The PLAN is closer than ever to organizing its first carrier strike group. On August 1 the South China Morning Post broke the news of a 45,000 ton supply and replenishment ship’s commissioning. This might not look like a big deal–the Chinese navy operates numerous vessels of the type–but what matters is the context.
Details surrounding the ship’s induction to the navy were scarce. According to the Morning Post’s reporters, the only proof of its status as a commissioned vessel was its hull number, 965. Verified information about its technology, layout, and crew is not available.
“Supply Ship 965” was first spotted during its construction at a yard owned by Guangzhou Shipbuilding International. It was soon labeled as a Type 901, a new class of non-combat auxiliary vessel. The mysterious Type 901 was launched in December 2015 and underwent sea trials throughout the following year. Its eventual deployment couldn’t be more convenient for Beijing. A fully operational base opened in Djibouti this August while a constellation of fortified artificial islands in the South China Sea are almost complete.
It was barely four months ago when the Type 001A, China’s first locally made aircraft carrier, was launched from its dock with much fanfare. Once commissioned it can support one or two squadrons of the J-15, a fourth-generation fighter jet with a 3,000 kilometer range, alongside submarine hunting helicopters and even a small AWACS plane.
While this doesn’t sound much compared to the US Navy’s own supercarriers that now include the USS Gerald Ford an operational Type 001A has no peer in the rest of Asia. Even India’s upcoming quartet of STOBAR carriers might not match their Chinese counterparts once these are accompanied by full strike groups.
That China intends to have its own carrier strike groups is beyond doubt. In June 2o17 the first Type 055 guided missile destroyer, the largest of its kind in East Asia, was launched with lavish ceremony. Nobody is sure if the PLAN wants a few or just a dozen of these missile-armed destroyers. Whatever their numbers in a decade or so, there will be enough to assign at least two or three for each PLAN carrier.
Matched with frigate and submarine escorts, the resulting flotilla is a potent force wherever it goes. It gives the leadership in Beijing the ability to police important sea lanes and fight wars abroad; even encircle and blockade Taiwan. A PLAN destroyer already traveled as far as the Baltic for drills with the Russian navy in July 2017. Anti-piracy and numerous goodwill visits in the last dozen years also helped bring the PLAN to strategically important waters and tested its range and reach. Once larger groups of Chinese vessels sail across the world’s oceans it falls on replenishment ships to keep them fueled, armed, and stocked with essentials like food.
No wonder vessels the size of the first Type 901 are now in service. Without them, sending Chinese carrier strike groups to the far corners of the Earth doesn’t make much sense.