This article is the second part out a series of three articles in which we discuss the two different type of fleets China operates and how they will be balanced in the future. In a first part we already discussed the green water navy China operates while this second part will handle the big lines of China’s blue water navy.
In a third article we will do a more in depth analysis of how these two different types of fleets are most likely to evolve and what roles they will play in the future.
Blue water navy
A blue water navy is generally characterized by naval warships that can operate on the high seas. In general these navies consists of aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and nuclear submarines as well as the necessary support ships to supply this fleet when it operates far from home.
Over the past years China has been making several advancements in the creation of a blue water navy. Its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, clearly marks China’s intentions of becoming a global blue water navy with the intention of projecting power as well as to challenge the US Navy dominance on the high seas. Although one aircraft carrier based on an aging ex-Soviet hull isn’t a big threat it allows China to start training carrier wings for future aircraft carriers. Already at this moment China is constructing two more aircraft carriers and it intends to operate at least four carriers. There is much speculation about these new aircraft carriers but it is likely that some of these carriers will end up having nuclear propulsion, allowing them to operate over long distances without the need of refueling.
|Liaoning aircraft carrier with task group|
China is also developing destroyers, the latest design being the Type 052D anti-airwarfare destroyer. In the past decades China has developed several destroyer designs, tested them and then took the experience and improvements into the next design. Since the Type 052D is in mass production with 14 of these ships in construction since 2010 it is clear that the Type 052D will become the main warship in China’s destroyer fleet.
|Type 052D destroyer|
Although China doesn’t have a warship in the size of a cruiser it is developing one. The Type 055 is officially classified as a destroyer but its size and armaments are more of a cruiser. There are as of yet no real data on this Type 055 warships aside from what China wants us to know of the design. Nevertheless the country is making the transition to build cruiser-like warships to play a role in a blue water navy. It remains unclear if these cruisers will operate as anti-airwarfare platforms or if their missile armaments are more suited for anti-surface warfare and land strikes. It also remains unclear of the Type 055 will be the end product or just a prototype vessel that will lead to further more advanced cruisers over the next several years, like with all the other warships China has been building.
|China's Type 055 cruiser/destroyer|
China lags behind in the field of nuclear submarines and all of them are from an outdated design that can easily be tracked by their US counterparts. This doesn’t come as a surprise as China has been more focusing on a green water navy over the recent years in which the focus was on building advanced diesel-electric submarines. There are plans of building new classes of attack and ballistic missile submarines in the next years. Progress in the field of constructing new nuclear submarines can give us a good idea about China’s intentions in becoming a global navy.
The current use of the blue water navy
China’s blue water navy rarely ventures outside the First Island Chain, a line running from Japan over Taiwan and the Philippines towards Indonesia. One reason is that China has in the past years had to few warships to create large enough task forces in order to project power as well as being more concentrated in building a strong naval force inside the First Island Chain.
Recent events however show that there is a small shift in operations and Chinese warships are starting to operate further and further from home, most notably inside the Indian Ocean.
Chinese naval deployment in the Indian Ocean started when the country decided that it needed a presence of the coast of Somalia. Pirates based in Somalia started to become a threat to Chinese merchant ships as well as Chinese trade routes between Asia and Europe. China’s anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden is generally being executed by frigates. Given the threat factor there was no need for sending bigger warships. It is important to note that although a blue water navy in general consists of destroyers, that even frigates can be used for operations far from home and for projecting power.
|Chinese soldiers training in preparation for boardings|
The presence of Chinese warships in the past years has become a constant factor in the Gulf of Aden and there are few signs that the anti-piracy mission will end any time soon. The arrival of Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean on a permanent basis also changed the balance of power in the Indian Ocean.
The most dominant naval power in the Indian Ocean is the Indian Navy, a navy that operates frigates, destroyers, modern submarines and is in the process of building its own modern aircraft carriers. Given the bad relations between India and China, as well as China providing Pakistan with modern military equipment, the Indian Navy fears that China is trying to intimidate the Indian Ocean or at least challenge Indian naval supremacy in this part of the world. Several economic projects concerning updating and building new harbours in nations around India have given the fear that China’s so called String of Pearls is intended to create Chinese fleet bases to isolate and cutting of the Indian Navy.
|The String of Pearls - Chinese maritime economic projects around India|
Over the past several months China has increased its naval operations in the Indian Ocean with the patrol of nuclear attack submarines in the Indian Ocean. These submarine deployments are usually done by the Type 091 Han class nuclear attack submarines and although these submarines are loud and easily detectable they give China experience in how to conduct long time submarine patrols.
China’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean will most likely remain. Oversea trade between Asia and Europe is vital for the Chinese economy and China will not allow that their trade routes are at risk or without the protection of Chinese naval vessels. Over the next years China is expected to increase its naval presence with more and modern ships to patrol its trade routes. Just how these future naval patrols will look like in terms of type of ships, size of the task forces and frequency of the patrols remains to be seen.
|Type 091 Han class nuclear attack submarine|
The naval presence is also reaching further beyond the Indian Ocean. Chinese warships have been operating in the Mediterranean Sea as well where they managed to evacuate Chinese civilians working in Libya during the civil war that brought the Libyan leader Gadhafi down. China recently also conducted naval exercises with the Russian fleet in the eastern part of the Mediterranean and there are plans of China operating a naval base in Namibia in order to gain a presence in the Southern Atlantic Ocean.
Future of the blue water navy
China will construct more destroyers, aircraft carriers and cruiser-like warships in the next years and thereby increasing the size of its blue water navy. These ships can be expected to patrol the Indian Ocean as well as show the Chinese flag in the Mediterranean. Aside from the Indian Navy however there are no direct competitors in these waters to challenge the PLAN and as such a large scale deployment of the blue water navy isn’t justified.
The main reason for China to develop a blue water navy is found in the western pacific where US naval power is a direct competitor as well as the modern navies of Japan and South Korea. China has little choice but to develop a blue water navy in order to maintain the naval supremacy against Japan and South Korea and to operate successfully beyond the First Island Chain.
In the third chapter we will be doing a more in depth analysis of China’s green and blue water navies as well as the future challenges that lies ahead for each type of fleet. The goal will be to determine how China will balance between two different types of fleets, what will be needed to overcome the challenges and what opportunities each fleet has to offer to China.