Sustaining The Chinese Navy’s Operations At Sea: Bigger Fists, Growing Legs – Analysis

In April 2023, a Chinese aircraft carrier battle group, led by the Shandong (China’s second aircraft carrier and the first that it built from the keel up), sailed through the Bashi Channel to an area about 400 kilometers east of Taiwan. There, it conducted some eighty J-15 fighter sorties that simulated air strikes on the island. By 2024, China’s third aircraft carrier is expected to enter service. The Fujian will be China’s first aircraft carrier equipped with catapults to launch its aircraft. That will enable its fighters to fly strike missions at longer ranges and with heavier ordnance loads, making the new carrier even more formidable than its predecessor.

Such aircraft carriers have come to represent the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) new power and its ability to push out China’s defensive perimeter to the “second island chain” and beyond. However, like any conventionally-powered warship, the Fujian and Shandong are limited by the fuel in its bunkers and the munitions in its magazines. That is why the Chaganhu, a Type 901 underway (or at-sea) replenishment ship, accompanied the Shandong carrier battle group off Taiwan. Indeed, China’s ability to project maritime power far from its coastal bases ultimately rests on not only its warships, but also the number and capabilities of its underway replenishment ships. Navies around the world employ such ships, designed to transfer fuel, munitions, and stores at sea, to sustain combat operations for long periods of time.

To be sure, underway replenishment ships have never been regarded as the tip of any navy’s spear. With little ability to defend themselves, underway replenishment ships normally operate under the protection of other naval vessels or at some distance from actual combat. But without such support ships, warships would be unable to conduct sustained operations, especially in areas where friendly naval bases are unavailable. That is bad enough during peacetime, but in the midst of battle, it can be fatal. Even nuclear-powered warships must be kept supplied with food and munitions to maintain their combat readiness. No naval commander wants to fight while short on supplies.

Stretched Replenishment

Hence, underway replenishment ships are a good indicator of a navy’s true blue-water capability. China’s blue-water aspirations are no secret. As early as 1980, China conducted its first true out-of-area operations with task forces that sailed deep into the Pacific Ocean. But for many years, China’s acquisition of underway replenishment ships has lagged that of other naval vessels.

The significance of underway replenishment ships for out-of-area naval operations was no doubt impressed on the Chinese navy during its rotational deployment of warships to the international anti-piracy task force in the Gulf of Aden since 2008. Each rotational deployment (now in its forty-third iteration) has been comprised of two warships (typically a mix of destroyers and frigates) and an underway replenishment ship. The low 2:1 ratio of warships to underway replenishment ships reflected not only the latter’s importance, but also the length of their deployments which have lasted an average of over four months.

As it happened, when China began participating in the international anti-piracy task force, its entire navy possessed only five underway replenishment ships. Two were commissioned in the 1970s, one in 1996, and two in 2004. The first and last two were the Type 905 (Fuqing) and Type 903 (Fushi) classes at roughly 21,000 to 22,000 tonnes respectively; sandwiched in the middle was the larger 37,000-tonne Type 908 (Fusu), purchased from Ukraine. For the better part of a decade, they were the workhorses of the Chinese navy. With the need to continually sustain two warships in the Gulf of Aden, the Chinese navy kept its underway replenishment ships in constant use. So much so that the navy sometimes had to keep the same vessel on station to service consecutive rotational deployments.

No Shore Thing

To better support its operations in the Gulf of Aden, China set up its first overseas naval base in Djibouti in 2017. Initially, its facilities were limited. But within a year, China began to expand the base, eventually completing a pier capable of handling aircraft carriers in 2021. Observers have also speculated about the potential use of Chinese-owned or operated commercial ports as naval bases, including the oft-cited cases of Gwadar in Pakistan and Hambantota in Sri Lanka. So far, neither has been used in such a capacity, though Chinese warships have docked at both ports to take on fuel and supplies.

None of that, however, means that China has not tried to establish a more permanent naval presence at other overseas ports. In 2019, American officials began to suspect that China and Cambodia had agreed to grant the Chinese military access to Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, as part of a China-funded base expansion. Phnom Penh has denied the claim, but suspicions have lingered with reports that China may exclusively use of a portion of the base, possibly as an intelligence collection site or a satellite ground station.

Then, in 2021, American intelligence discovered that China was secretly building a military facility at a commercial port terminal in the United Arab Emirates. Washington promptly prodded the Gulf country to halt construction on it. Yet recent reporting suggests that Chinese activity at the site may have continued. And, in 2022, the United States similarly pressured Equatorial Guinea to reject a Chinese bid to construct a military base on its Atlantic coast. At this writing, it remains unclear what the African country will do. What is clear is that resistance to China’s efforts to build new naval bases abroad may slow their development.

Sea Sustainment Significance

For a navy seemingly determined to acquire a global reach, but without many overseas bases, having enough underway replenishment capacity is vital. That is true even for contingencies relatively close to China’s coast. To conduct a blockade around Taiwan, for example, Beijing would likely have to simultaneously maintain at least two task forces in the Western Pacific for over a month. As recently as the early 2010s, it was unclear whether the Chinese navy had sufficient underway replenishment ships to do so, especially if actively engaged in combat. Indeed, all of the Chinese navy’s long-distance voyages during that time into the Pacific and around Japan lasted fewer than thirty days.

To further expand its underway replenishment capacity, China has gone so far as to explore the use of a modular system that could be installed on civilian merchant ships so that they could resupply its naval vessels at sea. While the modular system is likely limited to the transfer of small amounts of cargo, like food and spare parts, it would enable China to potentially leverage thousands of Chinese-flagged civilian ships around the globe to support its operations in distant waters. In 2019, the Chinese navy tested the modular system. Cargo was transferred from a Chinese-flagged merchantman equipped with the system to a Chinese Type 054A (Jiangkai II) class frigate at sea.

Even so, naval underway replenishment ships remain the best way to transfer large quantities of cargo, not to mention fuel and munitions, to warships at sea. As such they have long been key assets in blue-water navies. In 1980, the last time in modern history when the world saw more than one true oceanic navy, the Soviet Union fielded some sixty-four fleet support ships to adequately supply its 289 ocean-going surface combatants (classified as a frigate or larger) or one fleet support ship for every 4.5 surface combatants. Their value remains well appreciated today. Australia fields one underway replenishment ship for every 5.5 surface combatants and Japan one underway replenishment ship for every ten surface combatants in their regionally focused navies; and the United States fields one underway replenishment ship for every 6.2 surface combatants to support its global navy.

Longer Reach

For the moment, the experience of the Soviet Union most closely mirrors that of China today. Like the Soviet Union, China’s naval ambitions began with a desire to extend the depth of its coastal defenses. Gradually, the interests of both countries expanded, prompting ever-longer and more distant naval deployments. Both built large navies, but, as traditional land powers, had few overseas bases to support them. Thus, like the Soviet Union, China has been heavily reliant on underway replenishment to operate far from its coastal bases. All of which suggested that the Chinese navy needed more and bigger underway replenishment ships, especially after it began to commission larger warships, like Type 002 aircraft carriers and Type 055 (Renhai) destroyers, into its fleet in the 2010s.

Thus, in 2013, China began rapid serial production of the Type 903 class of underway replenishment ships, adding seven more to the two already in its inventory in only six years. Even more significantly, it built two 48,000-tonne Type 901 underway replenishment ships, the Hulanhu and Chaganhu, which are large enough to support aircraft-carrier operations. Indeed, the Hulanhu sailed with the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning during a fifteen-day exercise near Guam in December 2022. (One might reasonably assume China will build a third Type 901 once the Fujian is commissioned.) Along with its Type 908 underway replenishment ship, China can now field twelve underway replenishment ships, one for every 7.1 ocean-going surface combatants and twice the number that it operated a decade earlier.

Blue-Water Strategies

The increase in the number of modern underway replenishment ships has certainly boosted China’s ability to project naval power. But the lightly armed ships remain vulnerable. In a potential conflict, an opponent could try to entice Chinese task forces to extend themselves seaward and then target their supporting underway replenishment ships. Without a ready means to rearm or refuel, the Chinese warships would be faced with the prospect of being worn down by stand-off attacks or withdrawing to a friendly port. Among China’s potential opponents, India and Japan are probably best situated for such a strategy.

Naturally, the Chinese navy is aware of such dangers and has sought to develop support bases in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia to supplement its underway replenishment ships. That also seems to indicate that China intends to deploy a combat-ready aircraft carrier battle group into the Indian Ocean or Persian Gulf someday. If so, a Type 901 underway replenishment ship will likely accompany it. China has come a long way to building a powerful navy with longer reach. Monitoring the number and capabilities of its underway replenishment ships remains a good way to track of the progress China has made towards developing a true blue-water navy.