(Reuters) – China’s long-term military modernisation efforts are bearing fruit, with a string of upgrades for its warships and warplanes under way amid intensifying tensions in the Indo-Pacific, particularly the Taiwan Strait.
NEW HELICOPTER ENGINE
China showcased a 1,100-kilowatt turboshaft helicopter engine at a helicopter expo in Tianjin last week. A Chinese military expert told Reuters the high-powered engine, shown for the first time, is key to China’s development of medium- and heavyweight helicopters.
China still lags behind in the development of large helicopters, which can carry more weapons and cargo. They could also play a key role in transporting personnel and equipment in conflict scenarios.
BIGGER, MORE ADVANCED FRIGATES
China launched a bigger and more advanced version of its biggest frigate at the end August, according to state and Hong Kong media reports, which cited experts as saying the new Type 054B frigate could be equipped with an integrated electric propulsion (IEP) system, a more advanced radar with better detection capability, and a combined diesel and gas power system that makes it harder to detect.
The new frigate displaces about 6,000 metric tons – 2,000 tons heavier than the current 054A. It is also equipped with a 100mm main gun, replacing the 76mm main gun on the 054A, according to media reports. The new ship is about 147 metres long and 18 metres wide, while the 054A is 134.1 metres long and 15.2 metres wide.
The Type 054B will travel faster, go further, and is harder to detect, making it better at anti-submarine tasks. It could be used as an aircraft carrier escort.
Western analysts have noted that China has lagged behind in anti-submarine warfare, which are vital to protect long-range aircraft carrier operations.
A media report quoted a Chinese military expert as saying the new frigate can serve as a “mini destroyer”.
The new frigate will go through sea trials after construction is completed. Two of the ships are being fitted out in shipyards in Shanghai and Guangzhou.
MORE POWERFUL ENGINE FOR STEALTH FIGHTER
China is conducting small-scale flight tests for its J-20 stealth fighter equipped with new WS-15 engines. In July, the aircraft flew with two of the domestically made WS-15s, media reported.
The new engine, replacing the older WS-10C, is meant to give the J-20 more thrust, higher speed, the ability to fly supersonically without using fuel-guzzling afterburners, and a longer range.
That could put U.S. bases in South Korea, Japan and Guam within range of the J-20, said another media report.
Larger-scale tests are expected to follow.
Chinese state media cited an expert as saying that more powerful engines are also most likely under development.
AIRCRAFT CARRIER PREPPING FOR SEA TRIALS
China is in the final stages of preparing its third but first domestically designed and made aircraft carrier – the Fujian – for sea trials, a key step before the warship goes into operational service.
Online images of the conventionally powered vessel under construction while docked at a shipyard in Shanghai show construction sheds above three tracks of the electromagnetic catapult aircraft launch system – the biggest feature of the carrier – have been removed recently.
This suggests the carrier will most likely join the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) within two years as scheduled, a media report said this month.
Fujian underwent propulsion tests and mooring trials this year; the next step would be sea trials.
Chinese carrier operations are closely watched by regional militaries, with some military attaches and analysts noting the PLAN still has some way to go in mastering the complex operations needed to protect the vessels far from shore.
POSSIBLE AMPHIBIOUS ASSAULT SHIP UPGRADE
Images online and media reports have noticed shifts in the manufacturing process of China’s 075 type amphibious assault ship.
China has three such ships, considered critical for a possible Taiwan island attack. China claims the democratically governed island as its own; Taiwan rejects such claims.
The new process suggests the warship might be upgraded with integrated electric propulsion, the same as that of the Fujian, a media report cited an expert as saying, boosting its air assault capabilities.
(Reporting by Albee Zhang, Greg Torode, and Ryan Woo. Editing by Gerry Doyle)