The recent international military effort to find missing flight MH370 revealed a serious deficiency in Chinese naval strategy. In short, without access to foreign ports for resupply the Chinese Navy cannot sustain large numbers of ships far from China. Chinese naval planners are aware of this and the political leaders have been listening. That has resulted in more supply ships being built for the navy. Those orders may now be increased.
China sent two dozen warships and support vessels into the southern Indian Ocean and it was obvious that without access to nearby Australian ports the Chinese ships would not have been able to remain in the area for long. The classic solution is a large fleet of support (“sustainment”) ships to constantly deliver food, fuel and other supplies to ships at sea. China is rapidly building such ships, but not enough of them to maintain a large force for an extended period. China is unlikely to obtain the overseas ports it needs to support its current expansion plans because Chinese expansion plans have angered nearly all the nations in area. China does have few allies, like Pakistan, Cambodia and Burma. This is not enough and if it came to outright hostilities these three would not be enough as any or all of them could have their port access blocked by neighboring countries that are at odds with China.
This logistical weakness is no secret but the Chinese have played it down. After the April MH370 operation it’s a much more visible issue. Chinese naval threats are now a bit less intimidating, until there are reports that China is building more sustainment ships than it already is.
In 2013 China commissioned its third and fourth Type 903 replenishment ship. Thus in less than two years China has built and put into the water two more Type 903 replenishment ships. The first two of these 23,000 tons tanker/cargo ships appeared in 2004. Then in 2008, these ships became heavily used, supporting 13 task forces sent to the anti-piracy patrol off Somalia. Usually one Type 903 accompanied two warships (usually a frigate and a destroyer). The replenishment ship did just that, supplying fuel, water, food, and other supplies as needed. The replenishment ship would go to local ports to restock its depleted stores of fuel, water, food, and other necessities. China needs more Type 903s to support the growing number of long distance training operations into the Western Pacific.
The Type 903 is similar to the twelve American T-AKE replenishment ships in service. These 40,000 ton ships service a much larger fleet than the four Chinese Type 903s and are part of a larger replenishment fleet required by American warships operating worldwide.
Meanwhile China has, over the last two decades, trained more and more of its sailors to resupply ships at sea. It’s now common to see a Chinese supply ship in the Western Pacific refueling two warships at once. This is a tricky maneuver and the Chinese did not learn to do it overnight. They have been doing this more and more over the last decade, first refueling one ship at a time with the receiving ship behind the supply ship and then the trickier side-by-side method. This enables skilled supply ship crews to refuel two ships at once.
This is all part of a Chinese navy effort to enable its most modern ships to carry out long duration operations. In addition to the ships sent to Somalia, the Chinese have been sending flotillas (containing landing ships, destroyers, and frigates) on 10-20 day cruises into the East China Sea and beyond. The MH370 search off west Australia was the largest Chinese fleet deployment in modern times.
The Chinese have been working hard on how to use their new classes of supply ships. These are built to efficiently supply ships at sea. This is called underway replenishment and it means transferring fuel and other supplies to moving ships. This requires skill and practice and the Chinese are out there obtaining both, so much so that it’s become a regular practice. The crews have also learned how to keep all the needed supplies in good shape and stocked in the required quantities. This requires the procurement officers to learn how to arrange resupply at local ports in a time basis. This was particularly important off Somalia, where warships often had to speed up (burning a lot of fuel in the process) or use their helicopters to deal with the pirates.
Modern at-sea replenishment methods were developed out of necessity by the United States during World War II because of a lack of sufficient forward bases in the vast Pacific. The resulting service squadrons (Servrons) became a permanent fixture in the U.S. Navy after the war. Ships frequently stay at sea for up to six months at a time, being resupplied at sea by a Servron. New technologies were developed to support the effective use of the seagoing supply service. Few other navies have been able to match this capability, mainly because of the expense of the Servron ships and the training required to do at sea replenishment. China is buying into this capability, which makes their fleet more effective because warships can remain at sea for longer periods.