Every nation’s military strategies and tactics are dictated by a multitude of factors, including economic circumstances and geographic position. China was economically much weaker than the USSR and the United States for much of its past, and still has difficulties developing advanced assets for use by its military. China also has a long coastline which is encircled by a number of US bases. In this vein, The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) rely heavily on Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) tactics to defend their territorial waters and maintain territorial integrity.
China has judged the US to be the greatest naval threat to Chinese regional power, an assessment which is wholly accurate. China could try to field a navy equal to the US’s in power, but the costs of this would be crippling; the US Navy is more expensive to maintain than the whole Chinese military. Even if China were to pour hundreds of billions into their navy, they would still be playing catch-up, as China have the trained men or the intellectual resources to field a global fleet.
Thus, the difference in approach between the Chinese and US naval strategies is dictated by circumstance. The US emerged from World War II as a global superpower, which allowed it to field a massive navy capable of operations anywhere in the world. The US values this global presence because post-War US foreign policy has relied on proactive military intervention. China, on the other hand, was greatly impoverished for decades after the Cold War and could not afford to challenge US or Soviet naval power openly. However, China still needed a way to maintain relative control over its territorial waters. After all, the Chinese economy relies heavily on shipping, and the Taiwan anomaly means that China is perpetually wary that a major conflict could take place on its doorstep. To achieve regional control without breaking the bank, China’s best option was to focus on anti-access/area denial, which means using defensive and asymmetric capabilities to deter an adversary from gaining control of the sea (A2/AD).
Throughout much of history, the only way to maintain sea control was with a large fleet, and thus A2/AD did not exist in the sense it does today. However, modern advances (mainly that of the ASCM, as will be readily apparent) changed that calculus. The common strain among A2/AD systems is that, while having limited range, they cost much less than the targets they are designed to destroy or deter. This allows less-fortunate navies to defend an area against a much wealthier opponent. Of course, there is a tradeoff: because of their limited range and capabilities, China’s A2/AD assets do not grant China global reach in the same way that US ships and submarines do.
By virtue of their ability to dive below the ocean surface, modern submarines are a headache to detect and track. China fields both nuclear-powered and diesel-electric submarines but is partial to diesel-electric boats because they are cheaper and simpler. Chinese diesel-electric submarines would be problematic for any navy conducting offensive operations near China, mainly because China fields over 50 of them. PLAN subs can also hide in coastal waters where sonar clutter would make them difficult to detect.
While many of China’s subs are older designs, the PLAN also fields newer air-independent propulsion (AIP) submarines, such as the Type 039A, which employs cutting-edge powerplants and features extensive noise reduction measures. Torpedoes, the prototypical submarine weapon, are short-ranged but can inflict critical damage and are difficult to detect. In addition to fielding torpedoes, some Chinese submarines can also launch Exocet-class anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs). While these missiles are not particularly threatening to a modern air defense ship, they could inflict serious damage as part of a coordinated mass attack. In addition, the PLAN is in the process of fitting submarines with its advanced YJ-18 ASCM. The YJ-18 spends most of its flight at subsonic speed, which increases fuel efficiency. When the missile closes on its target, it conducts a terminal supersonic sprint in order to evade interception. At the very least, a strike with the older Chinese sub-launched ASCMs would force an adversary to expend air defense missiles. Once YJ-18 ASCMs are widely fielded, Chinese submarines will possess substantial striking power.
Shore-based anti-ship cruise missile batteries
In addition to the cruise missiles fitted to submarines, China also fields shore-based ASCM batteries. Like most of the equipment in the Chinese military, the quality of these missiles varies widely. While some are older designs, the PLA fields modern missiles as well, such as the aforementioned YJ-18.
All shore-launched ASCMs are generally mounted on trucks for mobility; this arrangement enhances survivability by allowing the batteries to relocate if their position has been compromised.
Launching missiles from shore is highly cost-effective because building a few trucks is much cheaper than building a whole submarine or ship. Of course, the drawback is that shore-launching reduces reach; obviously, trucks cannot venture into the water if their target is out of range.
Missile boats are yet another way to launch anti-ship cruise missiles cost-effectively. Missile boats are small ships which have little to no defensive capabilities. Instead, they rely on mobility and stealth to avoid detection. By simply getting in range, launching their missiles, and speeding away as fast as possible, missile boats reduce the opportunities for an adversary to counter-attack. Because of their small size, missile boats cannot cross the open ocean easily, and thus are used mostly for coastal defense. China’s missile boat fleet is a mix of older Cold War-era designs and newer, more stealthy designs such as the Type 22.
Maritime strike aircraft
Maritime strike aircraft are another element of China’s diverse ASCM launch platform arsenal. China’s PLAAF and PLAAN field a number of aircraft which are capable of employing ASCMs such as the YJ-12, which has a range of over 400km. Combine that with the combat radius of the launch aircraft and you have a missile launch solution with impressive coverage. As with most ASCMs, a single YJ-12 is not particularly threatening, but a large wave of them would be difficult to defeat.
In combat, China’s maritime strike force would be reliant on the PLAAF and PLAAN’s ability to maintain air superiority and prevent interception. Without effective escorting practices, Chinese maritime strike aircraft would quickly fall prey to opposing fighter aircraft.
Naval mines are by far the oldest area denial weapon in existence. Many modern mines still operate similarly to mines of yore, but some newer designs feature capabilities such as remote guidance and rocket propulsion. While mines may not be the flashiest or most destructive way to wage war, they are massively frustrating. Once an area is mined, clearing it can take days to years, a span of time rarely available in the heat of combat. In most cases, mines are not capable of destroying a well-built warship completely, but they can inflict serious casualties and damage. Above all, mines are cheap and rapidly deployable. A single aircraft or minelaying ship can quickly place numerous mines, which faces the adversary with a tough decision: waste time clearing mines or run the minefield and risk crippling damage. While not touting their mining capabilities as much as the submarines or aircraft, PLAN officials know the value of mining and continually develop their mining doctrine.
Mines, while a simple to use and a massive nuisance to the enemy, are not without drawbacks. For one, most simple mines do not discriminate between friend and foe. An area that is mined poses a risk not only to enemy ships but to one’s own ships, which could easily strike an errant mine. In addition, mines can pose a threat to merchant vessels once the conflict has ended. While mines may not destroy robust warships, they pack more than enough power to obliterate a small cargo ship or fishing vessel. Because of the potential for collateral damage, mines would likely be used to deny specific high-value areas, such as Taiwanese ports.
Anti-ship ballistic missiles
Anti-ship ballistic missiles are a fledgling element of China’s A2/AD strategy. Indeed, China is the first to experiment with this revolutionary design. The anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) would be employed as a shore-based missile. Because of its ballistic flight trajectory, an ASBM would approach its target at massive speed, posing a unique interception challenge. Indeed, few navies in the world (the US being one of them) have the capability to defend against a ballistic missile attack, so China’s small neighbors such as Vietnam and the Philippines would be virtually defenseless against this type of attack. ASBMs also promise far greater range than ASCMs; DF-21D spans well beyond Japan. However, launching the ASBMs in combat would be a unique challenge for the PLA; a missile is only as good as the guidance and intelligence provided to it. In other words, the ASBMs would be useless unless either a satellite or a terrestrial patrol asset could detect and track potential targets without itself being destroyed beforehand.
The PLAN’s ambitions are not limited to defending the seas immediately surrounding China. Indeed, the PLAN is building an expeditionary component, complete with air defense ships and even a future aircraft carrier. A WhiteFleet article addressing these developments is forthcoming. In the meantime, a report by RAND and an article by The Diplomat exist for those who want to learn more about China’s fledgeling blue-water navy.