China scholar stated flatly that the People's Liberation ArmyNavy (PLAN) halted development of its submarine fleet after takingdelivery of the last of its Russian-built Kilo-class dieselattack boats in 2006. From such leading indicators he concluded thatBeijing can do little more than issue ‘hollow threats’ against US navaloperations in Asia. And it’s ‘hyperbole’ to think the Chinese militarycan contest US Navy access to regional waters.
We beg to differ.
To be sure, there’s a grain of truth to the speculation. Considerthe no-new-submarines claim. The authoritative websiteGlobalSecurity.org shows that overall PLAN submarine totals remainednearly flat between 2007-2010. The subsurface fleet increased onlymarginally during this interval, rising from 62 to 63 boats. Newconstruction barely outpaced the retirement of decrepit Cold War-erahulls.
But this is a momentary lull. Once the PLAN finishes shedding oldassets, the submarine fleet will resume its upward trajectory.Estimates indicate that the navy will add 10 modern Song- and Yuan-classdiesel subs by 2015 and an additional 10 by 2020. If such projectionsare accurate, the fleet will be 78 boats strong. Moreover, this leavesaside the possibility, fanned by photos now circulating amongChina-watchers, that the PLAN is preparing to unveil a new class ofdiesel boats based partly on older craft, partly on Russian designs.
By contrast, the Naval Vessel Register lists 54 US nuclear-poweredattack submarines in commission, only 60 percent of which are stationedin the Pacific. This total may shrink given the strains on Americanacquisition budgets. Boat for boat, the US Navy undersea force remainssuperior to its emerging rival, but the weight of numbers is shiftingincreasingly toward China. This will remain true as long as the ChineseNavy remains concentrated in East Asia and the US Navy remainsencumbered with worldwide commitments, attenuating the numbersavailable for deployment to any one trouble spot.
Next, consider surface combatants. A casual glance at Jane's Fighting Shipsshows that destroyer construction has indeed ceased for now. Between2001 and 2005, the PLAN laid down six guided-missile destroyer (DDG)keels, namely two Type 051C Luzhous, two Type 052B Luyang Is, and two Type 052C Luyang IIs. DDGs represent the core of Chinese surface action groups and can screen major platforms — Russian-built Sovremenny destroyers or, eventually, aircraft carriers — against air and submarine attack.
But there’s more to fleet development than destroyers. Shipconstruction has not stopped altogether; it has merely shifted around.China continues to lay down hulls for Type 054A Jiangkai II-classguided-missile frigates (FFGs), the most advanced ships of their typein the PLAN inventory. These FFGs are now entering service.GlobalSecurity.org projects that 12 Jiangkais will be inservice by this year, 22 by 2015. The surface fleet clearly is notstagnating despite the halt in production of top-end combatants.
As with the submarine fleet, isolated statistics deceive.
Moreover, China has been pouring resources into refurbishing the decommissioned Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag, most likely as a training platform for naval aviators. The Varyagwas reportedly completed without a propulsion plant and certainlysuffered from years of neglect. Correcting such deficiencies consumestime, effort, and resources that might otherwise have gone intoadditional surface warships.
And this leaves aside the new-construction flattops Beijing has moreor less admitted it’s pursuing. Competing demands on finite resourcesbegin to explain China's on-and-off procurement process. Carrierconstruction is an enormous undertaking, and one that Chineseshipwrights have never before attempted. It is not at all surprisingthat the pace of manufacturing certain ship types would slacken to makeway for high-profile projects like aircraft carriers.
Furthermore, the pause in destroyer construction would conform tothe PLAN's history of ‘fleet experimentation.’ That is, the dearth ofserious threats to maritime security affords the Chinese Navy theleisure to build small batches of ships of different configurations,take them to sea, evaluate their performance, and incorporate thelessons-learned into future classes. Shipbuilders thereby improve onstrengths and compensate for past shortcomings.
That the PLAN simultaneously built two apiece of three classes of DDGs, then, is noteworthy. The Luyang IIclass in particular may be undergoing evaluation and redesign inkeeping with longstanding practice. The likely result: a new, improvedDDG.
This would fit another pattern in Chinese naval development: thetrend toward larger-displacement warships. The PLAN has derivedsuccessively heavier and more sophisticated ships from the same basichull design, much as the US Navy used the same hull for Spruance-class destroyers, Kidd-class guided-missile destroyers, and Ticonderoga-classAegis cruisers from the 1970s through the 1990s. And indeed, judgingfrom photos now making the rounds, it appears the PLAN may be pursuingcombatants exceeding 10,000 tons' displacement.
These would be the biggest such vessels ever to slide down the waysin China. But such a bombshell would be nothing new. The PLAN sprangthe Yuan submarine, the Type 022 Houbei fast patrol boat (a stealthy missile-armed catamaran), and the Luyang IIitself on unsuspecting Western intelligence services. The only surprisewould be if no further surprises lie in store. Serial production ofheavy, long-range escorts is a logical step for Beijing as it lays thegroundwork for aircraft-carrier task forces.
And the cautious, methodical approach to fleet development allowsthe Chinese naval leadership to hedge against premature investment inpoor designs and systems. The reputation of the Chinesemilitary-industrial complex for manufacturing substandard equipmentconfirms the wisdom of the go-slow approach. For example, China's Xia-classnuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine has never conducted asingle deterrent patrol since its debut in the 1980s. The Xiahas been plagued by shoddy engineering and will likely be retiredwithout ever performing its primary mission. Prudence inclines Chineseofficials to guard against similar debacles.
In other words, the PLAN has been exploring a wide array of shipclasses, combat systems, and weaponry, picking and choosing those bestsuited to Beijing's operational and strategic needs. The evident pausein construction is probably a gestation period while the navalestablishment debates the pros and cons of certain technologies. It’sfar too soon for the United States and its Asian allies and friends toheave a sigh of relief. The safest assumption for Western strategistsis that Beijing's naval quest is simply entering another phase.