In less than two years China has built and put into service 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.
One new Type 903 was launched last May and a second one last June. Both then underwent fitting out and sea trials. At least the first one launched last year completed trials in nine months and the second one is apparently on the same fast track. Both Type 903s appear headed for entering service this year.
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 number of replenishment ships the United States uses. China needs more replenishment ships now because it is more frequently sending warships long distances, not just to the Somali coast but also far into the Pacific.
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 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 now normally 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.