NEWPORT, R.I. — It's no secret that China has embarked on a major modernization and expansion plan for its Navy, and its aggressive building program, coupled with the placing in service of more modern submarines, an aircraft carrier, destroyers with ever-sophisticated sensors and a large number of long-range surface-to-surface missiles, is altering politics and strategies throughout the Asian theater.
What is not so clear is what sort of fleet the Chinese are building toward, and how far their industrial capability can take them.
That was the theme last week at a two-day conference here to discuss China's naval shipbuilding progress and challenges. Presenters at the event, sponsored by the US Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute, were in general agreement on several major themes — that China's Navy will continue to grow and field ever-more capable systems, and that it remains a work in progress.
"That's a good way to put it," Andrew Erickson, a leading expert at the college on the People's Liberation Army (Navy) — or PLAN — and one of the event's organizers, said shortly after the conference ended.
"A lot of activity is occurring, there's a lot of effort, they're making achievements, but in this complex and difficult field it takes a lot of achievement to be accrued before that translates to a major increase in actual capability," Erickson said.
"They are far from hopeless, they are moving ahead, but it is a long and rocky road."
There was general agreement at the conference that the PLAN fleet now being created is heavily centered on anti-surface warfare, as evidenced by the construction of a growing number of destroyers, frigates and submarines armed with a wide variety of ship-killing missiles, many with ranges far in excess of similar missiles in service with the US Navy.
"Both surface vessels and subs seem to be largely focused on anti-surface warfare," Erickson said. "That doesn't mean they're not working to progress in new directions, but it doesn't seem to have borne as much fruit that we can easily see."
The range of the missiles and their variety, said Christopher Carlson, a retired Navy captain with the Admiralty Trilogy Group, "are going to make it difficult for the US and its allies. It will be much more challenging."
Thereach clearly is growing, agreed many conferees, augmented by the Navy's construction of more capable ships, such as the Type 056 corvettes. With at least 20 of the 1,500-ton ships in service or under construction, the operate in the "near seas," freeing up larger units for operations further afield into what China calls "far seas" operating areas.
James Fanell, a US Navy captain who retired earlier this year as the Pacific Fleet's director of intelligence and information, was succinct in his predictions about thegrowth over the next 15 years. Like others at the conference, he noted China's increasing shipbuilding capacity, along with continued improvements in modular construction, the use of robotics and virtual 3D manufacturing, along with the Navy's growing preference for indigenous designs of improving quality.
"The PLAN will continue to expand for the next 15 years," he said. Active defense in the near seas will grow, far seas operations will increase, and there will be more goodwill deployments. The Navy will be more capable of fielding surge deployments, carrier strike groups will form and deploy and there will be more ballistic missile submarine patrols.
To accomplish this, Fanell said, the PLAN will grow to include 99 submarines of all types, four aircraft carriers, 102 destroyers and frigates, 26 corvettes, 73 amphibious ships and 111 missile craft.
All told, Fanell predicted, the Chinese Navy of 2030 will comprise 415 ships.
Fanell sees the growth in surface combatant capability as a key strength of the PLAN, particularly new destroyers of theIII Type 052D class — "a game-changer" — and the growing number of II Type 054A frigates.
"With the vertical launch system, the YJ-18 [anti-ship cruise missile], the active radar system, theIII may not be equivalent to an Aegis, but it's good enough for the Chinese Navy," Fanell said after the conference. "I think they're pretty happy with it and that's why they're extending production of the ships — it gives them the ability to extend control beyond the first island chain."
Fanell also took note of thesuccess in continuously fielding escort missions to the western Indian Ocean. The first escort force deployed in late 2008, and the 20 successive mission is now underway.
"They're spending a lot of time at sea, and they're up in the Mediterranean Sea right now," Fanell noted, adding the Navy has gained a wealth of blue water experience operating far afield.
The carrier, commissioned in 2012 after being rebuilt and modernized from an incomplete hulk built for the Russian Navy, was seen at the conference primarily as a training asset for the Chinese, allowing them to gain experience in carrier operations while working out the best types of aircraft to field at sea. Some presenters pointed to the Shenyang J-11, a high-performance fighter based on the Russian -27 now operated by the Chinese Air Force, as the likely strike fighter for future Chinese carriers.
Many conferees took note of China's development of an improved nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, the Type 094class, and predicted the first deterrent patrol could happen in 2016. But many speakers decried the overall performance of the new submarines as still a work in development, especially when it comes to propulsion engineering.
"Here's where things become more demanding for them," Erickson said. "They're going to want to be able to build a significant number of [attack submarines] whose reactors are efficient, long-lasting, reliable and quiet enough. There's no way to compensate for quietness if you don't have it."
Propulsion problems were cited by a number of presenters at the conference. China is lagging in engine development, many noted, and still produces a large number of power plants based on foreign designs. Chinese industry is able to produce diesel engines and gas turbines, but, Erickson said, "what still seems to be lacking is having the highest level of capability."
Foreign-supplied engines remain a concern for China, some noted, and producing better engines will continue to be a focus.
With the Type 041 Yuan-class, China now is operating submarines equipped with Stirling air-independent propulsion (AIP) engines, a technology already in use in other navies.
"They want the ability to be quiet and not to have to surface to charge the batteries," Erickson said. "They have achieved that with a Stirling capability in the Yuan class. But technology is always moving ahead. And in AIP, even if you've mastered it, is a highly complex system."
And China, like Japan and Germany, is moving ahead with the development of improved lithium-ion (Li-Ion) batteries.
"Chinese researchers clearly see Li-Ion batteries as the wave of the future for conventional submarine propulsion," Erickson said. "They're not there yet, but they are determined to get there.
"They are talking about putting them on a new generation of conventional subs sometime between now and 2020," Erickson added, "but there is no indicator as yet of the type of submarine that might be."
The construction of more long-range nuclear submarines was seen by some at the conference as unnecessary, given therelatively short-range requirements. "I can't justify [building too many nuclear attack submarines]," Carlson said. "Their development appears to be largely an issue of national pride."
Several conferees noted weaknesses in theanti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities, but also pointed to improvements like the installation of variable-depth sonars with active towed arrays on the latest Type 054A frigates and Type 056 corvettes.
"We're going to see some very impressive ASW changes," opined Carlson, who predicted the Chinese will continue to get better ASW gear. "We have a problem when they become proficient," he warned.