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Chinese Navy: Mighty Dragon Boat or Paperboat?

If asked a question about which is the biggest Navy in the world, What would be the answer? The USA. right? No, It’s China this time. The Mighty Dragon which shares boundaries with 14 countries but has disputes with 18 countries, learned the importance of the Navy a little late. But still, with its speed of development is capable of challenging the world’s mightiest Navies. On the “Happy Birthday” of this Navy let’s see how good they are because, in China, It’s like an elephant’s Teeth (Whatever is easily seen, doesn’t exist). But before we begin, let’s start with the basics.

Preface (The size)

The number of ships in China has increased since shipyards are building at a staggering pace. All because of no holidays, 3 shift working, and No strikes by unions (Something India needs to learn when it comes to subjects of National importance like defense).

Members of the Chinese Navy stand on the deck of the guided-missile destroyer Suzhou at a military port in Zhoushan, China. (VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

The Chinese navy has 3 aircraft carriers, 3 landing helicopter docks, 8 amphibious transport docks, 32 landing ship tanks, 33 landing ship mediums, 51 destroyers,49 frigates,70 corvettes,109 missile boats,26 submarine chasers,17+ gunboats,36 mine countermeasure vessels,79 submarines,19 replenishment ships, 232 auxiliaries ships accounting to a total of 623+ Ships in total as per official figures. The US stands at 485+ ships while the Indian navy stands at 285+ ships in total. This shows quite a significant gap in numbers here. Along with this, they are also trying to get more modern sub-systems on their vessels to even get quality. Here, the strategic might in terms of numbers is really big but let’s look toward the other teeth of this dragon.

Issues of Chinese Navy

Even though having a much higher number of vessels, there are quite of problems suffered by the Chinese Navy in various areas

Fighter Jet Issue: Training and Pilots

Photo: AFP

Since the Chinese Navy has been increasing the number of vessels, and has jumped from 1 Aircraft carrier to 3. They are also having dire need of Pilots. Along with these, they also inducted many new-generation vessels in the fleet. But, even though having a state of the art equipment, they are having a shortage of Highly skilled troops. This is limiting the full usage of these resources. Also, naval personnel from retired ships had to be trained to familiarise themselves with the new ships that were more automated and information-based.

This training is not limited to small officers but also to ship commanders. Many commanders are trained as fresh recruits for new ships. Since modernization was quite swift, training takes its own time this shortage has arisen. Also, the difference between learning, implementing, and using to full potential is quite large. A commander is just like a fresh recruit who doesn’t have the knowledge of the ship, converts a battleship to target practice. Along with this, using the ship along with a collaboration of other ships & assets takes an understanding of a lot of military exercises and simulation scenarios. Maybe that’s why China does many exercises near Taiwan to simulate.

China’s newest and most advanced aircraft carrier, Fujian, has started mooring trials. Photo: Weibo

Talking about aircrafts, even Fujian aircraft carrier operates with J-15 fighter jets which are already plagued by engine issues, airframe reliability, and other mechanical problems that resulted in at least four accidents, and the entire fleet of J-15s being grounded for several months. Along with this, an observation of fleet exercises over the past two years revealed the carriers were launching relatively few sorties, and the operations were carried out with “lightly loaded aircraft”. Basically meaning Aircraft cannot take full payload and are not fully operational from these carriers. Here only Fujian Aircraft carrier has EMALS rest are STOBAR, so again less payload, and Fujian will take a year to be even fully operational.

Felix Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

Due to a shortage of Pilots, China has started recruiting students who recently graduated from the STEM field and even women for shipborne fighters. This marks the first time that the PLAN is accepting naval aviation candidates who didn’t attend military colleges, according to state-sponsored news site Global Times. This shows actually the urgent need, however, these pilots will need to undergo training for 4-5 years. Beijing is desperately trying to attract citizens to join the military through incentives, but all in vain, especially in the face of the country’s ebbing fertility rate.

Here, the single issue doesn’t seem like a big thing, but when we keep all pieces together, for eg:- Trainee Commander of the ship, with a crew unknown to equipment, having aircraft with reliability issues that cannot be used at full payload and having very new pilots. This is a big thing. And hence everything on the ship is just of strategic value but doesn’t have a strategic deterrence

Also Read, Know Your Enemy – Chinese Aircraft Carrier Liaoning

Overseas Base Issue

The strategic strength of any Navy doesn’t just rely on its assets but also on the deployability of its assets. Basic meaning presence of force when needed. For years China has been trying to get overseas bases to increase its presence. In a recent turn of events China even tried to look for a base in Deigo Garcia. China has not been directly successful in getting base but over the past several years due to debt trap policies and the String of Pearls strategy, China has increased its deployment all over the world. Less worrying for the US since they have bases in almost every continent and 11 floating aircraft carriers, but an alarming bell for India. We on regular bases see the intrusion of Missile tracking ships in the Indian Ocean.

Pic Credits to Respective owner

Here, China is a big importer of Raw materials and also the largest exporter. During wartime, none of them would help China since most of these shipping routes are in places where China won’t be directly able to safeguard them. For example Crude shipments to China, most of them go Via. the Indian Ocean if the Indian Navy chokes Mallaca Strait then all the supplies would easily chop off. And thinking about the Pacific, it already has the vast presence of the US Navy and is far off from the shores making it not easy for them to operate and control.

Along with this, vessels with the Chinese Navy are still Medium sized and cannot be operated far from Home bases. Adding to less experience in situations they also lack these sea control platforms (or suitable alternatives) will leave the PLAN at a serious disadvantage when and if it needs to protect lines of communication in unfriendly environments. But still, very few countries (debt-ridden) have allowed China for making a base. On other hand, when we look at India, we have been quite successful with many bases around the Indian Ocean, signing LEMOA with the US, and other logistics pacts with Japan, Australia, and France as well. This helps India to operate anywhere and gets replenishment very easily as well.

Vessels Themselves

The vessels of China are not even on par compared to Western vessels. A detailed article and video showing the bad engineering of Submarines of China (Btw Biggest submarine force in the world). Here it shows that it has noise problems. The article can be checked by clicking here. There have been also cases where submarines had to come out of water due to fish nets.

Zulfikar Class frigate (PNS Zulfikar)
Pic Credits:- Royal Navy official photographer, W Haig Parry, Middlesbrough 

Not only this but there are also many defect issues in other vessels as well. No direct evidence of issues in Chinese vessels, but there are definitely issues with vessels exported to different countries. Defective critical components and poor service from Chinese manufacturers have forced the Pakistani Navy to operate these four frigates with degraded operational capabilities, compromising some of the key mission objectives with which these ships were bought at a high price.

BNS Sangram and BNS Prottasha at Chittagong Naval Jetty ISPR

Beijing gifted two 1970s-era Ming class Type 035G submarines to Bangladesh valued at $100 million each in 2017. The Bangladesh Navy commissioned them as BNS Nobojatra and BNS Joyjatra. Both these submarines have been lying idle due to “technical issues” and could not be used as planned. Along with this two Chinese 053H3 frigates – BNS Umar Farooq and BNS Abu Ubaidah have defects in the fire control system as well as in the helicopter fuelling and defueling systems along with radar and sensor issues.

Also Read, In-Depth Analysis Of The Chinese Navy Reality

Command Issues and Morale

In 2015, Xi himself criticized the PLA leadership, calling it “five incapables (cannots)” wherein he openly stated that “some” officers cannot judge situations, understand higher authorities’ intentions, make operational decisions, deploy troops, or deal with unexpected situations, and these issues are prevalent at all levels of war and for all branches of the military. the ability of its cadres (officers) at all levels of command due to poor combat leadership qualities

By Yang Yimiao
Credits to owner

However, in the PLA Navy, this foundation is shaky. The sources say that all career officers of the navy are members of the CPC, and all operational units have political officers assigned to enforce party control. The ‘Captain’ of a ship is more of an operator than a decision-maker, and important decisions at sea are made by the ‘Political Commissar’, who is the link between higher intent and execution. On the issue of professional competence, there is no doubt that the PLA Navy is certainly not a professional fighting force, but a ‘Party Navy’, an armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party. Basically meaning in a war-like scenario whether to engage or not, is the power of the Political Commissar, not of the Captain of the ship.

pic credits to the respective owner

When it comes to morale, we get reminded of the humiliating incident of the surfacing and raising of the Chinese flag by a Chinese submarine off the Senkaku Islands in January 2018 after being detected by the Japanese Navy. Along with this, we have also seen the crying faces of Chinese soldiers during the Galwan Clash as well. All of This fanned the theory of the low morale of the Chinese crew in world media as they are single children of their parents.

Also Read, Indian Navy VS Chinese Navy – Detailed Overview


Even though China is gearing up like this with technology still is underarmed in terms the US. The area denial strategy that is practiced by China in the South China Sea can also be practiced by India in the Indian Ocean. QUAD is one of the groupings in which a military partnership is added and would be most feared by China. The techniques of Creating Islands, Salami slicing, and power projection by claiming are now being understood by many countries. Debt trap diplomacy is backfiring on China’s Internal economy as well.

China will today or tomorrow attack Taiwan and the Chinese Navy will play of most important role as Taiwan is an Island state. From starting area denial in the South China Sea for stopping foreign forces up to transporting ground troops on the island everything will fall on this Navy. Hence, day by day they are doing Various exercises around Taiwan itself to familiarize themselves. Keeping eye on India, they regularly send research ships during Missile tests to get the data of the same.

Here, the Navy is improving on Command structure, training, Modernization, Aircraft quality, and the Number of vessels. These are the issues that would be solved by China in the span of Some years. But issues like the Morale of soldiers cannot be improved easily. It might even take generations and still cannot be solved. And last in end, if deployability is not possible due to either poor knowledge or faulty equipment, or even due to the unavailability of bases, then everything is useless. Chinese Navy is definitely transforming its paper boat into a Dragon boat but still, it’s a far way to go to make a lean and mean Navy.



The Editorial Team At DefenceXP Network Consists Of Professional Writers, Defence Enthusiast And Defence Aspirants.

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