and the Pentagon are still not prepared to cede control of them to China.

This has been especially evident in the South China Sea, where the US Navy and Air Force regularly conduct provocative exercises and show-of-force operations intended to demonstrate America’s continuing ability to dominate the region – as in February, when dual carrier task forces were dispatched to the region.

China Liaoning aircraft carrier
Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning sailing between Okinawa and Miyakojima islands toward the Pacific Ocean, April 3, 2021.

For several days, the USS Nimitz and the USS Theodore Roosevelt, along with their accompanying flotillas of cruisers and destroyers, conducted mock combat operations in the vicinity of islands claimed by China.

“Through operations like this, we ensure that we are tactically proficient to meet the challenge of maintaining peace and we are able to continue to show our partners and allies in the region that we are committed to promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific,” was the way Rear Adm. Doug Verissimo, commander of the Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group, explained those distinctly belligerent actions.

The Navy has also stepped up its patrols of destroyers in the Taiwan Strait as a way of suggesting that any future Chinese move to invade Taiwan would be met with a powerful military response. Already, since President Biden’s inauguration, the Navy has conducted three such patrols: by the USS John S. McCain on February 4, the USS Curtis Wilbur on February 24, and the USS John Finn on March 10.

On each occasion, the Navy insisted that such missions were meant to demonstrate how the US military would “continue to fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows.”

Typically, when the US Navy conducts provocative maneuvers of this sort, the Chinese military – the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA – responds by sending out its own ships and planes to challenge the American vessels.

This occurs regularly in the South China Sea, whenever the Navy conducts what it calls “freedom of navigation operations,” or FONOPs, in waters near Chinese-claimed (and sometimes Chinese-built) islands, some of which have been converted into small military installations by the PLA.

In response, the Chinese often dispatch a ship or ships of its own to escort – to put the matter as politely as possible – the American vessel out of the area. These encounters have sometimes proven exceedingly dangerous, especially when the ships got close enough to pose a risk of collision.

uss decatur
A confrontation between the USS Decatur, left, and PRC Warship 170, right, in the South China Sea on September 30, 2018.

In September 2018, for example, a Chinese destroyer came within 135 feet of the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur on just such a FONOP mission near Gavin Reef in the Spratly Islands, obliging the Decatur to alter course abruptly. Had it not done so, a collision might have occurred, lives could have been lost, and an incident provoked with unforeseeable consequences.

“You are on [a] dangerous course,” the Chinese ship reportedly radioed to the American vessel shortly before the encounter. “If you don’t change course, [you] will suffer consequences.”

What would have transpired had the captain of the Decatur not altered course? On that occasion, the world was lucky: The captain acted swiftly and avoided danger. But what about the next time, with tensions in the South China Sea and around Taiwan at a far higher pitch than in 2018?

Such luck might not hold and a collision, or the use of weaponry to avoid it, could trigger immediate military action on either side, followed by a potentially unpredictable escalating cycle of countermoves leading who knows where.

Under such circumstances, a war nobody wanted between the US and China could suddenly erupt essentially by happenstance – a war this planet simply can’t afford. Sadly, the combination of inflammatory rhetoric at a diplomatic level and a propensity for backing up such words with aggressive military actions in highly contested areas still seems to be at the top of the Sino-American agenda.

Chinese and American leaders are now playing a game of chicken that couldn’t be more dangerous for both countries and the planet. Isn’t it time for the new Biden administration and its Chinese opposite to grasp more clearly and deeply that their hostile behaviors and decisions could have unforeseeable and catastrophic consequences?

Strident language and provocative military maneuvers – even if only intended as political messaging – could precipitate a calamitous outcome, much in the way equivalent behavior in 1914 triggered the colossal tragedy of World War I.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is the author of 15 books, the latest of which is “All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change.” He is a founder of the Committee for a Sane US-China Policy.

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As China ramps up military flights around Taiwan, another quieter mission continues at sea

China Y-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft
A Chinese military Y-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft.

  • Chinese military flights around Taiwan have increased in recent weeks.
  • Those flights are seen as Chinese efforts to test Taiwan and send a message to its partners, especially the US.
  • But the aircraft included in those operations hint at a larger Chinese effort to improve its military’s capabilities.
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China’s military flights around Taiwan have intensified in recent weeks in what is seen as an effort to test Taiwan and to send a message to its partners, especially the US.

Amid those operations, China appears to be continuing an ongoing effort to improve its military’s ability to fight below the waters off its coast.

In 2020, Chinese aircraft made a record number of flights into Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone. China has stepped up those flights this year, adding combat aircraft and setting new records: 20 aircraft in one incursion on March 26, followed by 25 warplanes on April 12.

According to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, many of those flights take place off of southwest Taiwan and include variants of the Shaanxi Y-8 aircraft equipped for reconnaissance or anti-submarine warfare.

The latter capability is particularly important in those waters, where the shallow Taiwan Strait meets the deeper South China Sea. To the east, the Bashi Channel connects them to the Pacific through the Philippine Sea.

Chinese China navy submarine
A Chinese submarine off the coast of Qingdao in Shandong province, April 23, 2009.

The South China Sea’s deep waters are “favorable” for Chinese submarine activity, and the proximity to Taiwan is the reason for “the frequent presence” of anti-submarine aircraft, said Su Tzu-yun, director of the defense strategy and resource division at the Institute for National Defence and Security Studies, a Taiwanese state-backed think-tank.

The Bashi Channel “can be considered as an underwater corridor from which Chinese submarines can enter the Philippine Sea and launch strikes against the US West Coast,” Su told Insider.

Operating and detecting submarines in that area depends on knowledge of water conditions there, which China is working to learn.

“If you want to fight a successful naval war, you had better get your hydrographic information right,” said Lyle Goldstein, a research professor and expert on Chinese undersea warfare at the US Naval War College.

That information affects algorithms used in undersea warfare, and China has been “pulling out all the stops” to understand the currents, temperature, and salinity of those waters, Goldstein told Insider.

“The performance of all those systems is affected by those algorithms, and the Chinese know that,” Goldstein said, “They are working absolutely overtime.”

Waiting game

Shiyu Kinmen County Taiwan China
Shiyu, or Lion Islet, one of Taiwan’s offshore islands, seen in front of the Chinese city of Xiamen, April 20, 2018.

The geography around the first island chain – the islands immediately off East Asia, including Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines – creates challenges and opportunities for submarine warfare.

“China has this kind of perennial strategic problem of geography,” Goldstein said. “To egress their submarines is quite difficult because they have to maneuver through the island chains.”

“You can bet they’re working very hard on making it as hard as they can for the US to know when Chinese submarines are going out and how they do it,” Goldstein added.

The shallowness of the Taiwan Strait inhibits submarine operations, but the currents, temperatures, and salinity create “a really tough acoustic environment,” according to Bryan Clark, an expert on naval warfare at the Hudson Institute and a former submarine officer.

The latter conditions make it harder to detect submarines – an acute problem for US forces tasked with finding Chinese subs in a conflict. The Chinese, however, will likely “just wait for the US [submarines] to start doing something that they can detect,” such as firing torpedoes or missiles, Clark said.

China has rolled out an array of assets that improve its ability to do that, including anti-submarine-warfare ships, undersea monitoring sensors, and advanced helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

China navy Type 056 corvette
Huizhou, a Chinese Navy Type 056 corvette designed for coastal defense, near Hong Kong, July 7, 2017.

“China just in the last five years has started fielding units of serious anti-submarine aircraft,” Goldstein said, citing the Gaoxin-6, an improved anti-submarine variant of the Y-8/9 aircraft.

“They had helicopters that could do anti-submarine warfare, but this is quite new, to have these large fixed-wing planes that drop on sonobuoys and look for submarines,” Goldstein added.

China still has anti-submarine-warfare shortcomings. Its sonar and sonobuoys “aren’t very sophisticated,” Clark said. “They’re easily two generations behind where the US and NATO are and … at least one generation behind Japan.”

The combination of assets and capabilities likely means China will focus on thwarting offensive operations by US subs rather than proactively hunting them, Clark said. Despite US submarines’ familiarity with the area, the confined waters there would limit their ability to evade attacks, meaning they’d likely back off in the face of Chinese pressure.

“The idea would be if a potential submarine is detected, they would send these aircraft, like the Y-8, out there to drop weapons on them,” Clark said. “They’re going to make sure that their own submarines are not in the area and use that to suppress US submarine operations.”

“The fact that the Chinese are developing this, essentially, [anti-submarine warfare] response capability means that US submarines are going to have a more limited impact on any confrontation with the Chinese over something like Taiwan,” Clark added.

‘China is extremely worried’

Navy submarine
US Navy fast-attack submarine USS Asheville with US 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge in the Philippine Sea.

China’s efforts to improve its maritime awareness aren’t limited to waters around Taiwan.

Last year, Australian officials said a Chinese ship off that country’s western coast was likely mapping routes Australian subs use to access the South China Sea. In December, Indonesian fisherman found a suspected Chinese underwater drone, which was seen as a sign of China trying gather information needed for submarine operations near Australia.

China is not alone in these efforts.

India, which recently clashed with China on their disputed land border, has stepped up efforts to monitor the Indian Ocean, especially around the Malacca Strait, which connects that ocean to the Pacific.

Last year, the US reportedly asked Indonesia to allow P-8 maritime patrol planes land and refuel there, giving them another operating location around the South China Sea; Indonesia denied the request. The recovery of underwater drones near China’s coast also suggests the US is gathering data on the waters there.

While the number of submarines in the region is growing – Taiwan is building a new fleet with US help – US subs remain China’s chief concern.

“China is extremely worried about our submarine force … because they know that it would be hard for them to hunt our submarines, and our submarines have quite a devastating punch,” Goldstein said. “They’re really trying to do everything they can to understand where our submarines are and how could Beijing possibly counter them.”

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What China can learn about using its ‘mini-carrier strike groups’ from watching US Navy operations

Navy aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt
US Navy aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea, April 9, 2021.

  • A combination of vessel types has military observers speculating about how China can better deploy ships and aircraft.
  • Beijing has launched just two of its six planned aircraft carrier strike groups, but other ships could help fill the gap.
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As the world’s two biggest naval fleets engage in the Indo-Pacific region, China’s People’s Liberation Army can observe and learn from the United States Navy in adapting future tactical combined operations, according to defence analysts.

They said the operators of China’s Type 075 amphibious assault vessels could examine the US deployment of an amphibious-ready group (ARG) to the South China Sea, which was led by the USS Makin Island landing helicopter dock (LHD) and joined the USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group on April 9 for exercises.

The USS Makin Island is a 40,000-tonne Wasp-class amphibious assault ship able to carry a detachment of Marine F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters. The LHD and two San Antonio-class landing platform dock (LPD) amphibious transport ships – the USS Somerset and USS San Diego – as well as several helicopter and assault craft units form the Makin Island ARG.

“The displacement size and functions of the Wasp-class LHD are similar to the PLA’s Type 075 LHD, while the San Antonio-class transport docks are similar to China’s Type 071 landing platform docks (LPD),” Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said.

Navy amphibious transport dock USS Somerset
US Navy amphibious transport dock ship USS Somerset in the Bay of Bengal, April 7, 2021.

Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said the PLA would learn from the experiences of its American counterpart in turning its LHD and LPD into mini-aircraft carrier strike groups, an effective cost-saving measure.

“The US has studied how to operate their ARG in a more feasible and efficient way,” Li said.

“For China, the key mission of their Type 075 and Type 071 will be defending the country’s territorial sovereignty in the East and South China seas, as well as overseas interests, meaning the ARG combination is a better option than aircraft carrier strike groups.”

Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Tong said deploying both LHDs and LPDs indicated the US Navy’s capacity for tactical manoeuvres and joint cooperation on the high seas.

“The combination of LHD and LPD is an integrated expeditionary strike group, which is worth the PLA learning from if they are going to better deploy their Type 075 and Type 071 amphibious warships,” Wong said.

The Yimeng Shan, a Type 071 amphibious transport dock ship
The Yimeng Shan, a Chinese navy Type 071 amphibious transport dock ship.

Beijing plans to own at least six aircraft carrier strike groups by 2035, but so far it just launched two. The third is expected to be completed later this year.

China has launched three Type 075 LHDs, which were designed to each carry up to 30 attack helicopters and armoured vehicles, and eight smaller Type 071 LPDs with the displacement of 25,000 tonnes.

The Type 075 is the world’s third largest amphibious assault vessel behind the USS Wasp and America classes. It is bigger than Japan’s Izumo class and France’s Mistral class.

However, Song said that in addition to the amphibious ships, the most powerful weapon of the Makin Island ARG were the F-35B squadrons and detachments of multi-role helicopters suited to different types of sea warfare missions.

“The most challenging problem of the PLA is a lack of new-generation fixed-wing carrier-based aircraft like the F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter jets,” Song said.

“The F-35B helps the USS Marines grab air supremacy in both ARG operations, making its function like that of the mini-carrier strike groups … that means the US Navy owns nearly 20 carrier strike groups around the world.”

Type 075 (rendering)
A rendering of a Chinese Type 075 amphibious assault ship.

To solve the current shortcomings, Song suggested the PLA install a catapult on the deck of the Type 075 LHD to upgrade the platform and allow it to operate the country’s carrier-based J-15 fighter jet.

The US Navy was reported to have tested the idea of smaller carriers, which would reduce the range, speed and capacity of its US$13 billion nuclear-powered supercarriers known as CVNs, but cost half as much or even less, Forbes reported in December.

The ARG operation could be seen as testing a mini-carrier option, an exercise China could learn from, Song and Li said.

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China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier is ready for a high-seas test, an insider says

China aircraft carrier Shandong
China’s Shandong aircraft carrier at its commissioning in port in Sanya in Hainan Province, December 17, 2019.

  • A CCTV video of the massive vessel and its technologies suggests it is ready for the next stage of its development, a source close to the Chinese navy said.
  • Shandong has already conducted nine sea trails, but they were all in Bohai Bay or the South China Sea, which are relatively close to its home base, a military expert said.
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The release of a new state media video of China’s Shandong aircraft carrier suggests the giant vessel might soon be heading out on the high seas as it continues its preparations to become combat-ready, according to a military insider.

“The Shandong will probably start its drills and training on the high seas later this year, which is a necessary step for it to achieve initial operational capability [IOC],” a source close to the navy said.

State broadcaster China Central Television released the footage on Tuesday, showing how the carrier had been continuing with its preparations despite the world being gripped by the coronavirus pandemic.

“After being handed over to the navy [from the shipbuilder], it takes at least 18 months for an aircraft carrier to achieve IOC as there are thousands of items to test and approve,” said Zhou Chenming, a researcher at the Yuan Wang military think tank in Beijing.

According to the CCTV video, the Shandong, which is China’s first domestically developed aircraft carrier, features 12,000 different equipment systems.

China aircraft carrier type 001a
China’s Shandong aircraft carrier.

It is on course to become the navy’s second carrier with IOC status, after the Liaoning. A third Chinese aircraft carrier – featuring the world’s most advanced electromagnetic catapults for launching jets – is expected to launch later this year.

While the Shandong has already conducted nine sea trails, they were all in Bohai Bay or the South China Sea, which was relatively close to its home base in Sanya, Hainan province, according to Lu Li-Shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung.

He agreed that the CCTV video suggested the vessel was now ready to take to the high seas.

“The Shandong will sail through the first island chain – as its sister ship the Liaoning did before it – to the western Pacific, for its first high-sea exercises,” he said.

Because of Covid-19 restrictions, much of the CCTV footage was shot by members of the Shandong’s crew. It took television viewers inside the 20-storey accommodation and operations block that towers above the deck of the ship and gave them a brief insight into the day-to-day lives of the 5,000 sailors who call the vessel home.

The video also provided information about the Shandong’s ski-jump for launching jets and its powerful cannons capable of firing 10,000 rounds a minute. A CCTV reporter said the angle of the ski-jump was 14 degrees, and not 12 degrees as many experts had guessed.

China's first domestically developed aircraft carrier, the Type 001A, is seen at a port in Dalian
Shandong, China’s first domestically developed aircraft carrier, at a port in Dalian.

“China Shipbuilding Industry Corp [which built the Shandong] has never announced the angle, but the blueprint for the Liaoning shows that the angle on its ramp is [also] 14 degrees,” Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said.

“But based on the thrust of the J-15 fighter jet, many experts believed the ramp angle on the Shandong would have to be reduced a little,” he said.

Hong Kong-based military commentator Liang Guoliang said the ski-jump angle on the Liaoning – a Soviet-designed Kuznetsov-class carrier China bought from Ukraine in 1998 – was designed to accommodate Russian Su-33 Flanker fighters.

“Four options for the ski-jump ramp angle – eight, 12, 14 and 16 degrees – were tested,” Liang said. “More powerful aircraft need a lower angle, and it’s a fact that China’s J-15 is more powerful than the Su-33.”

In November, PLA pilot Peng Gaofei was killed in a crash during a flight exercise from the Shandong. He was the second J-15 fighter jet pilot to die since 2016, when Zhang Chao was killed due to a problem with the flight control system in his aircraft.

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