That was the description given recently by Adm. Gary Roughead, the Navy’s chief of naval operations, when asked for his assessment of America’s former Cold War opponent.
“The Russian Navy still has great ambition, still has great pride,” he said.
The collapse of the Soviet Union significantly reduced the navy, Roughead noted, with most shipbuilding programs coming to a halt or dragging out.
“That has stopped in recent years,” he said. An improving Russian economy will mean “you’re going to see an increase in their capability and capacity, with new shipbuilding programs taking hold.” Roughead noted the recent move by Russia to acquire several French-designed Mistral-class amphibious ships as an indication of rising interest in increased operations.
The navy “will now begin to rebuild itself,” he said, “and bring more modern capability to bear and operate more widely.”
Roughead did not speak of a growing Russian naval force as a threat.
“I believe we should work closely with the Russian Navy to see where we can work together,” he said, and cited operations with Russian ships working to counter pirates off Somalia.
Roughead was asked for his assessment of the Russian and Chinese navies during an appearance before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee. It was the last of several hearings before the House and Senate to present the 2012 budget request.
The Chinese Navy is the fastest-growing in the world today, Roughead said.
“We see their submarine fleet expanding, their surface combatants expanding. But it’s also how they’re using their command and control facilities,” he said, “and the nature of expanding beyond the first island chain,” the ring of islands that surround the Chinese mainland.
The strategic objectives of China’s naval expansion seem to be same “that nations and navies have had throughout history,” Roughead said. “As economies rise it follows there will be a strong navy.”
“They want to ensure their sea lanes are able to be used,” he told Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., who specifically asked about China’s anti-carrier missile capability.
“There has been a lot of discussion about the Dong Feng 21 missile,” Roughead acknowledged. “But the DF 21 is no more an anti-access weapon than a submarine is. I would argue that you can put a ship out of action faster by putting a hole in the bottom than by putting a hole in the top.”
Chinese naval technology has improved, in part due to Russian assistance. Its latest destroyers use more local hardware of an improved quality, such as better fire-control systems, stealth technology in their hull designs to reduce their radar profile, and C4ISR systems.
However, despite these rapid advances, roughly half of China's major combat vessels and the bulk of the smaller vessels are still from older, obsolescent classes and not replaced by newer ones.
“My objective,” in regards to the Chinese, Roughead said, “is to not be denied ocean areas were can operate, or not be restricted in our ability to operate.”
The Chinese being constantly scrutinized as to their intentions, Roughead told Coats.
“I think it’s important to gain insight into what their intent is,” he said. “So we watch developments very closely.”
China’s designs on the Arctic Ocean were also questioned by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who asked how the Navy planned to respond to increased activity in the region due to climate change.
“There is no question in my mind that the Arctic is changing,” Roughead said. But along with working closely with the Coast Guard, the CNO again observed that “the most important thing is to become party to the convention of the Law of the Sea” treaty, long hung up in the Senate. “If we are not party to that treaty we will not have a seat at the table as this unfolds.”
While China has a seafaring past, in modern times, it has not been known for its navy. The ground forces of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—the collective name for China’s armed forces—has long been the dominant military service in the People’s Republic of China.
In fact, it has been said anecdotally that the country’s founder, Mao Zedong, was so focused on the army after taking power in 1949 that it was not until 1953 that he made his first tour of the Chinese navy, spending a few days, possibly reluctantly, visiting some rust-bucket frigates.
But that has changed.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is applying some spit and polish, taking in the lines, and going to sea like never before. And as such, recent developments in Chinese naval weapons systems and policies demand that we sit up and take notice of Asia’s largest maritime force. For instance:
- Beijing has made sovereign claims over the East China, South China, and Yellow Seas, assertions that defy widely held views of freedom of navigation. These claims have led to some near-clashes with U.S. forces operating in these areas in international waters.
- The reported development and initial operating capability of an anti-ship ballistic missile capable of scuttling a U.S. aircraft carrier is also a concern. Some defense experts have called the weapon a “game changer.”
- China is also involved in a significant naval modernization and building program. According to some analysis, China has added as many as 30 submarines to its fleet in the past decade, dwarfing the number of new submarines added to that of other major sea powers. And since the early 1990s, China has deployed at least nine new destroyer and frigate classes.
- Strategically, it is sending its nuclear deterrent to sea aboard its new Jin-class (or Type 094) fleet ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), which will carry 12 of the new JL-2 intercontinental-range sea-launched ballistic missiles. China’s follow-on SSBN, the Type 096, is estimated to carry 24 JL-2s.
- In defiance of the prognosticators who said China would never go in this direction, it is also expected that Beijing will send a prototype aircraft carrier to sea this year, portending that we may no longer be the only flattop navy in the Pacific.
In the end, while the Pacific has long been considered an American lake that idea can no longer be taken for granted with the rise of China’s navy. It is certainly something we must keep in mind as we look at the future of U.S. defense budgets and naval shipbuilding programs.Despite the imminent arrival of its first two aircraft carriers, Chinese naval aviation will, for the rest of the decade, concentrate on land based bombers (armed with better anti-ship missiles) and patrol aircraft. The principal bomber is the JH-7A, which is a 28 ton, twin engine aircraft, with a 12.9 meter/40 foot wingspan. The navy has about a hundred of these. While underpowered, it can carry nine ton of bombs, missiles or additional fuel. Now, by using new Chinese made smart bombs and air-to-ground missiles, the JH-7 becomes more useful. The aircraft has an operational radius of about 900 kilometers, enabling it to contribute to an attack on Taiwan, or a blockade of the island's ports. The JH7A could carry four YJ-82 anti-ship missiles. Each of these weighs 715 kg (1573 pounds) with a 165 kg (360 pound) warhead. Range is about 120 kilometers, and the missile uses a radar to find and hit its target. China wants to build another 150 JH-7As, with more powerful engines and better electronics, and is apparently doing that now that it has developed the engines it needs.
In the meantime, the carriers are getting land based aircraft modified (tail hook, stronger landing gear) for their use until custom built carrier aircraft arrive. A carrier fighter-bomber, sometimes referred to as the J-19, is still being designed.
Development of J-11 jets to J-19 jets are as follows: 1): F -11: Chinese-developed Su-27SK variant. (Shenyang) 2): J -12: Cancelled single engine interceptor. (Nanchang) 3): J -13: Cancelled 1971 single engine fighter. (Shenyang) 4): J-14 : Cancelled twin-engine fighter. (Chengdu) 5): F -15: Upgraded carrier-based J-11B. (Shenyang) 6): J -16: Upgraded J-11BS strike fighter, comparable to the latest F-15K. (Shenyang) 7): J -17: Heavy fighter-bomber stealthy variant of the J-11B, similar to the Su-34. (Shenyang) 8): J -18: Heavy stealth carrier-based fighter (developed from J-15). (Shenyang ) 9): F -19: Heavily upgraded J-11B 5th-generation variant. To serve alongside the J-20. (Shenyang)
Currently, China has two aircraft carriers (Shi Lang and "Carrier F") under construction, with one going to sea by next year. Apparently, the main Chinese carrier fighter is a navalized version of the J-11 (an illegal clone of the Russian Su-27). China got one of the Russian navalized Su-27s (the Su-33) from Ukraine, and are stealing more technology to navalize their 30 ton J-11 as the J-11BH (formerly the J-15). These will not be ready before the Shi Lang puts to sea. Instead, it appears that navalized jet trainers will be used (the 9.8 ton JL-9, and possibly the more recent 9.5 ton JL-15).
China already has naval helicopters for their carriers. These include the Russian Ka-28 (submarine search) and Ka-31 (radar early warning) and Mi-8 (transports). China is still having problems designing and building naval helicopters that can match or surpass Russian models. So Russian choppers will continue in service for at least another decade.