China's Phantom Fleet

October 1, 2011
By James C. Bussert, SIGNAL Magazine


A Chinese trawler plies the waves in waters off the coast of China. While ostensibly designed for fishing, these trawlers increasingly are carrying out government and military missions against foreign vessels in areas of interest to China.

The Middle Kingdom has diverse maritime assets that make up a separate and distinct force.

The People’s Republic of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy has three well-known fleets—the North Sea, East Sea and South Sea fleets. Yet, China boasts another large group of ships that serves the country’s naval objectives but is relatively unknown. The ships do not belong to any of the three designated fleets, but they carry out functions that include aggressive actions in international waters against a variety of other maritime entities, ranging from fishing fleets to military surveillance ships.

These Chinese ships comprise various paramilitary or “civilian” fleets that are controlled by Chinese military direction. Their stated missions can range from commercial fishing to maritime border patrol. But, under Chinese military control, this diverse collection of vessels constitutes a Fourth Fleet for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

China has eight non-PLAN maritime agencies: the State Oceanographic Administration, the Marine Environmental Forecast Service, the Bureau of Fisheries, the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, the Maritime Border Defense Force (MBDF), China Marine Surveillance (CMS), the China Coast Guard and the Maritime Safety Administration. Ships and boats from these agencies are joined by Chinese fishing vessels that do more than just provide food to dining tables.

Many other seagoing nations have non-naval warship vessels and maritime bureaus that include coast guard, fishing boats and research vessels. However, the PLAN may be unique in using them aggressively against other nations’ ships in waters from the Sea of Japan to the South China Sea.

The Chinese goal seems to be denying access by foreigners in times of crisis. Sending modern PLAN warships into disputed waters usually is too much escalation, and it assumes that the contesting nations do not want to start actual hostilities. For this reason, nonmilitary vessels can provide enforcement but at a lower profile level.

A rare exception to this Chinese policy was when a PLAN Sovremennyy guided missile destroyer (DDG) was sent into the contested East China Sea Chunxiao gas field waters in January 2005. Seven months later, it was followed by a naval surface action group comprising the Sovremennyy DDG 137, two Jianghu frigates, a Fuqing-class replenishment ship and the intelligence ship Dondiao. No Japanese vessels were present, and therefore no direct confrontation took place; but it was a bold political statement on China’s resolve.

Generally, Chinese maritime protection vessels perform tasks that other nations reserve only for military warships. In a more recent but similar event, an unidentified Chinese patrol vessel cut a Vietnamese survey vessel’s cable inside Vietnam waters in May 2011.

Since the founding of the PLAN in 1949, its waters to protect extended from littoral no farther than what is called the “first island chain” that approximates the 200 mile economic enforcement zone (EEZ) claimed by China in June 1998. Around 1990, China extended its waters to the “second island chain,” which expands China’s area of sea denial to foreign fishermen or warships.

This doubled the area to control and monitor and included the entire South China Sea. It was formalized further on December 4, 2007, by the establishment a new Hainan province named Sansha, which included the disputed Paracel and Spratley islands. On May 16, 2009, China issued a ban on any other nation fishing in the South China Sea, and it promised enforcement. On July 30, 2010, China claimed “indisputable sovereignty” over islands in the South China Sea and surrounding waters. Examples of Chinese maritime protection clearly show that converting EEZ to Chinese sovereign waters is the role of the Fourth Fleet.

On March 4, 2004, two Chinese Bureau of Fisheries vessels interfered with the U.S. Navy surveillance towed array sensor system (SURTASS) ship USNS Victorious in the Yellow Sea. On March 9, 2010, the SURTASS ship USNS Impeccable was threatened and harassed in the South China Sea by another Bureau of Fisheries ship, an intelligence ship, a State Oceanographic Administration ship and two trawlers.

On occasion, Chinese trawlers have acted aggressively without the aid of official government vessels. In May 2003, Chinese fishing vessels bumped the USNS Bowditch (T-AGOS 62) within the 200-mile EEZ. Many of the high-profile confrontations with U.S. towed array auxiliaries and Japanese or Korean coast guard vessels have been by trawlers. In November 2010, the Chinese trawler Minjinyu 5179 rammed the 1,345-ton Japanese Coast Guard (JCG) vessel Yonakuni, and 45 minutes later it rammed the 180-ton JCG cutter Mizuki in disputed Diaoyu Island waters. Japanese patrol boats arrested the trawler’s captain for trial in Japan, but he later was released amid demands from Japan that China pay for damages to its coast guard vessels.

In September 2010, a 63-ton Chinese trawler rammed a South Korean coast guard vessel so hard that the trawler sank. The same month, a large 300-ton Chinese trawler tried to cut the SURTASS cable on USNS Victorious in South China Seawaters 700 miles south of Hainan Island.

Based on government or PLAN needs, these boats are not used for fishing but are integrated into a maritime militia that is directed and controlled by Chinese maritime authorities. Traditional fishermen do not ram foreign coast guard vessels or try to cut U.S. Navy towed surveillance array cables. Nearly 300,000 Chinese motorized fishing vessels are available for harassment duties. Several news reports exist of 200 to 300 Chinese trawlers fishing in Korean, Japanese or Philippine disputed waters trying to establish sovereignty.

Trawlers represent the smaller element of the Fourth Fleet—small in size, but large in numbers. Other “civilian” government vessels can be much larger and may carry advanced electronics suites and even weapons systems.

These craft can range from 150 tons to 5,000 tons, and they were constructed from the 1950s to 2011. For example, one new China Marine Surveillance 600-ton vessel, although not typical, is modern with spacious berthing and a luxurious boardroom. It is 66.5 meters long and 8.8 meters wide with a 4.5-meter draft, and it carries a crew of 45 and has a top speed of 23 knots. It is armed with a quad 14.5-millimeter machine gun on the bow. It has satellite navigation and satellite communications with INMARSAT-F receivers. Its radar is a Japanese CSJ1 display with two antennas, JMA 5320/7 and 5310/6. The generator is a German MTU16V4000M70 with an output of 2,320 kilowatts at 2,000 revolutions per minute. It has a U.S. ZF7550 marine transmission and electronic roll stabilizers.

China has implemented modern technologies among its maritime fishery control vessel systems. Many of these support nontraditional civilian missions. For navigation, ships have Chinese-built Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite navigation from CHINAGPS Incorporated and CHINALBS Incorporated. The navigation radars on new cutters are Japan Radio Corporation JMA 5300 series with 10-kilowatt and 25-kilowatt antennas and 9410 megahertz frequency. A naval navigation radar, the RACAL RM-1290 with X and S-bands, has a range of 35 kilometers. The pedestal forward of a ship’s helicopter deck would support imported glide slope indicator or visual landing aid equipment.

Communications suites can consist of R-series high-frequency (HF) radios. A 4-meter antenna has a range of 25 kilometers, and an 11-meter antenna offers a range of 40 kilometers. A possible ship-to-helicopter communication link is the imported OTE Alenia very high frequency (VHF) radio. INMARSAT-F satellite communication from Denmark comprises the “Sailor” VHF to HF series of systems.

For shipboard weapons, the largest guns are the 57-millimeter, 75-caliber, Type 66 guns on the MBDF Shanghai II patrol craft with a maximum range of 12,000 meters and an effective range of 7,000 meters with a fire rate of 230 rounds per minute. Other guns include the 37-millimeter, 63-caliber twin Type 76/quad Type 74, on two ex-Jianghu frigates. These guns have a maximum range of 8,400 meters with an effective range of 4,500 meters. They fire 360 rounds per minute. In addition, twin 25-millimeter, 80-caliber Type 61 guns have an effective range of 2,500 meters and fire at 800 to 900 rounds per minute. The 14.5-millimeter, 93-caliber twin Type 58/quad Type 56 has an effective range of 2,000 meters/horizontal 1,000 meters, and it fires at 300 rounds per minute or 1,100 rounds per minute in short bursts. Although no fire control system is known, some Yuzheng vessels have an electro-optical tracker with a range exceeding 10 miles.

These vessels usually are powered by two diesels of French or German design but built by Chinese diesel plants, such as Shaanxi, under license. Exceptions are 1,200-ton two-diesel/one-shaft or 1,100-ton one-diesel/one-shaft CMS vessels. The 3,000 ton CMS Haijian-83 is unique with its Danish ABB anzipod electric propulsion pod. The Maritime Safety Administration’s 3,000-ton and 1,500-ton Haixuns have 5,800-kilowatt and 3,700-kilowatt main engines respectively. Some 400-ton customs vessels have four diesel/four shafts. The Chongqing Cummins Company produces KTA 38-ME 1,007-kilowatt propulsion and CP-CP170 160-kilowatt generators for trawlers.

Next month: Part II examines the Fourth Fleet’s eight maritime agencies and their assets.

James C. Bussert is employed at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren, Virginia, where he works on surface ship antisubmarine fire control systems. The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Defense Department or the U.S. Navy.


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