China's Fleet Advancing Faster Than US Expected

China's Liaoning aircraft carrier

The Chinese navy has ambitious plans over the next 15 years to rapidly advance its fleet of surface ships and submarines as well as maritime weapons and sensors, according to a U.S. Navy report.

The Office of Naval Intelligence issued an assessment on the Chinese navy as part of testimony to the U.S. China Economic and Security Review. ONI leaders found that China's navy has evolved from a littoral force to one that is capable of meeting a wide range of missions to include being "increasingly capable of striking targets hundreds of miles from the Chinese mainland."

The Chinese navy has 77 surface combatants, more than 60 submarines, 55 amphibious ships and about 85 missile-equipped small ships, according to the report first published by the U.S. Naval Institute. The report explains that more than 50 naval ships were "laid down, launched or commissioned" in 2013 and a similar number is planned for 2014.

During the late 1990s, "virtually all of [China's] ships and submarines were essentially single-mission platforms, poorly equipped to operate beyond the support of land-based defenses," ONI said. Now, China's newest destroyer, the Luyang III-class DDG, will likely enter service this year, featuring a sophisticated phased arrary radar system.

With new multi-mission platforms comes an improved ability to fire high-tech Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles, or ASCMs, at a greater range, the report explains. In fact, the assessment explains that the Luyang III is equipped with a new, vertically launched ASCM. The Luyang III may also be outfitted with anti-submarine missiles and, eventually, land-attack cruise missiles.

The Luyang's ASCM brings China an over-the-horizon targeting technology, the assessment states.

"China has invested heavily in maritime reconnaissance systems at the national and tactical levels, as well as communications systems and datalinks to enable the flow of accurate and timely targeting data," the report adds.

Overall, the Navy's intelligence leadership believes that 85 percent of the Chinese naval fleet will be deemed "modern" by the U.S. by 2020.

The report covers China's Liaoning aircraft carrier, commissioned in September 2012. The Chinese are still learning how to maximize the platform, the Navy found.  By 2020, aircraft aboard the carrier will be able to support fleet operations in a limited role, according to the assessment.

"China is currently engaged in the long and complicated path of learning to operate fixed-wing aircraft from the carrier's deck," authors of the report said.

ONI raised concerns about China's fast-growing submarine force, to include the Jin-class ballistic nuclear submarines, which will likely commence deterrent patrols in 2014, according to the report. The expected operational deployment of the Jin SSBN "would mark China's first credible at-sea-second-strike nuclear capability," the report states.

The submarine would fire the JL-2 submarine launched ballistic missile, which has a range of 4,000 nautical miles and would "enable the Jin to strike Hawaii, Alaska and possibly western portions of CONUS [continental United States] from East Asian waters," ONI assessed.

The report says the Chinese currently have five nuclear attack submarines, four nuclear ballistic missile submarines and 53 diesel attack submarines.

Overall, China's fleet of submarines has quickly increased in offensive weapons technology over the last 10 years. A decade ago, only a few Chinese submarines could fire modern anti-ship cruise missiles. Now, more than half of the conventional attack submarines are configured to fire ASCMs, the report states.

"The type-095 guided missile attack submarine, which China will likely construct over the next decade, may be equipped with a land-attack capability," the assessment explains. This could enable Chinese submarines with an enhanced ability to strike U.S. bases throughout the region, the report adds.

Overall, according to current trends over the next 10 years, China will complete its transformation into an extensive, modern, high-tech naval force with global reach and influence.

"Over the next decade, China will complete its transition from a coastal Navy to Navy capable of missions around the world," ONI said.

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