It is no secret that China is building new warships at a record clip, and producing ships based on proven designs and training crews as intensively as successful foreign navies have for centuries. This process began in the 1990s and China tried to conceal what was going on because like other communist police states, China does not like publicizing what its military has been doing. That has changed in the last few years, in part because enthusiastic Chinese fans of this growing and modernized military eagerly took photos and videos and shared these images on the Internet. Young soldiers and sailors did the same but they were eventually coerced to pull back from oversharing. Recently these Internet based military boosters were told that sort of thing was officially illegal. Such propaganda is a state monopoly and now the state propaganda specialists have been assigned to hype the growing might of the new Chinese military and do it the government-approved way. That did not work out as planned.
For example, a recent official press release boasted about China putting five new warships, similar in design to the current American models, into service at the same time. That was a mistake because the claim was a scam that brought unwanted, for the Chinese propaganda officials, attention to less publicity-worthy aspects of Chinese naval ship building. It was widely known that those five ships had been operational for some time but some were still undergoing long “trials” periods. All navies have ships go through one or more short test voyages to see if everything is in working order. It’s not unusual for problems to be found and the new ships return to port, or the shipyard, to have the problems fixed. For that reason, the trials can often take several months before the ship is officially accepted (commissioned) into service.
Western navies can usually set a commissioning date far in advance by making allowances for longer trials. If the trials are over more quickly the crew just gets more training on their new ship before the official commissioning ceremony. China has approached this differently, in order to speed up development of Western quality warships Chinese ship designers, builders and crews are not familiar with. This is not a flaw, but a feature. The Chinese propaganda pros either did not understand this or were ordered to ignore it and that took some of the luster away from what the Chinese had actually accomplished.
The Chinese system is now touted as something the West should emulate as a way to avoid disastrous new warship designs like the American Zumwalt-class destroyers, LCS (Littoral Combat Ships) meant to replace a successful class of conventional frigates and worst of all, the new Ford-class nuclear powered aircraft carriers. Use of the Chinese system could have avoided these American disasters.
China realized that they could not leap from their 1990s era warships based on Cold War Russian designs to the superior and quite different Western designs, at least not quickly or easily quickly. Chinese industry had learned that achieving competence in some technologies took time, even if you had obtained, legally or otherwise, full technical details of the Western equipment and manufacturing process. This has delayed China from matching Russia, much less Western firms, in building high-performance jet engines or similar maritime engines. As Chinese ship designers, developers and builders studied details of what tech Western warships depended on, they realized it was best to move slowly and carefully to avoid wasting time and money on overambitious designs that don’t work and you only realize that after several ships were built.
This was not speculation on the part of the Chinese because in the 1990s China was already developing one of the largest commercial ship building industries in the world. Japan and South Korea were already world class commercial shipbuilders and China noted that their neighbors started small and simple in order to master the management and worker skills needed to build larger and more complex ships. China followed the same model, even as South Korea and Japan advanced to more complex, and more profitable specialized commercial ships, like those carrying hazardous chemicals or liquified natural gas. A decade ago, China began to dominate the market for basic cargo and tanker ships and that created a large pool of veteran shipyard managers and workers. This is what China needed to start emulating Western Warship designs. They proceeded slowly, initially copying older Western designs that had tech more similar to what was used in commercial ships China had become effective at building. Meanwhile China subsidized firms developing specialized electronics for commercial and military ships as well as the gas-turbine maritime engines that enabled Western warships to rapidly increase speed. There were dozens of other ship techs that were common in Western commercial ships and more highly developed for warships.
It was noted by Western naval officers and ship builders that a single class of new Chinese warships would often improve radically from ship to ship, rather than in planned evolution used in the West where a class of twenty new warships would be planned so that these arrived in three sub-classes, with the subsequent ones modified to fix or upgrade the previous group. China adopted this practice by considering each new ship as a new group and stretching out the build time for all the ships in a class so that more changes could be applied, and often just tried out, on the next ship. This was obvious when there were external changes. It was later discovered that the internal changes were sometimes even more extensive. This process often led to new classes of warships consisting of fewer ships than planned. The next class of the same type of ship was markedly better than the first ship of the earlier class. China also avoided the Western practice of setting commissioning dates far in advance. New ships officially enter service when it was ready, and that often required over a year of sea trials. Sometimes the trials went on for so long that the new ship was officially commissioned into service but its initial service consisted of more trials and visits to the shipyard. This was particularly the case with the development of Chinese subs. Their modern diesel-electric designs were based on the popular, late-Cold War Russian Kilo-class. China has even more problems with nuclear subs and are still stuck trying to match or improve on Russian Cold War era designs. What China had never done before was commission five new warships at the same time for a publicity stunt. Chinese sailors saw that as unprofessional but were professional enough to keep it to themselves.