Friday, March 29, 2013

What to make of speculated deals for Su-35/Lada?

In the past week, there have been a lot of speculations regarding a deal where Russia would export 24 Su-35s and 4 Ladas to China.  Now, there have been official denials from Russian government and sukhoi has also not put this on their website.  That would indicate this deal is definitely not done yet.  I normally would ignore these su-35 rumours from Russia, but there have been enough support reading through the Chinese sources for me to think that there are serious discussions for this.  In addition, Chinese sources also indicate that there could also be sale of S-400 and IL-476 as part of a large deal.  Obviously, this would be the largest sale package from China to Russia since probably 2002.  I will just look at the individual parts of the deal and whether they make sense from a Chinese point of view.

Back in 2008 when the su-35 rumours first came out, it made sense for China to buy 2 or more regiments of Su-35.  As time went on, it seemed like the domestic flankers produced by SAC have been more or less satisfactory for PLA.  I often read on Western/Russian news sources about how they are shocked to see Russia is still willing to sell such an advanced aircraft to China even after China “cloned” Russian fighters, but those articles really do not seem to have a good grasp on reality.  We know that China has two “stealth” fighter jet programs under development that will probably achieve IOC sometimes toward the end of this decade, so it doesn’t make sense for China to buy and then “copy” a large number of su-35s.  Shenyang AC is actively developing and producing naval and fighter bomber versions of flankers in J-15 and J-16.  Su-35 is mostly an air superiority aircraft, so it’s not going to help those projects.  At the same time, China is also not exporting any of its flankers to other countries, so this export deal will not threaten Russia’s other export markets.

One of the reported reasons from Chinese side for purchasing Su-35 is the coming end of production of J-11B.  They have requirement for 1 regiment (24 aircraft) of air superiority version of flankers before the more advanced 5th generation fighters can enter service.  While that is possible, I think su-35 will create a logistical problem in the future like the Sov destroyers with the Chinese navy.  They will need to maintain a new type of aircraft, a new engine, a new generation of Russian avionics and Russian missiles.  That would seem to be a lot of trouble for just one regiment.  That would lead to my conclusion that they are purchasing this strictly to get their hands on the 117S engine.  Russia made it clear to China early on that they would only be willing to sell 117S to China as part of a Su-35 order.  I think 24 is probably the minimum number of Su-35s that Russia would be willing to sell to China to allow Chinese access to 117S engine.  China does have the largest MRO plant for AL-31F outside of Russia.  All maintenance work for AL-31 is done inside China.  I would assume 117S maintenance and life extension work would also be done there.  Despite improvements in the reliability of WS-10A, I still read about problems found in deployment.  If there is one problem that can cause real delay in J-20, it would be not having a reliable engine solution in its development and early deployment.  117S would also be possible options for J-10 and J-15/16 projects.  If China does choose to purchase Su-35s, access to 117S engine would be the primary motivation.  And Russia would benefit by exporting su-35 and possibly large numbers of 117S engine later.

The deal for 4 Lada submarines is more interesting.  Many PLAN followers have asked why China would be interested in purchasing so many units of a submarine that Russia has not even accepted into its own service (its AIP system is not going to be ready until later).  Typically, China chooses to only purchase mature systems that it can quickly induct into service.  On top of that, it seems to some that Chinese submarines seem to have reached the technology levels of their Russian counterpart with that mysterious new conventional submarine in 2011.  The reality is that Chinese submarines still have a way to go in stealth.

As part of this deal, China will be getting transfer of technology along with local production for 2 of the 4 submarines.  On top of that, some unreported Chinese subsystems will be going onto these submarines.  So, the question is what is China providing as part of this submarine and what is it interested in?  The currently mass produced 039B submarine are already equipped with AIP system that can be installed on the Chinese version of Lada submarine.  On top of that, China could install its own sonar system and combat systems onto Lada.  The latter part should not be surprising since China has also installed its own sonar on kilo submarines.  What China seeks as part of this deal is the Russian’s design of Lada submarine and its noise insulation technology.  From Lada, China could learn how to design and build a single hull submarine with conformal sonar.  If we look at China’s new submarine that came out in 2011, it seemed to adapt numerous features from Lada submarine.  This submarine is supposedly one of a kind built to replace the old Gulf class ballistic missile test bed.  It is probably too large and expensive to be mass produced.  Based on their experience from this submarine and Lada project, it’s quite possible that China’s next series of submarine would look somewhere in between (possibly single hull) and have many of the features currently on Lada class.  Russia also has a lot to gain here, because it needs a new submarine for export to replace kilo.  Regardless of whether Russia chooses to use any Chinese subsystems for Lada in the future, Chinese involvement in this project will ensure that the export version of Lada becomes fully developed and commercially viable.

So while I’ve read numerous panic articles online about how this deal will significantly improve China’s capabilities and shift the cross strait balance of power even more toward China’s favour, I think those articles really show very little appreciation of China’s current military industrial complex.  While these purchases will help and speed up PLA development, they are by no means game changers.  However, these purchases will improve ties between the two countries at a time where Russia constantly complains about the trade imbalance.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Comparing Type 056 to LCS

With the recent induction of 056, a lot of comparison has been made between 056 and LCS.  The comparisons are understandable.  Both are just entering services.   Both are expected to be built in large numbers and are also considered to be the lower end ships of their respective navy.  In many ways, their comparison stops there, because Type 054A would be more comparable to LCS just based on the size and dimensions of the ships.  I want to break this down to two sections: the differences in capabilities/cost between the two classes of ships and what that tells us about the two navies.

First of all, despite both ships are designed for littoral operations, one is designed to operate in its own waters, whereas the other is designed to operate in enemy waters.  056 is supposed to replace 053 and 037 in the role of patrolling coastal waters.  It's equipped with enough strike power to conduct ASuW against other regional navy.  With some modification, it can also be useful in ASW operations in the littoral waters.  On the other hand, LCS is suppose to be faster, stealthier, far more modular and capable of operation in other country's littoral waters.  USN has no need for something like 056, since it faces no foreign naval threat within its coastal waters.  For any issues like smuggling, piracy and drug trafficking, it should be up to coastal guard to protect.  At the same time, China has no need for a littoral ship as large or fast as LCS, because it really has no need in the near future for a ship built specifically to fight in the littoral waters of a non-neighbouring country.  While most of the mission packages for LCS have yet to finish development, LCS will be capable of ASuW, ASW, MCM and special ops once that does happen.  You might see more dedicated ASW or ASuW variants of Type 056 coming out, but each ship is really not expected to be doing more than one task.

As a result of this difference in roles and size of the ship, there is also a large gap in the cost of the ship.  Each LCS cost over $400 million to build and equip.  That's about twice as much as the cost of a Type 054A.  Type 056 is expected to be a much cheaper ship than Type 054A, since it's much smaller.  My current estimate for Type 056 is around around 60 million just based on the cost of Type 022, Type 054 and equivalent sized cutters (which run for about $15 to 20 million each).  The relatively low cost of this should explain why China is able to build so many units in such short time while also build numerous other classes at the same time.  If this cost more, China would not be able to use it to replace all of the old Type 053 and 037 ships.  Despite the recent austerity in USN and the higher cost of American shipbuilding, USN still has a far higher budget than PLAN, so it could afford more expensive ships.

The size of crews also show us interesting things about the two navies.  I think the crew size for LCS is supposed to be at most 75, whereas the much smaller 056 is expected to have 60 to 70 crews (even that is a reduction to 1/3 of Type 053).  Even though Type 056 is far more complex and automated than the ships it is replacing, it's probably safe to say that it still lags modern Western ships.  I think a large part of that has to do with the greater number of service personnels at the disposal of PLAN.  Even with the rising labour cost in China, I think it's safe to assume that the compensation for a USN sailor is far higher than that of a PLAN sailor.  Another part to look at is the huge leap facing sailors who are accustomed to operating a low tech ship like type 037 (I was told no training is required to be on that ship) to type 056.  It's simply unrealistic to expect someone who has operated on Type 037/053 for their entire life to be able to be competent on something like LCS.  As PLAN continues modernization, this expected improvement in software is often overlooked when one looks at the new ships that are coming out.  The cost of training crew members will also go up as ships become more and more complicated.

Another interesting thing is the choice that the two navies made in developing these two ships.  LCS is a ship expected to be modular enough to be able to easily reconfigure for different roles by changing to different mission packages.  I expect different variants of Type 056 to come with each variant built with specific role in mind.  Similary to Type 037, I would expect to see a Type 056 emphasize more toward ASW and one more emphasized toward patrol and another more emphasized toward ASuW.  At the same time, LCS had the requirements to be able to travel at faster than 40 knots and also be extremely stealthy.  It certainly pushes the technological envelope, whereas Type 056 does not.  LCS is not only a new ship design but also requires new weapon system.  Whereas PLAN rarely builds a shipping class that requires leap in both the ship design and its weapon system.  I think this shows the background of both navies.  USN always had a lot of money to spend, so it is willing to press for that additional performance on the newest ships in the face of budget overruns and delays.  In comparison, PLAN had very little money back in the days and most of its programs was canned in the 80s and 90s due to lack of funding.  So as a result of this, it has always been more conservative in incorporating improvement from one shipping class to the next.  Compared to USN, PLAN is more frugal in the development of new ships and the management of its existing fleet.  As an example, Type 052 underwent modernization recently, but the old HH-7 SAM was kept around instead of being replaced by more advance HQ-10 SAM.  PLAN has a large stock of HH-7 missiles in stock and did not want them to go to waste by removing them from the ships undergoing modernization.  It will be interesting to see how the perspectives of the two navies change in the future as PLAN continues to get more funding whereas USN starts to face austerity.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A little write up on 056

I did a little write up today for Type 056 and here it is.

The first 056 class No. 582 was officially handed over to PLAN on the 25th of February as Wu Shengli, Commander of PLAN personally came to inspect the ship. While it is referred to as light frigate by Chinese news, it really should be classified as a corvette or OPV based on its size and displacements. This class is expected to be the next mass produced PLAN shipping class.

The type 056 class fills the gap between the 4000-ton 054A class frigate and 220-ton 022 class FAC. As of now, at least 9 other 056s have already been launched by the 4 shipyards building them. The overall number of this class is expected to be between the final count of 054A (probably around 20) and 022 (around 80). They are expected to replace the 10 Type 053 class Jianghu frigates currently serving in the South China Sea Patrol flotilla and the close to 50 Type 037 class missile boats.

In many ways, the type 056 hull is based on the Pattani class OPV that China built for Thailand from 2005 to 2006, although more signature reduction work is done such as the shielding of the funnels. Currently, 056 is equipped with 4 YJ-83s and AK-176M for ASuW missions along with a 8-cell HQ-10, AK-176M and two automated new single 30-mm barrel CIWS for self defense. Although the first few ships are not fitted with Towed Array sonar, it could provide some support for near sea ASW missions with a helipad large enough to hold Z-9C (and possibly Z-15 in the future), appearance of bow sonar bulb and 6 torpedo tubes installed in what looked to be the hangar. Most likely, the earliest 056 units will be used to replace Type 037s in the Hong Kong garrison and green water patrol missions. I expect a good number of Type 056 to eventually be used to patrol the disputed areas in South China Sea. Compared to the ships it is replacing, Type 056 requires 1/3 of the crew size of Jianghu class while offering more punch and similar endurance. Compared to Type 037, it should have better endurance, seakeeping and far stronger ASuW and AAW capabilities. It should be able to handle the naval threats from neighboring countries like Vietnam, Phillipines and Thailand. The goal is to free up larger ships like the Type 054A class and Type 052C/D class for blue water missions. In the future, I could also see ASW variants of Type 056 replacing the Type 037 sub chasers and more dedicated patrol versions of Type 056 with hangar large enough to hold 2 S-100 size UAVs.