Former Navy Intel Officer: Chinese Navy ‘Very Competent,’ Getting Better

Chinese sailors watch a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warship pull into Djibouti. Xinhua Photo

China’s rise as a naval power goes well beyond its growing number of ships and submarines but the People’s Liberation Army Navy growing capability to operate jointly with the Chinese air force and rocket corps, a maritime intelligence expert said Tuesday.

Speaking at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., James Fannell, a retired Navy captain, said, “we need to respect that” growth in capability as much as China’s increasing numbers of modern warships, including carriers and ballistic missile submarines.

“I’m not surprised they’re becoming more and more like us,” Fannell said, down to China’s new emphasis on building a robust noncommissioned officer corps to improve quality afloat.

Fannel is considered a controversial figure in maritime security discussions on China and the Pacific, because of his belief the U.S. Navy should not engage in high-level military-to-military meetings. In his experience as U.S. Pacific Fleet intelligence officer, Fannel said, Chinese officers “would ask a thousand questions, and we’d give them a thousand answers. We’d ask one question and get nothing back.”

However, he warns China’s capability must be respected. In short, “they are very, very competent,” and have progressed a long way in exercising command and control. The Chinese Navy also strengthened their skills in targeting and improving intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance thanks to an active satellite-launching program at a rate far outpacing the United States’ satellite launching program.

Beijing’s operations in the South China Sea and now their extended submarine patrols into the western India Ocean are examples of increased expertise in operations over great distances, he said.

“Where will they next operate,” Fannell asked rhetorically. The answer lays in where Beijing is dispatching its oceanographic fleet. They are currently mapping the Atlantic Ocean’s floor, he said.

But when it comes down to numbers and tonnage, Fannell said China “is determined to be first” in naval power by 2049, the centennial of the Chinese Communist takeover of the mainland. Their goal is to achieve “sea dominance,” the ability to bully or intimidate any nation so that they can impose their will in a crisis, he said.

With its modern shipyards, skilled workers and low costs, China is capable of producing two nuclear attack submarines and one ballistic missile submarine annually. The yards producing surface combatants have the same production efficiency, Fannell said. Beijing’s naval building program for all combatants “may be greater than originally estimated.”

The People’s Liberation Army Navy has at 450 surface ships and 110 submarines today, Fannell said. The fleet is concentrated regionally to keep the United States and its allies at bay. As for the United States’ long-term fleet planning strategy, he doubts the Navy could reach its goal of having a 355-ship fleet, according to its latest 30-year shipbuilding plan. To meet current global naval commitments, Fannell said the U.S. would likely need an even larger fleet than what’s planned.

In conjunction with expedited shipbuilding, Beijing is investing in sophisticated weaponry to keep the U.S. Navy and its allies and partners at bay. Using anti-ship cruise missiles as an example, Fannell said, “they simply dominate in numbers, range [200 miles] and speed — all supersonic.”

And that’s what is known.

“We know the Chinese hide many things from us” when the U.S. government, U.S. allies and partners try to gauge Beijing’s activities, he said. “Assumptions [about what the Chinese are doing, planning and considering] must be rigorously tested [and] thrown out if found to be wrong. Bad assessments have made us less secure.”

The Chinese are very open with work in the South China Sea to convert coral reefs and rock formations into militarized artificial islands. “Three of these [seven] islands] are the same dimensions as Pearl Harbor” or the size of the Beltway around Washington, D.C., he said.

Instead of engaging in open conflict, Fannell said China prefers to bully or intimidate over the islands it claims as sovereign territories in the South China Sea and in the East China Sea. With 10,000-foot runways and port facilities for large surface warships and submarines, “fish isn’t really the driver” in this crash building effort, nor is it energy development, he said.

The effort “has a military application,” allowing China “to have the ability to operate with impunity in the South China Sea.” Fannell said. The next move may come in militarizing Scarborough Reef, about 140 miles from Manila, the capital of U.S. ally the Philippines. Doing so, he said, gives Beijing “a vector of attack from the south on Taiwan.”

Freedom of navigation transits through disputed waters are valuable, Fannell said, but the real deterrence and assurance come with presence. “Stepping up our presence” and adding more exercises with allies and partners in the Pacific and Indian oceans sends a signal to China and other nations that the United States and its partners are serious when saying “the global commons are open to everyone.”

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