Shanghai’s Changxing Island Shipyard, already home to both conventional-submarine and civil production, now appears to be preparing to construct China’s first indigenous aircraft carrier. Internet and satellite photos have emerged of a hull module whose limited dimensions suggest that it represents a cost-controlled demonstration of relevant construction capabilities. Its configuration may foreshadow improvements on China’s first aircraft carrier, the refitted ex-Soviet Liaoning. While this particular module may never be incorporated directly into an initial homegrown flattop, whose construction is unlikely to be rushed, China’s naval shipbuilding has become proficient at modular construction. China’s military shipbuilders already use modular construction techniques at Jiangnan Shipyard for Type 052-series destroyers, at Hudong-Zhonghua Shipyard for the Type 071 amphibious vessel, and in at least four shipyards for the new Type 056 corvette—which itself was reportedly preceded by a demonstration module at Hudong-Zhonghua. Now these latest photos raise important questions: how capable is China’s military shipbuilding industry, and what can it actually deliver?
This is part of a larger pattern in which outside analysts have repeatedly underestimated the speed and sophistication of China’s military-technological development. China’s political and economic capacity to invest financial and human capital in multiple new programs is unparalleled. While it remains uncertain how rapidly China’s aviation industry and other less-dynamic sectors can transform a growing glut of projects into high-performing finished products, China’s shipbuilding industry already has proven production capabilities. Here China is simultaneously developing and producing seven types of submarines and surface combatants; a number matched only by the United States.
During the 2000-10 global commodity boom—in which China’s booming growth and appetite for iron ore, oil, and other raw materials was a core theme—Chinese shipyards surged to become the world’s largest in terms of raw deadweight tonnage produced per year. The civilian shipbuilding boom did not directly translate into military shipbuilding capability. But it nonetheless contributed to China’s current investments in naval shipbuilding because the country’s growing civilian maritime trade and merchant marine helped create a social and political consensus in China that civilian maritime capacity must be backed by a powerful navy.
In contrast, the United States no longer has a significant civil shipbuilding industry and struggles to produce military ships on time and within budget. Based on these current production trends, on American shipyards’ rapid workforce aging and loss of human capital, and on Beijing’s desire for a fleet that makes it a major naval player in the western Pacific and gradually beyond, it is quite possible that within a decade China may lead the world in warship output.
China’s Shipbuilding Industry
Shipyards controlled by two enterprises—China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) and China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC)—build essentially all of China’s surface combatants and submarines. The fact that CSIC personnel design the ships and CSSC personnel actually build them suggests that the decision Beijing took to split the original CSSC into the modern CSSC and CSIC in July 1999 primarily affected the commercial shipbuilding businesses that each enterprise runs and that the military construction business is, at a fundamental level, one where the company split is largely symbolic. It also strongly suggests that competition in China’s naval shipbuilding business is not so much between the CSSC and CSIC parent companies as it is among the individual shipyards themselves.
Furthermore, the larger CSSC and CSIC yards such as Hudong-Zhonghua, Changxing Island, Huangpu, Dalian, and Huludao could by themselves be considered world-scale shipbuilding enterprises on both the civilian and military sides. Three years ago, calling these yards “world-class civilian shipbuilders” would not have raised eyebrows. Yet today they increasingly deserve the “world-class” moniker for their naval ship construction as well; in terms of ship numbers, and—increasingly—ship quality. As Chinese military shipbuilding personnel continue to gain experience, ship quality is likely to improve. Furthermore, the yards’ physical infrastructure is typically quite good, as today’s Chinese military shipyards enjoy the newest infrastructure of any major shipbuilder. This is especially true for the large, cutting-edge “greenfield” shipyards such as Changxing Island, located near Shanghai, which is the location where the recent carrier demonstration module photos come from.
A parallel to China’s dynamic naval-vessel development and production has not been seen anywhere globally since the peak of the Cold War. China is currently engaging in series production of modern conventional submarines, destroyers, frigates, large amphibious vessels, corvettes, and fast-attack craft, while pursuinglimited production and development of nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers. The seven types of submarines and surface combatants China is developing and producing simultaneously include the Type 041 air-independent-propulsion submarine, the Type 095 nuclear-powered attack submarine, the Type 094/096 nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine, the Type 052C/052D area air-defense destroyers, the Type 054A air-defense frigate, the Type 056 corvette, and the Type 071 amphibious vessel. Only the United States matches this number of simultaneous major naval programs. This does not even include smaller vessels such as Type 022 missile catamaran.
China’s current fleet-development focus is on quality rather than numbers. The fleet has expanded only slightly numerically but increased rapidly in quality and value due to platforms fielding such weapons as antiship missiles, the sophistication and range of air-defense systems, and the diversity of possible missions. Conventionally powered submarines are prioritized as China’s capital ship. Many surface vessels and conventionally powered submarines are apparently prioritized as delivery platforms—what Professor William Murray of the Naval War College terms “aquatic TELs”—for China’s wide range of sophisticated antiship cruise missiles (ASCM). For instance, 60+ limited-range Type 022 missile catamarans armed with eight YJ-83 ASCMs apiece form a key Chinese naval component. Emphasis on smaller frigates over larger destroyers represents another transition from quantity to quality. This parallels other navies’ shifting given missions to smaller classes of ships because of the increasing cost of larger platforms.
China’s shipbuilding industry is building a cadre of personnel who are numerous and relatively young at all levels. Organizational structures are more nimble than in some other industries. Military spending has risen strongly. Despite wage increases, China’s shipbuilding industry is poised to retain significant labor-cost advantage at all expertise levels over major foreign competitors. Complexity and systems-integration requirements accentuate these advantages for military vessels. Significant export potential for smaller surface ships and conventionally powered submarines may also eventually augment shipbuilders’ revenue streams as Chinese warships increase in quality and become more price- and capability-competitive with naval platforms exported by European and Russian shipbuilders.
Warship Innovation Will Increasingly Come from Operational Experience
China’s shipbuilding industry and whatever innovation capabilities it accrues over time will help shape the development approach that China’s navy takes. In terms of overall sophistication and capacity to innovate, shipbuilding is China’s second defense-industrial sector, after electronics. The potential for civil-military integration in shipbuilding is very limited, however, accentuating the importance of effective diffusion of design and production information among military shipyards.China’s shipbuilding industry is now benefitting from computer aided design. It is achieving incremental and architectural innovation, while increasing production efficiency. Systems-integration ability is the big wildcard regarding further progress in this area. While transferring knowledge from one shipyard to another improves the ability to mass produce ships, true innovation entails being able to adapt the design when confronted with unexpected inadequacies, requirements, or new technologies and transfer the resulting approaches to multiple shipyards. The key indicator: true shipbuilding innovation likely hinges on the relevant organizations being able to support simultaneous design modification at multiple shipyards relatively quickly.
Chinese sources hint that the Chinese navy’s Gulf of Aden missions may be influencing Chinese naval architecture and engineering. For instance, an article in the Chinese navy’s official journal notes that during escort missions, electromechanical machinery, toilets and air compressors have failed on a fairly frequent basis and that domestically produced items have suffered the highest failure rates. The article’s authors also point out that the designs of Chinese warships deployed to the Gulf of Aden fail to provide adequate physical space for making efficient repairs under deployment conditions. The Chinese sources do not specify which of the ships in the escort fleet suffered from these problems, but since the typical escort-fleet composition features destroyers and frigates and since China’s large surface combatants all appear to be designed by CSIC’s 701 Institute in Wuhan, it is likely that common warship-design approaches have made the lack of space a common problem in the fleet. Based on the complaints about lack of space for making repairs and the general need for additional space to accommodate systems to make a ship more combat-capable, there is a strong likelihood that new surface warships will be significantly larger and will especially focus on improved electronics. They may also carry longer-range missiles. Both improvements would require ships to have larger hulls.
China’s shipbuilding industry now has sufficient knowledge, experience, resources, and production capacity to ramp up numbers fairly quickly, especially for producing auxiliary and support vessels. Meanwhile, the global downturn and commercial ship market weakness may catalyze additional Chinese emphasis on military shipbuilding. Commercial output leveled off in 2011, and now shipbuilders face reduced order books and idled capacity. One major shipbuilder, Jiangsu Rongsheng, faces serious debts and has requested financial assistance from the government. With commercial shipbuilding in the doldrums, CSSC and CSIC are likely to become a new constituency that lobbies hard for fleet expansion. To put the motivation for seeking additional military ship orders into perspective, one aircraft-carrier order could likely generate as much work for a shipyard as ten bulk carriers or supertankers.