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The PLAN Love Sailing In The South China Sea

March 5, 2018

The view aboard the frigate Mianyang. Via China Military Online.

It’s not a secret that flotillas of Chinese warships are constantly plying the waters between the Philippines and Vietnam. In what appears to be a monthly occurrence, the PLAN deploy ships to the Paracel Islands before sending them farther out for maneuvers. Of course, all navies need to maintain an operational tempo.

But since the South China Sea is now a potential theater for global war these activities are clear proof a confrontation is brewing with the Quad Alliance, whose members states have open invitations to join US Navy FONOPs. In fact, two PLAN guided missile destroyers were in the South China Sea on the same week the USS Carl Vinson departed Manila and patrolled the region.

Two “guided missile frigates” patrolled an unspecified corner of the South China Sea on February 23. These were identified as the Mianyang (Hull 528) and the Suqian (Hull 504). Both represent two classes of littoral warships the PLAN are extremely fond of. Based on figures compiled by the Pentagon the Chinese navy had a total of 56 frigates in 2016 with the majority assigned to the Eastern and Southern fleets.

The photo above is interesting for what it gives away–the profile of a Type 056A corvette docked at an unnamed port. Could this be Sansha City in the Paracel islands?

While at sea the sailors onboard both warships performed drills to simulate various contingencies. Even the Z-9 helicopter onboard the frigate Mianyang took part. The Z-9 is a Chinese copy of the French Dauphin multirole helicopter and can perform anti-submarine operations. The PLAN don’t have a lot of corvettes and excess production capacity means the so-called Jiangdao-class is available for export.

The Suqian is heavily armed. On the bow is a 76mm gun and there are reportedly two 30mm anti-aircraft guns and an HHQ-10 SAM launcher located midship. Sailing ahead of it is the Mianyang, an older Type 053H3 frigate, that carries YJ-83 anti-ship missiles, HQ-7 SAMs, and six torpedo launchers.

Corvettes and frigates might become the preferred vessels for the PLAN’s Southern Fleet in the coming years. How come? Its preoccupation is the South China Sea where ocean-going vessels aren’t needed. As island bases in the Paracels and Spratlys expand, resupplying the different types of warships in the South China Sea flotilla becomes easier.

During the late February patrol one particular drill stood out. A group of sailors from the frigate Mianyang boarded an inflatable motor boat and practiced intercepting a “foreign” vessel–the corvette Suqian. These kinds of exercises are useful if the PLAN intend to police the South China Sea and deter any naval activities by claimants. It can also mean a more “responsible” Chinese presence, where PLAN sailors have a mandate to help stricken ships and protect the routes they follow.

It should be noted the February 19 patrol involving the Mianyang and Suqian happened exactly a month after PLAN amphibious transports had their own little war games in the South China Sea.

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