Pentagon warns growing Chinese naval expansion

The Chinese Navy already has the largest number of ships in the world, with a fleet of more than 350 ships that includes a fast-growing armada of destroyers, carriers and submarines, a reality which continues to raise concerns with the Pentagon and Navy weapons developers.

South China Sea and Chinese Tantrum

China has built up a significant military presence in the South China Sea as the country controversially tries to gain control in the region. Described by many as “island fortresses”, China has engulfed the South China Sea with man made island bases, and has been accused of forming them specifically for military purposes.

The moving of its aircraft carriers, airstrips and weapons into the region has earned the cluster of bases the nickname: “The Great Wall of Sand.” Photographs published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer showed cargo ships and supply vessels, which appeared to be delivering construction materials to the China-controlled islands. Others show runways, hangars, control towers, helipads and radomes as well as a series of multistorey buildings that China has built on reefs.

Cyber Warfare

But its military firepower on the ground and sea has been accompanied by a different threat – cyber attacks.

Just hours after China’s claim to the South China Sea was rubbished in The Hague in 2016, at least 68 national and local government websites in the Philippines were knocked offline in a massive distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack.

In the summer of 2015, Chinese hackers allegedly breached the court’s servers during a hearing on the territorial dispute, leaving anyone interested in the landmark legal case at risk of data theft.

South China Sea:
South China Sea mapped (Image: getty)

Experts Jason Healey and Anni Piiparinen predicted that “the Philippines (and its US allies) should start preparing now for a massive digital tantrum by Chinese patriot hackers if the ruling goes against the Middle Kingdom”.

South China Sea:
South China Sea: A base in the region (Image: getty)

A report published by enSilo found that the Chinese cyber espionage group called the Advanced Persistent Threat group 10 or APT10 deployed two malicious software variants that targeted government and private organisations in the Philippines just last year.

Bullying neighbors

Fears remain focussed at China’s recent aggression with its weaponry in the region sparking fears of conflict.

The Philippines took action against Beijing over its Nine Dash Line claim of the sea, which marked 90 percent of the waters as Chinese territory.

South China Sea:
South China Sea bases mapped (Image: getty)

The DF-21D in particular has been described as an especially dangerous weapon by experts.

It was unveiled in 2015, and is thought to have a range exceeding 1,450 kilometres according to the US National Air and Space Intelligence Center.

One of the missiles, a DF-26B, was launched from the northwestern province of Qinghai, while the other, a DF-21D, lifted off from Zhejiang, a province in the east of the country.

The move represents a drastic escalation in an already fragile standoff between two of the world’s biggest nuclear powers.

Both missiles targeted areas between Hainan province and the Paracel Islands according to Beijing’s forces, areas contested by smaller nations such as Vietnam and Taiwan.

A growing headache for US and Australian Navy

By the end of this decade, China is expected to operate as many as 400 ships, according to the Pentagon’s 2020 China Military Power report which catalogs the pace and extent of China’s ambitious military modernization.

Chinese assertiveness prompted Australian government to spend $270 billion to modernize its military, in particular modernize the Royal Australian Navy.

“China is the top ship-producing nation in the world by tonnage and is increasing its shipbuilding capacity and capability for all naval classes,” the report said.

While China’s growing fleet is already much larger than the U.S. Navy’s 293 ships, some Navy leaders and observers say pure numbers may not ultimately be the measure of superiority. The Pentagon report does make this point, yet with the clear caveat that China’s emerging fleet size is indeed concerning.

“There is certainly more to naval power than ship counts, total counts of the Chinese vessels, there’s tonnage but I would also draw your attention to weapons systems and it’s important to highlight the Chinese shipbuilding advantages in terms of its size of fleet,” Chad Sbragia, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China, told reporters when addressing the report, according to a Pentagon transcript.

China’s internal shipbuilding apparatus is, according to the report, concerning. The text of the document cites the merging of China’s State Shipbuilding Corporation and the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, creating the world’s largest shipbuilder.

File photo - China's ZBD-05 amphibious infantry fighting vehicle in the Pursuit race, Stage 3 of the Seaborne Assault competition among marine units, at Khmelevka range as part of the 2016 Army Games, Kaliningrad Region, Russia.
China’s ZBD-05 amphibious infantry fighting vehicle in the Pursuit race, Stage 3 of the Seaborne Assault competition among marine units, at Khmelevka range as part of the 2016 Army Games, Kaliningrad Region, Russia. (Photo by Vitaly NevarTASS via Getty Images)

“China domestically produces its naval gas turbine and diesel engines, as well as almost all shipboard weapons and electronic systems, making it nearly self-sufficient for all shipbuilding needs,” the Pentagon China report states.

In order to better discern the scope of China’s shipbuilding enterprise, one need only to examine its current construction of carriers and destroyers.

Having already launched its second carrier, the Shangdong, the Chinese are already starting work on a third aircraft carrier, according to a May 2020 Congressional Research Service Report, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities.” The report says the PLA Navy may have as many as 400 ships and four aircraft carriers by 2025.

China’s first indigenously-built carrier, the second carrier in the fleet overall, appears to be modeled after its first carrier, the ski-jump-configured Ukrainian-built Liaoning,

For its third carrier, the People’s Liberation Army Navy seeks to build a smoother, flatter carrier deck similar to the U.S. Ford-class with an electromagnetic catapult. An electromagnetic catapult generates a fluid, smooth launch, which is different from a steam-powered “shotgun” type take off. Also, an electromagnetic catapult extends an attack envelope well beyond that of China’s existing ski jump.

China’s emerging Type 055 destroyer is also attracting attention from U.S. planners. Interestingly, the ship represents an apparent Chinese effort to build a stealthy destroyer.

The ship does not have large protruding deck masts or many external deck-mounted weapons and appears to have a blended body-bow with a smooth exterior. In some respects, the ship does appear to resemble some elements of the U.S. Navy’s stealthy USS Zumwalt destroyer.

Also, the central placement of the deckhouse, blended with a back end area, might represent a deliberate effort to align the ship’s center of gravity and therefore decrease the possibility of capsizing in rough seas. The Nanchang has very similar-looking deck-mounted guns and a smooth, flat, roundly curved deckhouse. Like the USS Zumwalt, there is a decidedly linear, inwardly-angled hull-deckhouse connection.

The radar panels of the Type 055, appear blended into the sides of the ship and the vessel appears to have narrow, yet flat command post windows. Overall, the exterior of the ship clearly seems to have fewer “sharp edges” or contours potentially more detectable to enemy radar.

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