China is sending its largest surface combatant, the amphibious landing ship Kunlun Shan, to the Gulf of Aden to serve as a command ship for a PLA Navy anti-piracy task force, according to China Defense Blog. This marks the first deployment of the 071 LPD, launched in 2006, the largest naval ship of its own design China has built to date with an estimated displacement of around 20,000 tons.
China is scheduled to command the multinational task force operating off the coast of piracy haven Somalia. Accompanying the Kunlun Shan is the destroyer Lanzhou and the supply ship Weishanhu. Available specs on the Kunlun Shan say it has a lift capacity equivalent to the U.S. Navy Austin class LPD; it has a large helicopter flight deck and a floodable bay that could fit up to 4 air cushion landing crafts (LCAC).
There was lots of discussion about the challenges China’s PLA Navy faces in operating at long distances at a National Defense University conference on Chinese naval modernization I attended earlier this month. These range from difficulties in maintaining and repairing ships to providing medical care and fresh produce to personnel.
A shortage of underway replenishment ships and the obvious lack of overseas bases places an upper limit on the number of ships China can deploy and how long they can remain on station in distant waters.
The PLA Navy has been increasing their “out of area” naval operations incrementally in recent years. They are very methodical about it, using a small number of their most modern ships. These deployments have a noticeable political “soft power” component to them. Expect more of that soft power naval diplomacy when China soon deploys its purpose built hospital ship.
Check out this really cool cutaway diagram of the Kunlun Shan provided by Hobby Shanghai.
-- Greg Grant