China's navy cruises into Pacific ascendancy By Peter J Brown In mid-April, two Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) destroyers, the Choukai and Suzunami, unexpectedly encountered several Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships, including a pair of submarines and eight destroyers, approximately 140 kilometers west-southwest of Okinawa near the Nansei (Ryukyu) Islands. The Chinese warships were heading out of the East China Sea and into the Western Pacific. They passed north of Miyako Island - the northernmost island in the Nansei group - through the Miyako Strait and then proceeded to head southeast. They were there to practice anti-submarine warfare, underway refueling and helicopter flight training, to name a few of the procedures. During one PLAN helicopter flight, the Suzunami was subjected to a close encounter which prompted a formal protest by Japan's SDF Joint Staff Office. The presence of the PLAN subs also sparked a protest. Japan's Defense Minister Kitazawa Toshimi was upset that so many Chinese warships had sailed so near to Japan on their way to the western Pacific Ocean without any prior notification by China.  Kitazawa said nothing about whether or not any of the five new Chinese earth observation/military reconnaissance satellites launched since late 2009 were engaged in assisting the PLAN warships during their unannounced passage. Gary Li, a PLA specialist at the London-based Institute of International and Strategic Studies (IISS) said the PLAN's actions in this instance were very significant. Li describes the incident as unprecedented and an attempt by China to "send a very clear message to the region that it should be prepared to see a China unafraid to really test its reach and move into new areas".  Drew Thompson, director of China Studies at The Nixon Center in Washington, DC, did not agree with Li, adding that the recent PLAN "blue water" activity off Japan did not prove that the PLAN has entered a disturbing new phase in its development. "Calling this a new phase is overly dramatic. The PLA has been working for a long time on expanding their ability to operate farther from their shores and conduct joint operations closely coordinating air, land and sea platforms," said Thompson. "These PLAN exercises certainly demonstrate expanded capabilities, or at least the willingness to exercise the hardware they have more vigorously, but it should be viewed as part of a continuum rather than a departure from a previous period of development." Certainly, it is not getting any easier for the US and the rest of Asia to determine where exactly China is heading and what China's exact intentions are. "Reports of a transit by the PLAN forces close to Okinawa only remind US allies in Japan and throughout the Asia-Pacific, that China's future course is unclear," said Abraham Denmark, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, DC. "It is important to retain a military hedge against the possibility that China could become confrontational and militarily aggressive." The PLAN has long been charged with two primary tasks: defending the mainland and operations related to a Taiwan contingency, which would primarily involve anti-access/area denial operations in the Western Pacific, according to Denmark. This exercise may be further evidence of the growing emphasis placed by the PLAN on protecting vital so-called "Sea Lines of Communication" (SLOCs). Chinese President Hu Jintao has referred to this role as one of the PLA's "new historic missions". "China's leaders have slowly come to recognize that its continued economic development relies on access to foreign resources and markets. For example, 80% of China's oil imports flow through the Strait of Malacca, yet the PLAN currently does not have the capability to protect Chinese vessels far from home," said Denmark. "This has made China's military leaders begin to examine a third role for the PLAN, which would entail SLOC protection." Richard Fisher, senior fellow at the Washington, DC-based International Assessment and Strategy Center, described this recent East China Sea exercise by the PLAN as representing "a significant step in reaping the past decade's investments". "The PLAN deployed at least two small multi-platform surface action groups to include submarines, long-range anti-air defenses, logistic support ships, supported by new long-range ground based and space-based surveillance, and reportedly, significant ground-based air," said Fisher. "This was a multi-fleet operation that reportedly involved Airborne Warning and Control System [AWACS] aircraft and fighters, which if true would constitute a major expansion of the PLAN's operational capabilities." v For Taiwan and for any US forces that may have to break a future PLAN blockade, the message is clear. "In a decade, there could be two carriers, larger destroyers, and, even ship- and submarine-launched anti-ship ballistic missiles [ASBMs] in the mix. Absent a sustained investment by the US and Japan in space defenses, naval energy weapons to counter ASBMs, plus their own, and, fifth and sixth generation fighters for air force and naval deployment, they will lose maritime dominance in the Western Pacific by the mid-2020s," said Fisher. "These investments are less likely as long as Washington and Tokyo remain transfixed by the mirage that Beijing will become their 'pivotal partner' in meeting future challenges, they simply want to ignore the fact that it is China which is the challenge." As for the role of space assets and space defense-related issues, they have slipped under the radar in large part thus far. What is unfolding overhead in support of any or all of the PLAN operations may be the most significant aspect of this recent Chinese war gaming in the Western Pacific. In fact, absent evidence to the contrary, the presence aloft of so many new Chinese earth observation/military reconnaissance satellites is what sets this exercise apart from all previous PLAN exercises. According to Associate Professor Andrew Erickson with the China Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College, China is rapidly improving its increasingly diverse network of space-based Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) sensors in support of military land, sea and air operations. "Synthetic Aperture Radar [SAR] in particular offers wide coverage at sufficient resolution. Maritime surveillance, prioritized at the national level under China's 863 State High-Technology Development Plan, is receiving significant funding," said Erickson. Over the past decade, China has launched two Haiyang (Ocean) maritime observation satellites, and a third is now scheduled for launch this year after its original launch date in 2009 was scratched. In addition, China's has recently expanded its fleet of Yaogan satellites, which China describes as merely engaging in civilian earth observation missions. However, many experts identify them as dual role, military reconnaissance satellites. The Yaogans carry a mix of optical as well as radar-based sensors. "Of particular note are the five Yaogan satellites that China has launched in the past five months. Yaogan 7 and 8 were launched in December. Yaogan 7 is optical and Yaogan 8 appears to be equipped with SAR," said Erickson. "Yaogan 9A, 9B, and 9C, launched in March, share the same orbit, suggesting that they have a special mission to perform." Interestingly, when the official announcement was made by China's Xinhua news agency of the pending Yaogan 9 launch - a day before it took place as is the custom whenever secret Chinese military payloads in particular are ready to go up - Xinhua reported that a large satellite, and not a payload consisting of three smaller formation-flying satellites, was sitting on the launch pad.  All of these Chinese satellites, together with China's development of ground-based over-the-horizon radars, suggests that China is developing unprecedented capability to monitor and conduct operations along its disputed maritime periphery, according to Erickson. He marks this exercise as proof positive that the PLAN is now finally and fully prepared to meet strategic goals originally articulated by Admiral Liu Huaqing, who headed the PLAN from 1982 to 1988. In effect, PLAN is now starting to conduct "far seas operations" beyond the so-called "First Island Chain". US Navy Admiral Robert Willard commands the US Pacific Fleet. His testimony in March that China is "developing and testing" an ASBM only adds to the sense that China is fast assembling a far more formidable naval force. "Such PLAN operations at increasing range from China's shores are ever-better-supported by improving satellite-based communications, positioning, and surveillance capabilities," said Erickson. "Unprecedented and innovative use of satellite communications has been a major highlight of China's counter-piracy deployments in the Gulf of Aden; there the PLAN apparently relied solely on indigenous capabilities for the first time. While US and most Western [as well as the former Soviet] navies have engaged in related operations for years, this was a new and important step for the PLAN." In advance of the PLAN's December 2008 deployment to the Gulf of Aden, PLAN commander, Admiral Wu Shengli, and PLAN political commissar, Admiral Liu Xiaojiang, demanded "comprehensive coverage, all-time linkage, and full-course support". The PLAN's newspaper, People's Navy, reported that the PLAN Political Department worked with the PLAN Headquarters Communications Department and the State Information Center to improve a platform that: ntegrates a land base information collection and transmission system, an information integration and distribution system, a shore-to-ship information wireless transmission system, and an information terminal receiving system. They also sent technical personnel to Sanya [on Hainan Island] to conduct satellite receiving equipment debugging, system installation, and personnel training on the three combat ships that were about to set sail for escort operations. Moreover, they specially developed and improved a total of seven information processing software programs, which can send text, images, as well as video and audio documents quickly. Satellite-based navigation and positioning via China's Beidou-1, currently a 4-satellite constellation, has very limited range and can support ship-positioning on China's immediate maritime periphery, but not further afield. "It could not be used [during a missile attack] for short-range precision guidance because it is too slow, allowing for insufficient information [flow] during a missile's relatively short flight time," said Erickson "In part to support broader operations, China is deploying a 35-satellite Beidou-2/Compass system that would provide much improved accuracy, with regional navigation and communications coverage anticipated by 2011 and global navigation coverage by 2015-20. Three Compass satellites have been launched thus far." While the PLAN is gradually increasing focus on areas beyond mainland China, this is part of a two-level process - Erickson refers to a "tale of two navies" - with nearby priorities still at the core. "Preparing to defend China's territorial and maritime claims by asymmetric means is likely to remain the PLAN's focus for the foreseeable future, even as it pursues secondarily lower intensity missions further afield," said Erickson "China's capabilities are clearly growing, but its naval intentions - at least beyond asserting control over its claimed territorial waters, to include Taiwan - are somewhat unclear." Fisher finds no lack of clarity, however, when it comes to the steady progression in the core Chinese military strategy including its military space strategy which reinforces the PLAN's operational prowess at every turn. "The PLAN's first requirement for regional and global projection is dominance of the Low Earth Orbit theater of operations. We know that this is now a very high priority for the PLA, not just to enable an array of PLAN weapons," said Fisher. "The PLAN will eventually field anti-satellite weapons, other space combat capabilities, and, submarine and ship - launched ASBMs." Fisher identifies submarines as the second major PLAN program of global importance. "These will be much quieter, and improved versions may allow the beginning of independent deep water ballistic missile-equipped submarine operations." A third program is the construction of as many as four aircraft carrier and large amphibious ship battle groups by the late 2020s. "There is also a fourth essential program, the PLA's ability to sell world class naval and other military technologies, which together with commercial envelopment, forms core strategic relationships that will yield maritime alliances," Fisher said. Denmark cautions that whatever conclusions are drawn, there is no question that PLAN still has a long way to go before it can be classified as a formidable "blue water" naval force. "The PLAN currently does not have the experience required to operate for extended periods of time far from home, nor does it have sufficient numbers of ships to be able to operate in the Indian Ocean without significantly diminishing its ability to respond to threats closer to home," said Denmark. "Moreover, the PLA is traditionally dominated by leaders with experience in ground operations, and significant doctrinal and conceptual changes will have to take place within the PLA before the PLAN would be able to protect SLOCs." Despite the Gulf of Aden missions to date, SLOC protection, specifically in the Indian Ocean, remains very challenging for the PLAN. "China has no military bases in the Indian Ocean, and its ships conducting counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia are primarily supported by oilers from China. If the PLAN develops the capability to establish a regular presence in the Indian Ocean, such a force would either be dependent on logistical ships transiting back and forth through Indonesia or on a network of regional support bases or ports," said Denmark. "While much has been written about Chinese involvement in port development in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Burma [Myanmar], these ports appear to be commercial only. Still, it is conceivable that the PLAN could use commercial ports in the Indian Ocean, especially in friendly countries, for logistical support during peacetime." Whether the five new Chinese satellites launched since late 2009 may have been tasked to assist the PLAN warships during their April exercise far from the shores of China remains open to question. However, there is no denying that those same satellites were still stuck on the ground the last time any prior large-scale PLAN exercises took place in the same vicinity.