Visualizing The Achievements & Challenges of Chinese Sea Power (Case Study)

Visualizing The Achievements & Challenges of Chinese Sea Power (Case Study)

Lakshya Arya

“[The] starting point and foundation [for comprehending sea power] is the necessity to secure commerce, by political measures conducive to military, or naval strength. This order is that of actual relative importance to the nation of the three elements – commercial, political, military.” This logic of maritime policy by the strategic grand master Alfred Thayer Mahan, fits perfectly to explain why China is busily accumulating sea power to make President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream come true.  

On 23 April this year, PLA Navy (PLAN) celebrated its 73rd anniversary. Its leadership also celebrated the Navy’s contribution to realise the dream of making China great again after it suffered a long “century of humiliation” at the hands of seaborne conquerors punctuated by dynastic collapse and civil war. Indeed, they must! There is no denying that since 1950s, when the PLAN was composed of small ships, largely of Soviet origin and armed with rudimentary systems, to today’s PLAN which claims to deliver advanced ordnance at extended ranges; both from sea and over land – their Navy has come a long way.

That said, China’s Achilles’ heel now, and for some time to come, will be the lack of full systems interoperability. Systems interoperability affects the speed of sensors to detect, decision makers to decide, and naval commanders to initiate operations. The argument of this article is straightforward: China’s four-dimensional naval battlespace – air, sea, underwater, and the time it takes to integrate the three – presents three future challenges to PLAN. As Admiral William F. Halsey stated after World War II, “A fleet is like a hand of cards at poker or bridge. You don’t see it as aces and kings and deuces. You see it as a hand, a unit. You see a fleet as a unit, not carriers, battleships, and destroyers. You don’t play individual cards; you play the hand.” Individual cards, then, won’t win China’s naval “game”; it will take the entire hand for it to succeed.  

The First Challenge - Interoperability of Sensing and Shooting.  The maritime environment is completely nonlinear, and threats can come from any dimension. “Finding the other guy” is vital but being able to escape detection while doing so is equally important.  Chinese sensing systems have gone through enormous changes during the past forty years. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, China received all its naval equipment from the then-USSR. In the 1980s, China began to import high-technology equipment to fill key sensor and weapon roles.  In the 1990s, new PLAN warships included complex radars and weapon systems that were manufactured in China. Since 2000, China has produced illegal copies of major imported aircraft, sensors, and weapons, often without the benefit of full documentation, logistical support, or training. It is an open question whether these disparate components can be made to work together efficiently systems integration, or whether dis-integration will undermine the PLAN’s military effectiveness. To illustrate a specific example, irrespective of how powerful the Russian-built Sovermennyy destroyers are, if they are forced to act alone, or protect numerous low-quality Chinese built platforms from destruction, they could offer limited resistance.  

The Second Challenge - Lack of Jointness and Synergy.  Jointness is a continuing weakness of PLAN, not just between Services, but even among the various naval fleets. On this note, Beijing’s decision to retain the traditional three fleets within the modern Chinese navy – instead of unifying all these contiguous forces into one – suggests that the central government might be concerned about giving one fleet, or naval leader, too much power. To this end, Beijing leaders have been careful to keep power divided so that the navy will not be able to unify and challenge the government, which further undermines integration.

The Third Challenge - Command and Control.  Speed of systems communication and decision making is a third important element, since this supports mobility and maneuver. In battle, speed is relative, not fixed, and maintaining a higher reaction speed than one’s enemy is all-important. If you can get inside your enemy’s decision-making loop, and act faster than they can, then you can win. New equipment alone does not necessarily give greater mobility and maneuver, because education and crew training are crucial for making effective use of that equipment.  The political commissar system is particularly strong – and their role in creating a dual command system, and interference in naval operations is carefully veiled.  

Finally.  Although China has made enormous strides recently, particularly in merging foreign and indigenous naval combat systems, even a simple comparision between China’s nineteenth-century imperial navy and the contemporary PLAN suggests that in times of war the current Chinese navy could face a crippling capabilities mismatch between its Chinese and Russian-built ships. The outcome of any future naval conflict will clearly depend on high levels of command and control, interoperability of equipment both on a single ship and among different ships within the same fleet, and jointness not only between different Services but also importantly within the three Chinese regional fleets. 

Is the PLAN combat ready then? 
Or is it as they say, “all that glitters is not gold”………