The increasing pace of naval modernisation in the Indo-Pacific is fuelling regional industrial growth backed by the maturation of indigenous technology.
The rise of China as a pre-eminent world power to challenge the superiority of the United States has led to the focus of military and geo-political concerns centring even more on the Indo-Pacific.
Military spending in the region has also increased significantly as a result. In its most recent report Trends in World Military Spending 2020, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) found that of the total of $1.9 billion of military spending in 2020 about $528 million was from the Indo-Pacific region, representing 27 percent of the world’s share – second only to the United States.
It also showed that military spending in the region is 2.9 percent higher than in 2019 and 47 percent higher than 10 years previously in 2011, highlighting the impact of power politics over the last decade. But the Indo-Pacific region is divided between rich and poor states. The most rapid and advanced military modernisation has taken place in the People’s Republic of China, India, Japan, South Korea and Australia, which are also leaders in naval modernisation alongside the Republic of China (Taiwan), which has also embarked on the enhancement of its naval capabilities. It is in the sub-region of North East Asia where naval technological development has been viewed as urgent because it is these countries where the pressures of responding to China’s naval expansion and a belligerent North Korea are most acute.
Here, the naval forces of China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are in the process of both expanding and experiencing a major transition towards a warfighting role that suits an era of Great Power Competition. With the introduction of new platforms there is a focus on offensive firepower, high-speed digital communications and data transfer that makes them suited for a fast-paced high-intensity conflict. To bring such capabilities into service means that a myriad of new technologies and systems are being developed both locally and acquired from overseas.
For China, the rate of expansion of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been nothing short of massive. It now has at least 350 ships and submarines including 130 major surface combatants. The US Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) China Power report from 2020 laid the situation bare: “China seeks to become a leader in key technologies with military potential, such as AI, autonomous systems, advanced computing, quantum information sciences, biotechnology, and advanced materials and manufacturing.”
This is all with the aim of establishing a self-sufficient industrial base and it is doing this not just by the allocation of huge amounts of resources but through a Military- Civil Fusion (MCF) development strategy to leverage dual use technology across both areas and as a way of acquiring technology from overseas. It has also utilised economic policy to secure access to technology transfer as well as foreign direct investment and commercial acquisitions.
Leveraging its commercial expansion the China Power reports states that China is now self-sufficient and “domestically produces its naval gas turbines and diesel engines, as well as almost all weapons and electronic systems, making it nearly self-sufficient for all shipbuilding needs.”
The PLAN’s vessels are equipped with advanced anti-ship, anti-air and anti-submarine weapons and sensors. Its surface fleet is being updated with its first domestically built aircraft carrier, the Shandong, to add to (ex-Soviet Navy) Liaoning and new landing helicopter dock (LHD) amphibious assault ships (Type 075 Yushen-class) as well as the PLAN’s first new cruiser (Type 055 Renhai-class), destroyers and corvettes – all equipped with anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs).
“The PLAN recognises that long-range ASCMs require a robust, over-the-horizon (OTH) targeting capability to realise their full potential. To fill this capability gap, China is investing in reconnaissance, surveillance, command, control, and communications systems at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels to provide high-fidelity targeting information to surface and subsurface launch platforms,” the China Power report states.
It is not just ASCMs that are becoming more prevalent, the development of anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) is also underway with tests hitting a moving surface target being completed in mid-2020. Also in 2020, Chinese state TV claimed that the new Renhai-class destroyers have radar that is able to track satellites in low earth orbit (LEO) as well as stealth aircraft using an advanced dual band radar capability that can transmit at lower frequencies.
The PLAN also appears to have introduced a new fire control radar on its Type 054A Jiangkai II-class frigates. Photographs on online forums seems to show that a recently delivered ship was fitted with a new system to control the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST) HHQ-16 surface-to-air missile. This is part of an effort to upgrade older surface ships with systems that are already fitted to its newer ships to prevent them from becoming obsolete.
Meanwhile new extended variants of the Type 052D Luyang III-class destroyer are being delivered that have larger flight decks that could be used to operate the new variant of Harbin Z-20 medium helicopter that is still completing trials. The Z-20 is similar to the Sikorsky S-70 Black Hawk but this technology represents an increase in helicopter capability for the PLAN that to date operates much smaller helicopter types. This means it cannot conduct long-range surveillance or carry out complex missions that require the installation of heavy equipment – such as anti-submarine warfare (ASW).
An example of PLAN technological prowess in ship manufacturing can be seen in the construction of its second new aircraft carrier (Type 003) at the Changxingdao shipyard in Shanghai. It will be much larger than its predecessor and will demonstrate the knowledge gained to develop bigger propulsion prime movers as well as a catapult and trap launch and recovery system for its aircraft. The carrier is expected to enter service in 2024.
Flight testing is already underway on the new KJ-600 airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft built by XAC and the 603 Aircraft Design Institute that is expected to deploy from the new carrier alongside the Shenyang J-15 fighter. The KJ-200 is expected to have a AESA radar and images show it has similarities with the Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye – indicating that China is still doing its best to copy and reverse engineer foreign technology as it has done for most of its major platforms in the past.
This highlights China’s technological limitations but also its ability to deliver new products and keep building new prototypes until it gets it right. Ultimately this new platform and its sensor technology will expand the PLAN’s carrier-borne AEW capability from just 107 nautical miles (200 kilometres) – using helicopters – to much farther ranges giving the fleet far more room for operational manoeuvre. Meanwhile a new Shenyang FC-31/J-31 multi-role fighter is also being developed that could be deployed from the next generation of carriers.
Another indication of a push for new technological development is the Request for Tender (RFT) published by a research institute in the China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) calling for an electro-magnetic catapult, UAV decks, intake filters for a 21 megawatt (MW) gas turbine and 6MW diesel engine among other items. The development of an electromagnetic catapult system similar to the US Navy’s Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) indicates the level of maturity of the technology that has already been reached.
The US is fitting EMALS to its new Ford-class carriers but it has struggled with the development of the system. There is media speculation that in China this is for new LHDs – dubbed the Type 076 – to electromagnetically launch and recover Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs). An example of new UCAVs include the Hingdu GJ-11 Sharp Sword and Zhong Tian Guide Control Technology Company (ZT Guide) Fei Long 2 that were displayed during the annual military parade in Beijing in 2019.
The DoD China Power report also highlights Artificial Intelligence (AI) as ‘critical’ to China’s future military and industrial power and that it is putting a “whole of society” effort into development and support AI champion companies. It states that over the past five years China has made achievements in AI-enabled unmanned surface vessels (USVs), which China plans to use to patrol and bolster its claims in the South China Sea.
Unmanned systems are an area of expansion for China. In 2020 the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) completed the flight test of a maritime variant of its Cai Hong 5 medium-altitude endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAS) that is adapted to survive conditions at sea.
Under the waves
Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) developments include the production of Sea Glider autonomous underwater vehicles such as the Haiyi designed by Tianjin University. These are suspected to have been used to survey the ocean floor in maritime choke points in the South China Sea (SCS) and beyond. Elsewhere the Chinese Academy of Sciences completed trials of the Haijing 2000 AUV in late-2019 which was deployed for over a month. Furthermore, during the annual military parade in October that year the PLAN displayed two large UUVs. Platforms like these will increase surveillance capabilities provided by a series of underwater sensors, buoys and floating platforms already being established.
For its manned sub-surface fleet the PLAN has developed nuclear-powered submarines, both attack SSNs for sea control and ballistic SSBNs for its nuclear deterrent fitted with the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). By the early 2020s a new Type 096 SSBN began construction, reportedly equipped with a new type of SLBMs as well as a new Type 093B Shang-class variant with land attack cruise missiles (LACMs). It is expected that LACMs will also be fitted to its larger surface ships. A new variant of the Type 039 Yuan-class diesel electric attack submarine has also been developed by Wuchang Shipbuilding which is expected to have improved performance over its predecessors in terms of reduced target signature, sensor capability and communications.
The technological advances in submarine construction show that it is catching up with the West in terms of submarine stealth qualities and its sensor and weapon capabilities for sea denial.
Japan and South Korea
While much of the new naval technology in the Indo-Pacific region is being harnessed in China, both Japan and South Korea are also making sure that they keep pace with technological developments.
Following the successful interception by a Raytheon/Mitsubishi Heavy Industries SM-3 Block IIA missile interceptor against an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) target for the first time in November 2020 by the US Missile Defense Agency, Japan placed an order for the weapons. This will enhance Japan’s Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) capability that centres on the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force’s (JMSDF’s) fleet of modern destroyers.
The Japan MoD (JMoD) signed a contract in February worth in excess of $250 million for an undisclosed number of SM-3 Block IIA that follows earlier contracts for the SM-3. The Block IIA is being developed jointly for an Aegis-capable, ship-launched missile that can defeat ballistic missile threats at all ranges. It is expected the missiles will be fitted to the JMSDF’s two new Maya-class destroyers.
The JMoD announced in December 2020 that it will build a further two Aegis-capable destroyers that will host BMD systems following the cancellation of plans to build a land-based Aegis BMD system. This will increase the JMSDF fleets of Aegis ships from eight to 10.
There are also plans to extend the range of the JMSDF’s Type 12 anti-ship missile from 107nm (200km) to 540nm (1,000km) and fit it to land-based launchers. A new SSM is also under development between the MoD and Kawasaki Heavy Industries.
Whilst beefing up its BMD capability, Japan has also started production of a new extended range variant of its ASM-3 anti-ship missile. The MoD announced in December 2020 that the new variant, called the ASM-3A will replace the existing Type 93 air-launched missile that are fitted to Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) fighter aircraft. The original ASM-3 has yet to enter service and it is expected that the MoD will instead progress with the -3A and the ASM-3 Kai variant also under development.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) was awarded a contract worth about $82 million for the Kai, which has a range of about 216nm (400km) and is expected to enter service in 2025. The new -3A variant range is likely to exceed this distance. The MoD needs to enhance the anti-ship defence capabilities in its south-western islands as PLAN activities in the region have increased as Beijing becomes more vocal about its claims to the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands. This new missile will add to the expected procurement of the Lockheed Martin AGM-158B JASSM-ER and AGM-158C LRASM.
Meanwhile in May, MHI announced that it has completed the first test flight of an upgraded SH-60K naval helicopter. The improved variant is expected to be fitted with more modern ASW equipment such as a low frequency dipping sonar and acoustic processor, datalinks and transmission. MHI was awarded a $63 million contact from the MoD in November 2015 to develop the latest model.
On the shipbuilding side, MHI launched the first of its new 29SS class of diesel-electric submarines (SSKs), Taigei (SS 513) for the JMSDF in October 2020. It is the first new boat to be fitted with new Lithium-ion batteries from GS Yuasa instead of the standard lead-acid batteries. Li-ion batteries have already been fitted to the two more recent Soryu-class SSKs that entered service before Taigei and offer improved performance and reduce weight and space requirements.
The use of Li-ion batteries is a significant technological development as SSK manufacturers have until now found them too dangerous to use on board. It is an area where Japan now leads the world and whilst the details about the new batteries are limited it gives the latest SSKs a real advantage in terms of endurance and the ability to power modern new submarine equipment. Other countries are expected to follow. Taigei is also expected to be fitted with the new Type 18 torpedo that is replacing the Type 89 weapon.
MHI is also developing new mine countermeasures (MCM) technologies for use on autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) in a partnership with Thales. A five-year research and development agreement was signed in March 2021 that kick-started a project to jointly work on the invention of a of new sonar system for these operations. It aims to increase the capability to detect, classify and localise all mine types and address the increasing threat that mines present, especially in the littorals.
Neighbouring South Korea is also pushing ahead with technological developments to enhance its own naval capabilities. Plans for the construction of a new light carrier, announced in the latest Mid-Term Defence Plan 2021-25, has initiated a three-year assessment of core technologies that are needed to build a ship of this size and with the capability to launch and recover aircraft like the Lockheed Martin F-35. This is a response to the PLAN development of the Type 075 LHD and the JMSDF conversion of its Izumo-class helicopter carriers to operate the F-35B.
A new integrated mast system is being developed by Hanwha for the Republic of Korea Navy’s (RoKN) new KDDX/KDX-IV destroyer. Called the I-MAST it will contain dual-band multifunction phased array radar integrated with IR and IFF sensors and a new combat management system.
The company announced a contract in December 2020 worth almost $576 million for the development of the system for the six ships by 2029. The KDDX (or KDX IV) destroyers will be the first class of major complex warship that will have almost all its hull, machinery, sensors, weapons and systems developed and built in South Korea. This indicates the growing technological maturity of its shipbuilding sector to design, build and provide almost all its major warship components.
At 6,000 tonnes the KDDX are dubbed ‘mini-Aegis’ because they are slightly smaller than the earlier Aegis-fitted 8,000t KDX-III destroyers that are based on the US Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class. The new ships will have missile defence, air defence and anti-surface capability as well as being fitted with cruise missiles. As such the class will substantially increase the capability of the RoKN when they are delivered from 2030 onwards. It is expected that the new Ulsan-class Batch III frigates that were approved in 2020 will also receive a new locally developed multifunction phased arrange radar from Hanwha.
Older ships such as the KDX-I destroyers are being upgraded with new equipment from Hanwha that will increase the speed of the combat management system and improve the performance of its towed array sonar.
Meanwhile the RoKN’s Chang Bogo-class submarines are being upgraded with indigenously developed CMS and sensors. Whilst the first batch of new Dosan Ahn Chang-ho-class (KSS-III) submarines are entering service it is expected that the second batch will be fitted with new Li-ion batteries to increase endurance. Another submarine development was achieved in July when South Korea tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) from an underwater barge. Apparently the KSS-III submarines have been designed with the ability to be fitted with SLBMs with conventional warheads in the future. It shows the technological advances that South Korea is making to get these capabilities.
Other technological developments include the beginning of operations with a new Maritime Surveillance Radar-II from LIG Nex1 in 2020 that is part of a new air defence network that will allow the rapid detection and classification of aircraft in seconds, rather than minutes. In addition, the RoKN is also fitting 130mm Biryong anti-ship missile guided rockets onto its Gumdoksuri-class (PKX-B) fast patrol craft. With improved navigation and guidance the Biryong rockets, built by LIG Nex1, are capable of defeating swarms of surface vessels at range. Looking to the future the South Korea Agency for Defense Development published a handbook in January 2021 detailing proposals for new technologies relating to AI, hypersonic and robotics, but also hoverbikes and a long endurance unmanned submarines.
Designed in Taiwan
For Taiwan, much of the technological development is focussed on getting its indigenous industrial capability up to scratch to build the latest platforms and systems it needs to defend itself from a potential attack from mainland China. In 2020, Taiwan started the construction of its own locally designed and developed diesel electric attack submarine at CSBC Corporation.
This is no mean feat considering the amount of technological know-how and expertise required to achieve the establishment of a sovereign submarine manufacturing industry, as Australia is finding to its cost. Taiwan has had a long-term development effort in place to enable this programme to go ahead with considerable support from the US. The new SSKs will be fitted with mainly US-supplied systems that cannot be built in Taiwan.
The Republic of China Navy (ROCN) is also getting upgraded variants of its Tuo Chiang-class fast missile corvettes. The first ship, Ta Chiang, was commissioned in July and is the first of six planned. It incorporates a number of technological innovations designed to make it suitable for asymmetric warfare including a catamaran hull, low radar cross-section, waterjet propulsion and it is fitted with the Hsiung Feng III anti-ship missile.
It has also been fitted with the new Sea Sword II medium-range air defence missile that completed live fire trials earlier this year following development by the National Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST), which has stated in local media that it can engage both anti-ship missiles and aircraft simultaneously. NCSIST has also developed Sea Oryx. Local media reports state this is a point defence system similar to Raytheon’s RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile and uses the Sea Sword air-to-air missile as its interceptor. Meanwhile the ROCN is also bolstering its unmanned systems capability with the procurement of four MQ-9B Sea Guardian systems from GA-ASI under a US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) agreement approved in November 2020.
As China harnesses its own growing technological and industrial base to provide high-end systems for its naval forces, so its neighbours are following suit. Despite the number of platforms being fielded the naval technology arms race will be the deciding factor should conflict break out. Building the latest warships and submarines is important but if they can be equipped with the latest sensors, missiles, combat management systems, helicopters and unmanned platforms then the capability of that platform multiplies a hundred-fold. This is partly a policy of deterrence by technology. If a navy can show it is able to field the latest most capable systems, it changes the risk calculation for an opponent and increases the potential cost of any engagement. As the race continues it remains to be seen which technologies can be developed in-country and which can be more effectively procured from overseas to give the naval forces the extra edge over their competitors.
by Tim Fish