HONG KONG, Feb 26 (Reuters) - China is expanding its
long-neglected fleet of supply ships and heavy-lift aircraft,
bolstering its military prowess in support of missions to
enforce claims over disputed territory and to defend Chinese
These transport workhorses are unlikely to arouse the same
regional unease as the steady rollout of high performance
fighters, long-range missiles or potent warships, but they are a
crucial element of the People's Liberation Army's (PLA)
three-decade military build-up, defence analysts say.
Over time, the air and sea support will give the world's
second-largest navy greater geographical reach and will enhance
the PLA's capacity to assist troops on distant battlefields,
potentially including Taiwan if Beijing were to launch a
military assault to take control of the self-governing island.
China's state-owned shipyards last year launched two
23,000-tonne type 903 replenishment ships, according to reports
and photographs published on Chinese military affairs websites
and blogs, with further orders in the pipeline.
Defence analysts say the state-of-the-art ships are
undergoing sea trials and should be commissioned into the
Chinese navy later this year.
China also confirmed last month that the PLA had conducted
the first test flight of its Y-20 heavy lift aircraft from the
Yanliang airbase near Xi'an in Shaanxi Province.
State-run television showed footage of the four-engine Y-20,
the biggest aircraft built in China, taking off and landing. The
Y-20, built by AVIC Xi'an Aircraft Industry (Group) Co Ltd,
would have a 66-tonne payload, according to official media
AMBITIOUS GLOBAL POWER
The impending delivery of these support ships and aircraft
is further evidence China intends to become a more ambitious
global military power in a decisive break with its traditional
security priorities of expanding or defending its extensive land
"They are beginning to develop their capacity for power
projection, there is no question about that," says Li Nan, an
expert on the Chinese military and a professor at the U.S. Naval
War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
Steep increases in military outlays over three decades have
allowed China to build an advanced navy that now ranks second
to the United States fleet in terms of raw numbers.
The Chinese navy now has about 80 major surface warships
including its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. It also
deploys more than 50 submarines, about 50 landing ships and more
than 80 missile attack boats, according to Pentagon estimates of
PLA military strength.
However, construction of support and replenishment vessels
in Chinese shipyards has lagged far behind the output of
China has only five major supply ships to support a fleet
that is conducting increasingly intense patrolling and exercises
around disputed territory in the South China Sea and East China
These vessels are also called upon to support the Chinese
navy on a growing number of deployments far into the Indian and
By comparison, the U.S. navy has 34 big replenishment ships
to support about 140 major surface warships, according
to Pentagon figures.
The Chinese navy's extended missions include regular
deployments of naval task forces to the Gulf of Aden and waters
off the horn of Africa as part of United Nations authorized
LOGISTICS CAPACITY STRETCHED
These operations have stretched the logistics capacity of
the China's navy with its three most capable supply ships on
almost permanent duty, according to details of the deployments
announced by the Chinese military.
However, these deployments have provided an opportunity for
the ships and crews to practise and refine the ongoing resupply
of warships, highly skilled manoeuvres that are essential to
keeping warships at sea for long periods, naval experts say.
China's defence ministry said that the frigate Mianyang,
destroyer Harbin and the supply ship Weishanhu sailed on Feb. 16
from Qingdao on the 14th of these anti-piracy deployments.
While extra supply ships will extend the range and endurance
of Chinese fleets, Beijing's strategic objectives still remain
relatively limited outside the nearby seas where it is locked in
territorial disputes with some of its neighbours.
"They are focusing on securing sea lanes, counter piracy and
evacuating Chinese nationals in times of crisis," says Li.
China's expanding military transport capability is unlikely
to have an immediate impact on its tense standoff with Japan
over disputed islands in the East China Sea that are close to
logistics bases on the Chinese mainland, naval analysts say.
"Support ships will not change the nature of operations in
the East China Sea but will have an impact on the ability of the
Chinese navy to conduct operations at sea, if the support ships
are used to grow its professionalism and seamanship," says
Alessio Patalano, a Japanese military expert at King's College
LEANER, MOBILE FORCE
For China's top brass, the first test flight of the Y-20 was
an important milestone as the PLA continues its transformation
from a predominantly mass, ground army to a leaner, more mobile
"These aircraft are vital if you need to move a lot of
people and a lot of equipment some place very, very fast," says
Reuben Johnson, a Kiev-based military analyst and correspondent
for Jane's Information Group, who has studied the Y-20 program.
Reports in the official Chinese media said the Y-20 could
land and take off from restricted airstrips and had the capacity
to carry most PLA combat and support vehicles.
Chinese military planners have drawn lessons from the
importance of heavy-lift aircraft in recent U.S. and other
Western military operations where the capacity to shift troops
and supplies to distant battlefields or trouble spots has
delivered an overwhelming advantage, military analysts say.
The U.S. military has a fleet of more than 300 heavy lift
Galaxy and Globemaster aircraft in service along with more than
400 smaller-capacity transport aircraft.
Many of these aircraft can operate from short, uneven
landing strips in remote and rugged terrain.
The PLA's air-lift capacity is much smaller. It currently
operates about 20 Russian-built Il-76 transport aircraft. The
Il-76 has a 50-tonne payload compared with the Globemaster's 77
tonnes and 118 tonnes for the Galaxy.
Additional Il-76 aircraft are reportedly on order from
Russia but production bottlenecks are holding up deliveries,
according to Russian military experts.
If China can introduce a sizeable fleet of Y-20 aircraft
over the next decade, it will sharply enhance the PLA's capacity
to land troops and equipment on distant battlefields.
Military experts say this capability would be particularly
important in an invasion of Taiwan should Beijing decide to use
force to establish control there.
Some analysts predict the Chinese military will order
hundreds of Y-20s benefiting the group's listed unit, AVIC
Aircraft Co Ltd, in coming decades if the aircraft
can deliver acceptable performance.
They expect the PLA will also use the Y-20 as the basic
airframe for its proposed fleet of in-flight refueling tankers
and airborne early warning aircraft.