Chinese Navy Weapons Ambitions

Reports suggest China’s navy launched launched a new weapons trials vessel last month. What is it testing?

The new phase of Chinese naval development could include even more new weapons and sensors than the previous phase, if the recent launch of another specialized testing ship is any indication.

Last month, the PLA Navy launched “Ship 893,” its third new weapons trials vessel since 2005. Trials ships are equipped with systems to track and analyze new missiles and sensors during testing.

The People’s Liberation Army develops and builds weapons in five-year cycles, the most recent of which began in late 2010. The 2006-2010 cycle heavily emphasized new ships, including new frigates and destroyers and a refurbished Soviet-made aircraft carrier.

The current cycle, which ends around 2015, could focus more on “subsystems” such as radars, weapons and what’s known as “Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconaissance,” or “C4ISR” – the development of which requires extensive trials. “The greatest support for PLAN modernization comes from the launching of the 893 test ship,” says “Feng,” an independent analyst and contributor to the Information Dissemination blog.

The growth in the test-ship fleet “would indicate [China] has a lot of naval subsystems under development,” Feng wrote in a blog entry.

Exactly what kinds of subsystems the PLAN might develop in the coming years is a matter of speculation, but it’s possible to make educated guesses based on the Chinese navy’s major capability shortfalls. “China’s navy continues to exhibit limitations or weaknesses in several areas, including…C4ISR systems [and] anti-air warfare,” the Congressional Research Service reports.

Based on these weaknesses, Ship 893 could be used to test out new air-search radars and surface-to-air missiles, plus related radio datalinks. The goal would be to develop naval air defenses closer in capability to the U.S. Navy’s vaunted Aegis system.