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Military 101: China’s Aggressive Naval Expansion & India’s Responses

China Aircraft Carrier Navy Naval Liaoning

Presently China has 2 battle-ready aircraft carriers, both of which is based on Russia’s ex-aircraft carrier but this is not stopping them from constructing more aircraft carriers. It is said that they may have up to 6 aircraft carriers including nuclear-powered ones. China’s first aircraft carrier, Liaoning started off as a Russian Kuznetsov-class aircraft cruiser Riga and is capable of carrying 40 aircraft of different types. Image source: Business Insider.

Read these first:-

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An excellent documentary that how the Chinese Military systematically builds up the smaller reef into a large island that can accommodate a large number of military personnel, assets, and weapons. It also shows how aggressive and arrogant China is in respecting international laws and maritime customs that all other countries are following. It is unlikely that the final solution for this conflict will be a diplomatic one. 

China’s Naval Present Expansion

China’s naval control is spread over the 3 main regions namely the northern region which will see engagements with Russia and South Korea, the eastern region which will see engagements with Taiwan and Japan and finally the southern region which will see engagements with Vietnam, Philipines, Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei and very likely in future, India, US, and Australia.

This is the area that we need to be seriously concerned about as China deploys the new naval ships here which include the second & self-constructed Shandong aircraft carrier which can carry 44 aircraft including 32 reverse-engineered fighter jets from Sukhoi-33. This fleet also boasts one of the newest stealth naval ships, the Type 055 missile-guided destroyer.

Then we have the Chinese military bases in the disputed Spratly Islands that have been developed into a complete base with runways and anti-aircraft missiles. These bases are big enough to cater to large naval ships from which they can replenish and launch attacks or implement naval blockades.

Presently despite being surrounded by ASEAN countries who have capable naval assets, in combination, they are not as strong as the US to face up to Chinese intrusions which happen on a very regular basis.

China is also looking at a higher presence in the Indian Ocean and they may have a base in the form of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port which has been leased for 99 years to China for debt repayment. Of course, presently China is not a big player in the Indian Ocean due to the overwhelming presence of the powerful Indian Navy and airpower support from the bases in the Indian continent.

In light of Chinese military expansion which is happening in collusion with the Pakistan military, the Indian military has also been on an upgrade process to counter-check the Chinese. Assets-wise, it had fewer naval assets compared to the Chinese but then again, the Indian Navy also operates one of the fastest anti-ship cruise missiles in the world, the proven BrahMos missile which can reach speeds up to Mach 4 as compared to the Chinese missiles which can only reach a maximum speed of Mach 2.

Type-055 Destroyer China Navy Naval

Type-055 destroyer has a very slick, modern design that is comparable with the new warship designs from the US and Europe. Being a large ship, it has the space to carry a number of new radars and weapons covering the air, surface, and underwater. Couple this with other smaller support vessels and an aircraft carrier, and the Chinese Navy can form a formidable force away from its home base. Image source: Wikipedia

China’s Type-055 Destroyer

One of the key game-changers for the Chinese Navy is the introduction of the new stealth-guided missile large destroyer classified as a Type-055 destroyer. The ship is designed and built in China and the Chinese Navy is expected to have 16 of these ships on active duty. It has a crew of 300 personnel and is able to reach a top speed of 30 knots. Its length is 180 meters and runs on 4 gas turbine engines that can provide an output of 28 MW.

Now the Type-055 is, at least in general terms, comparable to the U.S. Navy’s Ticonderoga Class AEGIS cruisers.

The Type-055 has the latest Type-346B version of these system. How it compares, in combat terms, to AEGIS is not public. What is clear however is that the Chinese system is maturing and appears to have been steadily improved. It is thought to provide Chinese commanders with similar levels of awareness.

The advanced radar systems are combined with universal vertical launch systems (VLS) which can carry an array of weapons. Missiles for air defense, anti-submarine and ant-surface warfare. The Type-055’s VLS has fewer cells than the Ticonderoga Class (112 versus 122), but they are larger and deeper. The weapons load-out is actually quite different though. This likely reflects different needs and priorities more than technological capabilities.

The main air defense missiles are at least analogous. The Chinese HHQ-9 missile, heavily influenced by the Russian S-300 system, performs a similar role to the Standard family of missiles. The U.S. Navy ships also carry the ESSM shorter-ranged air defense missile. These can be quad-packed into a single cell of the VLS. These Chinese ships are not thought to have an equivalent missile, although they do have a 24-round HHQ-10 short-range system. Both ships have close-in weapons systems (CIWS).

Similarly, the Chinese Yu-8 anti-submarine missile is generally equivalent to the U.S. Navy’s VL-ASROC.

(Source: Naval News)

RMN Frigate KD Lekiu Jebat

The two best warships in the Royal Malaysian Navy’s fleet to date is the Lekiu class which has 2 ships namely KD Lekiu and KD Jebat, both of which are seen here during a naval exercise in 2012 in the Andaman Sea with the US Navy and is escorting the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington. Image source: Wikipedia

The Royal Malaysian Navy’s active and modern naval ship, the UK-built Lekiu class on the other hand is slightly smaller compared to Type-055 but still capable of providing a punch in a naval battle. It has a crew of 184 personnel and is able to reach a top speed of 28 knots. Its length is 106 meters and runs on 4 diesel engines that can provide an output of 24.5 MW. It carried Sea Wolf anti-aircraft missiles and the slow Mach 0.93 Exocet Block II anti-ship missiles.

Thus with the such overwhelming might of the Chinese naval assets and the constraints by the ASEAN countries in expanding their naval capabilities, one has to rely on other superpowers to take the initiatives to control and contain China’s expansion in the region. In this light, India has taken active initiatives to face off the might of the Chinese Navy.

No 1 – Challenging China’s Type-055 Destroyer

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The Chinese large missile guide destroyer does not have a direct match with any of the ships in the Indian Navy. However one should not disregard the capabilities of the Indian defense contractors to come up with large capable ships that easily match the Chinese Type-055 as they have already been building naval ships which utilize Made-In-India weapons and radar systems.

In response to the Type-055 threat, the Indian Navy has embarked on Project 18 which will be their next-generation destroyers that can match Type-055 and is expected to be on active service by 2028. It will have 120 vertical launch silos which definitely carry the latest version of the navalised BrahMos cruise missiles and there will be a new futuristic CIWS which is made of electromagnetic rail and laser guns.

Its size is expected to be comparable to Type-055 but powered by a more powerful gas turbine propulsion which can generate up to 72MW. Unfortunately at this point, it remains in the planning stage.

In the meantime, the Indian Navy will need to rely on its Kolkata class stealth guided-missile destroyers of which three are in active service and the newer, upgraded, more capable Visakhapatnam-class stealth guided-missile destroyers which one of them is in active service, and is the largest destroyers in the Indian Navy.

Both have a crew of 300 personnel and are able to reach a top speed of 30 knots like Type-055 destroyer. Its length is 163 meters and has about 16 BrahMos cruise missiles onboard.

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An interesting overview of the INS Kolkata which is one of the very capable stealth missile guided destroyers with most of the weapons and radar system procured locally. ASEAN countries should look into partnering with Indian shipbuilders to come up with a similar setup for their own guided-missile destroyers. 

No 2 – Expanded Patrols to the South China Sea

India has active trade with the ASEAN countries so ensuring free and clear waterways from this region will be crucial for India. As such, India has started to deploy its naval assets in the South China Sea (SCS) as part of its long-term security policy:-

India uses the SCS waterways—the second-most used in the world—for trade worth nearly US$200 billion every year. Nearly 55 percent of India’s trade with the Indo-Pacific region pass through these waters. Overall, one-third of the world’s shipping pass through these SLOCs, carrying over US$3 trillion worth of trade each year, including most of the world’s requirement for vital commodities like energy and raw materials.

India engages with the region through regular naval deployments, visits and exercises in these waters, through established and growing strategic-military partnerships with the littoral states, involvement in oil exploitation in these waters, and diplomatic discussions. As the Indian Navy also operates in the Western Pacific, secure access through the waters of the South China Sea becomes important.

As ASEAN countries’ relations with China come under more strain, India is eager to play the role of a responsible regional stakeholder that can help find a balance amidst the disputes.

(Source: ORF Online)

The Indian Navy through the years has actively increased joint naval operations and training exercises with ASEAN countries including Malaysia:-

Marking a new chapter in Operational Sea Training, the Indian Navy has started giving OST to a Malaysian Navy Ship in Kochi. The Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) Ship KD Jebat, commanded by Commander Mohammed Noorsyarizal Bin Mohammed Noordin, got the first training from the Indian Navy. The vessel which arrived the other day will get 12 days training under the aegis of the Indian Naval Workup Team (INWT).

This is the first time a Malaysian ship is undergoing such a training activity in India. “India traditionally has enjoyed warm relations with Malaysia due to its shared historical and cultural linkages. Malaysia is also an important country in the context of our dialogue partnership with ASEAN and our membership of the East Asia Summit,” said a Navy release.

(Source: New Indian Express – 13th October 2018)

And this;-

The RMN together with the Indian Navy (TLI) continues to strengthen existing defence cooperation through the Passage Exercise (PASSEX) in the waters of the Straits of Melaka today.

The exercise that involved 3 assets from the RMN, namely KD LEKIU, KD JEBAT and Super LYNX helicopters along with 2 TLI assets, namely INS RANVIJAY and INS KORA. Earlier, the two TLI assets were conducting a return voyage to their country of origin after completing a maritime security deployment mission around the South China Sea which is part of TLI’s ‘Act East’ policy in an effort to expand defence cooperation between New Delhi and regional countries.

(Source: Malaysian Military Times – 8th September 2021)

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Like many weapons and military systems in India and China, the origin of BrahMos is from a Russian missile system P-800 Oniks which was then further developed by a joint venture between Russia and India. BrahMos cost about USD2.7 million each and has a good range of 800 kilometers and 1500 kilometers in the future. For the time being, only India is the only user of BrahMos despite the fact Russia was involved in the design and manufacturing. 

No 3 – Sale of BrahMos Anti Ship Missile To Philipines

Speaking of India’s BrahMos cruise missiles, it was jointly developed with the Russians but further developed into more capable variants by the Indians themselves. Most of the Indian Navy’s larger naval ships have BrahMos missiles on board in addition to the coastal defense batteries.

And now, the Philipines will get these missiles for coastal defenses:-

The Philippines has officially become the first foreign nation to acquire the potent Indian-Russian BrahMos supersonic anti-ship missile, strengthening its navy’s ability to safeguard its sovereign claims in the South China Sea.

Today the Philippines Ministry of Defense announced that it had issued a notice of award on December 31 to BrahMos Aerospace Pvt Ltd, accepting its proposal to supply the shore-based anti-ship missile system for the price of $374 million.

The notice of award was issued shortly after the Philippines’ budget department released initial funding for the armed forces’ “planned acquisition of shore-based anti-ship missile system and combat utility helicopters,” which was reported by the Philippine media earlier this month.

The Philippines has long expressed interest in purchasing the BrahMos weapons system, developed by BrahMos Aerospace, a joint venture between India and Russia that was set up in India in 1998. But Manila was forced to put its plans on hold after the COVID-19 pandemic cut deeply into its national budget.

The BrahMos is the world’s fastest supersonic cruise missile. It can be launched from submarines, ships, aircraft, or land platforms, and flies at nearly three times the speed of sound, making it nearly impossible for targets to evade.

(Source: The Diplomat)

INS Kolkata BrahMos Missiles Navy Weapon

BrahMos cruise missile test-fired from INS Kolkata during a naval exercise in 2015. Both the missile and the ship is made in India and are potential addition to the naval assets of the ASEAN countries to keep the Chinese intrusions in check. Image source: Naval News

Certainly, the sales of the very capable and one of the fastest cruise missiles to ASEAN countries will put the Chinese military in check provided that there will be more countries in the region who will also look at improving their defense capability.

Upon closer examination, however, it’s unlikely that the Brahmos will significantly alter the balance of military power in the South China Sea, thanks to China’s recent deployment of cutting-edge missile defence systems on land and at sea in recent years.

The landmark US$375 million defence deal, however, is likely just the opening act in India’s gradual yet steady emergence as a major defence supplier and strategic partner to Southeast Asian nations – from the Philippines to Indonesia to Vietnam – which have been at the forefront of maritime disputes with a resurgent China.

(Source: Asia Times)

The Royal Malaysian Navy operates mostly European-based anti-ship missiles namely the French-made Exocet Block II and the Italian-made Otomat anti-ship missiles. However, none of it is capable of achieving supersonic speed which will make a big difference if faced with China-made supersonic missiles.

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Malaysia operates one of the most modern navies in the region but it is in need of further modernization and new assets namely maritime patrol planes & missile-guided surface combatant warships. This Exocet missile firing exercise coordinated between 2 surface vessels, KD Lekiu and KD Lekir, and the submarine, KD Tun Razak is very interesting considering that an enemy ship can be brought down with 3 missiles (MM40 & SM39) launched at the same time. 

Final Say

The ASEAN countries are facing the Chinese military might and aggressive expansion on daily basis and this may escalate to actual battles in the future. Presently the Royal Malaysian Navy had procured its littoral mission ships dubbed the Keris-class from China which is only 69 meters in length and do not have any missiles on board (it only has guns). However, it will not make sense for Malaysia and other countries in the region to be procuring military assets from China considering that it is likely to be used against China in the future.

This is why as mentioned before in a previous blog post, there are 2 main aspects that the Indians offer to the countries facing China’s military might, especially in the South China Sea.

One is the opportunity to partner with Indian defence companies for joint development and technology transfer:-

Considering that India is always facing active military intrusion and attacks from Pakistan and China at all levels, it has developed a good and sustainable defence industry that has provides a good range of defence products from main battle tanks, helicopters, fighter jets, naval crafts, personal weapons, army vehicles, radar equipment and missiles including the famous BrahMos cruise missiles.

Further, Indian defence companies have active defence manufacturing partnerships with the Israelis, Russians and the US-based defence companies which allow them to license the technology into their own indigenous defence products.

Malaysian defence companies will greatly gain from being defence partners with the Indians in this manner considering RMAF need to upgrade many of our ageing fighter jets and procure new ones all of which the Indians can provide under the RMAF’s inventory.

The other is gaining the support and assistance of the might of the Indian Navy:-

A close relationship by RMAF with the Indians goes beyond the procurement of light attack combat fighters as India is the only country in the vicinity that can effectively counter the Chinese on air and sea.

The Indian Navy is rather unchallengeable in the Indian Ocean with 10 destroyers of which many are stealth guided-missile destroyers, 13 frigates mostly with guided-missile capability, 16 conventionally powered attack submarines, 23 corvettes and 10 large offshore patrol vessels.

The Indian fleet is generally modern and well equipped. We will need the Indians if RMAF and RMN are going to face off the Chinese aircraft and ships in the South China Sea.

In the meantime, we should look at equipping our strategic naval bases in the Spratly Island with more capable defenses probably a battery of BrahMos coastal version missiles, and equipping the BrahMos in the active navy ships. And speed up the completion of the Maharaja Lela class frigates which is based on the robust Gowind class corvette design.

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