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#5 (67), 2018

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Arms Trade

Soviet/Russian Naval Exports to China

Mikhail BARABANOV

Independent analyst

By signing several major contracts for the de­livery of naval equipment, the People's Re­public of China secured its place as the number one customer in this sector of Russian arms ex­ports in 2002. In this context, is quite appropri­ate to note that the present state of affairs is not only a result of recent developments in Rus­sian-Chinese military-technical cooperation (MTC), but also a consequence of extensive his­torical experience.

"Brothers Forever"

The Soviet Union rendered broad military assis­tance to the People's Republic of China from the very inception of the new socialist country in 1949. The Korean War, however, and China's need to concentrate on forming a modern Army and Air Force pushed the establishment of Red China's Navy to the background. It was only in 1954 that an agreement was reached with the Soviet Union on all-round assistance to the de­velopment of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Over the next few years, this assis­tance formed the foundation for the advance­ment of the Chinese navy as far as its fleet, ar­maments and personnel training were concerned, as well as for the establishment of ship-building and R&D capacities.

In 1954-1955 the Soviet Navy transferred to PLAN:

  • four Project 7 destroyers (Reshitelny, Retivy, Rezky, Rekordny),

  • four medium submarines of the IX-bis series,

  • four small submarines of the XV series,

  • eight big Project 122-bis submarine chasers,

  • six Project 254mine-sweepers,

  • and many torpedo boats - 12 of Project 183 and up to 90 of Project 123K1.

The Soviet Union also transferred several for­eign-made naval ships: two former Japanese es­cort ships and one mine-layer2 as well as six YMS motor mine-sweepers received from the United States under the lend-lease program3. It supplied China with large quantities of ship-borne and coastal armaments, organized large-scale personnel training, and initiated the for­mation of naval aviation. In May 1955, the So­viet Union returned Port Dalny to China free of charge as well as the Port Arthur naval base with all the Soviet-built facilities and coast de­fenses. In 1955, the number of Soviet military advisors and experts working with the PLAN reached 2,5004.

Virtually all naval units inherited by the Peo­ple's Republic of China from the nationalists were repaired and rearmed with Soviet technical assistance5. In 1951, the former flagship of the Kuomintang navy - the light cruiser Chungking (the former British Aurora) - was lifted from the seabed in Taku with Soviet assistance, re­paired and transferred to the PLAN, where it served as the Peking until 19686.

With Soviet assistance, China started develop­ing a modern shipbuilding industry - shipbuild­ing facilities Jiangnan, Hudong and Wusung in Shanghai and the Kiang Chou Yard in Canton were upgraded according to Soviet blueprints and supplied with Soviet-made equipment; a new facility was built in Guangzhou and the ship-repair facility in Dalian was reconstructed. Of particular importance was the construction of China's biggest naval shipyard, the Bohai in Huladao. The Soviet Central Research Institute of Shipbuilding Technology designed it in 1955-1957 and the shipyard was built at record speed during the Great Leap Forward with Soviet as­sistance. In 1962, China was supplied with the master plans for a flooding dock. Though later Soviet involvement in the project was stopped for obvious reasons, the facility was completed by the late 1960s and now manufactures China's nuclear submarines7.

The reconstructed facilities almost immediately began producing warships according to Soviet plans and with Soviet assistance. The organiza­tion of the construction of medium diesel-elec­tric submarines of Project 613 became the key program at that stage. Under an agreement with China, the first three submarines were fully prepared at Krasnoye Sormovo shipyard in Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) and later assem­bled at Jiangnan in Shanghai. They were tested in Port Arthur in 1957. Later, the construction of submarines of the same project was launched in China - in Shanghai and at the Kiang Chou Yard - based on Soviet documents and with the Soviet Union delivering steel for the hulls and practically all the mechanisms, equipment and armaments. The testing of the type submarine of Chinese make was completed in January 1959. By 1964 China had built a total of 18 Project 613 subs8.

Simultaneously, China began organizing the construction of surface ships of Soviet design. The Hudong shipyard in Shanghai and the Guangzhou shipyard built four Project 50 escort ships (Chinese Type 01) heavily relying on So­viet deliveries; these were commissioned in 1958-1960. In 1956-1965, Soviet plans were used to build 21 Project 254 minesweepers (Chinese Type 010) and 14 big Project 122-bis submarine chasers; the large-scale production of Project 183 torpedo boats and tugs was also launched9.

The equipment of the PLAN with up-to-date Soviet weaponry almost immediately brought results in the permanent undeclared war China was waging against nationalists in the Taiwan Strait. Already on November 14, 1954 the freshly received Project 123K torpedo boats sank the escort destroyer Tai Ping (former US Decker) of the Kuomintang off the Tachen Is­lands. In January 1955, the PLAN conducted its first ever combined landing operation together with the ground and air forces, capturing the coastal island of Yijiangshan that had been kept by the nationalists. During the operation the Communists' torpedo boats destroyed the sub­marine chasers Tung Ting and Ying Chiang. In 1958, the PLAN took part in the well-known confrontation around the Quemoy and Matsu Is­lands, in which motor torpedo boats sank the LST landing ship on August 25, and the coastal artillery destroyed the LSM medium landing ship on September 810.

The January 1959 decision of the Soviet leader­ship to organize the production of the latest models of Soviet military hardware, including missiles, in China became a new landmark in Soviet-Chinese cooperation. Ironically the deci­sions made in conditions of deteriorating bilat­eral relations laid the foundation for the techni­cal equipment of virtually all of China's armed forces to this very day. Between 1959 and 1961, China was supplied with documentation for an ocean-going Project 629 diesel-electric subma­rine with the D-1 missile system, a diesel-elec­tric torpedo-carrying submarine of Project 633, a Project 56 destroyer, missile boats of projects 183R and 205 with the P-15 (SS-N-2 Styx) ship-to-ship missile systems, a Project 184 tor­pedo craft11, and also practically all types of Soviet naval artillery of that era and many models of mine and torpedo armaments. The So­viet Union also rendered assistance in organiz­ing their production. China was offered to pur­chase the Pacific Fleet cruiser Petropavlovsk (formerly Lazar Kaganovich, Project 26-bis-2), four Project 30-bis destroyers, and Project 50 escort ships, "but the Chinese, who had got­ten used to gifts found the price too high.12" The Soviet Union also helped China in nuclear research and, at Nikita Khrushchev's initiative, even offered to develop a joint Soviet-Chinese nuclear submarine fleet. However, with the ideological confrontation in bilateral relations, all Soviet specialists were recalled from China in early August of 196013 and, soon thereafter, MTC was severed for a long time.

China had to master production of these vessels and modern Soviet weaponry on its own. Two missile-carrying submarines of Soviet Project 629 (Chinese Type 031) had gone into construc­tion in Dalian in 1959 with Soviet assistance. The withdrawal of Soviet experts sharply hin­dered the project and the type submarine was not commissioned until 196414. Torpedo-carry­ing submarines of Project 633 (Type 033) were built on a mass scale in Shanghai and Canton between the early 1960s and mid-1980s. Ac­cording to various sources, between 84 and 88 units were built. They were also the first subs China made for export - to North Korea (where they were later built according to technical documentation transferred by the Chinese) and to Egypt15. Between 1967 and 1992, China built 17 missile destroyers of the modified Soviet Pro­ject 56 (Chinese Type 051, known in the West as Luda class). The Project 183R fast attack craft and the Project 205 missile attack boats were made in large numbers starting in the mid-1960s in their Chinese modifications - Type 024 (with a steel hull, Hoku class) and Type 021 (Huangfeng class), respectively. The Project 184 torpedo boat served as a prototype for a big series of the Huchuan class (Types 025 and 026) hydrofoil boats16. Chinese engineers used Soviet designs as prototypes for their own models: the Ming class (Type 035) submarines were derived from Project 633, while the Types 065 and 053N frigates used the design of the Project 50 escort ship17.

The same applies to naval weaponry. To this day the overwhelming majority of guns in the Chinese Navy are replicas of Soviet models of the 1940s-1950s. The first Chinese-made Yu-1 torpedoes were manufactured according to the specifications of the Soviet 53-51 torpedoes. China developed a large number of missile types with better performance indicators and broader applications on the basis of the documentation for the Soviet P-15 ship-to-ship missile, trans­ferred in 1959. After a "clean" copy of the P-15 - the SY-1/HY-1 (CSS-N-1 Silkworm) - in the 1970s came the SY-2 with many modifications and a range extended to 90 kilometers, and then the HY-2 (C-201). The 1980s and 1990s saw the further development of anti-ship missiles of the same family with a turbojet engine - HY-4 (C-401, CSS-C-7 Sadsack) that had a range of up to 150 kilometers and an FL-7 with a velocity of M1.4. Several missile types of this family were used in coastal defense. In the 1980s, H-6D aircraft (replicas of Tu-16 bombers) were supplied with YJ-6 (C-601) air-borne anti-ship missiles derived from the same P-1518.

And yet, by the 1980s, the momentum given to the Chinese military-industrial complex by So­viet assistance of the 1950s-early1960s waned. China became virtually incapable of independ­ently surpassing the military technologies received from the USSR. As a result, the Chinese army, air force and navy began hopelessly lagging behind the armed forces of advanced military powers. The need for "the fourth modernization" became dire and, in conditions of radical changes on the domestic scene in both the USSR and China, and with the deterioration of relations with the West after the developments in Tiananmen Square, China set its sights back on its neighbor to the north.

Cooperation in Post-Soviet Times

Soviet-Chinese political relations improved fun­damentally during President Mikhail Gorba­chev's visit to China in May 1989, which paved the way among other things for the resumption of MTC after an interval of almost 30 years. The two countries signed an intergovernmental agreement on mutual deliveries of armaments and military hardware and the sale of licenses for their production on June 14, 1990. The well-known 1991 contract for the delivery of 24 So­viet-made Su-27 air superiority fighters became the first step.

The first major naval contract followed in 1992, when China ordered the construction of two Project 877EKM (Kilo class) diesel-electric submarines of. The subs were built at the Kras­noye Sormovo shipyard in Nizhny Novgorod and delivered in February and November 1995, re­spectively19. Later, a contract was signed for two submarines of modified Project 636, which were constructed at the Admiralty Shipyards in St. Petersburg. The first one was commissioned on November 12, 1997, and the second on De­cember 2, 199820. The price of the four subma­rines was estimated at $1 billion, but the Chi­nese reportedly made 50% of the payments for the Krasnoye Sormovo subs with deliveries of consumer goods21. The combat capacity of these subs was indisputably superior to that of any Chinese-made counterparts, and the vessels demonstrated to the PLAN command a truly modern international standard of submarine building. Thus, on May 3, 2002 Rosoboronex­port signed a contract for the delivery - over a period of five years - of eight Project 636 sub­marines, additionally equipped with the Club-S missile system, worth at least $1.6 billion22. Ac­cording to the latest reports, five of the subs will be built at the Admiralty Shipyards, two at Sevmash in Severodvinsk, and one at Krasnoye Sormovo23.

The August 1997 agreement on the purchase of two unfinished Project 956 (Sovremenny class) destroyers and their following completion at Severnaya Verf for the PLAN became a land­mark event for Russian shipbuilding. The con­tract totaled $885 million24. Both ships - the Yekaterinburg (formerly Vazhny) and the Alex­ander Nevsky (formerly Vdumchivy) - were laid down in 1988-1989 for the Soviet Navy. When the contract was signed, their general technical readiness was 70% and 30%, respectively. They were completed according to export Project 956E. The type destroyer was renamed Hanzhou (hull number 136) and handed over to the PLAN on December 25, 1999; the second, the Fuzhou (hull number 137), was delivered ex­actly 11 months later. They became the biggest warships ever built for export in Russia or the Soviet Union. Their advanced weaponry and ra­dioelectornic equipment makes them far superior to any vessel in the Chinese navy and radically raises PLAN's combat capabilities. At the same time, according to Severnoye Design Bureau, the Chinese had great difficulties learning to operate such complex vessels25.

The overwhelming superiority of ships of this far-from-new Russian project over the few Chi­nese-made vessels of the same class was so striking that on January 2, 2002 China signed a $1.5 billion agreement with Rosoboronexport for the construction of two more destroyers of the modified export Project 956EM by the end of 200526. JSC Shipbuilding Plant Severnaya Verf won the contract. So far there has been no information about Project 956EM in the media, but we can assume that it resembles the first versions of Project 956U developed for the So­viet Navy, with 16 Yakhont anti-ship missiles instead of the Moskit (SS-N-22 Sunburn) ship-to-ship missiles and updated anti-aircraft weap­onry27. As before, the hulls of uncompleted So­viet-era destroyers - with side numbers 880 and 881 - will probably be used to make these two vessels28.

China has shown great interest in acquiring not only entire warships, but also various naval arms systems and technologies, especially super­sonic anti-ship missiles. In 1997, the Zvezda-Strela State Scientific and Production Center signed an agreement with China on organizing joint production of the X-31 family supersonic missiles under the Russian name KR-1 (Russian acronym for Kitai-Rossiya, i.e. China-Russia) and the Chinese name YJ-9129. A contract fol­lowed immediately for 50 Moskit 3M80E ship-to-ship missiles for Project 956E destroyers30. Later their licensed production was also dis­cussed31. Presently the possible delivery of the latest Russian supersonic missiles - the 3M55E Yakhont (for the Project 956EM destroyers) and the 3M54E (for the new Project 636submarines) is being discussed.

An agreement on the sale of two S-300FM Rif-M (SA-N-6) ship-based SAM systems to China was reached on April 4, 200232. There have been no reports in the media about the ships on which they will be deployed, but we can assume that these will be the guided missile destroyers of the new Chinese Type 052B under construc­tion in Shanghai. The Chinese naval command shows notable interest in Russian-made modern naval automatic guns, such as the AK-130, in­stalled in the Type 956E destroyers33. In 1998, China purchased one Russian 76-mm AK-176 main gun installed in the Project 520T (Houjian class) missile attack boat with the hull number 774 - most likely for testing34. In the 1990s, it acquired torpedoes of 53-65KE and TEST-71MKE types, along with Russian-made subma­rines35. Naval equipment purchases included gas turbines made by the Ukrainian Zorya Produc­tion Association, which are installed as boosting engines in the Qingdao destroyer (Type 052) and expected to be installed in new Type 052B ships36. We can assume that China will import more naval equipment and armaments from Rus­sia and other CIS countries for Chinese-made vessels, since this is a much cheaper way of up­grading the PLAN than purchasing entire war­ships.

The PLAN is also increasing purchases of air­craft technology from Russia. In 1993, it bought two Ka-28 ASW helicopters for testing37. In the late 1990s, four more Ka-28 helicopters and four Ka-27PS search-and-rescue helicopters were ac­quired38. In January 2003, the press reported that China purchased 28 SU-30MKK multirole fighters adapted for warfare against naval tar­gets, worth up to $1 billion39.

Deliveries of naval hardware to China consti­tute an important segment of Russian arms ex­ports. With the complete deterioration of the Russian Navy and shipbuilding and in the ab­sence of breakthroughs in the export of naval equipment, except to India, the Russian ship­building, aircraft-making and related industries are increasingly dependent on China's "fourth modernization". The tremendous 2002 naval contracts, worth over $3 billion (not counting the Su-30MKK fighters) serve as clear proof. At this point, Russia and China cannot do without each other in naval development - the naval sec­tor of the Russian defense industry is suffocat­ing without orders, while China is clearly inca­pable of developing arms systems of a new gen­eration in almost any sphere without foreign technical assistance. Since military cooperation with the West is not an option, Beijing simply has nobody else to turn to other than Russia. And the more sophisticated the weaponry, the more difficult it is for China to reproduce it; this forces Beijing to resort to procurements of expensive large surface ships and submarines. Even a superficial look at the development and present state of the PLAN clearly shows how grave the problems of upgrading it are, and how badly it lags behind the advanced international standards in most spheres. And this means that the People's Republic of China will remain a stable consumer of Russian naval weaponry for many years to come.


1 A. S. Pavlov, Korabli kitaiskogo flota, Yakutsk, 1996, pp. 47-49, Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1947-1995. London, 1995, pp. 58-67.

2 S.S. Berezhnoi, Trofei I reparatsii VMF SSSR, Ya­kutsk, 1994, pp. 76-77, 86-87.

3 S.S. Berezhnoi, Flot SSSR. Korabli I suda lend-liza, St. Petersburg, 1994, pp. 221-224.

4 www.allworld.wallst.ru.

5 A. S. Pavlov, Korabli kitaiskogo flota, Yakutsk, 1996, pp. 24-47, Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1947-1995. London, 1995, pp. 54-57.

6 A. S. Pavlov, Korabli kitaiskogo flota, Yakutsk, 1996, p. 46. Other sources say the cruiser was never restored to full combat capability, see M.J. Whitley, Cruisers of World War Two. An International Ency­clopedia, London, 1995, p. 104.

7 Istoria otechestvennogo sudostroyeniya, V. 5, St. Petersburg, 1996, p. 128.

8 A.B. Shikorad, Sovetskiye podvodnye lodki poslevoyennoi postroiki, Moscow, 1997, p. 33; A. S. Pavlov, Korabli kitaiskogo flota, Yakutsk, 1996, p. 51

9 A. S. Pavlov, Korabli kitaiskogo flota, Yakutsk, 1996, pp. 48-53, Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1947-1995. London, 1995, pp. 66-67.

10 Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1947-1995. London, 1995, pp. 55, 57, 458. Also www.sinodefence.com.

11 V.I. Zharkov, Podvodnaya lodka proyekta 629, Tai­fun, No. 3, 2002, pp. 8-9; A. S. Pavlov, Korabli ki­taiskogo flota, Yakutsk, 1996, pp. 40, 49, 50, 58, 63, 64

12 A. S. Pavlov, Korabli kitaiskogo flota, Yakutsk, 1996, p. 40.

13 V.I. Zharkov, Podvodnaya lodka proyekta 629, Tai­fun, No. 3, 2002, p. 9.

14 Ibid.

15 A. S. Pavlov, Korabli kitaiskogo flota, Yakutsk, 1996, p. 50; Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1947-1995. London, 1995, p.64.

16 Jane's Fighting Ships 1999-2000; A. S. Pavlov, Korabli kitaiskogo flota, Yakutsk, 1996, pp. 58, 63, 64.

17 Jane's Fighting Ships 1999-2000.

18 Information from www.sinodefece.com and also Jane's Naval Weapons Systems 1998-1999.

19 Jane's Fighting Ships 1999-2000; A. S. Pavlov, Korabli kitaiskogo flota, Yakutsk, 1996, p. 56.

20 Taifun, No. 5, 1997, No. 3. 1998, No. 1, 1999.

21 Nizhny Novgorod news agency, 10.04.2000.

22 Alexei Nikolsky, "Molitsya na Kitai", Vedomosti, 21.05.2002.

23 Izvestiya, 26.09.2002.

24 Ilya Bulavinov, 'Severnaya verf' lishilas kitaiskogo kontrakta vypolnennogo dva goda nazad', Kommer­sant, 10.07.2002.

25 Posledni eskadrennyi minonosets VMF SSSR, St. Petersburg, 2001, pp. 82-86.

26 The Moscow Times, 09.01.2002.

27 Posledni eskadrennyi minonosets VMF SSSR, St. Petersburg, 2001, pp. 82-86.

28 A. S. Pavlov, Esmintsy pervogo ranga, Yakutsk, 2000, p.39.

29 Information from www.sinodefece.com; Jane's Na­val Weapons Systems 1998-1999 and private reports.

30 INFO-TASS database, Vega base, 07.04.1998.

31 D. Gornostayev, "Rossia i Kitai obyedinilis po vo­prosy PRO', Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, 19.07.2002.

32 Alexei Nikolsky, Mikhail Kozyrev, "Rossia postroit Kitayu Rify", Vedomosti, 30.04.2002.

33 Posledni eskadrennyi minonosets VMF SSSR, St. Petersburg, 2001, p.153.

34 Information from www.sinodefence.com.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.

37 M. Shepovalenko, "Velikaya Stena iz stali", Mor­skoi sbornik, No.2, 1994, p.80.

38 Igor Korotchenko, "Strategichesky partnyor rosiiskogo OPK", Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, 01.08.2002. Other sources say the contract covered five Ka-28 and three Ka-27PS - see Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, 24.12.1999.

39 Konstantin Lantratov, "Kitaisky flot budet usilen rossiiskimi istrebitelyami", Kommersant, 25.01.2003.



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