For China, Key to Becoming a Blue Water Navy and a Peer Competitor Has Been Sustainment at Sea
In less than two decades, the world has watched China’s naval capabilities mature to the point where the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) are now considered a peer competitor to the US Navy. In fact, China now has the biggest navy in the world.
According to retired Navy Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt, one of the biggest reasons the PLAN must be taken seriously isn’t its sheer numbers, or the sophistication of its sensors and weapons, but its ability to sustain itself at sea for extended periods.
It was the pursuit of pirates off of the Horn of Africa that pushed the PLAN beyond its comfort zone. When the United Nations (UN) asked nations to provide naval patrols to protect shipping against Somali pirates in 2008, the PLAN sent combatants, as well as a replenishment ship to conduct extended operations at sea.
In McDevitt’s new book, China as a Twenty-First-Century Naval Power: Theory, Practice, and Implications, the author talks about how China’s navy transitioned from “baby operational steps” in the 1990s to the “legitimate ‘blue-water’ force it is today.”
The counter-piracy deployments professionalized the PLA Navy and played a huge role in turning them into one of the great navies of the world, he said. “They proved to themselves, as much as to anybody else, that they could send two destroyers and an oiler off to the Gulf of Aden and keep them there for three or four months doing anti-piracy patrols support them logistically and carry out operational tasks reliably. They’ve figured out how to do that using PLA Navy oilers and state-owned enterprises, and eventually building a base at Djibouti.”
They’ve been able to extend those deployments, too, McDevitt said. “After the ships get relieved, they continue for another two and a half months showing the flag. They go to a different part of the world—Africa, the Mediterranean, Asia. These deployments are important training opportunities for a rapidly growing navy.”
The US Navy is familiar with long deployments, something that is often taken for granted. But it is a major challenge to supply a strike group as it moves across the oceans. Ships on extended deployments get replenished at sea, but even replenishment ships like oilers need to restock. “After the first few anti-piracy deployments, PLAN Task Groups deployments now average seven months, portal to portal. It has mastered the art of underway replenishment and learned how to leverage on-shore support from Chinese state-owned logistic companies such as COSCO.”
“I consider these past 12 years to have been a ‘blue water laboratory,’ where the PLAN has observed and learned best practices from the world’s great navies, and how to sustain ships assigned to operational missions for months at a time. When you consider all the preparations necessary to prepare for a normal USN overseas deployment, what the PLAN has mastered is impressive,” he said. “The experience that PLA Navy officers and sailors have gained in operations, shipboard maintenance and general shopkeeping, ship, and weapons system design (what works), training and most importantly logistics support to deployed forces has been invaluable.”
“The ability to reliably deploy ships to the far reaches of the Indian Ocean, and beyond, for seven months, and repeat the deployments, without interruption, for 12 years and counting, is the mark of a navy who has arrived as a legitimate blue water force. These past 12 years have been a dramatic accelerant to the development of the PLAN into a genuine global force,” McDevitt said.
By Edward Lundquist
Photo: The Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy Fuqing-class fleet oiler Hongzehu (AOR 881) arrives at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in 2013. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Diana Quinlan/Released.