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Chinese Warships Struggle to Meet New Command, Control And Communications Needs

February 2009
By James C. Bussert

Evolutionary introduction of assets leads to different combat capabilities.

China may be building a navy that features some world-class technologies aboard new ships, but its large numbers and variety of naval and air weapons still are operated in isolated methods because of the lack of effective command, control and communications and datalinks. Of 494 Chinese navy ships, the only combatant warships with credible Level III command, control and communications are four imported Russian Sovremennyi guided missile destroyers, 11 new construction guided missile destroyers, four 054A guided missile frigates, two upgraded Luda-class destroyers and 12 submarines, including nuclear strategic ballistic missile submarines.

Even these 33 vessels are handicapped by limited shore or space satellite command, control and communications (C3) support and the lack of integrated structure, organization, training and experience. The absence of technical expertise by sailors results in some computers being used as typewriters, which inhibits command and control (C2) missions. As many as 90 percent of Chinese warships have an obsolete C3 capability—or none at all.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has put together a core C3 shallow-water capability by datalinking new guided missile destroyers (DDGs) with new construction Houbei catamarans and 054A frigates (SIGNAL Magazine, May 2007). However, severe limitations remain for strategic or distant operations beyond coastal waters far away from nearby C3 shore support.

This is a recent problem. Traditionally, PLAN surface warships largely conducted coastal operations and functioned without coordination and tactical data sharing between ships or shore. Communications aboard old Luda destroyers and legacy frigates were adequate. But new construction missile destroyers and frigates are aimed at newer operation areas and missions that must employ aircraft and subsurface units. PLAN ships will be faced with new blue-water sea lines of communication protection or carrier battle group missions.

Three phases of evolution have taken PLAN warships from basic communications on a single platform to combined platform C3. The first phase involved simple communications. Each weapon was stand-alone, and each ship controlled only its internal sensors and weapons. One sensor to one weapon is a classic stovepipe system. The PLAN includes 62 mine warfare, 109 amphibious, 45 surveillance, 154 support and 32 auxiliary ships. A few large new construction vessels in this group, such as the 25,000-ton LPD 071, 21,000-ton to 37,000-ton oil replenishment ships, 10,000-ton Dajiang submarine tenders or 21,000-ton Yuonwang space event ships have respectable satellite and multiband C3, but they are not battle group warships. The 494 warships include 29 destroyers, 47 frigates, 63 submarines and 355 patrol boats. A baseline is the vintage Luda destroyers and early frigates that were the PLAN mainstay from 1960 to 1980. Luda and the Jianghu frigates both had seven external high frequency (HF) antennas. Jianghu frigate antennas varied from seven-foot to 32-foot whips. Later frigates increased to more modern sensors and weapons, but they still entailed stand-alone systems and ships.

The first Chinese-built ship with no imported equipment at all was the 10,000-ton freighter Fenquing in 1974, but for decades imported equipment or copies were common. Imported Decca surface search radars, Magnavox satellite communications and Redifon marine transmitters were on many PLAN warships from the 1980s on. In 1984, the PLAN paid $15 million for Seafox integrated communications from Marconi. A contract to have the United Kingdom provide a complete upgrade to Luda in 1982 fell through because of the $375 million cost. Instead, the Luda II refit DDG 105 added a helicopter hangar and three-dimensional (3D) radar in 1987. Luda DD 132 later replaced its 3D radar with a satellite navigation antenna, probably the Russian R-793 Pritsep GPS/GLONASS operating at 4-6 gigahertz. Other 1980s Luda refits added radars and weapons but no evident C3 systems.

Some impressive long-range cruises and distant operations occurred with phase one units. Examples include the PLAN seizing the ParacelIslands from Vietnam in the South China Sea in 1974, intercontinental ballistic missile test observation in the South Pacific in 1980, and more than 20 warships conducting large naval exercises in 1988-1989 coinciding with occupation of the SpratlyIslands.

Phase two entailed various shipboard sensors, control and weapons being coordinated within a single platform. The Luda III upgrades and newer frigates typify this phase. A metric of increased C3 capability in the Jianghu upgrades is indicated with five antennas on Jianghu I, eight on the Jianghu II helicopter deck upgrade and 11 whip antennas on Jianghu III gun/surface-to-surface missile (SSM) fire control and electronic countermeasures upgrade. The last two Ludas launched in 1990-1992—DDGs 165 and 166—had the Luda III upgrades that included the Tavitac combat direction system (CDS) computer and Vega II weapon control computer from France. The CDS included the French Link W—a copy of Link 11—and imported communications. The new generation Luhu DDG 112 and 113 also had Tavitac CDS installed, although the Chinese designation ZKJ-4 was used.

Though not reported in Western open sources, China’s 716 Institute is believed to have developed a first-generation C2 system of unknown designation. The Chinese claim of “wide fleet distribution” hints that this system could predate the new post-1990 051 and 052 DDGs and was on newer 053H frigates and possibly updated Luda ships. The system had two computers and a display console. It featured a Pentium central processing unit with a Compact PCI bus and an FDDI high-speed local area network with a 100-megabyte Ethernet.

This technology somewhat dates the system. A crude Chinese-developed digital fire control system—designated Type 88—was displayed publicly in 1991, the year the first Type 88 was installed on a 542-ton Houjian fast attack craft. It interfaces with gun, radar, electro-optic sensors, PL-9 surface-to-air missile and electronic warfare systems. The Houjian has no sonar or antisubmarine warfare weapons onboard. The Type 88 consists primarily of buttons and toggle-switch technology with four plug-in cards on the lower chassis.

The first of four new 1,700-ton Jiangwei frigates also was launched in 1991, and they were credited with the first computerized weapon control system, designated CCS-3 in references. It was more complex than the Type 88 because it had a datalink compared to the Type 88 point-to-point architecture. The datalink probably was the Chinese ISBC-900 series bus. Another metric to identify level II vessels is if they have a combat information center (CIC) in the architecture. The first PLAN warship claiming a CIC was the Luhai.

China’s military is backfitting low frequency (LF), very high frequency (VHF) and ultrahigh frequency (UHF) communications and upgrading existing systems to digital technology. This is achieved through the use of Western imports and indigenous radio production plants. Existing South Fleet 053H frigates are adding HN-900 two-way datalinks similar to Link 11. FF 563 and 553 added satellite communications and HN-900 for C3 but retained old HY-2 SSMs and guns. The Eastern Fleet FF 513 received the less-capable one-way HN-900 datalink.

PLAN ships and modern J-10A and J-11 aircraft use the 1553B databus for their datalinks. The PCI bus card is manufactured by Chengdu Enpht Technology Company under the name EP-H6273. Protocol chips run from 512 kilobits up to 64 megabits. The 1553B chassis and slots, named ACE 1553, are manufactured by Beijing Shenzhou Feihang Company. The first Type Houbei catamaran missile boat was launched in 2004, and 20 had appeared by 2008 (SIGNAL Magazine, December 2007). They may be replacements for the aged Hegu (Osa) and Huangfeng (Komar) boats, but that may not be true. They all have Marine Corps paint, which indicates an amphibious support role such as fire support for landings. A high automation level is hinted at by a crew of only 12, compared to a crew of 26 on earlier, similar-size Huangfeng missile boats. With only five- and seven-foot HF whips on the bridge and no satellite communications radomes, it is surprising to see an HN-900 datalink to the DDG between the four SSM cells.

Examples of shore commands controlling tactical units include the 2001 J-8 interception of the U.S. Navy EP-3 off of Hainan and the 1994 Han SSN and 1996 Song diesel boat interception of the Kitty Hawk carrier battle groups in the Sea of Japan. The use of Chinese satellites for reconnaissance, navigation and communications is likely in coastal waters, but GPS and GLONASS would be required for distant operations.

Phase three of the evolution is for major PLAN warships to have C3 with other platforms, including aircraft and other surface ships. The PLAN warships with obvious phase three capabilities are the four modern new construction DDG classes. The Sovremenny 956EM DDGs certainly are the best C3 warships in the PLAN. The next indigenous nominees are the 052C Aegis DDGs 170 and 171, and the newest 051C DDGs 115 and 116 with the S-300 air defense 30N6E1 phased array radar and SA-N-6 vertical launch surface-to-air missiles. All of these types of ships were launched in 2006.

The 956EM warships imported in 1999 had the Russian Sapfir-U combat systems and associated datalinks and communications—Bell Crown datalink and two Light Bulb video datalinks for SSMs. Fore and aft mast yardarms mount four 200-1300-megahertz UHF dipole antennas. Twelve HF whips and a 45-foot-tall MF antenna were on the aft helicopter deck. LF wire bundles extend from the forward to the aft yardarm and then down to the O-2 deck.

In 1998, Neptune exported upgraded Buran-5ke automated communication complexes to Russian customers, and this would have been on the 956EM. In 2001, Russia exported the first four Band Stand radar/datalink systems to Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai for the new 052B DDGs. The Mineral-3 datalink and radar operates in the I band with a 30-kilometer range. The Mineral-3 can detect up to 200 contacts and designate nine as targets for SS-N-9 or SS-N-22 SSMs. China developed the HN-900 tactical datalink transmitter that has appeared on all modern 051 and 052 DDGs, 053H guided missile frigates (FFGs) and 022 catamarans, and it has been backfitted to a few Luda DDGs.

The two 052C DDGs reportedly are the initial ships for the second-generation JY10G Chinese multimission information processing system. The JY10G uses land-ship and air radar inputs to integrate with other sensor sources and weapon systems. Reports that this system also is on the Houbei SWATH missile boats probably are not credible because the boats do not even have satellite communication radomes.

China’s Beijing Readsoft Technology Corporation has copied the MIL-STD 1553B databus under the designation GJB289A. It first appeared on People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) J-8 and J-11 aircraft and later on the naval    J-10A and on the weapon system aboard the 052C. The 051 and 052 DDGs, as well as other warships, probably will follow suit. The most valuable Russian imports—956EM DDGs, Su-30 long-range fighters and Kilo 636 diesel submarines—provide proven interplatform datalinks that China can copy or try to emulate on its own indigenous platforms. Additionally, that will enable joint Russian-China naval operations with common datalinks.

Russian/Chinese cooperation includes military geopositioning satellites. The new generation-2 of the Chinese Beidou satellite navigation system will be compatible with the Russian GLONASS. The modern PLAN shipboard Dong Zhong Dong satellite communication system is designated AKD3000 and operates at 14 gigahertz in the Ku band frequency, and it consists of 0.6-meter, 0.8-meter and 1.2-meter diameter antenna variants. Lack of high-definition digital reconnaissance satellites hampers command, control, communications and intelligence mission accomplishment, and a lack of military navigation satellites inhibits many datalinks for target position information. It is known that PLAAF Su-27s must rely on voice communications, and Su-30 MKKs have the TSK-2 datalink, but it is not on PLAN units. The newest Su-30 MK2 naval fighter aircraft exported to China have a digital TSIMSS-1 communication system. The 052B and 052C destroyers and the J-10A fighters will have datalinks similar to the Russian AT-2M, which itself is a copy of the U.S. Navy Link 16.

Submarines are the most challenging command link platforms. Strategic or tactical communications with submerged submarines primarily come from shore very low frequency (VLF) stations. Russia built LF stations at three fleet headquarters by 1976. China’s first VLF site was Lushun in 1965, and its most recent was an extremely high power site at Yulin submarine base on Hainan in 1982. The twelve Kilo diesel submarines’ digital CDS MVU-110EM and communications suite of R-625 UHF, R-680 VHF/HF to R-683 LF receiver covered all bands. Target designation for submarine-launched 3M-54E anti-surface-ship missiles can be possible by datalinks on 956EM, Su-30 fighters, helicopters and naval command aircraft. Russian Mi-24 helicopters, which are PLAN assets on warships, have Landaish analog mission computers to provide targeting data via a PK-025 datalink. Russian-provided naval air units had RSIU-5 VHF radios, which are on PLAN surface warships.

Some auxiliaries (AGI) and non-SSM ships now carry a Light Bulb antenna, indicating a functional change from a missile datalink to a high-capacity communication link similar to a Link 16. The main PLAN shore C3 commands are located at the North Fleet (Qingdao), East Fleet (Ningbo) and South Fleet (Guangzhou) headquarters with main control from the PLA Central Command in Beijing. Information integration for large DDG and naval shore commands use PIII ruggedized computers with VxWorks or Windows NT operating systems, 100-megabyte Ethernet and large, multipurpose video monitors.

James C. Bussert is employed at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren, Virginia, where he works on surface-ship antisubmarine fire control systems.