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How Russia Is Helping China Develop its Naval Power

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Asia Defense

How Russia Is Helping China Develop its Naval Power

A new report highlights Sino-Russian cooperation in building up the PLAN’s surface warfare capabilities.

How Russia Is Helping China Develop its Naval Power
Credit: United States Naval Institute/Wikimedia Commons

Russian military technology has significantly contributed to the development of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) surface warfare capabilities – including long-range precision strike – and has made Chinese naval vessels increasingly capable of defending themselves against U.S. air strikes and long-range missile attacks, according to a new report published by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

While the report treads no new ground with this assertion, it nevertheless provides a good overview of Sino-Russian arms and technology transfers to prop up the PLAN’s surface fleet and expand its burgeoning anti-access capability in the Western Pacific. In that respect, Russian air defense technology, long-range sensors, and anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) systems have played a crucial role.

For example, Russian-made and Russian-derived air defense technologies now enable PLAN surface warfare ships to slip out from underneath the PLA’s land-based air-defense umbrella and to increasingly operate further away from Chinese shores. In addition, new Chinese/Russian-derived ASCM systems along with long-range sensors can now threaten medium-sized naval U.S. surface ships and even strike U.S. military installations as far as Guam and Okinawa (See: “Here’s What You Need to Know About China’s Grand Military Parade”).

Although Russian military exports to China have been slowly declining since 2006, they are still considerable. The decline is partially due the expansions of China’s indigenous defense industry but also due to a reluctance to provide advanced weapon systems due to Beijing’s illicit reverse engineering activities, which makes it hard to assess the quality of indigenously-developed Chinese weapon systems.

“While China has been increasingly manufacturing many of its own weapon systems domestically, real questions remain about the level of innovation in China’s defense industry. Often what is described as ‘innovative’ by the Chinese is actually a relatively incremental improvement on foreign (and in many cases Russian) technology,” the report elaborates.

The report states that China has demonstrated a growing independence from Russia in the development of cruise missile. However, it notes that the most advanced ASCM missiles in the Chinese Navy’s arsenal are still Russian-made or Russian-derived such as the SS-N-22 Sunburn, the SS-N-27B Klub (Sizzler), the Kh-31 Krypton, the Kh-59MK Kingbolt, the YJ-12, and the YJ-18 as well as the CX-1. “Russian ASCMs also exhibit superior speed and penetrating capability when compared with their Chinese counterparts,” according to the study.

The PLAN’s surface fleet also continues to rely on Russian-made technology for its advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. For example, the PLAN’s Type 054A Jiangkai II-class frigates are equipped with the Russian Band Stand radar system. (China may already have reverse engineered this system). “Without such systems, China would have had to make do with inferior legacy systems, which would have left it at a disadvantage in the battle for situational awareness that dominates today’s naval battlespace,” the report emphasizes.

According to CSIS, other Russian-made or Russian-derived surface surveillance/tracking, air surveillance, air defense, and fire control systems include the SA-N-7 Gadfly, the SA-N-12 Shtil (Grizzly), the SA-N-20 Fort, the HHQ-9, the HHQ-16, the Top Plate (Fregat MAE-3), the Front Dome (Orekh) and the Tomb Stone.

“Recently, however, China appears to have closed the gap with Russia in certain categories of advanced radar technology. New radar systems, such as the Type 346 Dragon Eye installed on the Luyang I– and II–class destroyers, and the Type 382 phased-array radar system installed on the Jiangkai II frigate, are quite advanced in comparison with Russian radar systems,” the CSIS study reads.

While China is rapidly catching up with Russian military technology, there are still many areas where Beijing could benefit from future Sino-Russian technology cooperation, particularly in the field of anti-submarine warfare (ASW), which has historically been a weak spot of the PLAN the report finds. Here, Russia has far greater experience in conducting ASW operations against the U.S. Navy’s fleet of advanced submarines.