As Nick Childs and Douglas Barrie explained, these enabling capabilities will allow the PLA’s armed forces to better utilize combat elements.
While the combat elements of China’s ongoing force modernization remain an area of focus, the continued investment of the People’s Liberation Army in activating capabilities is also important.
Sharpening China’s military teeth understandably remains the focus, but the tail of the Chinese armed forces is also being modernized and expanded. While developments in the latter have received arguably less attention, they include the main providers of sustained military power and power projection.
The establishment of the Logistics Support Department and its affiliated Joint Logistics Support Force (JLSF) are key pillars of structural change aimed at supporting greater inter-service cooperation at the operational level. Founded in late 2016, JLSF has a headquarters in each of China’s five regional theater commands. The purpose of JLSF is to provide the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with a logistical infrastructure to support its defense and security ambitions and objectives. The effort is not only at the inter-service level, but also within the branches of the armed forces.
A development that underscores this goal in China’s expansion in the last seas is not only its scale but also its breadth. China’s growing fleet includes not only modern combat units, but also advanced support capabilities, not new aids to help sustain operations, including extended range.
Since 2015, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has expanded its fleet of modern, ongoing supply fleet support vessels from seven to 12 units. This includes two 45,000 ton fully loaded displacement (FLD) Type-901 (Fuyu) fast combat support ships, whose main mission will accompany aircraft-carrier deployments.
These capabilities helped to sustain PLAN’s anti-piracy operations and increase its presence in the Indian Ocean. As this capacity matures, the navy must be able to support more demanding deployments.
Likewise, PLAN has an expanding inventory of modern large amphibious ships. In 2015, PLAN had three Type-071 (Yuzhao) landing platform docks (LPD) in service, whereas at the moment, at least seven have just entered service or will enter service.
More importantly, Beijing is filling a void in amphibious inventory with the launch of three Type-075 (Yushen) large deck amphibious assault ships (LHDs) from September 2019 to January 2021, but in a space of 16 months. The estimated 35,000 tons of FLD appear to be slightly smaller than their US counterparts but have similar potential capabilities.
Despite reaching the water quickly in a row, it may take some time for PLAN to overcome the complexities of operating these ships. However, in the case of pursuing such aircraft in the future, other examples are likely, including the possibility of an improvement in the Type-075 (Yushen) design, which has the potential to operate short take-off and vertical landing aircraft.
Much recent speculation has surrounded its potential benefits in a Taiwan scenario. However, more generally, Type-071s and Type-075s contribute to Beijing’s sea-based power projection options in and around China’s coastal areas, but also in more distant waters.
There are also obvious weaknesses. In the context of China’s putative blue sea deployment goals, Djibouti has only one built-in naval support base overseas, even if it is a strategic location and an important facility in itself.
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and naval aviation also demonstrate that investments are underway to enable capabilities. The Military Balance + database records an increasing number of modern heavy transport aircraft as well as additional special mission aircraft over the past 12 months.
The key to the PLAAF’s carrying capacity is the Xian Y-20 heavy aircraft. Deliveries, which were first included in the 2017 Military Balance, were increased in 2020. The fleet total has increased from eight plus to 20 plus in 2020, and relatively small additional deliveries are pending. At the end of January 2021, at least 15 more completed or about to be completed Y-20 aircraft could be seen in satellite images of the production site. Most of the aircraft bodies were Y-20A, but probably a small number of Y-20U tanker aircraft are now in flight test.
PLAAF has long had the goal of strengthening its shipping capability, with efforts originally based on the Russian Ilyushin Il-76MD Candid, which was purchased in the 1990s. In the early 2000s, an additional order of up to 34 was planned, at least temporarily, but this deal failed. The Y-20 will likely replace all of the PLAAF’s Il-76s, while the Y-20U will replace the older H-6U tankers and eventually three Il-78 Midas tankers. Y-20 prototypes with a domestic Chinese turbofan engine instead of the Russian engine are also subjected to flight testing.
Early warning and middle removal
The development of PLAAF’s heavy transport and tanker fleets will provide broader operational access to the air force, while other special areas of duty are also supported. The Air Force’s fleet of KJ-500 airborne early warning and control aircraft continues to grow, with at least 11 types currently in service. The size of the Navy’s KJ-500 inventory has also grown, with 14 currently on its notebooks. In-flight refueling was also introduced on the KJ-500, and the variant may be known as the KJ-500A with four modified airframe visible at the Shaanxi manufacturing facility in Hanzhong in January 2021.
The growing airborne early warning fleets of the air force and navy will improve their ability to perform air surveillance over a larger area and in some cases with longer durability or a larger operating radius.
The KJ-500 is based on the Shaanxi Y-9 medium transport aircraft, which replaced the Y-8. The Y-9 medium transport aircraft continues production for the air force and can also be included in the naval inventory.
While the combat elements of China’s ongoing force modernization may gain more importance, support, special mission and logistical improvements are also important. These enabling capabilities will allow the PLA’s armed forces to better use combat elements if needed. But while Beijing’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak constitutes the first real operational test for JLSF in common with other aspects of Beijing’s talent development, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions about its readiness for peacetime activities. or the ability to support combat weapons in operations against an advanced enemy. But it seems clear that Beijing’s goal is to develop organizations and military systems designed to better support war formations in their future activities.