China’s naval strategy—from sea denial to sea control?
1 Aug 2013|

The guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62, front) maneuvers with the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy Luyang-class destroyer Guangzhou (DDGHM 168) off the coast of North Sulawesi, IndonesiaAttention has often focused on China’s undersea fleet of conventional and nuclear-powered submarines, as an integral component of an anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) complex that also includes shore-based aircraft, land-attack and anti-ship missiles, integrated air defences, an extensive sea mining capability, and enabling assets. More recently, observers point to China’s recently commissioned Liaoning aircraft carrier—currently undergoing sea trials and landing exercises—as a move in a different direction towards a blue-water fleet.

It is therefore refreshing to see Sam Roggeveen’s recent posts in The Interpreter that brings some needed attention to China’s fleet of advanced frigates and destroyers, now being produced in greater numbers even as its submarine inventory has apparently plateaued. He offers the provocative argument that Beijing is turning away from A2/AD (and in a purely maritime context, sea denial) for the more ambitious objective of sea control—or perhaps that it simply sees its existing anti-access capabilities as ‘good enough’.

But it’s premature to think that China has moved decisively away from A2/AD. The People Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) has slowed its production of conventional submarines, while its nuclear subs are beset by problems. But one shouldn’t underestimate the marked improvements of its conventional subs. For example, the Yuan-class is fitted with an air-independent propulsion system to permit battery recharging without snorkeling, which reduces their vulnerability and extends their submerged range. The US Department of Defense also projects production of up to 20 of the Yuan submarines (PDF). Reports of a slowdown in the PLAN’s undersea ambitions might be greatly exaggerated.

Irrespective of the future of this fleet, China has also shown little inclination to limit its shore-based missile force, including long-range (‘long sword’) cruise missiles for anti-ship and land-attacks. Particularly worrisome is China’s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), which has a potential capability to take out major surface combatants (and possibly even US supercarriers) at a range of at least 1,500 kilometers–and the potential for follow-up systems of even greater range. Of course, the ASBM has yet to be fully tested and doubts remain as to whether it has the terminal guidance and other supporting technologies to maneuver against a relatively small moving target at sea. Yet, if there’s a slowdown in PLAN submarine acquisitions, it could mean greater reliance and confidence in alternative A2/AD assets like the ASBM.

Admittedly, the PLAN has focused on expanding its surface warship fleet, with several classes launched in recent years. But even this fact doesn’t automatically mean a decision to forgo a capacity for A2/AD. Yes, a strong surface fleet might be necessary for a naval posture aimed at sea control. But it isn’t sufficient. As Hugh White reminds us, sea control represents an extension of sea denial, which includes not only the latter’s emphasis on offensive capabilities to deny the use of the maritime domain but also defensive capabilities to ensure actual control is maintained.

Notably, much of the PLAN’s surface combatants are armed with anti-ship cruise missiles (PDF), similar to the anti-ship weapons arming many of China’s other military platforms, from its undersea submarine fleet to its Hubei missile patrol catamarans, and even its shore-based aircraft. Many of these surface ships are also equipped to undertake mine warfare. In that sense, the China’s naval strategy is still heavily geared towards providing an offensive anti-ship capability for sea denial missions, very much in keeping with an A2/AD-oriented strategic posture.

That said, many of the PLAN’s newer classes of vessels—such as the Luyang II and Luyang III destroyers and Jiangkei II frigates—also feature advanced design elements similar to the US Aegis system, including phased-array radars and vertical launch systems. As such, these warships seem aimed at providing an area-air defence (AAD) capability, necessary for fleet protection when operating beyond the range of China’s shore-based defensives. The Luyang III represents an especially important step in that direction, as it reportedly comes with a multi-purpose vertical launch system (PDF) which can be fitted with both offensive and defensive weapons.

There’s some evidence then to support the notion that the PLAN is looking beyond a strictly sea denial posture towards achieving some form of sea control—not only within its immediate littoral zone where it already enjoys air cover from the mainland, but potentially for naval operations within the second island chain. A PLAN surface fleet with a capability for both offensive and defensive missions is an important first step in that process. Such vessels would also provide a protective escort for its otherwise potentially vulnerable aircraft carrier, and any future carriers that might be under construction.

Yet AAD alone isn’t enough to achieve sea control. Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability would be necessary to provide a surface fleet some protection against an adversary’s hunter-killer submarines. Just as important is a capacity for anti-mine countermeasures. Otherwise, the PLAN could find their ability to safely traverse beyond the near seas curtailed by deployed mines and ASW barriers along possible chokepoints (e.g. the Luzon strait).

On both scores, the PLAN’s ASW and anti-mine capabilities are notably weak. This is especially true given its absence of robust organic air assets for such missions. Additional aircraft carriers could change this equation. However, much depends on whether these vessels are designed for offensive power projection missions or are used in a more defensive ASW and AAD capacity—as even future PLAN carriers are unlikely to have the size and deck space of US supercarriers able to undertake both types of missions simultaneously.

David S. McDonough is a SSHRC post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Political Science, University of British Colombia and a research fellow in the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.