Buoyed by a rapidly growing economy and increasing defense industrial capabilities, China’s military continues to field large numbers of increasingly sophisticated and capable military equipment. Every year, photos of new ships, planes, and missiles emerge, providing analysts with important datapoints to assess Chinese military capabilities. Although the quality of analyses of material aspects of Chinese military power has been very good and continues to improve, there has been something of bias toward emphasizing new pieces of equipment over upgrades of existing equipment. This is unfortunate for it leads to an underestimation of Chinese military power and a misunderstanding of possible future trajectories.
Impressive as China’s defense industrial output has been, the annual flow of new equipment constitutes just a small fraction of the total inventory and military equipment generally remains in service for 20-40 years. Hence, it is important that analysts keep track of what China does with its existing equipment. After all, two decades of increasingly intense and comprehensive Chinese military modernization make clear that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is not only interested in fielding as much equipment as possible or even the largest possible numbers of the latest equipment. Instead, it prioritizes resources, buying new equipment where and when necessary while upgrading older in-service systems to make the most out of their service life. In the naval and aviation realms, this has included upgrades of existing equipment, which, although less visible, have important implications for Chinese military power.
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For over a decade, Chinese shipyards have not only cranked out large numbers of new warships, they have also fielded entirely new designs. Since 2010, for example, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has fielded three progressively more capable destroyer classes. Although production rates have been impressive, modernizing a fleet the size of China’s is a decades-long process, the end of which heralds the replacement of the first wave of modern vessels. In the interim, when facing adversaries, the PLAN will go to war with both very modern and older vessels. Therefore, the scope and effects of upgrades to existing ships, if any, is an important and underexamined part of assessing China’s naval capabilities. Analysts are fortunate in that pictures of individual warships are more readily available than those of individual aircraft and that major improvement in the capabilities of a warship are generally visible.
Since 2011, just as production at Chinese shipyards was reaching its ongoing period of high intensity, China began upgrading some of its existing warships. The first were the two Type 052-class destroyers, the first modern destroyers built by China. At the time that they were upgraded, the youngest of the Type 052s was 17 years old, meaning that this was a mid-life upgrade. New air defense systems were added, improving survivability against cruise missiles while also reducing manpower requirements. To improve the detection of aerial targets, a Type 517M radar was installed. To facilitate longer-range deployments, a satellite communications (SATCOM) system was also added. None of these upgrades required major structural changes as would happen if the limited capability HQ-7 surface to air missile (SAM) system was replaced with a more capable system using a vertical launch system (VLS). Whereas these changes are visible, changes, if any, to internal systems cannot be discerned from imagery. That said, it can be reasonably assumed that the combat management system (CMS) was modified to integrate the new sensors and armaments.
On balance, the upgraded Type 052-class destroyers are not very impressive. In many respects, however, this is largely a function of them being relatively obsolete even they were built. Old and obsolescent warships are difficult to upgrade comprehensively, and the cost is rarely worthwhile, particularly given ongoing production of much more advanced warships. In other cases, however, China appears to have judged the cost and complexity of upgrading small classes of warships worthwhile and has invested in more comprehensive upgrades.
In 2014, China began upgrading the two oldest of the four-strong Russian built Sovremennyy-class destroyers. Although these were very capable warships relative to China’s fleet circa 2000, there is a very large gap between their capabilities and those of the latest Chinese warships. The upgrades help address such deficiencies for the second half of their service lives. Compared to the changes made to the Type 052-class, the upgrades to the Sovremenny have been far more impactful. The 48 Russian VLS cells for the Russian Shtil SAM have reportedly been replaced with 32 Chinese VLS cells. Although fewer in number, the PLAN’s logistical requirements are eased by not longer having to support this aging foreign system. Moreover, the new VLS can launch both Chinese HQ-16 SAMs as well as an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) missile. Other major changes include the installation of a new air search radar and the reported replacement of the supersonic Russian Moskit anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) with the analogous Chinese YJ-12. Overall, open source imagery analysis indicates that there are over a dozen identifiable changes to the armaments and sensors carried by the two upgraded Sovremennyy-class destroyers.
In 2015, China began upgrading the single Type 051B destroyer, underscoring the PLAN’s desire to not let even a single hull go to waste. After 16 years of service, the ship’s limited air defense capability received a dramatic improvement. The HQ-7 SAM system, with a dozen or so kilometers range, was been replaced with the HQ-16 SAM with a range of around 50 kilometers. More importantly, whereas the ship previously only carried 16 HQ-7 SAMs (eight ready to fire), it is now equipped with 32 VLS cells (all ready to fire) equipped with longer-ranged HQ-16 SAMs. To guide these missiles and improve aerial coverage, a more advanced Type 382 radar was installed. Other changes were made to the helicopter hangar, air defense guns, and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities. All things considered, these upgrades have made the Type 051B destroyer a much more capable warship, one warranting consideration in military assessments for the next 10 or so years that it is expected to remain in service.
Upgrading Existing Aircraft
Every year, China adds dozens of new combat aircraft as well as large numbers of supporting platforms, such as airborne early warning aircraft (AEW). Over the past decade or so, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and the PLAN have fielded 11 KJ-200 AEW aircraft. Although a decent complement to the five larger and more capable KJ-2000 AEW aircraft that China fielded in the same period, the KJ-200’s design did not allow for 360-degree radar coverage, a major limitation. At the same time, observers of the Chinese military had evidence by 2013 that a new AEW aircraft was under development. More or less based on the same airframe as the KJ-200, the new KJ-500 used a different radar design which, amongst other things, allowed for 360-degree coverage.
Although this new platform heralded a coming improvement in Chinese AEW capabilities, it did not change the limited capabilities of the 11 existing KJ-200 aircraft, which had decades of service ahead of them. In 2016, observers caught their first glimpse of an upgraded KJ-200 airframe, reportedly designated the KJ-200A. The most obvious change was the addition of rather large new forward-looking radar to improve radar coverage. Whether changes were made to the internal components is unclear but not unlikely given China’s rapid advances in defense electronics. In late 2017, evidence emerged of a further upgrade for the KJ-200 fleet, one adding a SATCOM system and passive electronic sensors to complement the radar picture. Overall, then, although the number of KJ-200 aircraft remains fixed at 11 and even though they have been complemented by growing numbers of the newer KJ-500 aircraft, upgrades to the KJ-200 result in the continued improvement of China’s AEW without gaining the attention that new designs and new airframes do.
Chinese combat aircraft have also become progressively more capable, with existing aircraft receiving upgrades and subsequent batches of production also improved. In some cases, such as the J-10 fighter jet, changes are very visible. Observers comparing a picture of the first variant of the J-10 and a J-10B can identify a different radome, air intake design, and the addition of an infrared search & track (IRIST) sensor, for example. These, however, are differences between new-build aircraft and many of these changes, such as the different air intake design, cannot be backfitted to existing airframes.
Other developments, however, can be backfitted and analysts have photographic evidence that PLAAF and PLANAF aircraft receive upgrades, showing that these services do not commit all their resources to new construction. Combat aircraft have been upgraded with new radio antennae and the integration of new, more capable munitions. Some aircraft, such as J-11A fighter jets, have received missile approach warning system (MAWS) years after entering service. Others, such as the J-11B, have received electronic countermeasures (ECM) pods. Although not likely to elicit headlines in the manner of new aircraft designs or even new munitions, these small developments herald important advances in capabilities. In these cases, the result is that Chinese fighter aircraft have better defenses against adversary missiles and radar.
Although the underlying technologies can be integrated across all Chinese aircraft, these are platform specific upgrades. In contrast, munitions can be integrated onto a wide range of aircraft, as the case of the new PL-15 long-range air-to-air missile indicates. Other important Chinese munitions, such as the supersonic YJ-12 anti-ship cruise missile, have been integrated onto older aircraft, including the PLANAF’s H-6G bomber. ECM pods have also been integrated onto multiple designs, including several variants of the H-6 bomber family and the JH-7 fighter-bomber. Without such relatively unglamorous equipment, Chinese strike aircraft are likely to struggle against adversary air defenses. With these and their new munitions and supported by other PLAAF and PLANAF capabilities, however, they are increasingly capable of successfully completing their missions.
What to Look Out for in the Naval Realm
It remains to be seen how many in-service warships and aircraft will receive major upgrades and mid-life modernizations. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that China will start midlife upgrades for its two Type 052B-class destroyers in the next few years and the two Type 051C-class and the two newer Sovremennyy-class destroyers a few years later. If extant upgrade projects are a good indicator, then it is likely that these ships will have their Russian VLS systems replaced with multirole Chinese VLS systems. Sensors and communications are also likely to be upgraded, bringing them in line with the rest of the fleet.
Other things to look for are upgrade programs to backfit design alterations to ships well in advance of their midlife upgrade. For example, by the time construction of the class wraps up in 2019, just under half of the 30 strong Type 054A-class frigate fleet will be equipped with variable depth sonars (VDS). Although it is not essential for all large PLAN warships to be equipped with such a potent ASW sensor, the PLAN may want more VDS-equipped ships and may upgrade some of these recently commissioned frigates. Similarly, as advanced ASCMs, particularly those capable of hypersonic speeds, proliferate in the region, the PLAN may have to make heavy investment into upgrading radars, electronic countermeasures, and air defenses of even relatively new vessels. Today, China has just six destroyers needing upgrade in the next few years. In a decade, however, it may have to upgrade some two dozen currently very new destroyers to keep up with qualitative advances in the ASCM threat.
The secrecy veiling China’s submarine fleet and the contained nature of a submarine’s equipment make it difficult to discern if Chinese submarines are being upgraded and what the effects of these upgrades are. Although unconfirmed, stills from a recent Chinese news broadcast may indicate that China has lengthened one of its Russian-built Kilo-class submarines, presumably to install an air independent propulsion (AIP) system. Such an effort would not be without parallel, as Sweden demonstrated with the insertion of a hull section containing AIP onto its Västergötland-class submarines. Assuming that China has undertaken such an effort, then it may equip its 11 other Kilo-class and 13 Song-class submarines with AIP, complementing its 17 or so AIP-equipped Yuan-class submarines. This would give the PLAN over 40 AIP submarines even without major new construction and, more importantly, greatly improve the capabilities of its submarine force. Similarly, it remains to be seen if the munitions used by the PLAN submarine fleet are standardized and whether highly capable munitions, such as the new YJ-18 supersonic ASCM, are integrated onto all existing submarines.
What to Look Out for in the Aviation Realm
As production of fourth-generation fighter aircraft such as the J-10 and J-11 family eventually draws down and as the number of fourth and fifth-generation fighter aircraft in service approaches the PLA’s force structure requirements, counting the number of aircraft produced and tabulating the inventory will become increasingly limited in terms of analytic utility. Instead, analysts will have to pay greater attention to what the PLA does with its fielded hardware and assess the implications of upgrades. In some cases, these upgrades will be visible and can be identified through careful imagery analysis. For example, it is not enough to know that China has apparently developed and fielded a very capable air-to-air missile, such as the PL-15. The important questions are how many missiles are produced and how many aircraft are capable of fielding them. Unfortunately, the PLA’s secrecy renders impossible the answering of the first question. The second question, however, can be answered by observing and tracking which aircraft types fly with a given munition.
Similarly, although the radars mounted on Chinese fighter jets are becoming increasingly capable, China currently fields hundreds of competitive fourth generation aircraft with older, less capable radar designs. It remains to be seen whether China will mount the active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars found on its latest J-10 and J-11 fighter jet variants on older variants of these aircraft. Similarly, with so many variants of each of these aircraft in service, the logistical burden of sustaining such a diverse fleet will grow until a standardization upgrade of avionics and electronics takes place, a process similar to the Common Configuration Implementation Program (CCIP) which the U.S. Air Force undertook to standardize its disparate F-16 fighter jet inventory. In other cases, however, the development of capabilities in fielded forces will be less visible. To understand advances in defense electronics, including those installed on upgraded airframes, analysts will have to examine Chinese technical journals and follow the activities of China’s electronics industry.
More Than Meets the Eye
The Chinese military has made dramatic improvements in its military capabilities. Many of these developments are both visible and measurable. Analysts know, for example, that the PLAN has commissioned dozens of new warships in the past few years. Similarly, they can discern that these warships are increasingly capable, featuring more advanced munitions and sensors. But improvements in Chinese military capabilities do not only come from the continued production and fielding of new hardware. Older systems – even those fielded over a decade ago – constitute the bulk of the inventory and are likely to remain in service for decades to come. Even with high rates of production, the annual flow of new equipment is just a small fraction of the total inventory that can be used in conflict at any given time.
Rather than devoting all of its resources into new production, the Chinese military is making greater investment into upgrades of its existing hardware. In the naval and aerial realms, this has considerably improved Chinese capabilities without getting the attention that newly built hardware receives upon entering service. With upgrades to the same existing platforms, China’s military is more capable than it was just a few years ago. As China’s force structure stabilizes and as the inventory of modern equipment matures, identifying and assessing upgrades of existing equipment will become ever more important to understanding Chinese military capabilities. Analysts would do well to pay more attention to these less visible aspects of Chinese military modernization.
Shahryar Pasandideh is a Ph.D. student in political science at The George Washington University. His writing has been published at World Politics Review, the NATO Council of Canada, and The Diplomat.