I did a review of PLAN in 2014 a few weeks ago. Since then, a couple of more surface combatants have launched at various PLAN shipyards. It was certainly an active year for them, but this entry will take a look at active naval building programs for 2015 and beyond.
I want to first take a look at Aircraft Carrier project. In 2014, CV-16 went on a couple of patrols, but also spent a large period of time at dock going through maintenance and repairs. These patrols were probably more like sea trial and training opportunities for CV-16 crew member. I think there was some pictures earlier in 2014 of a large exercise that CV-16 took part with the several major surface combatants, but that maybe the only real exercise it has participated in so far. Also, the flight program off CV-16 has not really moved forward in 2014. We have basically seen the same 3 or 4 J-15 prototypes taking off and landing from CV-16. On top of that, while the first batch of production version of J-15s started in 2013, we have seen only up to 8 produced so far in over a year. PLAN may be choosing to produce the production J-15s slowly as they are working through any of the issues found in testing, since they don’t need that many J-15s for operation off CV-16 and their naval aviation training center. Also, it goes to show that the process of developing and training a naval air wing is a long and deliberate process. In 2015, it will be interesting to see if more J-15s start to operate off CV-16, since 2014 has been quite slow in that aspect. Also, while the production of domestic carrier may have started or will start this year, I don’t expect to see anything meaningful until probably 2016. I expect it to be delivered by 2019 to 2020.
Amphibious ships – I’ve talked about the resumption of Type 071 and Type 072 production a little bit in the previous entries. For the latter, WC shipyard has taken over production and have been launching them pretty quickly. We may see 8 Type 072s produced at WC shipyard for replacing older Type 072 or for expanding PLAN capabilities in South China Sea. For the Type 071, HD shipyard has resumed their production after a 3 year layoff. This most current batch of Type 071s is probably similar in external appearance to the original Type 071 even if the internal subsystems may have all been upgraded. In the original Type 071, PLAN lowered the production cost (to around $200 million) by using very light self defense systems and older generation of combat system. Each Type 071 is only equipped with a 76 mm main gun + 4 AK-630 CIWS with 2 pairs of fire channel, so it will have to rely on escort. Even HHQ-7 SAM, which is an older SAM found on older ships, was not installed even though space was left for short ranged SAM to be installed at a later point. Based on what I’ve read, it seems like this new batch of Type 071s are still using the same light self defense system (probably due to cost reasons again) even though earlier designs had added more advanced weaponry like HQ-10 SAM and Type 1130 CIWS. Once these new systems become cheaper and more mature, we may see an upgraded variant Type 071A with them. At the same time, there is talk of a Type 075 amphibious assault ship (LPH) coming out, but that is probably also something that will appear in a couple of years. Aside from the landing ships, the landing crafts have been a little confusing. The status of the Zubr program is unknown after Crimea came under Russian control. It looks like China has continued domestic production of Zubr, but not sure whether Russians or Ukrainians are assisting the project right now. Type 726 hovercraft production does not seem to pick up, so it’s unclear if PLAN plans to have more than one of them per Type 071.
Surface combatants – This is probably the area that’s easiest to see the progress of PLAN modernization, since all of the shipyards around the country are building them in open. Type 052C production should come to close this year when the 6th ship of the class, which already has number painted, joins service. Type 052D production is fully under way after the lead ship joined service in April. Four other 052Ds from JN are already launched with the remaining 3 likely to all launch this year. Out of these 7 ships, two of them will probably join service this year. Dalian shipyard also received order for 4 052Ds and the first one will probably launch this year. After Type 052D, it appears that work for the Type 055 cruiser has started at JN shipyard. Although, I think we are unlikely to see modules for it this year. In the next few years, both JN and Dalian shipyard should be producing them. In the 054 series, the final 4 Type 054A with upgraded CIWS and sonar suite are all likely to be commissioned in 2015. Type 054B may appear later this year. Due to the size of existing hull and propulsion, I think there is a limit on how much it can change from 054A. Finally, 18 Type 056 light frigates have already joined service and at least 6 other ones have been launched. I would that all 6 of the launched ones should join service by the end of this year with more new hulls launching. The production run of Type 056 is already quite significant, so all of the ordered ships maybe launched by the end of this year. Type 056 series has already received export orders from Bangladeshi Navy. It seems like a good design to receive more export deals going forward.
There are numerous other important programs that are ongoing obviously. The conventional and nuclear submarine programs are both ongoing, but harder than surface combatants to verify their current status or service status. Numerous large AORs, replenishment ships and AGI ships were launched this year and should join service the next 2 years. The project to look out for is a new class of large AORs in the 40000+ ton range designed to support carrier group. The existing AORs are sufficient for missions like Gulf of Aden with smaller number of surface combatants, but a larger one would be sufficient for PLAN’s blue water goals.