2014-06-09 by Richard Weitz
For the third year in a row, Russia and China conducted a major bilateral naval exercise last month, following the previous joint drills off the coast of Russia’s Far East in July 2013 and those in China’s Yellow Sea in April 2012.
The Russians called the maritime drills “Naval Interaction 2014,” whereas the Chinese referred to the drills as Joint Sea-2014.
Sources vary on the specific dates this year’s exercise formally began and ended. Various Chinese and Russian sources have reported the formal exercise as running from May 20 to 24, May 20 to 26, May 22 to 24, and May 22 to 25. The drills’ public location was also vaguely described as taking place in the “northern waters and aerial space of the East China Sea.”
Before sailing there, the Russian ships participating in the exercises first arrived at Usun naval base in Shanghai, where the drills were organized and from which both the Russian and Chinese forces departed for the staging grounds in the East China Sea.
On May 19, 2014, officers and sailors of each navy toured each other’s ships in the port. Shanghai was also where Putin met with Xi on May 20 and 21, as both were in the city for the summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building in Asia.
The Russian naval squadron included six ships from the Russian Pacific Fleet. It was led by the guided-missile cruiser Varyag, capable of carrying 16 advanced SS-N-12 anti-ship missiles armed with nuclear warheads in a configuration designed primarily to destroy U.S. aircraft carriers.
The Russian contingent also included the fleet destroyer Bystry, the submarine warfare ship Admiral Panteleyev, the amphibious warship Admiral Nevelskoy, and two service vessels, the Ilim and Kalar (a tanker and a tug).
- Russian Order of Battle
- Slava Class Guided Missile Cruiser Varyag
- Sovremenny Class Destroyer Bystry
- Udaloy Class Anti-Submarine Destroyer Admiral Panteleyev
- Large Landing Ship Project 775 Admiral Nevelskoy
- Tanker Ilim
- Tugboat Kalar
- 2-4 Kamov Ka-27PL helicopters (the six ships above collectively have the ability to transport up to 4, and Russia reported contributing Ka-27 “helicopters” suggesting more than one)
- 2 Su-30MK2 fighter planes
Host-country China made a somewhat larger contribution to the drills.
The participating Chinese vessels in the exercise included the latest-generation Russian-built destroyer Ningbo and the Chinese-built Type-052C Luyang II destroyer: The Zhengzhou is one of the most advanced combat vessels in the PLA’s East Sea Fleet. It can carry 48 HQ-9 long-range surface-to-air missiles, which are based on the Russian-built S-300, to intercept enemy aircraft, as well as C-805 and YJ-62 missiles, capable of attacking enemy ships and land targets. China’s Su-30 fighters and JH-7 bombers provided air support for both fleets. In addition, J-10 fighters took part in the Russia-China exercises for the first time.
Chinese Order of Battle
- Type 052 Guided-Missile Destroyer Harbin
- Type 052C Guided-Missile Destroyer Zhengzhou
- Type 956 Destroyer Ningbo
- Type 054 Guided-Missile Frigate Yantai
- Type 054 Guided-Missile Frigate Liuzhou
- Type 903 Replenishment Ship Qiandaohu
- An unspecified number of “new-type” missile boats (possibly 2), probably the Type 022 Houbei Class, the newest model of PLAN missile boat
- 2 submarines whose class has apparently not been released
- 2 to 4 Kamov Ka-28 and/or Harbin Z-9 helicopters (the 6 ships above collectively have the ability to transport up to 8 helicopters, typically of those two models, and the Kremlin has reported that it is contributing “helicopters,” suggesting at least 2, leaving China with 3 to 4 out of the 6 total)
- 7 planes of multiple classes which have apparently not been identified (Russia has reported a contribution of 2 planes, which would leave China with 7 out of the 9 total)
Although Russia and China each contributed six major ships to Naval Interaction 2014, the overall Russian contingent was smaller and played more of a support role.
Russia provided only three of the eight surface combatants (or less, if there were any Chinese missile boats), and none of the submarines, but did supply two of the exercises’ three support ships. Furthermore, while it probably furnished roughly half of the participating helicopters, it only accounted for two of the nine fixed-wing aircraft.
The larger contribution of the PLA Navy was likely simply a function of the exercises’ taking place off the Chinese coast and being based out of a Chinese city.
When Russia and China conducted their first joint naval exercises in 2012, the drills took place off China, and PLA Navy ships predominated. When the 2013 exercises took place near Vladivostok, the Russian Navy contribution was larger than that from China.
Whichever country hosts the exercises provides the bulk of their participants. If anything, Russia’s contribution this year is somewhat robust, compared to the last time China hosted the exercises in 2012, when the Chinese contingent was considerably larger than the Russian one.
The 2014 exercises consisted of a wide range of missions, including jointly identifying potentially hostile aircraft, combating submarines, providing joint air defense, escorting vessels, engaging in search-and-rescue missions, recapturing a seized ship, and intercepting missiles.
For example, Chinese and Russian ships conducted a drill to fight underwater “frogmen” and stop terrorists on speedboats. In addition, they rehearsed defending ships at anchorage by providing early warning against possible enemy attacks, evacuating the warships under attack, and countering the attack with kinetic and through electronic systems.
On May 24, 2014, the militaries conducted joint anti-submarine exercises. Both navies used live weapons in the drill, with eight ships firing main guns, high-speed guns, and rocket depth charges.
The official line is that the drills aim to improve the parties’ ability to conduct joint operations.
The Chinese Defense Ministry described their purpose as “to deepen practical cooperation between the [Chinese and Russian] militaries, to raise the[ir] ability to jointly deal with maritime security threats.” Chinese experts also state that joint defense can allow navies to cooperate more efficiently in coping with maritime security threats than trying to act unilaterally.
Some of these missions appear geared towards anti-piracy and anti-terrorism operations of the type that the Chinese and Russian navies have been engaged in for years, primarily in the Gulf of Aden, though the two fleets do not cooperate closely with each other or the other navies on patrol there.
Chinese researchers note that protecting sea lanes is important for China, which relies heavily on maritime trade. Their May 23 anti-piracy drill occurred under the command of the Varyag, which ordered Special Forces to eliminate “pirates” on a “hijacked” ship. The simulated defense of ships at anchorage is also a skill needed to counter pirate attacks—though the Chinese may also want to remind observers that Imperial Japan also conducted such attacks.
But the exercise also saw much simulated ship-to-ship combat.
The Chinese and Russian forces split into two teams that simulated combat against one another, as they have in previous years, but unlike in previous years, they also formed three mixed groups, commanded by both Russian and Chinese commanders in both languages, that engaged one another, with the result that. Wang Chao, head of a coordinating team from the Chinese Navy, said that the mixed grouping would enhance naval coordination between the two countries.
By assuming responsibility for providing air cover to both fleets during the drills, the Chinese Air Force gained experience in controlling airspace through coordination of fighter and surface vessels. According to Li Jie, an expert at the PLA’s Naval Military Studies Research Institute, “the exercises [would] operate more like a real battle.”
Although NATO and other navies have engaged in joint drills with their alliance partners, this marks the first time that the PLA Navy has engaged in this kind of joint drill with a foreign country, leading to speculation, probably incorrect, that China and Russia are preparing for a possible military alliance.
Even so, Russian Vice-Admiral Alexander Fedotenkov, China and Russia are already beginning to “prepare for drills next year.”
The author would like to thank Emily Gulotta and Dylan Royce for their research assistance on this article.