What a difference six years makes! Since the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) last issued an unclassified report on China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in 2009 , the Middle Kingdom has greatly strengthened and expanded its “ Great Wall at Sea ” and even built the world’s largest “ Great Wall of Sand ” in contested waters. Yet even as Internet speculation proliferates spectacularly, highly reliable analysis remains chronically scarce. Even factoring out obvious fallacies and ‘fanboy art’ that clearly violates known facts and laws of physics, this disparity produces what Rear Admiral Paul Becker, Director of Intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, terms a “ data glut but an information deficit ” on China.
Yesterday, April 9, ONI helped reduce that gap. It released a report documenting the PLAN’s rapid progress, while carefully assessing its remaining weaknesses. Entitled “ The PLA Navy: New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century ,” the document ( interactive version downloadable here ) ( hi-res version downloadable here ) has accompanying videos on “ China’s Defensive Layers ” and “ South China Seas Maritime Claims .” Collectively, these represent an extremely valuable contribution to public understanding of China’s maritime development, both in terms of new details offered and the authoritative assessment that backs them. In what follows, I offer highlights from the report and explain their significance.
1. Rapid shipbuilding allows the PLAN and China Coast Guard (CCG) to replace old ships with new, greatly improved ones. While the PLAN is only growing numerically in selected areas, by the end of 2015 the CCG will be 25% larger than it was at the beginning of 2012.
2. China has far more Coast Guard ships than Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines— combined.
3. China has deployed the YJ-18, a potent new-generation supersonic anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) that could pose unprecedented challenges to the air defenses of U.S. and allied ships. Everyone serious about understanding Chinese military capabilities must familiarize themselves with this missile .
Structure and Contents
The report’s 49 pages are divided into five chapters:
Chapter 1 covers “Naval Strategy and Missions.”
Chapter 2, “PLAN Equipment—Building a Modern Navy,” offers order of battle information in unprecedented detail, with naval assets divided among all three fleets for the first time that I have seen in a public U.S. government document since 2009—annual Department of Defense (DoD) reports lump East and South China Sea assets together.
Chapter 3 details “Training, Exercises, and Joint Operations.”
Chapter 4, “PLAN Structure and Leadership,” offers an unparalleled ‘who’s who’ of PLAN organization. In a move that boosts analytical credibility and will warm the heart of legendary PLA analyst and former attaché Kenneth Allen ( who has made educating U.S. government and other analysts about the subject a personal mission ), this section lists admirals’ all-important grades in addition to their ranks.
Chapter 5 returns us to a primary mission for the PLAN, CCG, and other Chinese maritime forces: “Maritime Claims—Securing China’s ‘Blue Territory.’”
A brief “Outlook” section concludes.
Major bonus (referenced explicitly in Table of Contents, but unfortunately not yet downloadable): posters of Chinese equipment and leadership structure as well as a PLAN and maritime law enforcement platforms recognition guide. This suggests that ONI is making authoritative, carefully-labeled silhouettes of PLAN and CCG ships available publicly for the first time ever. This would be almost like upgrading from bird watchers’ photos on Pinterest —pretty though they may be—to the systematic, comprehensive Peterson Field Guide to Birds .
While the report focuses most extensively on the PLAN, it also devotes important coverage to the consolidating CCG —the world’s largest blue water coast guard fleet . Like the PLAN, the CCG is active near such disputed features as Scarborough Reef, Second Thomas Shoal, and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands—and may yet ( it is to be worried ) play even more important roles there. In a typical pattern, “When deployed, the CCG sometimes coordinates with the PLAN, which, when necessary, will deploy destroyers and frigates several dozen miles from the incident to provide a nearby, but indirect presence.” This was precisely China’s division of labor for the March 2009 Impeccable Incident . U.S. policymakers must be wise to a growing Chinese approach in which playing ‘good cop’ allows China’s navy to cultivate closer relations with, and learn from, its American counterpart; while smaller, harder-to-monitor paranaval ‘bad cops’ do the day-to-day ‘dirty work’ of advancing China’s claims.
Home to all China’s unresolved island and maritime claims, the Near Seas (Yellow, East China, and South China Seas) contain numerous flashpoints. Disturbingly, ONI confirms that during the May 2014 crisis surrounding China’s unilateral deployment of oil rig HYSY-981 in waters disputed with Vietnam , both nations sent “dozens” “of coast guard ships, fishing vessels, and some naval combatants….” Ships “frequently and deliberately collid[ed] with one another.” CCG ships “deployed water cannons.” These aggressive activities “creat[ed] the conditions for a rapid escalation.” “The tense situation could easily have escalated into a military conflict.”
Hardware and Software Modernization
Accelerated modernization since roughly 2000 has put the PLAN “on track to dramatically increase its combat capability by 2020 through rapid acquisition and improved operational proficiency.” On the hardware side, it has done so in part by rapidly replacing older ships with larger, multi-mission, blue-water-capable variants with much-improved air defense. Last year alone, China’s navy laid, launched, or commissioned more than 60 vessels; ONI expects similar achievement for 2015. This volume is unmatched: “In 2013 and 2014, China launched more naval ships than any other country and is expected to continue this trend through 2015-16.”
The CCG enjoys a proportionally-even-greater building boom. Even as ship sizes and capabilities increase through replacement, CCG forces are growing at an unparalleled rate. Over the last decade, predecessor organizations ( the CCG was not officially established as a unified civil maritime force until 2013 ) have received roughly 100 new large patrol ships, patrol combatants/craft, and auxiliary/support ships—not to mention additional small harbor and riverine patrol boats. From 2012-15, ONI projects that >30 large patrol ships and >20 patrol combatants will be added, boosting overall CCG force levels by 25%.
Increasingly efficient and capable of supplying China’s maritime forces through series production, Chinese shipbuilding now looms sufficiently large that the Naval War College has made it the topic of its annual China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) conference .
The PLAN is building capacity to use advanced new hardware by training with unprecedented volume, sophistication, and realism, directed in part by Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping. Reflecting consensus among his peers, Xi views maritime power as vital for China’s comprehensive national development and great power status , and calls for Beijing to “ strategically manage the sea .” The PLAN is strengthening guidelines; increasing use of training centers and simulators; improving its training cycle and scope; bolstering opposing force, electronic warfare, and logistics drills; and developing a noncommissioned officer corps to manage important technical tasks. ONI anticipates that 2015 will witness “improved multi-service training,” including through “large-scale transregional exercises” to increase “joint service integration”—one of the PLA’s greatest remaining shortcomings.
Adding Mission Layers
Traditional capabilities to uphold Taiwan and Near Seas sovereignty claims with “the expectation of U.S. military intervention” remain “the PLAN’s primary focus.” ONI foresees increasing likelihood of friction between China and its neighbors “as Beijing seeks to deter rival activities and assert its own claimed rights and interests.” These claims are sweeping: the “three million-square kilometers of blue territory” invoked frequently by Chinese officials and civilians alike “would incorporate nearly 90 percent of the area within the major bodies of water within the First Island Chain,” namely the Near Seas. In the South China Sea, China has moved from occupying only small outposts with a land area of less than five acres” to adding “hundreds of acres of land” constructed by dredging and filling to support new military and paramilitary facilities , activity “unprecedented” in its “sheer scale.” Even within the Near Seas, there are new outer layers to PLAN capability, with the new Jiangdao-class corvette adding Near Seas patrol capabilities beyond the range of the 60 Houbei missile catamarans built in the mid-2000s. Houbeis remain “valuable for reacting to specific threats in China’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and slightly beyond.”
China’s navy remains very different from that of the U.S., but is relatively well-suited for its far more limited focus . For instance, China already has more attack submarines than the U.S. , focused on a much smaller area. Chinese submarines “are optimized for regional missions that concentrate on ASuW [anti-surface warfare] near major sea lines of communication (SLOCs).” Also supporting high-end Near Seas operations is China’s “robust mining capability.” It can lay its >50,000 naval mines using submarines, surface ships, aircraft, and “ fishing and merchant vessels .” As with other armaments, China is expected to develop still-more advanced variants in the future, including “extended-range propelled-warhead mines, antihelicopter mines , and bottom influence mines more able to counter minesweeping efforts.” As for its own mine countermeasures efforts, China can deploy heretofore simply un-Googleable “remote-controllable WONANG-class inshore minesweepers.”