China’s Out of Area Naval Operations: Case Studies, Trajectories, Obstacles, and Potential Solutions

By Christopher D. Yung and Ross Rustici with Isaac Kardon and Joshua Wiseman China Strategic Perspectives 3

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Jan. 1, 2011 — DOWNLOAD PDF

Executive Summary


This study seeks to understand the future direction of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) with regard to out of area deployments and power projection. The assessment is based on the history of past PLAN out of area deployments and an analysis of out of area operations of other military forces. Both short- and long-term lenses are employed to understand the scope and direction of China’s defense planning and strategic decisions.

The study’s assessment of the PLAN’s short-term (1- to 5-year) trajectory is based on:

  • operational patterns of behavior observed in China’s out of area deployments
  • analysis of information about the PLAN’s current and recent difficulties during these deployments
  • the solutions China has applied to address these difficulties
  • an assessment of the extent to which the PLAN, PLA leadership, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership as a whole are likely to pursue other potential solutions within a 1- to 5-year timeframe.

We apply the same categories to our analysis of case studies of other nations’ historical out of area deployments to draw out possibilities for the PLAN’s long-term (10-year) trajectory. Examination of the history of China’s out of area operations indicates that the Chinese have been operating out of area since the mid-1970s, they tend to “overprepare” for each out of area deployment, and they conduct deployments not only for operational reasons, but also for carefully calculated political benefits.

The study identifies five categories of challenges that confront all navies operating at long distances from home ports: distance, duration, capacity, complexity of coordination, and hostility of environment. The recent PLAN Gulf of Aden deployment illustrated some of these difficulties. In the absence of a nearby facility or military base, that task force had difficulty maintaining its ships; the ships had difficulty maintaining supplies of fresh vegetables, fruits, and potable water; and personnel did not have access to comprehensive medical care.

From the case studies, we derived specific lessons about how other militaries met the five challenges in conducting out of area operations listed above and assessed whether the Chinese leadership is likely to follow their example. We identified five groups of options:

  • access to a facility or base for maintenance, repair, and other logistical support
  • self-protection (for example, carrier support, out of area antisubmarine warfare [ASW], or antisurface warfare)
  • use of mobile supply depots and floating bases
  • intra–task force lift assets (helicopters, lighterage, and landing craft)
  • satellite communications.

The operational and strategic implications of our findings are as follows:

  • The PLAN still has some ways to go before it can operate effectively out of area. At present, it can effectively replenish at sea, conduct intra–task force resupply, perform long-distance navigation, conduct formation-keeping with competent seamanship, and operate in all weather conditions. The PLAN cannot currently conduct a full-scale joint forcible entry operation, maintain maritime superiority out of area, conduct multicarrier or carrier strike group operations, or provide comprehensive protection against threats to an out of area task force (antiaircraft warfare, ASW, and antisurface warfare).
  • The PLAN appears to be expanding its out of area operations incrementally. This will allow the United States, its allies, and other countries time to work out (with each other and with the Chinese) how to respond to opportunities for greater cooperation and potential challenges posed by a more capable PLAN.
  • China has an even longer way to go before it can be considered a global military power. In particular, it has no network of facilities and bases to maintain and repair its ships. The possession or absence of such a network may ultimately be the best indication of China’s future intentions. If China lacks such a support network, it will have great difficulty engaging in major combat operations (MCOs) far from its shores.
  • Experience gained through out of area operations will help make the PLAN somewhat more effective (in areas such as navigation and seamanship) in some of its other operations. However, most of the tasks performed and lessons gained from out of area operations are not directly transferrable to either a Taiwan contingency or a notional out of area MCO. This implies that time spent on conducting nontraditional out of area deployments for a PLAN unit is time away from combat training for a Taiwan contingency or preparing for MCOs out of area.
  • A more capable and active PLAN will present new challenges for U.S. policy. On the one hand, the United States wants China to “become a responsible stake holder” in support of international security objectives, which implies a need for greater naval capability to operate out of area. On the other hand, improved PLAN operational capabilities potentially pose a greater military threat to the United States and its allies, especially Asia. The United States has to reassure its allies that it will remain present in the region as a hedge even as Chinese military capabilities improve.