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People's Liberation Army Navy


"We Must Build a Powerful Navy Against Aggression by Imperialism."
Mao Zedong, 1952

"Build a Powerful Navy With the Capability of Fighting a Modern War."
Deng Xiaoping, 1979

The People's Liberation Army Navy [PLAN] remains more or less precisely what is implied by its rather paradoxical [at least to Western ears] sounding name -- the maritime force of a continental power. The Chinese sea-faring tradition largely ended with the demise of the 15th century Treasure Fleets, and half a century of Communist state power has done little to reverse the landward focus of Chinse security planning. Large numbers of aircraft and patrol boats armed with anti-ship cruise missiles provide a formidable coastal defense perimeter. But the PLAN remains little more than a "brown water" coastal defense with limited "green water" capabilities, and no pretense of "blue water" aspirations. Despite a few recent noteworthy additions, the Chinese fleet is overwhelmingly populated with elderly and evidently obsolete units. Even the most recently constructed ships are evdidently defficient in anti-air and anti-submarine warfare capabilities.

While manifestly lacking in the robust blue-water power-projection capabilities of the United States Navy, the People's Liberation Army Navy is reasonably well postured to perform the brown-water and green-water sea denial missions with which it is tasked as a matter of national policy. The PLAN has not failed in an attempt to match the US Navy. Rather, it has made substantial progress towards mounting an assymetric sea-denial response to American power-projection capabilities, while at the same time deploying forces that are not inferior in overall combat potential to other regional maritime powers.

In 1949 Mao asserted that "to oppose imperialist aggression, we must build a powerful navy." The Naval Academy was set up at Dalian in March 1950, mostly with Soviet instructors. The Navy was established in September 1950 by consolidating regional naval forces under General Staff Department command. It then consisted of a motley collection of ships and boats acquired from the Guomindang forces. The Naval Air Force was added two years later. By 1954 an estimated 2,500 Soviet naval advisers were in China--possibly one adviser to every thirty Chinese naval personnel--and the Soviet Union began providing modern ships. With Soviet assistance, the navy reorganized in 1954 and 1955 into the North Sea Fleet, East Sea Fleet, and South Sea Fleet, and a corps of admirals and other naval officers was established from the ranks of the ground forces.

The Chinese Navy imported equipment and technology from the Soviet Union when it was first established in the 1950s and developed the ability to make naval equipment with Chinese parts in a short time. In shipbuilding the Soviets first assisted the Chinese, then the Chinese copied Soviet designs without assistance, and finally the Chinese produced vessels of their own design. Eventually Soviet assistance progressed to the point that a joint Sino-Soviet Pacific Ocean fleet was under discussion.

Through the upheavals of the late 1950s and 1960s the Navy remained relatively undisturbed. Under the leadership of Minister of National Defense Lin Biao, large investments were made in naval construction during the frugal years immediately after the Great Leap Forward. During the Cultural Revolution, a number of top naval commissars and commanders were purged, and naval forces were used to suppress a revolt in Wuhan in July 1967, but the service largely avoided the turmoil. Although it paid lip service to Mao and assigned political commissars aboard ships, the Navy continued to train, build, and maintain the fleets.

In the 1970s, when approximately 20 percent of the defense budget allocated to naval forces, the Navy grew dramatically. The conventional submarine force increased from 35 to 100 boats, the number of missile-carrying ships grew from 20 to 200, and the production of larger surface ships, including support ships for oceangoing operations, increased. The Navy also began development of nuclearpowered attack submarines (SSN) and nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN).

In the 1980s the Navy was developing into a regional naval power with some green-water capabilities. Naval construction continued at a level somewhat below the 1970s rate. Modernization efforts encompassed higher educational and technical standards for personnel; reformulation of the traditional coastal defense doctrine and force structure in favor of more blue-water operations; and training in naval combined-arms operations involving submarine, surface, naval aviation, and coastal defense forces. Examples of the expansion of China's blue-water naval capabilities were the 1980 recovery of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in the Western Pacific by a twenty-ship fleet, extended naval operations in the South China Sea in 1984 and 1985, and the visit of two naval ships to three South Asian nations in 1985. In 1982 the Navy conducted a successful test of an underwater-launched ballistic missile; in 1986 the Navy's order of battle included at least one Xia-class SSBNs armed with twelve CSS-NX-4 missiles and five Han-class SSNs armed with six SY-2 cruise missiles. The Navy also had some success in developing a variety of ship-to-ship, ship-to-shore, shore-to-ship, and air-to-ship missiles. In the late 1980s, major deficiencies reportedly remained in antisubmarine warfare, mine warfare, naval electronics (including electronic countermeasures equipment), and naval aviation capabilities.

Although naval personnel comprised only 12 percent of PLA strength, the PLA Navy ranked in 1987 as the third largest navy in the world in 1987. The Navy consisted of the naval headquarters in Beijing; three fleet commands--the North Sea Fleet, based at Qingdao, Shandong Province; the East Sea Fleet, based at Shanghai; and the South Sea Fleet, based at Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province-- and about 2,000 ships. The North Sea Fleet has major bases at Lushun, Liaoning and Qingdao, Shandong. The East Sea Fleet has major bases at Shanghai, Zhoushan, Zhejiang and Fujian, and the South Sea Fleet has major bases at Guangzhou, Zhanjiang and Yulin, Hainan. The 350,000-person Navy included Naval Air Force units of 34,000 men, the Coastal Defense Forces of 38,000, and the Marine Corps of 56,500. Navy Headquarters, which controlled the three fleet commands, was subordinate to the PLA General Staff Department.

China's 1,500-kilometer coastline was protected by more than 100 diesel-powered Romeo- and Whiskey-class submarines, which could remain at sea only a limited time. Inside this protective ring and within range of shore-based aircraft were destroyers and frigates mounting Styx antiship missiles, depth-charge projectors, and guns up to 130mm. Any invader penetrating the destroyer and frigate protection would be swarmed by almost 900 fast-attack craft. Stormy weather could limit the range of these small boats, however, and curtail air support. Behind the inner ring were Coastal Defense Force personnel operating naval shore batteries of Styx missiles and guns, backed by ground force units deployed in depth.

In the mid-1980s, the development of second-generation warships was included in the Seventh and Eighth Five-Year Plans as a key area of endeavor in the development of new weapons and equipment. After the reduction of the military forces by one million men in 1985, the Chinese military placed more attention on qualitative army building and on assisting new and high-technology arms and services. Beijing's naval modernization program is designed to prepare the PLA to conduct regional active defensive warfare in support of Chinese economic interests and sovereignty claims--a doctrinal shift away from a focus on the large-scale, land-based guerrilla warfare of Mao's classic "People's War." This approach potentially will give Beijing the "credible intimidation" needed to accomplish political and military goals without having to rely on overwhelming force-on-force superiority. China's modernization programs thus seek to realize short-term improvements in anti- surface warfare (ASuW) and precision strike warfare. Concurrently, the PLAN is acquiring weapons that would be useful in countering potential adversaries operating on naval platforms or from bases in the East and South China Seas, particularly stand-off weapons such as anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and long-range land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs).

The PLAN currently numbers approximately 260,000 personnel, with over 50 destroyers and frigates, about 60 diesel and six Han- and Xia-class submarines, and nearly 50 landing ships. This force is complemented by several hundred auxiliary and smaller patrol vessels, as well as a naval air arm of over 500, mostly obsolescent, fixed-winged aircraft and some 30 helicopters.

Over the last decade, the PLAN has streamlined and modernized its forces by eliminating large numbers of older ships and replacing them with fewer, more modern units. The number of submarines has declined by about one-half. The size of the major surface combatant fleet has been relatively stable, with older ships slowly being replaced by newer Chinese-built destroyers and frigates. Nearly all of the PLAN's inventory of US-built, World War II-vintage landing ships have been replaced by similar numbers of domestically-produced vessels. Nevertheless, the PLAN continues to lag behind other regional navies, including that of Taiwan, in most technological areas, especially air defense, surveillance, and C4I.

The PLAN's amphibious fleet provides sealift sufficient to transport approximately one infantry division. The PLAN also has hundreds of smaller landing craft, barges, and troop transports, all of which could be used together with fishing boats, trawlers, and civilian merchant ships to augment the naval amphibious fleet. Shortcomings in long-range lift, logistics, and air support, however, hinders China's ability to project amphibious forces.

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Updated Wednesday, June 10, 1998 8:58:45 PM