Monday, 28 July 2014

A possible aircraft for China's future carriers

If China is planning to build nuclear aircraft carriers using the CATOBAR system, then it would be in need of a new carrier based aircraft. China’s current carrier based aircraft lack the structural integrity to survive the forces generated by a catapult launch. As we stated earlier, the development of an aircraft carrier using the CATOBAR  system by China would be unlikely unless it simultaneously develops a more robust aircraft.
The J-31 is China’s fifth generation aircraft. Photos and videos of the aircraft began to emerge in June 2012. It is a twin engine mid-weight aircraft designed for medium to low altitude missions such as air interdiction and aerial bombardment in contrast to its predecessor, the J-20, which is a high altitude fighter. In December 2013 it was reported that the J-31 would be redesigned to have ground attack capabilities.
J-31 aircraft
Although the J-31 is an evolution of the J-20 it is unclear if the J-31 will replace the J-20. When comparing the missions for which both planes are designed they seem to complement each other. This could mean that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), the Chinese air force, could operate both planes in the future. Several news reports by China in September 2013 state that the J-31 is designed for export to offer a low cost alternative to the US F-35 aircraft. With little real information known about China’s weapon programs it is hard to judge if the J-31 will indeed be an export aircraft to compete against the F-35 or see actual service in the Chinese armed forces.
Several sources mentioned that China might use the J-31 to serve on board of a nuclear carrier. The J-31’s chief designer, Sun Cong, has said that he hoped that the aircraft would follow his J-15 onto China’s aircraft carriers. The J-31 was however developed for the PLAAF. There are no indications that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) was involved in its design. The J-31 is smaller then the J-20 and more robust. It also shares several similarities with the F-35C, the new aircraft for US Navy aircraft carriers and the British Royal Navy. The twin forward wheels are a feature that is mainly found on carrier based aircraft.
J-31 during test flights
Although the J-31 was developed for the PLAAF, and not for PLAN, the question remains if the J-31 is a suitable plane for China’s future aircraft carriers. Several questions need a definitive answer. Does China intend to use the J-31 in its armed forces or is it indeed an export aircraft only? And if used by the PLAAF, will the PLAN decide to convert the J-31 so that it can be used on board of its carriers?
No matter what the answers are to these questions, the J-31 is not only a step forward in Chinese aircraft design, it is also a step in the direction of building a modern aircraft that can be used on aircraft carriers using the CATOBAR design. Until China develops another aircraft suitable for this task, the J-31 is an aircraft that is worth to be followed up on in order to know what direction China’s aircraft carrier development program is going.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The latest developments in China’s nuclear submarine fleet

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been focusing on diesel-electric submarines in the past years. This made sense as China focused on the area between its coast and the first island chain. Operating close to the coast, diesel-electric submarines have an advantage over nuclear powered submarines. They are more silent then nuclear submarines and since they don’t have to maneuver a lot in coastal waters they can remain silent and in ambush. For China it made sense to focus on diesel-electric submarines. But as the PLAN becomes bigger and transforms into a blue water navy the need arises to project power at greater distances. As diesel-electric submarines lack the range to support a blue water navy, the PLAN has taken a renewed interest in its nuclear submarine fleet.

Attack submarines
China currently has two types of nuclear attack submarines, the Type 091 Han class and the Type 093 Shang class. The Type 091 submarines of the Han class are very old boats. The first one was commissioned in 1974 while the fifth and last one was commissioned in 1990. Only the last 3 boats are still in service. The noise level of the Han class is so loud that these boats are easily detected. They have no combat value and can only be regarded as being used for training purposes.

The Type 093 Shang class submarines were a next step in Chinese nuclear submarine development. Construction started in the 1990s but the first boats were only delivered a decade later. Even though the Shang class is an improvement over the Han class it is still a noisy and easy detectible submarine. Its noise level corresponds to that of a Soviet Victor III class although some experts, mainly Chinese, state that the Type 093 submarine could be as quiet as a Los Angeles class submarine.

Type 093 Shang class submarine

Specific details about Chinese submarines are scarce and this is also true for their nuclear submarines. Nobody can really tell when exactly the PLAN has commissioned its Type 093 boats (and for that matter also its SSBM, see below). It is generally assumed that the PLAN operates only two Type 093 submarines. However, China also plans to build four new Type 093 submarines and commission them in the next five years. Vertical Launch Systems (VLS) will be installed in these improved type 093 submarines, making them more versatile. If true, an improved Type 093 submarine would be comparable to a US Los Angeles class submarine that also has VLS. The improved Type 093 submarines would be capable of launching cruise missiles at both land and sea targets. The six Type 093 boats will replace the remaining Type 091 submarines.

The next development in Chinese submarine design is the Type 095 submarine. Almost no details exist on this project. Some rumors say that they are being built, others state that they aren’t even designed. Whatever the truth, China will develop a Type 095 submarine in the near future. The improved Type 093 class shows that China still keeps modernizing its submarine force. With their VLS, the Type 093 will be a testing model before China makes a new step in submarine development. This is not a strange move as the PLAN did it with every type of ship. It is custom for China to build a couple ships, test them and then develop a new upgraded design until it finally has a perfect working ship.
The Type 095 submarine is expected to be louder than an Akula I class according to the 2009 ONI Report. If the Type 093 however has the acoustic characteristics of a Los Angeles class submarine then the ONI prediction would be wrong as the type 095 is expected to be a lot more silent then the Type 093. The Type 095 will receive a VLS as it makes the boat more versatile and thus a more lethal adversary.

Ballistic missile submarines
Ballistic missile submarines (SSBN’s) are equipped with nuclear armed ballistic missiles. Although these boats have torpedo’s with them, they are not designed to attack other submarines. Their mission is to remain hidden under the water until the moment to launch either a surprise first strike or a retaliatory second strike. China’s nuclear policy is one of no first use and their SSBN’s are thus used for launching a retaliatory second strike, in theory. As such, China would seek only to build so many boats as are needed to build a credible deterrent.

China’s history with building and operating SSBN’s is a very troubled one. The first class of SSBN was the Type 092 Xia class submarine. Only one boat of this class was build, the Xia. Laid down in1978, she was completed in 1981 and launched her first missiles as a test in 1987. The Xia has been plagued by many troubles and spent most of her time either being refitted or repaired. It is believed that she never sailed on an active combat patrol beyond China’s regional waters.

The successor to the Type 092 was the Type 094 Jin class submarine. This class resembles a Russian Delta class submarine. The 2009 ONI report states that this class of submarines is noisier than a Russian Delta III class SSBN. The exact numbers of submarines in service are unknown but experts think that there are three to five of these submarines in service. Most of them operate from the naval base on the island of Hainan where the submarines have rapid access to deep waters. The Type 094 submarine is also equipped with the JL-2 missile that has a greater range compared to the missiles deployed in its predecessor, the Xia class.
Type 094 Jin class submarine
The next evolution in SSBN design is the Type 096 Tang class submarine. Little has been known about this class but its hull will look more like a western SSBN than a Delta class submarine. The amount of missiles will be increased to 24 missiles compared to the 12 on board of the Type 094 class. Construction of this class was reported in the western press halfway the year 2013 and the first boat should be ready somewhere in 2014. As is usually the case concerning Chinese military programs, little news comes out and most information is just speculation. The Type 094 class took longer to be commissioned than was initially reported and this might well be the case with the Type 096 class.
Possible model of the Type 096 Tang class
Concept art of a Type 096 Tang class submarine

In the past China’s nuclear submarine fleet got little attention. The PLAN focused on modernizing its diesel-electric submarine fleet for operations within the first island chain. As the PLAN starts to focus on building a blue water navy for operations beyond the first island chain it is in need of new nuclear submarines that are more modern and quiet than the old classes they currently have at their disposal. Both the Type 095 and the Type 096 mark a significant change in nuclear submarine design. The Type 095, and the improved Type 093, will have a VLS that makes them resemble American instead of Russian submarines.

The same is true for the Type 096 class with a hull that should look like a western submarine instead of a Russian Delta class submarine. As such, China is breaking away from Russian submarine designs. The new nuclear submarine classes will be further improvements but the question is if they will bridge the gap with the modern US submarines that are their rivals. It is possible that the Type 095 and 096 are just further steps in the evolution process and not an end goal. As such, we can expect China to build a Type 097 and 098 in the next decade to further close the gap with US submarines.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

The major implications of the cancellation of the F-35 for the US and Royal Navy

The F-35 is one of the most debated weapon program ever in the United States armed forces. Enormous cost overruns, multiple failures and a delivery time that keeps being pushed further into the future are the big problems that trouble the F-35 program. With each failure the demand to cancel the F-35 program is getting louder. Still, the US armed forces are dedicated to go ahead with the F-35 program and keep on pushing it to make sure that the F-35 enters service. A cancellation of the F-35 program would not only will leave the US Air Force without a fifth generation aircraft to confront its adversaries, especially Russia and China whom are developing their own fifth generation aircraft, but it would also have an impact on the US and Royal Navy and US Marine Corps (USMC).

In the future, the USMC is planning to operate  from new amphibian warships of the America-class. Part of their air wing on these ships will consist of short take off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft. The aircraft in mind is the F-35B and this makes sense. With the Asian Pivot of the Obama administration the US Navy and USMC are taking a more prominent role in the Pacific. This means that their main adversary will be China. To stay ahead of China’s military rise and modernization, the US have a reel need in a fifth generation aircraft that can outperform the new Chinese aircraft.

F-35 practicing landing on board of the USS Wasp

Delays in the F-35 program are working against the USMC. The longer it takes for the F-35, the more difficult it becomesfor the US to guarantee a superiority in aircraft before China develops its own new generation aircraft with equal or even superior performance as the F-35.
The delays in the F-35 have already caused a major tactical disadvantage for both the USMC and the US Navy who want to operate the aircraft. Designed to be a stealth plane, its prolonged development and testing phases have caused it to run behind the latest developments. The new Russian and Chinese radar systems are reported to be capable to detect and track the F-35. At the same time the F-35 lacks the equipment to jam enemy radars.

The USMC managed to purchase Harrier aircraft from the Royal Navy in order to equip their forces on board of the amphibian carriers of the US Navy. Expecting further delays in the F-35 program, these Harriers were modernized and are expected to last until 2030 although many doubt if this date can be met. The USMC is in favor for the F-35 program and keeps supporting it as it has no alternative aircraft available that can operate from amphibian carriers once the Harrier aircraft have to be taken out of service. Failure and cancellation of the F-35 would leave the USMC without an aircraft that can be used to support its troops on the ground until a new aircraft is developed and tested, a lengthy process that can take several years. The development of the F-35 started in 1996 and after almost 20 years it still isn’t produced in the mass numbers that are needed. Developing a new aircraft is expected to take at least a decade and can go up to two decades if the testing phase is prolonged.

The situation is less critical for the US Navy. Although the US Navy has stated that it would like the F-35C variant to operate as the principal carrier aircraft it still  has several other options available should the F-35 program be canceled. The most reasonable option for the US Navy is to continue to use the F-18 Super Hornet as the principle carrier fighter aircraft until a new aircraft design can enter service.

Unlike the US, which still has options available, the Royal Navy has no backup plans. The F-35 is envisioned to be the aircraft deployed from the new British carriers of the Queen Elizabeth class. The first aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth will be commissioned in the 2016/2017 timeframe but it won’t be until 2020 when the Royal Navy is expecting to have the F-35. This means that the Royal Navy will have to make do for 3 years without an aircraft stationed on its carrier. It can also no longer fall back on Harrier jets as those have been sold to the USMC. A cancellation of the F-35 program would mean that the Royal Navy will have 2 aircraft carriers in 2020 but no aircraft that can operate from them. The Royal Navy can not fall back on other types of carrier aircraft since its carriers are using sky ramps. Only Russia and China currently have planes that can take off from a ski ramp but it is very unlikely that the United Kingdom will buy fighters from these countries.

F-35 mock up for the christening ceremony of the HMS Queen elizabeth

The F-35 program is known to be extremely costly with a price tag that keeps rising every year, it is prone to many failures that grounded the existing fleet on several occasions and it has taken so long to develop that it is no longer the superior aircraft it was envisioned to be in the beginning of its development. Setbacks and budget overruns have already caused strong opposition from both the US government and the US military itself as whether the F-35 is the aircraft the US armed forces still need.

The program, however, is too far into its development to be canceled overnight and even if the F-35 program is canceled it will have grave implications for the US Navy and US Marine Corps. Although the US Navy have the luxury to keep on using the F-18 Super Hornet in the next years and decade until a new aircraft design is developed, the situation for the USMC and the Royal Navy is worse.

If the F-35 program is canceled the USMC can only depend on its aging fleet of Harrier aircraft and these are too few in numbers to support all the USMC operations. Although modernized to be kept in service until 2030 many doubt if that date can be met.
The Royal Navy however has no other alternative and a cancellation of the F-35 program will leave the Royal Navy without planes to place on its new aircraft carriers.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Maritime partnerships and their pitfalls

Many third world countries with a shoreline are facing widespread problems such as smuggling, human trafficking and other illegal activities that they cannot solve themselves. These countries are looking at long-standing maritime powers to come to their aid. In such cases a maritime partnership between a developing navy and a bigger navy is created in which the long-standing maritime power trains and equips the developing navy until it is ready to operate independently.
Maritime partnerships are very delicate operations, not for a developing navy, but for the established navy that comes to its aid. The ultimate goal is to allow the developing navy to work independently and to prepare it for that task. To successfully achieve this goal a very delicate path has to be walked as will be explained in this next analysis.

US 6th Fleet trains African sailors in boarding operations as
part of the African Maritime Law Enforcement Program

The first step in maritime partnerships is to determine what burden of the tasks both players are going to carry. It is tempting for a more developed (i.e. stronger) navy to perform most of the tasks. After all, they are better trained and equipped then the developing (i.e. weaker) navy. While this indeed might be a solution it will be a short term one. After the partnership is ended the weaker navy has to take over but without its own training or re-equipment it will not be able to maintain the new status quo. And this will be the case in every maritime task a weaker navy seeks a stronger partner for, whether it be patrolling against smugglers, performing amphibious landings, demining, etc.

The stronger navy acts as a secondary and not as a primary player. After all, the end goal is to make the weaker navy more capable so it can handle its own problems in the future. As such, the first thing that has to be done is to make a realistic assessment of the capabilities of the weaker navy and identify why it is not capable of overcoming its own problems. This can range from many reasons such as a lack of training, a lack of equipment or even the wrong equipment, a bad communication between services, etc. Only if the real problems and the shortcomings are found, then a plan for aiding the weaker navy can be drafted.

Most often the problems are related to training and this can easily be addressed by the creation of mutual training programs and exercises. It is important to notice that certain tasks or situations are so specific that they require a different approach than the stronger navy is used to. Hence it is important for the stronger navy to find out why the weaker navy does certain tasks the way it does.

Another pitfall is re-equipment of the weaker navy. Once again, the stronger navy needs to take into account that a weaker partner doesn’t have the budget to buy high tech equipment. The most valuable things a weaker navy can gain would be durable equipment that is both cheap and easy to maintain. Qualitative outboard engines for smaller patrol crafts and zodiacs, navigational equipment, reliable charts, night vision equipment, etc. This is just a small portion of the various tools that can make a big difference in weaker navies. The main lesson for equipment is as stated before, durable equipment that is both cheap and easy to maintain.

Public relations are also a very important factor, especially when a weaker navy asks for help to combat illegal activities such as smuggling or piracy. The need to get close to the people and use them for information (human intelligence or HUMINT) is valuable. This can only be done once a weaker navy can convince its population that it is an effective force capable of dealing with the problem. A stronger navy that takes a lead role will get all the publicity and eclipse the efforts of the weaker navy to improve itself. In the end this sends two signals. First that the weaker navy still can’t handle the problem and second that once the stronger navy leaves things revert to the old status quo.

A maritime partnership between a weaker, developing navy and a stronger navy is a preferred action by third world countries to strengthen their naval forces to effectively combat the threats they are facing. For the stronger navy that is been called upon to help there are several pitfalls that it has to be aware of.
-          Assuming a secondary role
-          A realistic assessment of the weaker navy’s capabilities
-          Training programs tailor made to the specific situation
-          Delivery of durable equipment that is cheap and easy to maintain.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Countering China by rebalancing the US 7th Fleet

The US 7th fleet is currently stationed in Japan and is the only US fleet to have a forward deployed aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington. In light of the current geopolitical situation in Asia, the US 7th Fleets main rival is the People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) of China. As the PLAN’s main focus is the East and South China Sea, the US 7th Fleet finds itself in a difficult position to respond rapidly in times of a crisis.

The First Island Chain an Near Sea Strategy

The First Island Chain is a line that runs from Japan, along Taiwan and the Philippines to the South China Sea. In American strategy the First Island Chain is a defensive barrier to contain the PLAN. Within this chain there are only a few places where a Chinese fleet can pass in order to reach the open ocean and to challenge US naval power directly. Although this makes sense from the view of a containment strategy, China has a different interpretation of this.

First Island Chain marked in red

China also sees the First Island Chain as a barrier. Beyond that barrier lies the US naval power but China views the area between its coast and the First Island Chain as its own. Indeed, while US thinking in the past was only aimed at containment and focused on the First Island Chain itself it never addressed the issues of the seas between the Chinese coast and the First Island Chain. This allowed China to form its own strategy, the Near Sea Strategy.

Under the Near Sea Strategy the Chinese view the South China and East China Seas as its own. The Chinese believe that the US have given them a free hand to do what they want in these seas as the US is only focused on the areas outside of the First Island Chain. As China gains more economic and military power, it also gains the political assertiveness to start claiming territories. The proclamation of an air defense zone over the East China Sea as well as claiming disputed islands both in the East China Sea as in the South China Sea are examples of China’s growing political assertiveness.

Shortcomings in US Strategy

The main problem for any US strategy to deter Chinese attempts to claim areas like the Spratly islands or even Taiwan is that it is currently in a difficult position. At the moment the US 7th Fleet is stationed at Yokosuka, Japan. This is close enough to the East China Sea and Taiwan but is too far away to respond rapidly to crisis’s in the South China Sea. At the moment, the South China Sea seems to be the area that would be of main concern to China and where the PLAN is being deployed.

China claims almost all of the South China Sea, aggravating its neighboring countries. The tensions are especially high between China on the one side and Vietnam and the Philippines on the other side. Both Vietnam and the Philippines lack the naval forces to confront the PLAN.

At the same time the navies of South Korea and Japan have been expanding and modernizing and their capabilities have been improving over the past years. As a result of that both countries have the capability to deter the PLAN in the East China Sea.

Stability in the South China Sea is paramount for global trade but the imbalance in forces, in favor of China, allow China to do what it wants. A larger US Navy presence in this area could be a stabilizing factor. The US 7th Fleet however continues to focus on the East China Sea given that both the naval bases of Dailan and Shanghai are located at this sea.

Repositioning to the south

With South Korea and Japan both capable of deterring the PLAN in the East China Sea and with growing tensions in the South China Sea a more balanced position of the US 7th Fleet seems to be needed. A more central position in the First Island Chain would be an answer as it would bring the US 7th Fleet closer to the South China Sea to respond quickly as well as being able to send ships to the East China Sea.

Of all the positions the Philippines would be the best position to station US naval forces. It allows the US Navy rapid deployment in the South China Sea and is still relative close to Taiwan, an ally the US obliged to defend.

The US also have long lasting relations with the Philippines and had many military bases in the country from where it ran its Asian-Pacific operations. Only in the beginning of the 1990s were US troops ordered to leave by the Philippine government. Not that US troops were unpopular but a lack of an external threat in that time saw no justification of having US troops in the country. However, during the 1990s and 2000s the Philippines did ask for US military aid in combating radical Muslim groups in the southern Philippines. With a rising China claiming vast parts of the South China Sea and Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), it can be expected that the Philippines might be asking for a larger US naval presence in their EEZ. The reopening of US bases would ensure a US naval presence in favor of the Philippines while at the same time allow the US Navy to react faster to Chinese actions in the South China Sea.

The US is already looking to have bases in the Philippines. The former naval base in Subic Bay is just one of those bases that the US government would like to use. Already, several US submarines have docked in Subic Bay to replenish their supplies in the past months. The current agreement however only allows warships to enter the Subic Bay with approval of the Philippine government, instead of unlimited access. The facilities in Subic Bay also have to be renewed and improved in order to sustain a large US naval presence.
At the same time an airbase in the Philippines would the US Navy to deploy maritime surveillance aircraft over the South China Sea to monitor the situation if needed.

US Naval base at Subic Bay before the 1991 closure

Although a repositioning of the US Navy in the Philippines would be beneficial for both countries, it still hasn’t been materialized. Although both countries signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, aimed at increasing U.S. troops’ rotational presence in the Philippines, there still aren’t any major US naval bases in the Philippines. One would expect the Philippines to be a more demanding party for US backing against a more assertive China. Maybe on the other hand, the Philippines want to keep US backing to a minimum as not to provoke China to much.

There is a certainty in light of the Asian Pivot of the Obama administration and the military weak position of the Philippines against China that the Philippines will end up demanding a bigger and more permanent US military presence in their country.

If the US 7th Fleet makes a shift towards the Philippines to be in a better position to stabilize the situation in the South China Sea. Knowing that Japan and South Korea are reliable partners with big modern navies to deter the PLAN if needed, the US can with comfort relinquish most of its tasks in the East China Sea to these two countries and start focusing mostly on the South China Sea.