10 Chinese military milestones as Xi Jinping overhauls the People’s Liberation Army

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 July, 2017, 3:54pm
UPDATED : Friday, 14 July, 2017, 3:54pm

Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in 2015 a huge military overhaul, aimed at transforming the People’s Liberation Army - the world’s biggest - into a smaller, more nimble, modern fighting force.

Here are some notable recent launches and milestones on that journey.

1. China launches first home-built aircraft carrier in latest display of growing naval power

China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier was launched in April 2017 in the latest display of Beijing’s growing naval power.

The carrier was released into open water from a shipyard in the port of Dalian, northeastern Liaoning province, as a bottle of champagne was smashed for good luck and the national anthem played in the background.

The carrier, which had earlier been temporarily named the Type 001A, is China’s second after the Liaoning, a refitted former Soviet Union-made carrier that was put into commission in the PLA Navy in 2012.

The carrier, 315 metres long and 75 metres wide, has a cruising speed of 31 knots and a displacement of 70,000 tonnes.

2. China on cusp of taking the lead in cutting-edge propulsion technology for submarines

The US Navy’s Pacific fleet used to mock Chinese submarines for being too noisy and too easy to detect.

That has largely been remedied in recent years, and China is now on the cusp of taking the lead in a cutting-edge propulsion technology.

Naval experts said the new technology would help China build more elusive submarines, but might also prompt the United States to ramp up anti-submarine warfare measures.

3. China boosts naval power with Asia’s most advanced warship

China launched in June 2017 what it calls the most advanced and largest warship in Asia, billing it as a major step forward in the modernisation of its navy, according to the official military newspaper.

Military experts said the new Type 055 guided-missile destroyer – which has a displacement of more than 12,000 tonnes – was designed to accompany the country’s future aircraft carrier battle groups.

The destroyer was built at the Jiangnan shipyard in Shanghai and was equipped with air ­defence, anti-missile, anti-ship and anti-submarine weapons, PLA Daily newspaper reported.

Military analysts said the Type 055 was in theory the world’s second most powerful destroyer – after the US Navy’s DDG-1000, or the Zumwalt class. The capabilities of the Type 055 surpass South Korea’s DDG-991 and Japan’s ­Atago class, which have a 10,000 tonne displacement.

4. China’s J-20 stealth fighter joins the People’s Liberation Army air force

China’s latest stealth fighter, the J-20, is serving in the Chinese air force, state media reported in March 2017.

Military insiders said the appearance of J-20s in the air force was meant as a warning to Japan and South Korea, which are expected to buy US F-35 stealth fighters now that China has equally advanced warplanes.

Designers of the J-20 claim the fighter represents a “big leap forward in terms of the capabilities of the PLA”.

The aircraft has a longer range, more internal fuel capacity and a larger weapons capacity than the US F-22 and F-35 fighters, the designers say.

5. With second aircraft carrier launched, what China’s navy must now do

China will eventually become the world’s No 2 aircraft carrier power, trailing only the United States, but its carrier strike group air crews are still far below international standard, military experts say.

“An aircraft carrier needs regular large-scale maintenance. China should have more than four carrier groups if it wants to fulfil escort missions on the high seas and safeguard its overseas national interests,” Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said.

“A sole aircraft carrier cannot become a fighting force because it needs the presence of other warships to form a strike group, as well as the protection given by other vessels,” Li said.

6. New Chinese missile capable of threatening US, Japan bases in Asia makes appearance in drills

A highly accurate Chinese ballistic missile capable of threatening US and Japanese bases in Asia made an appearance at Rocket Force drills in February 2017.

The medium-range DF-16 featured in a video posted on the website of China’s Defence Ministry showing the missiles aboard their 10-wheeled mobile launch vehicles being deployed in deep forest during exercises over the Lunar New Year holiday.

While the Rocket Force boasts an extensive armoury of missiles of various ranges, the DF-16 fills a particular role in extending China’s reach over waters it seeks to control within what it calls the “first-island chain”.

First displayed at a Beijing military parade in 2015, the missile is believed to have a range of 1,000km, putting it within striking distance of Okinawa, home to several US military installations, as well as the Japanese home islands, Taiwan and the Philippines.

7. China tests prototype of most advanced stealth fighter jet

China tested the latest version of its fifth-generation stealth fighter in December 2016, as it tries to end the West’s monopoly on the world’s most advanced warplanes.

The newest version of the J-31, now renamed the FC-31 Gyrfalcon, took to the air for the first time, the China Daily reported.

The so-called “fifth-generation” twin engine jet is China’s answer to the US F-35, the world’s most technically advanced fighter.

The new FC-31 has “better stealth capabilities, improved electronic equipment and a larger payload capacity” than the previous version which debuted in October 2012, the newspaper said, quoting aviation expert Wu Peixin.

8. Influential Chinese naval engineer nominated for People’s Liberation Army’s top military award

Meet top naval engineer Ma Weiming, who has led work on a hi-tech launch system for future Chinese aircraft carriers and a quieter propulsion system for China’s nuclear submarines.

Dubbed the father of China’s electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), Rear Admiral Ma describes himself as a “teacher without any dreams”.

Rear Admiral Liu Dezhi, a colleague at the university, described Ma, 57, as a workaholic and master problem-solver. He said Ma would work around the clock and pull out all stops to tackle obstacles when targeted on a project.

“Almost every research topic we’ve studied in recent years has been turned into actual equipment on our navy’s warships,” Liu said. “That’s made me admire his judgment very much.”

9. Xi Jinping’s historic move to rename China’s army corps

Army corps in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are likely to have their unit numbers changed for the first time in their history as part of President Xi Jinping’s efforts to reshape the world’s biggest army, military sources said.

“Serial numbers for the 13 army corps are likely restart from 71 and end at 83,” a senior retired army officer in Beijing told the South China Morning Post.

The PLA had up to 70 army corps – numbered sequentially from one – when the Communist Party seized power in 1949, but now has just 13 after Xi ordered five disbanded this year.

Corps facing the prospect of being renamed include the 1st Army Corps, which was part of 1st Field Army in which Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, served as political commissar during the civil war.

10. China building navy’s biggest amphibious assault vessel, the Type 075 Landing Helicopter Dock

China has started building a new generation of large amphibious assault vessels that will strengthen the navy as it plays a more dominant role in projecting the nation’s power overseas, military sources said in March 2017.

The 075 Landing Helicopter Dock is under construction by a Shanghai-based shipbuilding company, the sources said.

The amphibious vessel is far larger than similar ships previously constructed for the PLA Navy.

The 075 can serve as a form of aircraft carrier and military experts said it would give China’s navy the ability to launch various types of helicopters to attack naval vessels, enemy ground forces or submarines in the East or South China Sea.