Manufacturing China’s Navy

What does China’s naval buildup reveal about the country’s heavy manufacturing abilities?

The Flag of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

The Flag of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

The rise of China has been widely predicted to be one of the sagas that defines the 21st century. Already the world has begun to see the rise of a Chinese middle-class, buoyed by rapidly maturing manufacturing sector and the country’s increasing ambition for global investment. Beyond these signals that Beijing is beginning to feel comfortable with its role as an all-but-inevitable superpower, power brokers in the capital have begun to flex their military muscle in a further effort to establish a wider hegemony within Asia.

While expanding a country’s sphere of influence is a long process requiring masterful diplomatic maneuvering and wide-ranging trust, nations may attempt to expedite the process through military means. Now, nearly a generation into a new century, China appears to be doing just that, leaning on the strength of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in particular.

But a short show of force, like the recent South China Sea sojourn, isn’t going to convince anyone that China’s ready to displace the U.S. as a blue water navy. To do that, the country will need to ramp up its shipbuilding prowess and much more.

So let’s take a look at that first step and see what’s on the books for China’s navy in the near-term.

How Far Can a Carrier, Carry Ya?

In a widely publicized display, China recently sailed its first and only carrier into the South China Sea for a three-week tour. The 60,000 ton Liaoning carrier, accompanied by a complement of destroyers, frigates, anti-submarine vessels and a tender ship sailed from its berth at Qingdao Naval Base, just off the Yellow Sea, in what some believe was a rebuttal to U.S. dominance in the Pacific.

The Laioning at sea with a compliment of aircraft on its deck. (Image courtesy of Xinhua.)

The Laioning at sea with a compliment of aircraft on its deck. (Image courtesy of Xinhua.)

Although the Liaoning certainly carries with it the might and ambition of the PLAN, it is hardly representative of the manufacturing capabilities of the country’s shipbuilding industry. Originally laid in 1985 for the Soviet Navy, the Liaoning spent the better part of three decades being transferred between the Soviet Union, the Ukraine and finally to the PLAN.

After its purchase by China in 1998, the ship was stripped of its munitions and propulsion systems before ownership changed hands. Since that time, the PLAN has been working to retrofit the carrier and ready it for the sea. China achieved that feat in late December of last year.

Establishing the Liaoning’s sea legs in an important step towards standing up a carrier group, and shouldn’t go without notice. However, it’s China’s larger appetite for carriers that confirms the country’s long-term naval ambitions.

According to a statement made by PLA military theorist General Luo Yuanin in 2011, “If we consider our neighbors, India will have three aircraft carriers by 2014 and Japan will have three carriers by 2014, so I think the number (for China) should not be less than three so we can defend our rights and our maritime interests effectively.” 

Since the utterance of that statement, the PLAN has embarked upon a massive carrier building project, beginning with two 65,000-ton ships similar to the Liaoning. Additionally, China’s state-run media has boasted that a super-carrier, on par with the displacement of the U.S.’s Gerald R. Ford class carrier, is also being built.

Military observers have some questions regarding whether China’s carriers are on par with their U.S. counterparts (they’re not believed to be nuclear powered, have modern launch catapults or the ability to carry as large a strike force) but in terms of manufacturing might, the PLAN seems to be pulling even with the U.S.’s naval manufacturing capacity as quickly as it can.

Regardless of whether the Laioning is more training tool, political motivator or military experiment, its continued operation and maturation in Asian waters will only strengthen Chinese naval manufacturing by lending shipbuilders and designers critical insight into designing a navy ready for the challenges of the 21st century.

While Carriers are certainly the centerpiece of a modern blue water Navy and a clear declaration of a country’s manufacturing prowess, carriers don’t rule the seas alone. To that end, China has also embarked upon a ship building project the likes of which Asia hasn’t seen since World War II. 

A New Era for Asian Cruisers

Beginning in 2015, the PLAN began constructing its first Type 055 cruiser. The craft, which is thought to be the equivalent of a U.S. Arleigh Burke vessel, will displace somewhere between 10,000 and 14,000 long tons. Though the Type 055 will be one of the largest surface warships built since the end of WW II, one of the more interesting aspects of the ship’s build is the modular nature of its manufacture.  

An artist’s depiction of a completed Type 055 cruiser. Given its size, the vessel should be able to support several helicopters or drones. (Image courtesy of Errymath.)

An artist’s depiction of a completed Type 055 cruiser. Given its size, the vessel should be able to support several helicopters or drones. (Image courtesy of Errymath.)

According to a report in Popular Science, both the bow and stern sections of the first Type 055 have already been completed. In the near future, once the ship’s additional sections are finished, they will be transported to dry dock and then fit together like a piece of ticky-tacky furniture.

In addition to its interesting manufacturing method, Chinese engineers have also developed the know-how to integrate many advanced maritime features into the Type 055. First off, the 055 features stealthy gunwales which should reduce its radar visibility. Secondly, the ship also appears to have an enclosed deck for launching and landing smaller craft. Lastly, the Type 055’s hull shape has been streamlined for maneuverability when sailing at a clip.

Given the size of the Type 055 and its advanced design characteristics, the new cruiser hints that China’s ability to manufacture advanced surface ships is maturing right alongside its ability to build capital ships like carriers.

Still, as of now it’s difficult to determine just how many Type 055’s might be built for the PLAN. If the ship were to be ordered on the scale of the U.S.’s Arleigh Burke destroyer (76 are on order, 66 have been completed, and 3 are in the making) then it would be hard to dispute that China’s naval manufacturing was fully matured.

A New Submarine Shape 

Finally, China has also embarked on the construction of a completely new class of ballistic missile submarines, one of the most fearful pieces of military technology ever developed. Named the Type 094A, the sub, which is a variant of the four Type 094 vessels currently operated by the PLAN, features a more prominent arch in its back, lending additional room for ballistic missiles. The Type 094A also comes complete with a more hydrodynamic design as is evident by the blends at the base and top of the craft’s conning tower.

While the differences might be subtle, the new Type 094A ballistic sub is much more stealthy and lethal than its 094 counterpart. (Image courtesy of Covert Shores.)

While the differences might be subtle, the new Type 094A ballistic sub is much more stealthy and lethal than its 094 counterpart. (Image courtesy of Covert Shores.)

Although it isn’t evident from its outward appearance, some naval experts have concluded that the 094A will be a much less noisy than its 094 counterpart, thanks in part to acoustic quieting elements like its improved hull design.

Obviously, constructing a vessel that has to operate underwater and under pressure is by no means an easy task. But the fact that China can build a capable submarine isn’t the most important aspect of the Type 094A story.

China’s willingness to rapidly adapt its submarine designs seems to signal that the country has a very nimble naval manufacturing sector that can respond to new ideas and put them in the field within relatively short order. That type of flexibility should be the harbinger of a strong naval manufacturing sector and likely bodes well for the future of Chinese maritime manufacturing.

The Future of China’s Navy

Without a doubt, China’s naval manufacturing capabilities are expanding to meet the country’s goal of having a true blue water navy. In the next decade, the rate of modernization of the PLAN fleet should be a good indicator of how quickly Chinese naval manufacturing can adapt to technological improvements and the growing need for a fleet large enough to patrol and control of the Yellow Sea and near Pacific.

Moreover, observers looking to gauge the strength of China’s naval manufacturing might see interesting developments now that President Trump has been officially inaugurated. Given President Trump’s hostility toward the once ironclad “One China Policy” will China’s rhetoric transform into new development plans, an increase in naval spending, military IP theft or manufacturing buildup?

Share your thoughts in the Comments below.