Once weak forces are becoming a leading-edge naval power.
A Chinese trawler tries to snag a towed array cable from the USNS Impeccable (T-AGOS-23) 700 miles south of China’s Hainan submarine base. A People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) frigate and six civilian vessels based in Yulin interfered with two U.S. oceanographic research ships over several days in international waters south of Hainan Island, site of a Chinese fleet buildup.
From humble, almost inconsequential, origins, China’s South Sea Fleet has grown to become a major maritime military force. The country is basing many of its newest naval assets in that fleet’s region of responsibility, and they are taking on more diverse and far-reaching missions. China also is acting more aggressively in these waters, particularly in recent confrontations with U.S. ships conducting peaceful operations.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) South Sea Fleet traditionally was the smallest and lowest priority of its three fleets. In 1980 China wanted a warship to show the flag and establish Chinese rights in contested South China Sea islands. Instead of turning to South Sea Fleet assets, China tapped the North Sea Fleet flagship, Luda DD-110, to perform a long, arduous three-month cruise. This demonstrated the lack of readiness and training in South Sea Fleet warships during that period. However, recent events have shown that the axis of China’s most capable warships has shifted to the South Sea Fleet.
Several political and military reasons may be behind this shift. One of the major military reasons is the construction of the first PLAN aircraft carrier, which is occurring in 2009. Two pressing issues are where best to home-port the carrier and the battle group escorts that are required. Another new naval mission is to protect the vital oil imports sea lines of communication (SLOC), primarily from the Middle East through the Indian Ocean. Prior important southern missions remain, such as South China Sea (SCS) island possessions and untapped energy sources there, which are contested by other Asian nations. Chinese marines always have been based mainly on Hainan. All of these new and legacy naval missions point to expansion of base support on Hainan Island as a forward base and jumping-off point.
The East Sea Fleet Headquarters is in Ningbo, and the main ship class based in this fleet are the numerous frigates that are mainly home-ported in Dinghai on Zhoushan Island, which is between Shanghai and Ningbo. When Sovremenny guided missile destroyers (DDGs) and modern 051 and 052 DDGs became operational, they all were located at an isolated Russian support site at Zhoushan near Ningbo and at Xiangshan. Until about 2004, all of the most modern and capable PLAN warships and all four Type 052 Luyangs, the powerful imported Sovremmenys, were based in the East Sea Fleet. Han nuclear submarines (SSNs) and the Xia nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) always were based in the North Fleet. The two Russian 877 EKM Kilo diesel submarines and 10 modern 636 Kilos with the potent Club-S antisubmarine warfare (ASW) rockets all were based at Xiangshan with a Russian technical support group. Nearly all frigates and Sovremmenys are based at Dinghai on Zhoushan Island with hardened caverns. These ships include the modern 054 and more advanced 054A frigates with vertical launch systems (VLS), sonars, radars, guns and datalinks previously found only on DDGs (SIGNAL Magazine, May 2007).
Over the last few decades, one apparent PLAN weakness was having the newest and most capable warships limited to being based in special support cocoons for frigates, SSNs, Kilo submarines and new DDGs. However, since 2006, four Luyang Is and IIs as well as modern frigates and submarines have been forward deployed in the South Sea Fleet.
China built a 1,200-foot runway on Woody Island in 1990 that has been extended to 8,000 feet, which makes it capable of landing H-6 bombers. Farther south in 1988-89, two dozen PLAN warships conducted exercises in the contested Nansha (Spratly) Islands, while China took over many reefs. China occupied Fiery Cross Island in 1998 deep in Philippine waters without a fight along with the appropriately named Mischief Reef. All South China Sea exercises and seizures used South Sea Fleet destroyers, frigates and support vessels. Borrowing units from other fleets for vital missions no longer was necessary. The South Sea Fleet was self-sufficient after decades of being a smaller, second-rate fleet.
During World War II, Japan established a submarine base at Yulin on the southern tip of Hainan Island, and it remained the only significant Hainan naval base. Yulin has had new piers and facilities added within the narrow access harbor. The grand plan of basing the largest warships needed for SLOC escort and carrier battle group escorts requires large facilities open to the ocean. Three new large piers in Yolang port can provide support for the future Chinese aircraft carrier and its escorts in the coming years. The beautiful white Yolang Wan—wan is Chinese for “bay”—beaches with tourist hotels currently are the anchor site for the modern 052C Aegis-type DDGs with two large piers on the eastern end.
Hardened underground facilities have been blasted out of rock for the first 094 Jin SSBN and first 093 Shang SSN in the Yolang area. One hardened site for the nuclear submarines is carved out south of Yolang, and hardened tunnels are at Yolangling—ling is Chinese for “hill”—on the coast northeast of Yolang. The basing of a valuable strategic asset such as the Jin in the open South China Sea gateway to Pacific and Indian oceans launch sites, along with the SLOC escort capabilities of the Shang SSN, are a total break from the Northern Qingdao area hibernation of the past. This stereotype was shattered in 2006 with the exodus of these complex platforms to the South Sea Fleet.
In late 2005, the South Sea submarines consisted of the 039A Song SS 314-316, six modernized Ming II SS 305-310s, and older 033G and 035G diesel boats. In July 2006, the lead 091 SSN and a 636 Kilo diesel boat were in Yulin, and by May 2008 the lead 094 SSBN and Yuan diesel boat were added. The relocation of the newest PLAN SSNs, the latest 636 Kilo and Yuan class diesel boats, and the latest 094 SSBN is noteworthy. In addition to operations in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, these submarines can threaten the main U.S. base at Guam. The Han SSN had operated in Guam waters back in 1990.
Acoustic surveillance by two sophisticated oceanographic research ships (AGORs) 700 miles south of Yulin shows the U.S. Navy concern on the newest nuclear submarines based there. This normally clandestine operation became headline news when five Chinese vessels harassed the USNS Impeccable T-AGOS 23 on March 8, 2009. What was not mentioned is that the USNS Victorious T-AGOS 19 was interfered with by a Chinese Bureau of Fisheries vessel on March 4, and Impeccable had a PLAN frigate cut across her bow at close range on March 5. A Y-12 twin turboprop buzzed Impeccable a dozen times also that day. China claimed the USNS ships broke Chinese laws by operating within a 200-mile economic zone without permission. The 200-mile exclusion zone is not recognized by international law.
Of the eight modern DDGs built since 1990, five are stationed in the Yulin complex along with three of the five newest nuclear submarines. The movement of the newest and best surface warships to not only the South Sea Fleet at Zhanjiang but also the forward southern outpost of Yulin is a major relocation. Although some, such as the Luhai DDG 167 and replenishment ship AOR 885, were in Zhanjiang, most went to the unlikely remote base complex in southern Hainan Island. The 052C DDG 170 moved to Yulin in January 2006 followed by DDG 171. The later arrival of 052B DDGs 169 and 169 from Jiangnan Shipyard to Yulin in late 2006 may indicate design problems.
The PLAN Luyang I DDG 168 Guangzhou based at Hainan, participates in international naval exercises with Pakistan’s F184 frigate and the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) in March. Chinese naval forces from
Hainan base are taking part in a
growing number of international
exercises and operations.
The recent buildup of the most capable platforms at Yulin, and construction of its hardened tunnels several years ago, indicates long-term preparations for two destroyer divisions and submarines for extended battle group operations. The two 052C Aegis DDGs are the two most sophisticated Chinese-built warships, and they would be the two flagships each escorted by an 052B Luyang and frigates. The largest and most versatile AOR 885 replenishment vessel, the Russian-built 37,000-ton Nankang, has been stationed there since 1996. Later, the ship’s number and name were changed to 953 and Qinghai-Hu, but it remained the South Sea Fleet admiral flagship in Zhanjiang. The newest Chinese-built 22,000-ton Fuchi-class replenishment ships AO 886 and 887 were built in 2005 and stationed in the East and South Sea fleets respectively, where both have been very active on distant cruises with Luyangs.
The First and the 165th marine brigades and their associated amphibious vessels always have been based in Hainan. The South China Sea seizures in the Paracel Islands were supported by these troops. PLAN amphibious ships are dated and are small or medium size, and they are based mostly in Hainan. The only large modern amphibious vessel just completed is the 23,000-ton Type 920 LPD 071 Kunlunshan recently based in the southern fleet. The only two 1,250-ton Qiongshi hospital ships in the PLAN always have been based in the South Sea Fleet, but they were joined in 2008 by a new 23,000-ton Type 920 hospital ship with a helicopter deck. This shows where PLAN planners expect combat casualties.
Several of the newest 054A frigates, with combat systems previously found only on DDGs, also are there. The old submarine base at Yulin has been expanded with new piers for surface warships. Shipyard number 4801 at Yulin previously repaired only diesel submarines, but it may be upgrading to support at least frigates. The Yulin submarine base has limited draft and a restricted channel to the open sea, so nearby Yalongwan on the coast was chosen to be built up for large warships. China imports 80 percent of its oil from the Middle East across the Indian Ocean and would be crippled if those sea lanes were disrupted. The recent construction of hardened tunnels and enlarged support piers can protect SLOC missions to escort vital Mideast imports across the Indian Ocean. The co-location of surface and submarine assets facilitates joint submarine/surface escort missions too.
China is gaining sea experience in the Indian Ocean with cruises and visits from Australia to Pakistan. In May of 2002, DDG Qingdao and oiler Taichang started a four-month, 30,000-mile cruise to 10 ports, passing through the Panama and Suez canals. In 2005, Hainan-based Luhai DDG 167 Shenzhen and OA 887 Weishanhu held joint exercises with Pakistani and Indian naval units on separate weeks. In July 2007, 052B DDG 168 Guangzhou and oiler Weishanhu departed Sanya Hainan under Rear Adm. Su Zhigian, PLAN, for an 87-day cruise to St. Petersburg, the United Kingdom, Spain and France. The same month, DDG 167 Shenzhen departed Zhanjiang under Rear Adm. Xiao Xinnian, PLAN, for a visit to Tokyo. Two months later, Harbin DDG 112 and oiler 881 departed Qingdao for a cruise to Australia and New Zealand, including two days of joint naval exercises. In March 2009, Yulang I DDG 168 departed from Sanya to participate with 11 other navies in joint exercises hosted by Pakistan. When China completes its first aircraft carrier, Hainan would be able to provide battle group support with the two destroyer division assets already there. Even if the future PLAN carriers are not based at southern Hainan, they could meet their battle group support there and continue to their blue-water mission operating areas.
As ominous as the relocation of the newest and most potent PLAN DDGs, SSBN, LPD and replenishment naval forces to southern Hainan appears, other political and protective motives could exist for this southern base. It may not necessarily be threatening and aggressive. U.S. warships and other nations provided disaster relief operations during 2004 typhoons in Southeast Asia in China’s backyard, and the PLAN absence was humiliating to China. New vessels such as the 23,000-ton hospital ship or Kunlunshan LPD are ideal disaster relief platforms. Protection of vital oil supply lines that bring oil from the Middle East and Latin America is an essential peaceful mission. The building of an aircraft carrier could be needed to show major-power status to match three other Indian Ocean nations that already have at least one.
The first blue-water mission of this new Hainan destroyer battle group occurred in January 10, 2008. It was in response to Somali pirates capturing the Chinese fishing vessel Tian Yu 8 on November 14 and a failed attempt to capture the Zhenhua 4 on December 16. On December 27, China sent 052C DDG 171 Haikou and 052B DDG 169 Wuhan with replenishment ship AO 887 Weishanhu to join 16 other nations’ navies of Task Force 151 in anti-pirate operations.
The U.S. Navy hardly can feel threatened by one carrier or two Aegis DDGs, considering that it has 84 Aegis warships and 11 nuclear-powered supercarriers in commission. The future of other naval powers in the South Pacific, South China Sea and Indian Ocean, including the U.S. Navy, will be greatly affected in the next decade. Naval experts will dispute whether this southern shift of PLAN power and extended Indian Ocean operations are a threat to other nations or not, but only Beijing knows the real intent.
James C. Bussert is employed at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren, Virginia, where he works on surface ship antisubmarine fire control systems.