Updated 7/7/2017 to improve readability.
China could try to field a navy equal to the United States Navy, but that would require a tremendous increase in spending, as the US Navy receives more funding per year than the entire Chinese military. Even if China were to pour hundreds of billions into their navy, they would still be playing catch-up, as the PLAN lags behind the US Navy in a number of key areas, such as naval aviation.
Thus, China has historically chosen a different approach than matching the US ship-for-ship. To achieve regional control without breaking the bank, China’s has focused on anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), a concept which utilizes asymmetric defensive weapons, as described below, to prevent an adversary from gaining control of the sea. A key feature of A2/AD systems is that, while having limited range, they cost much less than the targets they are designed to destroy or deter. This emphasis on A2/AD allows China to maintain relative control over its territorial waters, which are crucial for its export-based economy and its claim to Taiwan as well as large portions of the South China Sea. Of course, there is a tradeoff: because of their limited range, China’s A2/AD assets do not grant global reach in the same way that US ships and submarines do. The PLAN is now modernizing into a blue-water force, but these A2/AD assets still comprise a significant portion of its naval power.
Shore-based anti-ship ballistic missiles
Anti-ship ballistic missiles are a fledgling element of China’s A2/AD strategy. Indeed, China is one of the first countries to experiment with this revolutionary type of weapon. Anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) would be employed as a shore-based missile. Because of their ballistic flight trajectory, ASBMs approach their target at formidable 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 ASBMs. They also promise far greater range than ASCMs; the DF-21D ASBM can strike well beyond Japan, and the DF-26 could travel even further. However, the PLA would need to detect and track targets nearly a thousand miles away to fully utilize the DF-21D’s range. Such a task could prove challenging if the adversary deploys countermeasures or disrupts communications.
By virtue of their ability to dive below the ocean surface and operate near-silently, modern submarines are a headache to counter. 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 pose a serious problem for any navy conducting offensive operations near China by virtue of sheer numbers — the PLAN fields over 50 subs. Detection would be especially difficult in the noisy coastal waters near China.
While many of China’s subs are dated, the PLAN also fields modern air-independent propulsion (AIP) boats, such as the Type 039A, which employs a cutting-edge powerplant and 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 torpedoes, many Chinese submarines also carry small anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs). While one such missile is 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 upgrading many submarines with its advanced YJ-18 ASCM. The YJ-18 spends most of its flight at subsonic speed, which is efficient for cruising. Then, when the missile closes on its target, it conducts a terminal supersonic sprint in order to evade interception. At the very least, an attack 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 missiles
In addition to the cruise missiles fitted to submarines, China also fields shore-based ASCM batteries. Like much of the equipment in the Chinese military, the design of these missiles varies greatly. While some are older designs, the PLA fields many modern coastal defense missiles as well. Unlike the US, which has generally neglected ASCM development, China has a missile for every situation. From the high-performance YJ-18 and CX-1, designed to sink large high-value targets, to the lightweight TL-1B, intended to destroy small vessels such as corvettes and missile boats, China’s investment in ASCMs is readily apparent.
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 a volley can be launched by a few cheap trucks rather than an expensive ship or airplane. Of course, the drawback is that shore-launching reduces reach — land-based launchers 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 PLAN field a number of aircraft 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 the coverage is formidable. As with many ASCMs, a single YJ-12 would not be particularly threatening, but a large wave of them could prove difficult to defeat.
In combat, China’s maritime strike force would be reliant on the PLAAF and PLAN’s ability to maintain air superiority and prevent interception. Without effective escorts, China’s maritime strike aircraft would quickly fall prey to opposing fighter aircraft.
Naval mines are by far the oldest area denial weapon in existence. Many mines still operate similarly to the mines of yore, but more modern iterations boast capabilities such as remote guidance and rocket propulsion. While mines may not be the flashiest or most destructive way to wage war, they can easily frustrate a naval offensive. Once an area is mined, clearing it can take days to years, a difficult proposition 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 them or run the minefield and risk crippling damage. While mines are not touted as much as the submarines or aircraft, PLAN officials know the value of mining and continually develop their mining doctrine.
Mines, while highly effective, are not without drawbacks. For one, 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 ports and chokepoints.
While A2/AD weapons such as shore-based missiles and maritime strike aircraft are useful for defending China’s interests in Asia, they do not help fight militants in Africa or defend against pirates. These global activities require expeditionary vessels, such as aircraft carriers and blue-water warships. To bolster its global presence, the PLAN is rapidly developing blue-water assets, including air defense ships and even aircraft carriers. For information on China’s carrier program, visit this WhiteFleet.net article. See this report by RAND and this article by The Diplomat to learn more about China’s fledgling blue-water navy.