China’s big battleship building spree to guard its aircraft carriers

It is an aggressive plan and if it works out, China will have a fleet of battleships to match its ambitions for a blue-water navy over the next decade.

As part of that plan, in 2019 alone, China launched two dozen large warships, from destroyers to huge amphibious landing docks and corvettes.

And more are on the way.

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The aim is to have a fleet that can guard its growing number of aircraft carriers and its interests around the world, including oil lifelines from the Middle East and its outposts in the contested South China Sea.

But military observers warn that such rapid expansion will come at a price and take more than extra supplies of specialised steel to realise.

South China Sea: the dispute that could start a military conflict

There are no official Chinese projections on the number of battleships in the works but the US Congressional Research Service estimates that China will build another 65 warships in the next decade.

In its report “China Naval Modernisation: Implication for US Navy Capabilities” released in December, the service said the expected additions to the fleet would take the total to 425 vessels, including aircraft carriers, submarines and destroyers.

With more than 300 warships on the water, China already has more of the vessels than the United States. The US Department of Defence says China “has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants”. The Congressional Research Service puts the US Navy’s battle force at about 293 ships as of early 2020.

However, the US Navy’s battleships are much bigger and combat ready. For example, the US has 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers while China has just two that are up and running and one ready for combat.

China has two aircraft carriers in service, the Liaoning and the Shandong, and a third one is expected to be launched this year. Work on a fourth is also expected to get under way this year, with shipbuilders already stockpiling the specialised steel needed for its construction.

To guard those carriers, China has been building another half a dozen Type 055 stealth destroyers.

The destroyers are the world’s second-most powerful battleship after the US Navy’s Zumwalt class, and the PLA Navy has one in service so far.

In addition, China’s main naval contractor, China State Shipbuilding Corporation, is filling an order for about 20 upgraded frigates, known as the Type 054B, according to Chinese military magazine Ordnance Industry Science Technology.

The magazine said the updated frigates would be fitted with revamped weapons systems and features, including a longer landing deck for helicopters and quieter propulsion systems. Chinese Z-20F anti-submarine warfare aircraft would also replace the original Russian KA-28 helicopters, it said.

Thirty of the original version of the frigates were completed in one decade, with the last six vessels delivered in 2019.

Within the carrier strike groups, the frigates are responsible for air defence and anti-submarine operations.They can cover large distances, have sophisticated ship-borne weapons and stealth capabilities.

Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung, said the plans to build more Type 055 destroyers and new Type 054B frigates were part of preparations for the country’s fourth aircraft carrier, a conventional-powered giant ship with the world’s most advanced electromagnetic catapult system.

Lu added that mainland Chinese builders and engineers were introducing weapon systems and electronic components that were more advanced in some cases than technology used in the US.

“We can see some cutting-edge equipment on Chinese warships that may be more advanced than American vessels, for example, the sign of a ship-borne combat drone on the newly launched Type 075 amphibious helicopter landing dock,” Lu said.

An important element in the process will be greater use of domestically developed components on the new warships under a new policy aimed at accelerating “weapon localisation”, according to Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenning.

“Prices of Russian KA-28 and China’s Z-20F are the same, but the former is not as nimble and powerful as the indigenous aircraft, so why don’t you use the better one?” he said.

US Navy build-up plans ‘may cement China’s resolve to modernise’

Beijing needs the naval flotillas to safeguard oil supply lines stretching from the Middle East and through the high seas of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. China also has to protect overseas interests under the Belt and Road Initiative, a massive infrastructure project reaching from East Asia to Europe.

At the same time, the PLA Navy sends escort flotillas to take part in the United Nations’ anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden.

China’s navy goes back to work on big ambitions but long-term gaps remain

But military experts said the construction spree had long-term implications for training, combat capability and even maintenance.

Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of the Canada-based Kanwa Defence Review, said it was impossible for a country to train capable captains and sailors to command near 100 modern warships just in a decade.

“A warship captain needs at least four years of academic education in naval school, while today’s sailors need comprehensive technical, mental and physical training,” Chang said.

“China will [also] need a certain defence budget growth for the long-term maintenance of the hundreds of modern warships. It will be a heavy burden to the country.” - South China Morning Post

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