China's Fleet Joins the World's Navies Off Somalia

October 2010
By James C. Bussert, SIGNAL Magazine


The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) LPD Kunlun Shan, shown under construction four years ago, is among the PLAN’s largest vessels. With space for up to 800 troops and 15 armored vehicles and supplies, it was a mainstay of Chinese Naval Escort Task Force (CNET) 6, China’s contribution to international counterpiracy efforts off the coast of Somalia.

A capable blue-water force gained as much as it contributed.

China has established its bona fides as an international maritime power with its participation in counterpiracy operations off the Horn of Africa. The emerging Asian maritime force contributed many different types of vessels as it learned how to support distant deployments. Its participation in the multinational effort also served to showcase some new ships and capabilities that may define Chinese naval power in the coming years.

Although China does not have a naval base from the island of Hainan to the Aden Gulf, its warships found four port facilities available in Pakistan, Yemen, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. China has gained invaluable extended operation experience for crews of six frigates, four destroyers, two replenishment ships and a landing platform dock (LPD) ship by participating in the international counterpiracy operations.

This international naval response to the piracy threat evolved from President George W. Bush’s June 2007 Repression of Piracy policy, which was added to the 2005 National Strategy for Maritime Security. This resulted in the January 2009 Countering Piracy Partnership Action Plan. The United States led the Combined Maritime Forces of U.N. and European Union International Recommended Transit Corridor in sea patrol from the Gulf of Aden to the Indian Ocean.

In 2008, more than 1,200 Chinese merchant ships passed through the Gulf of Aden, and seven were attacked. The first group of Chinese warships to deploy on the international Somali patrol was designated Chinese Naval Escort Task Force (CNET) One. It comprised three People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels, and it departed Sanya, Hainan, to deploy to the Gulf of Oman on December 26, 2008. Two of the ships were the most modern new construction guided missile destroyers (DDGs) in the PLAN fleet. The DDG-169 Wuhan 052B class was the flagship of Force Commander Rear Adm. Du Jingchen, PLAN. It was China’s third new DDG design, and it was launched in 2002 with a Russian Fregat 3-D air search radar, two SAN-7 surface-to-air missile (SAM) launchers with four associated front dome directors, eight C0803 surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) and a Band Stand director for SSMs and a 100-millimeter main battery.

Other weapons included two close-in weapon system (CIWS) mounts, six antisubmarine warfare (ASW) torpedo tubes and a helicopter. The second warship was the 052C class DDG-171 Haikou, the fourth new DDG design. It was launched in 2003. Its additional systems included an Aegis-like phased array radar, 48 vertical launch missiles and two helicopters. Their support ship was the AO-887 Weishanhu, one of two new 22,000-ton Fuchi class replenishment ships. They arrived in the Gulf of Aden to join the multinational Combined Task Force (CTF) 151 on January 6, 2009.

This deployment represented the first long-distance Chinese naval operation since the Ming Dynasty 600 years ago. During their 123-day deployment, the PLAN ships escorted 179 Chinese vessels, including 73 ships from Hong Kong and nine from Taiwan. They returned to Sanya on April 28, 2009, concluding a voyage of 79,000 nautical miles. This was the longest continuous journey made by the PLAN. The Weishanhu remained on station for the second CNET group. These first task force warships may well have been overkill show boats to demonstrate the latest in PLAN technology. Old Luda destroyers or frigates would have been adequate for the mission.

Chinese newspaper reports in February 2008 claimed that an Indian submarine stalked the two PLAN DDGs on January 15. It allegedly was tracked by an ASW helicopter; it surfaced after an hour and then left the area. This was denied by the Indian and Chinese navies, but if true it could reflect the intelligence-gathering activities of other navies.

On February 2, the Wuhan helicopter brought supplies from the Chinese merchant ship Xin Fei Zhou, which was the first of many vertical replenishments during the antipiracy operations. This method of supply reflects the lack of local available ports for China.

In February 7, the CNET escorted the Chinese fishing boat Tianyu No. 8 when it was released by pirates. The first CNET foreign port replenishment visit was to Aden, Yemen, on February 22-23, 2009.

At the end of this deployment, the PLAN retrenched from sending two more DDG major warships and instead sent the 052A Luhai class DDG and a modern Jiangkai II frigate. The DDG-167 Shenzhen was an earlier DDG launched in 1997. It carried 16 C-802 SSMs, French eight-round HQ-7 short-range SAMs and a Thales air search radar, a Rice Field 3-D air search, a 100-millimeter gun, ASW torpedo tubes and two helicopters. The FFG-570 Huangshan is a modern multimission frigate featuring many systems previously found only on new DDGs, such as CIWS, a new 32-hatch vertical launch system that resembles the U.S. MK 41, Top Pair 3-D radar, Band Stand fire control, MR-90 SAM tracking radar, CIWS, SR-64 missile defense radar and a helicopter.

The CNET 2 group under Rear Adm. Yao Zhilou, PLAN, vice commander of the South Sea Fleet, departed from the southern fleet headquarters at Guangzhou in early April 2009. It traveled 4,600 miles to the Gulf of Aden via Xisha and Nansha Islands, the Singapore Strait, the Strait of Malacca and the Indian Ocean, arriving on station in mid-April. At the request of the Philippine government, the FFG-570 met the 32,400-ton Philippine tanker that had been hijacked on November 2008. Upon the tanker’s release by pirates, the Huangshan escorted it to safe waters on August 4. An attempt by pirates to recapture the tanker after release was thwarted by FFG-570 and helicopters, and the PLAN escorted it to Salalah, Oman. The three-ship group, including Weishanhu, returned to Zhanjiang on August 21, 2009. The 142-day voyage covered 85,000 nautical miles.

The third CNET was the first without a major PLAN DDG warship. Consisting of two Jiangkai II frigates, CNET 3 was the first to organize escorted ships into groups based on their speed to raise efficiency. FFG-529 Zhoushan and FFG-530 Xuzhou were joined by the other new Fuchi-class replenishment ship, AO-886 Qiandaohu, to relieve AO-887 on August 1, 2009. The force leader, Rear Adm. Wang Zhiguo, PLAN, proved to be very high profile and outgoing with U.S. and Russian commanders during his tour. The group departed Zhoushan on July 16, 2009, passing through the Taiwan Strait and visiting PLAN forces on Nansha Island on July 19. CNET 3 relieved CNET 2 on July 30, 2009. On July 25, Zhoushan completed its second refueling from AO-886 en route to the gulf.

On September 6, 2009, Russian Rear Adm. Sergei Aliokminski, RUN, and seven other officers flew onboard Zhoushan by helicopter to tour the ship and to meet with Adm. Zhilou. On August 6, Zhoushan chased away several pirate ships and guarded the Chinese merchant ship Zhenhu-25. On September 18, 2009, both frigates and their helicopters, along with the Udaloy-class ASW warship Tributs, engaged in their first joint exercise in the Gulf of Aden. On November 1, CTF 151 Rear Adm. Scott E. Sanders, USN, visited Adm. Zhiguo on Zhoushan. CNET 3 had escorted 600 ships and had visited Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong en route home. The group arrived back to its base on Zhoushan Island on December 21, 2009.

The CNET 4 group departed from Zhejiang on October 30, 2009. It was the first group from the elite third flotilla of the East Sea Fleet. Two 054 frigates, FFG-525 Ma’anshan and FFG-526 Wenzhou, left Yulin on October 29, 2009. These were the first two Jiangkai 054-class hulls built, and they underwent extensive builder and acceptance tests and trials. This also was the first group with its own unique Task Force identity, TF 525, and also the first without a rear admiral group commander. The flagship Ma’anshan had Sr. Capt. Qiu Yanpeng onboard.

The Chinese bulk carrier De Xin Hai was hijacked in the Indian Ocean 700 miles east of Somalia on October 19, 2009. It was rescued by CNET 4 on December 28. The frigate Ma’anshan went into the French support base at Djibouti for replenishment supplies for three days from January 24-26, 2010, returning on station January 28. TF 525 escorted more than 600 merchant ships during its 128-day deployment. The group, including Qiandaohu, stopped over in Manila for a five-day port call en route home from April 13-17.

CNET 5 departed from Hainan on March 4, 2010, and arrived in Somali waters for duty on March 22, 2010. This was a full new three-ship group with 052B DDG-168 Guangzhou as flagship for Rear Adm. Zhang Wendan, PLAN, deputy chief of staff for the South China Sea Fleet. Actually, the frigate FFG-568 Chaohu departed a few days earlier than the flagship and replenishment ship. This was the first DDG since CNET 2 back in April 2009. The third ship was AO-887 Weishanhu, which had served CNET 1 and CNET 2. On March 27, 2010, the Chaohu escorted the Singapore tanker Pramoni, which had been hijacked on January 1, 2010, to safe waters.

CNET 6 departed Hainan on July 1, 2010, but it had a few surprises in its makeup. In addition to the usual DDG-170 and replenishment ship Weishanhu, the third vessel was a new 17,000-ton LPD-998, the Kunlun Shan. It is among the largest PLAN vessels with space for 500 to 800 troops, more than 15 armored amphibious vehicles and supplies. Five days out of Hainan, it revealed its first Chinese-built air cushion hovercraft, recently launched in Shanghai and never seen at sea. While China negotiated for two years with Russia and Ukraine for hovercraft, this vessel looks exactly like a U.S. Navy landing craft air cushion. This could be another example of the PLAN displaying its best new vessels in the gulf, or it could be a change of mission capability based on anti-pirate experience. The Kunlun Shan’s large flight deck for two medium-size helicopters supports the great utility of helicopters in various gulf operations.

The DDG and 054A frigates carried one Z-9 helicopter each that could transport only four troops. The LPD carries two heavier Z-8 helicopters that can carry 20 troops each. The turnover from CNET 5 to CNET 6 was July 14, 2010, on the Guangshou in the Gulf of Aden.

CNET ship operations were independent from the allied CTF 151 coordinated operations, as were other small-navy participants. This changed in September 2009 when CNET 3 broke ships into separate groups organized by speed. CNET 4 had its own Task Force 525 title. Commanders of arriving and departing ships exchanged intelligence and had a final joint patrol mission before turnover. Some crew and officers from the relieved force stayed on with the newly arrived group to pass along lessons learned.

The CTF 55 allied ships have a large volume of communication assets, including Internet and satellite links to families back home. In contrast, PLAN sailors have little opportunity for family communication and minimal, if any, shore leave when deployed. PLAN ships had two high-frequency channels, one in Chinese and the other in English, plus maritime satellite telephone, short wave and other means of communicating with merchant ships. During CNET 1, both PLAN DDGs remained at sea the entire time, and the Weishanhu refueled in port only once in four months. Subsequent CNET groups have included port visits with increased frequency. PLAN officials were surprised at how foreign navies catered to sailors with satellite communication with their families and port leave.

The replenishment ships provide much more than the expected fuel, water and food. The tender has a fuel inspection and chemical test kit to check fuel quality before transfer. Food and water each have bacteria, chemical and quality test kits. In seven months of escort duty, 120 batches of food and drinks were tested, and three food batches were rejected due to excessive organic phosphor. A remote medical diagnosis and treatment system enables audio and video remote consultation with the PLAN General Hospital in Beijing.

Rather than just send repair parts requested by the ships, the AO-886 and AO-887 have a database for equipment malfunction analysis that includes component removal for the 054A frigates. AO technicians can isolate down to the malfunction and generate a repair plan before sending the needed part. Because several of the combat systems on the 052 DDGs and 054A FFGs are identical, the DDGs could benefit from this as well, but that is not certain.

A PLAN limitation on extended deployments is that the Fuchi class AO-886 and AO-887 and the imported Russian 37,000-ton Qinghai AOR are the only auxiliaries able to do these tasks as well as refuel from port and starboard simultaneously. Other PLAN AOs are smaller and less versatile. In December 2009, Rear Adm. Yin Zhin, PLAN, proposed a Chinese support base in the Gulf of Aden similar to that of Western navies. In January 2010, China suggested set areas for patrols for navies that operate independently from, not part of, CTF 151. These were China, India, Russia, Malaysia and Iran. The PLAN innovation was named Shared Awareness and Deconfliction with a rotating chair among the members. CNET 4 was probably the first to implement this Chinese concept as Task Force 525.

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

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