By: Jens Kastner

With world media attention focusing on China’s mid-December launch of its second aircraft carrier Shandong – the first domestically built one – a long-overlooked key detail appears to indicate that Beijing intends to double its naval power, according to John Pike, the former Federation of American Sciences’ director for military analysis and founder of the Globalsecurity.org think tank.

The Shandong is meant to be accompanied by a ship that China labels a “barracks ship” (see above) It first appeared in early 2018 and resembles the 88 Xu Xiake, which China referred to as China’s first homegrown barracks ship. But there is more to it than just troop accommodations. It appears likely, according to Pike, that the barracks ship would allow the PLA Navy to double trainees for aircraft carriers, of which perhaps 10 are to be built over the coming decade.

According to a website sponsored by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the barracks ships’ various living support facilities include cruise ship amenities such as basketball courts, gyms, arenas, Internet cafes and supermarkets in addition to the medical center equivalent of tertiary-level hospitals. However, 88 Xu Xiake is also equipped with two 57 mm twin-barreled naval guns, two 30 mm twin-barreled ones and two rocket launcher systems. Its helicopter platform can carry a Z-8 medium transport helicopter.

Pike believes these features breach the common definition of “barracks ships,” ships used for accommodation for crew members, pilots, aviation crews and engineering and technical personnel for fitting out and testing new ship systems. 

Rather, he says, the 88 Xu Xiake and her as yet un-named sister ship are an integrated part of the carrier task group.

“I am pretty sure that not many folks understand that they pose a real puzzle, having no American counterpart to serve as a prototype,” Pike told Asia Sentinel. “The whole point is that they are not barracks ships but training ships, in turn indicating that over the next couple of decades the total end strength of the PLA Navy may double,” he added. 

On Pike’s www.globalsecurity.org, he goes deeper into the details of the 88 Xu Xiake integrated support vessel and her sister ship that resist categorization. When it was first noticed, it was docked across the quay from China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and was initially regarded as an accommodation vessel for technicians associated with the fitting out and testing of new ship systems on China’s first aircraft carrier, a Kiev-class carrier bought from Ukraine and refitted. The Liaoning has had serious fitting-out problems and is regarded as a training ship rather than a combat-ready one. 

But a newly built 30,000-ton passenger ship seems like an overly expensive solution to a problem that evidently is normally solved by much less costly alternatives. In any event, the advent of a second Integrated Support Ship to accompany the second carrier at sea renders the accommodation ship explanation implausible.

Xu Xiake (88) has an important mission – a large-scale overseas evacuation mission, to also be used as a super large sailing practice ship. The Integrated Living Support Vessel may also undertake a number of other tasks, such as large-scale evacuation and participation in humanitarian support during wartime or overseas turmoil. But these are all secondary missions, rather than the primary mission for which the vessels were built.

When the aircraft carrier has long-term ocean-going activities, the aircraft carrier support ship may bring a second set of personnel to the sea at the same time. During the long-term offshore deployment of the aircraft carrier, regular rotation could be carried out. Half of the personnel will be on duty on the aircraft carrier and the other half on the support ship. The Integrated Support Vessel might serve as a stupendous steel beach, mainly devoted to rest and recreation for the crew, or it might serve as a shuttle ship, moving entire replacement crews forward to do crew sea swaps while the carrier itself remains forward deployed. 

To date, these ships were mainly used for the residence and rest of the crew, pilots, aviation crew and engineering technicians during sea trials. The main task of this type of integrated support vessel was seen as providing the living space and security of the crew during the mooring test phase and the navigation test phase of the Chinese Navy’s large complex ships, such as aircraft carriers. 

Speculation about carrying two sets of personnel at the same time with one training on a large number of simulators seems unrealistic. But the idea of crews cycling between hands-on training on board the carrier and classroom/simulator training on the Integrated Support Ship makes a bit more sense. 

“As a training support ship, the ships of this class could provide for the relatively rapid development of the sizeable cadre of sailors needed to man the larger big-deck carriers expected to go to sea after the year 2020,” Pike said. “If China plans to deploy about 10 big-deck carriers over the coming decades, it must develop the 50,000 or so sailors needed to man these ships, with further thousands will be required to man accompanying vessels such as for underway store replenishment. This would result in a total increase in the PLA Navy end strength from about 200,000 in 2020 to about 350,000 before the year 2050.” 

(By contrast, The US Navy has 11 large nuclear-powered carriers capable of carrying 80 fighter jets each, with total combined deck space more than twice that of all other nations combined plus another eight capable of carrying out aircraft launch duties of various kinds).

Recent analysis by submarine and naval special warfare expert H I Sutton supports the notion that China indeed is laying the ground to double its naval power. Deciphering a photo snapped of a Shanghai shipyard from an airplane window on December 13, Sutton identified nine recently-constructed large destroyers, plus some hovercraft, a satellite and/or missile tracking ship next to the Shandong. 

“For context, the current schedule sees the US Navy launching a handful of AEGIS destroyers each year, and the Royal Navy’s entire destroyer fleet is just 6 ships,” Sutton wrote for Forbes. “Yet the biggest takeaway is that this shipyard is not alone. There are many yards across China which are similarly impressive.”

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