March 11, 2012: A major source of training for the Chinese Navy is the anti-piracy patrol off Somalia, where an international force keeps Somali pirates from interfering with shipping passing through the area. China has been participating in this operation since 2008. Each Chinese "naval escort task force" consists of one or two destroyers or frigates and one or two supply ships. The 11th such task force is now on its way to the Somali coast and consists of a destroyer, a frigate, and a supply ship. About 800 sailors are involved, 70 of them special operations personnel. Each task force spends four months off the Somali coast. This particular task force is the first from the North China Sea fleet. The other task forces have been drawn from the other two fleets (The East Sea and The South Sea).
Service in the Somali task forces is eagerly sought after because it is the most intensive and extensive available. The task force gets practice in long distance cruises (Somalia is 10,000 kilometers distant and it takes two weeks to get there) and combat operations. Granted, the enemy rarely fires back and is hard to find. But the crews get valuable experience in operating on the high seas and searching for an elusive foe.
There are 74 destroyers and frigates in the Chinese Navy, and it will take another 4-5 years for all of these ships to have an opportunity to serve off Somalia. But the important thing is that thousands of sailors have served on the task force, and they eventually spread throughout the fleet, providing a higher degree of skill and experience on the high seas.
Recently, China, India, and Japan agreed to have their warships off the Somali coast coordinate operations to more efficiently protect civilian ships in the area. Chinese and Indian warships have been operating independently off Somalia, while Japanese ships have been operating with Task Force 151. Most warships on anti-piracy duty belong to TF 151. Most of the remainder belongs to the EUNFS (European Union Naval Force Somalia). But some nations continue to operate independently, more or less. There is always some communication, coordination, and sharing of information with TF 151 and EUNFS.
The anti-piracy patrol off Somalia consists of several dozen warships and recon aircraft that patrol the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean areas searching for pirates and, in general, protecting merchant shipping from pirate attack. But all these ships and aircraft have never been under a single command and coordination is often sporadic.
The Chinese, Indians, and Japanese have not formed a new task force but have simply increased coordination among their warships to provide more efficient escorts for convoys of merchant ships operating in the area.