The People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is currently developing itself into a navy capable of operating more globally. At the moment its inventory is made up of several warships, most of them suited for a green water navy to operate close at home while at the same time it is creating a second type of navy for global operations, a blue water navy. This series of three articles will examine the role of China’s green and blue water navy and in the end conclude what the future balance between these fleets will be.
The green water navy
This type of navy is more suited to operate in a zone up to around 200 nautical miles from the coast. The main focus lies on frigates and diesel-electric submarines. Over the past years China has becoming more and more active in the East and South China Sea and by the earlier given definition it needs a green water navy to be deployed in these waters.
China’s green water navy is very capable and is still under development. New diesel-electric submarines and frigates are still being designed and planned. China’s main frigate is the Type 054A (Jiangkai II class) that serves as a multi-purpose frigate. Up to 24 hulls will be constructed of this type of warship. Four of those are in the last stages of construction and the last two have recently started their construction. Afterwards the production of frigates will shift to a new type of frigate, the Type 054B. The Type 054B was introduced in 2013 and the first units will join the PLAN around 2016-2017. Since a couple of months China has been marketing the Type 054A as an export vessel for other navies, a sign that the PLAN is moving on to a new, more modern and capable design.
|Type 054A Jiangkai II frigate - the main frigate class in the PLAN|
The PLAN is capable of producing modern and advanced diesel-electric submarines. Most of these were designed from the Soviet Kilo-class submarines, still described as the most quite submarines in the world. China operates a large fleet of diesel-electric submarines but most of these are modern Kilo, Song and Yuan class submarines. These last two classes (Song and Yuan) are also known as the Type 039 and Type 039A.
There were talks about China creating a Type 043 submarine but this ended up as the Type 032 Qing class. It is the largest conventional powered submarine ever build, according to displacement, and currently serves as a test platform for submarine launched missiles. It is unclear if the Type 032 will remain a test model or of China plans to create large conventional powered submarines armed with several cruise and ballistic missiles.
|Type 032 submarine - only one submarine serving as a testing platform|
is in operation in the PLAN
The need for a Green Water Navy
China has a mean focus on its green water navy and this is for two mean reasons. First, it needs a navy well suited to operate inside the First Island Chain. Secondly, it needs a navy capable of holding of its maritime neighbours.
Since the 1990’s, the US Navy has identified the First Island Chain (see map) as the main boundary between China and its access to the Pacific Ocean. There are only a few points in the First Island Chain where the PLAN will have to pass in order to get in the Pacific Ocean and these can easily be patrolled and interdicted by the US Navy and its allies. PLAN warships passing the First Island Chain can easily be intercepted and tracked.
|The First Island Chain running from Japan, over Taiwan and the Philippines towards Indonesia.|
In order not to antagonize China too much the US Navy rarely ventures inside the First Island Chain and even when it does it is mostly when in transit or conducting exercises. Ironic this gave China the idea that it was free to act inside the First Island Chain without having much to fear from US warships, aside from when China threatens Taiwan militarily. Thus China began to construct a green water navy to operate inside the First Island Chain and started to develop anti-access tactics for dealing with foreign warships when they enter the First Island Chain.
China’s rising naval strength as well as the bold, sometimes aggressive, stance it took in the East and especially the South China Sea has been seen as a threat to its maritime neighbours who have all started to build a modern navy on their own. These small navies all consist of frigates, corvettes and diesel-electric submarines but are on their own too small to ever form a threat for the PLAN. What is a threat for China is that these small navies compromise some very modern ships and/or weapon systems and thus China is forced to keep developing their own modern naval weapon systems in order to stay ahead.
|Vietnams Gepard class frigate - one of a few modern frigates capable|
of confronting the PLAN Type 054A frigates
Economically it also suits China a lot better for employing a green water navy in these waters. Operating close to home these ships don’t need long range for extended patrols unlike the type of ships a blue water navy needs. Also the prospect of a sudden and violent war in the South China Sea would not suit China to risk expensive destroyers in this area compared to cheaper frigates who can deliver the same fire power.
The future of China’s green water navy
Even with China looking to become a global maritime player it will always need a green water navy to operate in the East and South China Sea. With China claiming almost the whole South China Sea as its own it is locked in several territorial disputes against all its maritime neighbours. The tension around the Spratly Islands is especially a potential point for a future conflict. Vietnam and China already fought a sudden but brief war over several of these islands which have large oil and gas fields under their seabed.
Also the majority of Asia’s maritime trade goes through the South China Sea and protecting these vital trade routes is paramount for the PLAN. China needs its maritime trade between Asia and Europe. As tensions rise China will be expected to provide an escort capability for civilian maritime traffic to prevent it from getting caught in a brief war. Frigates and corvettes are good platforms for these protection and escort tasks.
While China also develops a global blue water navy it can still benefit from a green water navy to serve its interests closer at home. The platforms for a green water navy are smaller and thus cheaper to build and operate. Deploying a green water navy close at home frees up the ships of a blue water navy to be deployed further away.
In the second part we will be examining the role of China's blue water navy.
In the third part we will be making a more detailed analysis of the balance between China's green and blue water navy.