The People’s Liberation Army Navy

Chinese Tactics > PART ONE: People’s Liberation Army Forces > Chapter 3: People’s Liberation Army Joint Capabilities > The People’s Liberation Army Navy

 3-10. China traditionally relegated its naval forces to a subordinate role behind its ground and strategic rocket forces. Much like the rest of the PLA, however, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) adapted and evolved along with the country throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. This evolution took the PLAN from being a littoral and riverine force to being a viable ocean-going force by 2009. The near-term goal for the PLAN is to evolve into a true “blue water” force by 2035. In practical terms, this means operating aircraft carriers, large surface combatants, a submarine force, a naval air wing, an amphibious assault force, and a logistics force across the Western Pacific and possibly into the Indian Ocean. The initial geographic limitation for this capability is out to the second island chain in the Western Pacific, which includes the Yellow Sea, the South and East China Seas, the Philippine Sea, and possibly the Sea of Japan. The PLAN has also expressed intent to develop a limited global capability, though this requires significant development of overseas basing support, long-range air and sea lift, and a global command and communication network that does not currently exist.

 3-11. The PLAN is the world’s second-largest navy by tonnage and the third-largest by number of major surface combatants. It also employs the world’s second-largest submarine force, though the quality and modernity of its submarines varies significantly. The PLAN consists of five branches: the Surface Force, the Submarine Force, the Naval Air Force, the Coastal Defense Force, and the Marine Corps. These forces are deployed in three command navies, each with a specific geographic area of interest. The North Command Navy is responsible for the Yellow Sea, the East Command Navy is responsible for the East China Sea, and the South Command Navy is responsible for the South China Sea.

 3-12. The Surface Force comprises the PLAN’s surface combatant capability. This includes two aircraft carriers, around 20 modern, highly capable guided-missile destroyers, numerous lighter frigates and corvettes, missile boats, amphibious assault ships, and logistics vessels. The PLAN’s aircraft carrier capability is still in its infancy, currently consisting of a single operational second-hand Soviet aircraft carrier, but an indigenously built one is scheduled to enter service in 2023. The PLAN intends to procure at least one more full-sized aircraft carrier, making its carrier fleet the second-largest and -most-capable in the world—behind only the United States. This timeline is aggressive, however, and is largely dependent on rapidly developing carrier air-wing tactics and techniques. The Chinese aircraft carriers operate navalized versions of 4 1/2th-generation Russian-derived multirole combat aircraft. Surface combatants are modern and capable, employing radar-guided missile-based integrated air defenses and a robust suite of antiship missiles of varying ranges. China has emphasized the importance of the antiship missile in its naval strategy for many decades, and much of its evolving navy is built around this capability.

3-13. The Submarine Force is the world’s second-largest submarine fleet, although many boats are somewhat aged. Throughout the history of the PLAN, this force has been the most capable and most important sea-control capability. Although in recent years the Submarine Force has not been as well-funded as the Surface Force, it remains a key component of PLAN shore defense and antiaccess strategies. Most PLAN submarines are conventionally powered (diesel-electric) attack submarines that are employed against enemy shipping, emphasizing attacks on enemy surface combatants and troop ships. A small number of far more expensive, but far more capable, nuclear attack submarines complements the conventionally powered force. The PLAN’s ballistic missile submarine capability is limited and unproven, though it appears development of a viable ballistic missile submarine fleet is proceeding.

3-14. The primary mission of the PLAN is defense of Chinese territorial waters and power projection into Chinese regional waters. This mission includes both operations against regional opponents in limited wars and operations against powerful opponents as a part of a theater-wide antiaccess campaign. As such, enemy shipping is the primary target set of PLAN surface combatants, naval aircraft, and submarines. While a limited ground-attack capability exists in the Naval Air Force, it can be considered a secondary mission, and far less important to PLA joint operations than U.S. Navy ground support missions are to U.S. joint operations. Chinese surface ships maintain a robust antiaircraft capability, and they are likely employed in concert with ground-based air defenses to deny use of wide geographic areas of airspace to enemy aircraft. The PLAN also maintains a robust Coastal Defense Force that employs shore-based antiship missiles and infantry to defend Chinese littoral waters and coastlines from amphibious assault or littoral naval operations.

3-15. The People’s Liberation Army Navy Marine Corps (PLANMC) is the PLA’s expeditionary amphibious warfare capability. Like the U.S. Marine Corps, it falls under administrative control of the navy, but it is equipped and organized in a manner similar to that of the army. Unlike the U.S. Marine Corps, however, the PLANMC does not have the PLA’s heavy amphibious warfare mission—this belongs to the People’s Liberation Army Army (PLAA). Instead, the PLANMC should be viewed as a light and strategically mobile force built to conduct expeditionary warfare missions away from Chinese shores.

3-16. The PLANMC consists of six maneuver brigades and associated command and support structure, totaling approximately 60,000-80,000 personnel. The PLANMC consists of a mix of mechanized and light forces organized specifically to support amphibious and littoral operations. PLANMC brigades are either assigned to the South Command Navy and focus their operations and training on the South China Sea, or they are held as national-level assets. A PLANMC brigade includes—

  • Three combined arms battalions (CA-BNs).
  • One self-propelled gun artillery battalion.
  • One missile battalion (with man-portable air defense systems [MANPADS] and antitank guided missiles).
  • One headquarters unit.
  • One combat support battalion.
  • One service support battalion. 

(See figure 3-2 for a graphic depiction of a PLANMC brigade.)

Figure 3-2. PLANMC brigade (doctrinal)

3-17. In addition to the PLAN, China operates both the China Coast Guard (CCG)—which falls under the control of the People’s Armed Police (PAP)—and the Maritime Militia under the China Militia. The CCG operates a large number of smaller surface vessels and has responsibility for coastal security, patrol, antipiracy, antismuggling, search and rescue, and maritime police operations. The Maritime Militia operates an exceedingly large number of small surface vessels, most of which are converted or co-opted civilian fishing or transport ships. While both the CCG and Maritime Militia have very traditional assigned roles, China aggressively employs both as part of a hybrid warfare approach during the competition phase of conflict. CCG and Maritime Militia vessels regularly and aggressively operate in international waters— and sometimes in the territorial waters of China’s neighbors—ostensibly to protect Chinese fishing and shipping operations. This approach enables China to influence activity throughout the Western Pacific without involving the large surface combatants of the PLAN. In a time of war, the CCG and Maritime Militia will likely take on roles similar to the PAP and China Militia in ground operations: performing lowintensity or mundane maritime tasks in order to free up more-capable ships for more demanding operations.


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