This year’s report provides a baseline assessment of the Department’s top pacing challenge and charts the maturation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
The report accounts for the PRC’s evolving national strategy and outlines the strategic objectives driving the PLA’s defense policy and military strategy. It also covers key developments of the PLA’s military modernization and reform, and provides insights into the PRC’s regional and global ambitions.
This includes the PLA developing the capabilities to conduct joint long-range precision strikes across domains, increasingly sophisticated space, counterspace, and cyber capabilities, and accelerating the large-scale expansion of its nuclear forces.
Regarding the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN or Chinese Navy) the report reads:
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has numerically the largest navy in the world with an overall battle force of approximately 355 ships and submarines, including approximately more than 145 major surface combatants. As of 2020, the PLAN is largely composed of modern multi-role platforms. In the near-term, the PLAN will have the capability to conduct long-range precision strikes against land targets from its submarine and surface combatants using land-attack cruise missiles, notably enhancing the PRC’s global power projection capabilities. The PRC is enhancing its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities and competencies to protect the PLAN’s aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines.
Other key takeaways from the report regarding the PLAN:
- The PRC commissioned its first domestically built aircraft carrier in late 2019 and its first Renhai class cruiser in early 2020. The PRC expects its second domestically built aircraft carrier to enter service by 2024.
- In 2020, the PRC launched its second Yushen class amphibious assault ship (Type 075 LHA) after launching its first in 2019, its first class of large deck amphibious warship. A third hull was also under construction in 2020 (and launched in January 2021).
- In the near-term, the PLAN will have the capability to conduct long-range precision strikes against land targets from its submarine and surface combatants using land-attack cruise missiles, notably enhancing the PRC’s global power projection capabilities. The PRC is also enhancing its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) inventory and training to protect the PLAN’s aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines
The PRC’s 2019 defense white paper described the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) as adjusting to changes in the strategic requirements of near seas protection and far seas protection, noting that it was “speeding up the transition of its tasks from defense on the near seas to protection missions on the far seas…” Towards the PRC’s goal of building a “strong and modernized naval force,” the PLAN is an increasingly modern and flexible force that has focused on replacing its previous generations of platforms that had limited capabilities in favor of larger, modern multi-role combatants. As of 2020, the PLAN is largely composed of modern multi-role platforms featuring advanced anti-ship, anti-air, and anti-submarine weapons and sensors. The PLAN is also emphasizing maritime joint operations and joint integration within the PLA. This modernization aligns with the PRC’s growing emphasis on the maritime domain and increasing demands for the PLAN to operate at greater distances from China.
The PLAN organizes, mans, trains, and equips the PLA’s naval and naval aviation forces, as well as the PLAN Marine Corps (PLANMC), which is subordinate to the PLAN. In 2020, the PLAN continued to implement structural reforms that began in late 2015 and early 2016. Similar to the other services, the PLA-wide reforms removed the PLAN headquarters from conducting operations, which became the purview of the PLA’s joint Theater Commands, and focused it on organizing, manning, training, and equipping naval forces.
The PLAN is the largest navy in the world with a battle force of approximately 355 platforms, including major surface combatants, submarines, aircraft carriers, ocean-going amphibious ships, mine warfare ships, and fleet auxiliaries. This figure does not include 85 patrol combatants and craft that carry anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs). The PLAN’s overall battle force is expected to grow to 420 ships by 2025 and 460 ships by 2030. Much of this growth will be in major surface combatants. The PLAN’s force structure consists of three fleets with subordinate submarine flotillas, surface ship flotillas, aviation brigades, and naval bases. The PLAN’s Northern Theater Navy is subordinate to the Northern Theater Command, the Eastern Theater Navy is subordinate to the Eastern Theater Command, and the Southern Theater Navy is subordinate to the Southern Theater Command.
The PLAN has placed a high priority on modernizing its submarine force, but its force structure continues to grow modestly as it works to mature its force, integrate new technologies, and expand its shipyards. The PLAN currently operates six nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), and 46 diesel-powered attack submarines (SSs). The PLAN will likely maintain between 65 and 70 submarines through the 2020s, replacing older units with more capable units on a near one-to-one basis.
The PRC continues to increase its inventory of conventional submarines capable of firing advanced anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs). Between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, the PLAN purchased 12 Russian-built Kilo class SS units, eight of which are capable of launching ASCMs. China’s shipyards have delivered 13 Song class SS (Type 039) and 17 Yuan class diesel-electric (SSPs) (Type 039A/B). The PRC is expected to produce a total of 25 or more Yuan class submarines by 2025.
Over the past 15 years, the PLAN has constructed twelve nuclear submarines – two Shang I class SSNs (Type 093), four Shang II class SSNs (Type 093A), and six Jin class SSBNs (Type 094). Equipped with the CSS-N-14 (JL-2) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the PLAN’s six operational Jin class SSBNs represent the PRC’s first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent. Each Jin class SSBN can carry up to 12 JL-2 SLBMs. In 2019, Beijing displayed these missiles at the PRC’s 70th anniversary parade, revealing that at least a full complement of 12 JL-2s are complete and operational. The PRC’s next-generation Type 096 SSBN, which likely began construction in the early 2020s, will reportedly carry a new type of SLBM. The PLAN is expected to operate the Type 094 and Type 096 SSBNs concurrently and could have up to eight SSBNs by 2030. This would align with Chairman Xi Jinping’s 2018 directive for the SSBN force to achieve “stronger growth.”
By the mid-2020s, the PRC will likely build the Type 093B guided-missile nuclear attack submarine. This new Shang class variant will enhance the PLAN’s anti-surface warfare capability and could provide a clandestine land-attack option if equipped with land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs). The PLAN is also improving its anti-submarine warfare capabilities through the development of its surface combatants and special mission aircraft, but it continues to lack a robust deep-water anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability. The PRC is enhancing its ASW inventory and training to better protect the PLAN’s aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines. The PLA increasingly has emphasized the importance of ASW in achieving China’s broader maritime capability goals, to include open seas protection and preserving access to the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean.
The PLAN remains engaged in a robust shipbuilding program for surface combatants, producing new guided-missile cruisers (CGs), guided-missile destroyers (DDGs) and corvettes (FFLs). These assets will significantly upgrade the PLAN’s air defense, anti-ship, and anti-submarine capabilities and will be critical as the PLAN expands its operations beyond the range of the PLA’s shore-based air defense systems. By the end of 2019, the PLAN had commissioned its 30th Jiangkai II class guided-missile frigate (FFG), completing the production run while it finalizes a follow-on class with additional units under construction. The PLAN is augmenting its littoral warfare capabilities, especially for operations in the East and South China Seas, with high-rate production of the Jiangdao class FFLs (Type 056). The PLAN commissioned its ninth Jiangdao over the year by mid-2020 with over 50 Jiangdao class FFLs in service out of an expected production run of at least 70 ships. The latest FFLs are anti-submarine warfare (ASW) variants with a towed-array sonar. The PRC has also built 60 Houbei class wave-piercing catamaran guided-missile patrol boats (Type 022) for operations in China’s “near seas.”
The PLAN is currently expanding its force of large surface combatants with two programs, the Luyang III DDG (Type 052D) and the Renhai CG. By late 2020, the PRC had launched 25 Luyang III DDGs—including 12 lengthened Luyang III MOD DDGs. Both the standard Luyang III and the Luyang III MOD have a 64-cell multipurpose vertical launch system (VLS) capable of launching cruise missiles, SAMs, and anti-submarine missiles. In 2020, the PRC commissioned the first Renhai class guided-missile cruiser and launched the eighth hull in the class. The Renhai has 112 VLS cells and can carry a large load out of weapons including ASCMs, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), torpedoes, and anti-submarine weapons along with likely LACMs and anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) when those become operational.
The PLAN continues to emphasize anti-surface warfare capabilities in its force development. The PLAN’s frigates and corvettes, as well as modernized older combatants, carry variants of the YJ-83/YJ-83J ASCM (97 nm, 180 km), while newer surface combatants such as the Luyang II class DDGs are fitted with the YJ-62 (215 nm, 400 km). The Luyang III class DDGs and the Renhai class CGs will be fitted with a variant of China’s newest ASCM, the YJ-18A (290 nm, 537 km). A few modernized destroyers have been retrofitted with the supersonic YJ-12A ASCM (250 nm, 285 km). Eight of the PLAN’s 12 Kilo class SSs are equipped with the Russian-built RS-SS-N-27b ASCM (120-nm, 220-km). The PRC’s Song class SS, Yuan class SSP, and Shang class SSN will field the PLAN’s newest domestic submarine-launched YJ-18 and its variants, which constitute an improvement over the RS-SS-N-27b ASCM.
The PLAN recognizes that long-range ASCMs require a robust, over-the-horizon (OTH) targeting capability to realize their full potential. To fill this capability gap, the PLA is investing in joint reconnaissance, surveillance, command, control, and communications systems at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels to provide high-fidelity targeting information to surface and subsurface launch platforms.
As the PLAN continues to transition into a global multi-mission force, the addition of land-attack capabilities to its modern array of anti-surface and anti-air capabilities is a logical next step. In the coming years, the PLAN will probably field LACMs on its newer cruisers and destroyers and developmental Type 093B nuclear attack submarines. The PLAN could also retrofit its older surface combatants and submarines with land-attack capabilities as well. The addition of land-attack capabilities to the PLAN’s surface combatants and submarines would provide the PLA with flexible long-range strike options. This would allow the PRC to hold land targets at risk beyond the Indo-Pacific region from the maritime domain.
Amphibious Warfare Ships
The PLAN’s investment in LHAs signals its intent to continue to develop its expeditionary warfare capabilities. In April 2020, the PLAN launched the second ship of the Yushen class LHA (Type 075) following the first ship’s launch in 2019. A third Yushen-class LHA was reportedly launched in January 2021, marking approximately 16-month timeframe to launch three of three vessels. The Yushen class are highly capable large-deck amphibious ships that will provide the PLAN with an all-aspect expeditionary capability. The Yushen class can carry a large number of landing craft, troops, armored vehicles, and helicopters. In addition, the PLAN has seven large Yuzhao class amphibious transport docks (LPDs) (Type 071), with an eighth ship entering sea trials in 2020. The Yuzhao class LPDs and Yushen class LHAs provide the PLA with greater capacity, endurance, and more flexibility for long-range operations than the PLAN’s older landing ships, which it has reduced in number over the last decade with obsolete units being decommissioned. The Yushen and Yuzhao can each carry several of the new Yuyi class air-cushion medium landing craft and a variety of helicopters, as well as tanks, armored vehicles and PLAN marines for long-distance deployments.
In December 2019, the PRC commissioned its first domestically built aircraft carrier, Shandong, which launched in 2017 and completed multiple sea trials during 2018-2019. Shandong was photographed at a base on Hainan Island in the Southern Theater Navy in late 2020. The new carrier is a modified version of the Liaoning (Soviet Kuznetsov) design and likewise uses a ski-jump takeoff method for its aircraft. The PRC continued work on its second domestically built aircraft carrier in 2020, which will be larger and fitted with a catapult launch system. This design will enable it to support additional fighter aircraft, fixed-wing early-warning aircraft, and more rapid flight operations and thus extend the reach and effectiveness of its carrier based strike aircraft. The PRC’s second domestically built carrier is projected to be operational by 2024, with additional carriers to follow.
The PLAN is also working on several future carrier-based aircraft to operate from its carriers. In addition to the standard J-15, there is a catapult-capable J-15 variant in development. The aircraft has tested from land-based steam and electromagnetic catapults at China’s Huangdicun test site. A third J-15 variant, the J-15D, is a two-seat aircraft equipped with wingtip electronic support measures/electronic intelligence gathering pods as well as several conformal antennas. The aircraft is intended to fill a dedicated electronic attack role. Beyond fighter aircraft, China is refining the design of a carrier-borne AEW aircraft known as the KJ-600. A mockup of the aircraft, which appears externally similar to the E-2C/D Hawkeye, has existed for many years, and a prototype of the KJ-600 began its flight test program in late August 2020.
The PLAN continues to build a large number of seagoing auxiliary and support ships, including intelligence collection ships (AGIs), ocean surveillance ships (AGOSs), fleet replenishment oilers (AORs), hospital ships, submarine salvage and rescue ships, and various other specialized units. Additionally, China’s first domestically built polar icebreaker, Xuelong 2, became operational in 2019. The ship is operated by the Polar Research Institute of the State Oceanic Administration. In 2020, Xuelong 2 completed its first deployment to the Arctic.
PLAN Marine Corps (PLANMC)
Serving as the PLA Navy’s land combat arm, the PLA Navy Marine Corps (PLANMC) expansion and growing focus on expeditionary operations has been among the most notable changes to the PRC’s armed forces in recent years. The PLANMC previously consisted of two brigades (approximately 10,000 personnel) and was limited in geography and mission to amphibious assault and defense of South China Sea outposts. In 2020, the PLANMC continued to mature an enlarged force structure of eight brigades intended to be scalable and mobile, modernize its capabilities for joint expeditionary operations—including operations beyond the First Island Chain—and become more proficient in conventional and irregular warfare. Throughout 2020, the PLANMC continued to work towards fully equipping and training its four newly established maneuver brigades (in addition to its two previously existing brigades), a SOF brigade, and an aviation (helicopter) brigade. Overall, the PLANMC’s reform and modernization has continued to prove slower than expected given the CMC’s milestone for the PLA to “generally achieve mechanization” by the end of 2020 ahead of the CCP’s centenary in 2021. In October 2020, Chairman Xi visited the PLANMC headquarters where he urged the marines to accelerate the improvement of their combat capabilities and increase their focus on “war preparations and fighting battles” by raising their training standards and to “maintain a high state of alert.”
While the PLANMC likely missed the PLA’s milestone to “generally achieve mechanization” by the end of 2020, an additional PLANMC brigade likely reached fully mission capable status in 2020 while another four brigades likely achieved initial operating capability (IOC) status. One of the three brigades reaching IOC was the PLANMC’s aviation brigade, which graduated its first group of domestically trained ship-borne pilots in April 2020. This growing multifaceted aviation brigade provides the PLAN and PLANMC with an increasingly proficient quick reaction capability. This coincides with Chairman Xi’s remarks at the PLANMC HQ in October 2020 that the PLANMC should strive to forge a multi-functional rapid response team. Also aligned with the PLA’s modernization goals, the PLANMC continued to outfit several of their new maneuver brigades with new expeditionary vehicles.
The PLANMC continues to make strides towards becoming a multidimensional expeditionary force capable of conducting operations beyond the First Island Chain to protect the PRC’s growing overseas interests. The PLANMC has conducted a variety of cross-regional training exercises to improve long-range mobility and the ability to operate across diverse climates and terrain in pursuit of rapid reaction capabilities. Additionally, the PLANMC devotes time and resources to conducting NWMA, to include counter-piracy operations and international military engagements. While the focus of the PLANMC appears to be shifting towards global expeditionary operations, the PLANMC also expanded its amphibious capability from the two Southern Theater brigades to three brigades, as one Northern Theater brigade received and demonstrated their proficiency with amphibious armored vehicles.
The PLANMC maintains a presence at the PRC’s first overseas military support facility in Djibouti that extends Beijing’s military reach and strategic influence in Africa and the Middle East. The PLANMC’s presence in Djibouti provides the PRC with the ability to support a military response to contingencies affecting the PRC’s investments and infrastructure in the region and the approximately 1 million PRC citizens in Africa and 500,000 in the Middle East. The PLANMC also embarks a contingent of marines with the PLAN’s Gulf of Aden counterpiracy-focused naval escort task force that supports the PRC’s trade interests. Additionally, the PLANMC supports the PRC’s military diplomacy. For example, it has trained with Russian and Thai forces and participated in exchanges with the United States and Australia.