Hints of Chinese Naval Procurement Plans in the 2020s

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Hints of Chinese Naval Procurement Plans in the 2020s

All military forces have a desired force requirement and a desired “critical mass” to aspire toward. What does the 14th five-year plan tell us about China’s?

Hints of Chinese Naval Procurement Plans in the 2020s
Credit: Chinese social media

This year has seen multiple major navies in the world establish their future long term procurement strategies, ranging from the U.S. Navy’s 500-ship plan for its fleet by the year 2045, to the U.K.’s plans for the Royal Navy post-2030, and the Indian Navy’s recent reinforcement for its aspirations for a third aircraft carrier. Indeed, ambitions for expansion appear to be in the cards worldwide for many major navies, both for the near future, and in the longer term beyond 2030 as well, despite the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thus it is somewhat appropriate that in recent weeks rumors emerged surrounding some of the naval procurement goals set as part of China’s recently concluded Fifth Plenum in late October surrounding the 14th Five-Year Plan (to be abbreviated hereafter as 14-FYP), that produces goals and strategy for the entire nation across the next five years from 2021 to 2025. This article will review the details of those rumors (as well as omitted information), in context of some recent predictions written by myself on the subject of future PLA Navy (PLAN) procurement. 

An Impending Slowdown?

However, before reviewing the recent 14-FYP naval rumors, it is appropriate to address some recent research and articles revolving around the same topic of future PLAN procurement. One article published by the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute in November, thoroughly researched and produced by Capt. Chris Carlson (retired) of the U.S. Navy, examines what the trajectory of future PLAN procurement might look like from a perspective of operational, maintenance and overhaul costs in context of the overall Chinese economic, political, and industrial context going into the future. (This author also acknowledges and is flattered to have a past article referenced as an illustrative barometer in the paper. To address one of Carlson’s questions – 056 corvettes and older 051 and 052 family destroyers are included in that force makeup, but are included as “other ships to note” rather than the list of major battle force vessels that were chosen for being modern and blue water capable.)

Carlson rightly states that future force projection requires more than merely surveying shipyard capacity and drawing a straight line. Human labor demands, as well as future operational and maintenance demands, and accurate assessment of its costs could all serve as useful metrics for gauging production capacity. The projected growing costs of labor and the “slowing Chinese economy,” and cost of maintenance are hypothesized to suggest that the previously suggested future fleet of 2030 might be out of reach and unattainable. The article and its predictions have subsequently been referenced by some other defense journalists as well, suggesting an imminent slowdown in Chinese naval procurement going forwards.

However, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine anything near accurate assessments of such statistics. Even for something as simple as procurement cost, an estimate for the cost of an 054A was put at $280 million. But a naval insider had in the past stated an 054A costs about 1.5 billion yuan instead, just under $230 million at current exchange rates. (Additionally, 052D was placed at 3.5 billion yuan, and 055 placed at 6 billion yuan – interestingly the latter is about an equivalent proportion of Chinese GDP as a Burke-class destroyer is to the U.S. GDP).

This is not to suggest that assessing industrial and economic trajectories and limitations are unimportant, but it does mean assessments of those input factors need to be accurate and appropriately weighed, especially in context of other assumptions including a nation’s willingness and resolve to commit resources and labor for procurement as well. For a military and industry that is as opaque as China’s, the role of unofficial credible rumors and official statements of intent (such as the goal to build a “world class military” which includes the navy), remain a vital part of gauging the threshold of ambition. Demonstrations of past procurement capacity and existing/new production capacity also remain vital in determining potential for the near future, including assessing the navy’s track record for appropriately upgrading and maintaining ships as a proxy for their respect of maintenance and operational costs.

There is also the elephant in the room: it seems the majority of past foreign projections of Chinese military and Chinese navy procurement scale and speed have been underestimates. With no disrespect to Carlson, his own past theses surrounding the role of the newly built Bohai production facility have since been largely disproven, with more recent statements also suggesting agreement that the new facilities are indeed for nuclear submarine production.

Thus, the reasonable confidence interval for estimating future procurement is indeed wide, and it is in this context which the 14-FYP naval rumors will be discussed below.

The Indicators 

The below rumors were conveyed by a well-respected insider in the Chinese-language PLA watching community holding an established track record notable for making past accurate predictions for procurement and being one of the first to convey information about the 055 destroyer back in the early-2010s. 

Thus, the 14-FYP naval procurement lasting from 2021 to 2025, as conveyed by this individual, is said to include or incorporate:

  • A current known order for 16 055 destroyers (implying up to another eight 055s to be launched and/or be in work by 2025, as eight are currently in existence).
  • Further production of 052D destroyers and 071 LPDs.
  • A current known order for eight 075 LHDs (implying up to another five 075s to be launched and/or be in work by 2025, as three are currently in existence – the third unit likely to be launched late December 2020 or early 2021).
  • 054B frigate to “see movement” in 2021.
  • A further order of 20 054A frigates to be produced (12 by Huangpu, eight by Hudong).
  • A statement suggesting the 076 “assault carrier” will be in active advanced development, reconfirming its status.

The above predictions have since had elements depicted in computer generated graphics for a sense of scale by Chinese military watchers. Other commentators and individuals in the PLA watching community have also observed the naval shipbuilding plan in the 14-FYP being the largest in the PLAN’s history. 

The omissions of aircraft carrier and submarine procurement (both nuclear and conventional) are also noted, and these omissions are likely by design given their greater sensitivity and strategic consequence. Logistics and auxiliary ships are also, of course, not mentioned, per the norm. 

However, even with the above limited information, there are some interesting consequences to ponder on. 

Assessing the Predictions

The continued production of 055 destroyers was expected. It is unclear, however, whether the order of 16 055s (including the current eight 055s in the water) includes any ships of the anticipated improved 055A class, or if the 055A will follow at some point in the future after 16 baseline 055s. It’s also not known if the 055s described are expected to be a maximum production goal for the 14-FYP’s period, a minimum goal, or somewhere in between.

The continued production of 052D destroyers is not unanticipated either. While not as large or possessing the same scope of cutting-edge sensors or magazine size as the larger and more advanced 055s, the 052D class remains a globally competitive medium displacement, blue water capable destroyer and should be compatible with most of the weapons that an 055 could utilize by virtue of their common vertical launch system (VLS) and same family of primary multi-function radar. It’s not entirely clear how many 052Ds will be produced, but anywhere from a further six to 12 ships could easily be envisioned. 

The continued production of 054A frigates is a slight surprise, and an order of 20 hulls with the existing 30 054As in service today will expand the 054A fleet by two-thirds. The fact that the next generation 054B is explicitly expected to emerge in the same time period may also prompt some confusion – after all, if a next generation frigate is expected to enter service in this time period, why pursue a whopping 20 extra hulls of the older, existing type? 

One possible answer is that the 054A hull has proven itself to be a cheap and sufficiently capable, and that the PLAN itself recognizes the need to be able to quite rapidly and smoothly induct a large number of hulls to achieve combat readiness quickly to maintain a satisfactory balance of hulls with other major navies that operate in the region which are also undergoing their own surface combatant expansion programs. With 30 ships under their belt, and both Huangpu and Hudong having demonstrated a launch rate of four ships per year, the order of 20 ships could potentially be completed within five years – indeed the first of these 20 054As has already been sighted at Huangpu, with the major hull modules nearly complete. On the other hand, if 054B is expected to offer significant technological advancements compared to 054A – or indeed, relative to some of the PLAN’s current in-service subsystems, such as if 054B features the long rumored integrated electric propulsion – then the 054B will inevitably require a longer period of shipyard fitting out, trials, familiarization and induction before the ship class becomes fully combat capable. 

It is unknown if these 20 restart 054As will feature any upgrades from the 30 existing ships. The 30 existing 054As did see some various upgrades between batches, but there were no upgrades to primary weapons systems or primary sensors (namely the Sea Eagle radar). It is unlikely these 20 restart 054As will be equipped with the universal VLS, but continue to adopt the H/AKJ-16 VLS. One possible modification speculated is a lengthened helipad and a redesigned hangar to accommodate the Z-20F helicopter, which the lengthened 052D hulls were redesigned to accommodate. Another possible modification is replacement of the Sea Eagle radar with a modern medium sized active electronically scanned (AESA) radar, given the age of the underlying technology of Sea Eagle and how commodified AESA technology now is for the Chinese military. Such an improvement wouldn’t inherently alter the ship’s fire control system but rather replace the role of the Sea Eagle with a more modern contemporary, while keeping the same terminal illuminators and HHQ-16 family of missiles for air defense, and might be the same upgrade that Pakistan’s 054A/P is confirmed to enjoy. Given how quickly the first ship is coming together, it is these questions will be answered within a year or so.

Overall, barring the emergence of 054B, the continued production of 055, 052D and 054A all suggest that in the first part of this decade, the PLAN are more interested in building up capacity of some of the mature capabilities they already wield (many of which are formidable and world class in those three classes of ships). Maturation of newer technologies will likely follow into improved variants or new concept warships in the second half of the decade.

Continued production of 071 LPDs is not unexpected, though no number is given. Continued production of 075 LHDs with a requirement for eight LHDs is reasonable, though it’s not clear if any of these will be perhaps a larger or improved class (tentatively referred to as 075A in the past), nor how quickly these will be procured. That said, given how fast the first three 075s have been built, a further five 075s could likely be built in two and a half years at Hudong at recently demonstrated rates.

The Notable Omissions

The omission of carrier procurement and submarine procurement is not surprising. However, one can reflect on the state of Chinese carrier and submarine production capacity that has been demonstrated and newly built. 

Having built the CV-17 Shandong at Dalian, and currently building carrier 003 at Jiangnan, China is in the rather unique situation of being the only nation in the world that has demonstrated more than one shipyard capable of producing aircraft carriers. The pace of carrier construction between 2021-2025 is not known, but it is likely that a two carrier-yard will come into play in some form going forwards. 

The aforementioned nuclear submarine production line at Bohai has largely reached completion, however recent high quality satellite photos irrefutably demonstrate that another new submarine assembly hall is being constructed in the southern part of the site. This new southern hall appears to be a similar length to the recently finished eastern hall, and will feature four sets of rail tracks of the 7.34m gauge – appropriate for nuclear attack submarines rather than ballistic missile submarines. Notably, the spacing between these four tracks is greater than the tracks at the eastern hall, lacking the secondary 13.55m gauge option, suggesting this new southern hall might be dedicated for more efficient attack submarine production. Nevertheless, in terms of new assembly floor area, this new southern hall represents an expansion of at least two-thirds compared to the existing eastern hall.

The rationale for such an expansion in nuclear submarine assembly space at this new facility, before the first submarine has even been launched from their line, can only be interpreted in a few limited ways.

Conventional submarine production is also omitted, as are auxiliaries and future potential vessel types such as unmanned underwater and unmanned surface vehicles.

The Nature of Future Projections

Of course, predictions for future procurement are never set in stone. Economic crises, national disaster, war or other unforeseen events can interfere with the best laid plans.

However, there is now a clearer expectation for naval procurement in the next five years – particularly for surface combatants – 054A production restart has already been sighted, and it’s likely that the next year or so will see 055 and 052D production restart emerge as well, possibly alongside the first signs of 054B.

Ultimately, the medium and long term procurement for the PLAN are a reflection of the resolve and geopolitical requirements of China as a nation and the economy and industry that can be appropriately mobilized for it – the same reflections of any nation. Trying to estimate the future procurement of a nation on that basis is in many ways a reflection of one’s assessment of a nation’s future economic health, industrial capacity, and overall national health and trajectory. If one believes the Chinese economy is structurally flawed and shortly due for a significant slowdown – or if one even believes in an inevitable, coming collapse of the Chinese economy or perhaps China as a nation – then that would certainly color one’s predictions in one specific direction versus another.

Of those factors, resolve is perhaps an underestimated dimension. Much of the PLA and PLAN’s modernization over the last decade has been observed or explicitly described as fast or “breakneck.” Relative to some other nations in the world that might only produce six destroyers as part of an entire production run, that certainly could appear to be the case. The salient question is whether the recent pace of procurement was a result of maximal effort and an intensive, non-sustainable peak, or if it was the result of years and decades of gradual accumulation of converging plans.

In other words, had a peak already been reached, or has it yet to arrive? 

This observer is able to recall in the late-2000s when up to four 054A frigates were being launched per year that the community believed it surely represented a peak in naval procurement that could not be surpassed, then in the mid-2010s subsequent production of 052C/D destroyers reached new highs, followed by immediate serial production of 055 large destroyers seeing eight ships launched within the space of three years, then followed again by three 075 LHDs that will shortly all be launched within the space of about a year and a half. All this of course being in context of some 70+ 056/A corvettes produced in the span of eight years and regular diesel submarine production and 071 LPD production as well.

With the demonstrated production and procurement capacity in corvette, frigate, destroyer, large destroyer, diesel submarines, and large amphibious ships, there are only a few domains of contemporary naval assets left to be seen. Whether the PLA Navy will see a similar large-scale procurement of nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers in future is not known, but the newly finished (and still expanding) nuclear submarine facility at Bohai, and the demonstrated two carrier-capable shipyards might be worth considering.

All military forces have a desired force requirement and a desired “critical mass” to aspire toward. Whether the Chinese navy is close to its desired force or not, is of no small consequence.