Replenishment ships (most of which are designated AORs, though subdesignations exist) are essential for any navy seeking to project naval power far beyond its home shores, and this also applies to the Chinese Navy. AORs are capable of carrying large volumes of fuel, dry stores, consumables, ammunition and spare parts to help and replenish a naval task force.
Such replenishment can occur via “alongside connected replenishment” whereby fuel, fresh water, and bulk goods can be transported from an AOR with a ship travelling alongside it at equal heading and speed (usually between 12 to 16 knots), where both ships are connected via one or more transfer rig or fuel lines.
“Astern refuelling” whereby a receiving ship follows a replenishment ship which trails a fuel hose to its stern, allowing a single replenishment ship to potentially refuel up to three ships simultaneously. However astern refuelling does not permit transfer of solid goods to occur, and is also somewhat slower than alongside refuelling.
“Vertical replenishment” can also be conducted, where materials can be transported between ships via embarked helicopters.
Until recently, the Chinese Navy was only equipped with a very limited number of true replenishment ships, but in recent years a substantial increase in AOR production and commissioning has occurred.
The first true blue water capable AORs of the Chinese Navy were the 905 class, commissioned in 1980 and 1982, each displacing about 21,000 tons at full, and both built at Dalian shipyard. The ship featured six transfer stations, as well as a helipad.
However the 905 class was limited by a lack of a helicopter hangar, and also limited in its ability to transfer dry stores and especially ammunition. However, the ship was the Chinese Navy’s first foray into a true blue water capable AOR, but it would be over a decade until they commissioned a new vessel of this capability. One 905 AOR was assigned to the East Sea Fleet, and another assigned to the North Sea Fleet.
This pair of 905 class AORs were supplemented by an ex Soviet Komandarn Fedko class merchant tanker, purchased from Ukraine after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and refitted to become a naval AOR entering service in 1996, with the pennant number 885, sometimes given the designation of 908 class. 885 was a far larger AOR compared to the 905 class AOR, at 37,000 tons full displacement.
The conversion of this large merchant tanker to become a naval replenishment ship provided substantial experience for the development the HTMS Similan replenishment ship for the Royal Thai Navy, which in turn would greatly assist development of the future 903 class AOR. The single 908 class AOR ws assigned to the South Sea Fleet.
The early 2000s saw the Chinese Navy develop the new 903 class AOR, an AOR heavily reminiscent of the HTMS Similan AOR exported to the Royal Thai Navy. The 903 class AOR is more modern than the 905 class rectified many limitations such as providing a helicopter hangar for organic vertical replenishment capability, and also providing greater capability for replenishing ammunition.
Two 903s were built, one by Guanngdong shipyard and one by Hudong shipyard, and both were commissioned in 2004, with one assigned to the East Sea Fleet, and another to the South Sea Fleet. Each ship displaced over 20,000 tons, and while they were far more than twice the displacement of a standard US AOR, they greatly helped to provide the Chinese Navy with a modern AOR design which was for all intents and purposes satisfactory for their intended operations of the time.
Chinese Navy replenishment capability in the mid 2000s:
The two 903 AORs together with the two 905 AORs and single 908 AOR, provided the Chinese Navy with a small but capable core of blue water capable replenishment ships to help build experience and doctrine for blue water operations, and after 2008, they would be heavily utilized to support China’s anti-piracy task forces in the Gulf of Aden – these would be China’s blue water operations arguably since Admiral Zheng He’s expeditions in the 15th century.
Production of the 903 class AOR restarted in the early 2010s, when the first, improved 903A class AOR was launched in early 2012 at Guangdong shipyard and Hudong shipyard. Broadly similar to the 903 class, the 903A is generally cited to be larger than its predecessors, displacing at least 23,000 tons. Two 903As were launched in 2012, and both were commissioned in 2013. Two more 903As were launched in 2014 with one of which was subsequently commissioned in late 2015.
Two more 903As were also launched in mid 2015. Of the 903/A class, at time of writing, two 903 AORs are in service, with three 903As in service, and a further three in sea trials or fitting out, making a total of eight 903/A class AORs. It is unknown if more 903As will continue being built, however even a production run of “only” eight 903/As would provide the Chinese Navy with significantly sized and flexible blue water capable AOR fleet to support blue water operations on a greater scale than what they could conduct in the 2000s.
The 905 class, 908 class, and 903/A class were capable of resupplying virtually of the Chinese Navy’s blue water capable surface combatants and other warships such as amphibious assault ships.
However, the commissioning of aircraft carrier Liaoning and the Chinese Navy’s clear intention to induct more aircraft carriers in coming years means the Chinese Navy will require a faster replenishment ship (called fast combat support ships, or AOEs) capable of not only keeping up with a carrier strike group, but also replenishing the group including the carrier and its escorts.
Few navies operate dedicated AOEs, they are often very large and require powerful propulsion to allow them to reach in excess of 25 knots; most replenishment ships only have a top speed of 20 knots, as is the case with all of the Chinese Navy’s aforementioned AORs. Even the US Military Sealift Command only currently operates three Supply class AOEs, having retired the older Sacramento class AOEs and one Supply class AOE due to the high cost of operation.
However, rumours of a Chinese equivalent to the Supply class began to emerge in the early 2010s, suggesting a vessel in excess of 40,000 tons displacement with a top speed capable of keeping up with a carrier strike group. This AOE was said to be designated the 901 class. In late 2015, images of a large AOE under construction at Guangzhou shipyard of Longxue revealed a replenishment ship with a beam of at least 31.5 meters (far larger than the 25 meter beam of the 903/A and closer to the 32.6 meter beam of the US Supply Class) and a length well over 200 meters long, suggesting a ship that would possibly have a full displacement of over 45,000 tons.
The first 901 will likely be launched in December 2015, and initial pictures show a very large AOE reminiscent in configuration of the US Supply class AOE. Interestingly, arrangement of the 901’s smoke stacks seem to indicate it may be powered by four gas turbines, potentially the QC-280, the same gas turbine which powers the 052C/D class destroyers and is expected to power the 055 class large destroyer. QC-280 is rated at 28MW, slightly higher than the 1990s generation LM-2500 gas turbine variants which power various US ships such as Burke class, Ticonderoga class, as well as the Supply class AOE. Thus, four QC-280s arranged in COGAG for the 901 class would likely achieve similar or possibly even superior speed performance compared to the larger 49,000 ton Supply class, which is powered by four slightly less powerful 1990s generation LM-2500s (rated at 20 MW) arranged in COGAG.
The 901 class will likely enter service in late 2016 or early 2017, and will almost certainly be followed by additional units, however the number that may be built in coming years will be of great interest. Even if only two more 901 class AOEs are built, it will provide the Chinese Navy with the same number of large AOEs as the US MSC, or potentially an even greater number, if one Supply class AOE out of the current three in service is also retired as per some recent suggestions from the US Navy.
Regardless, the 901 class will likely be an essential ship class for the Chinese Navy’s future blue water capabilities, and especially their future aircraft carrier fleet.
The Chinese Navy also fields a number of other smaller replenishment ships which are either not blue water capable or not oriented for true blue water replenishment.
One such ship class is the 904/A/B class which displace about 15,000 tons full, of which three are in service and two more are fitting out. The 904/A/B is a class of general stores ships used for resupplying island outposts via its many embarked boats. These ships lack gentries for alongside replenishment duties, however they have a limited refuelling capability by astern refuelling. But for the purposes of interest, the 904/A/B class are generally not considered as true blue water capable replenishment ships for the Chinese Navy’s surface fleet.
Comparison of Chinese Navy replenishment tonnage vs other navies:
To truly gauge the Chinese Navy’s current and future potential replenishment capabilities, one must consider the replenishment ships of other global navies. For the purposes of this comparison, the replenishment fleets of six nations will be compared based on the capability of each nation’s replenishment fleet in 2020, which will be projected based on replenishment ships which are currently in service as well as considering current ships in development which may enter service by 2020.
Needless to say, the number and tonnage of replenishment ships will have the greatest bearing in terms of overall capability. Tonnage will be based on full displacement and when accurate reliable full tonnages cannot be determined, estimates will be provided.
Chinese Navy: by 2020, it is likely that the Chinese Navy will retire its initial two 905 class AORs, but it will also commission the last three 903A AORs (possibly as early as 2017) to make a complete class of 2 x 20,500 ton 903 AORs and 6 x 23,000 ton 903/A AORs. The single 908 class AOR of 37,000 tons will remain in service. The single 901 class AOE will likely be followed by at least one sister ship, which, if launched in 2016, will likely be quite capable of being commissioned well before 2020. Thus, it is reasonable to estimate the Chinese Navy will likely have 2 x 45,000+ ton 901 class AOEs in service by 2020 at the minimum.
Therefore, a conservative estimate of the Chinese Navy’s commissioned replenishment fleet in 2020: 2 x 20,500 ton 903 AORs + 6 x 23,000 ton 903A AORs + 1 x 37,000 ton 908 AOR + 2 x 45,000+ ton 901 AOEs = 306,000 tons
However, it is also possible that the Chinese Navy may commission additional construction of 903As and 901s greater than the above estimate, and based on previous construction rate, a higher estimate of a commissioned replenishment fleet in 2020 is: 2 x 20,500 ton 903 AORs + 10 x 23,000 ton AORs + 1 x 37,000 ton 903 AOR + 4 x 45,000+ ton 901 AOEs = 488,000 tons
US Military Sealift Command: the number and tonnage of US MSC ships are fortunately far easier to determine than the Chinese Navy. At present, the US MSC does not seem to have any new AOR or AOE programmes under work that could enter service by 2020, therefore an estimate of the MSC’s current fleet is likely adequate for an estimate of their capabilities in 2020 (in fact, some ships may be retired before that time).
The US MSC’s commissioned replenishment fleet in 2020 may thus look like so: 3 x 49,000+ ton Supply class AOEs + 14 x 41,000 ton Lewis and Clarke class AORs + 15 x 41,000+ ton Henry J Kaiser class AORs = 1,336,000 tons
UK Royal Fleet Auxiliary: accurate information about the UK’s RFA fleet is also easily accessible. The RFA is currently undergoing a modernization programme whereby four Tide class AOEs of 37,000 ton displacement will replace the RFA’s recently decommissioned Leaf class tankers and two Rover class tankers, likely by 2020.
The UK’s RFA commissioned replenishment fleet in 2020 may thus look like so: 4 x 37,000 ton Tide class AOEs + 2 x 31,500 ton Wave class AORs + 1 x 33,700 ton Fort Victoria class AORs + 2 x 23,400 ton Fort Rosalie class AORs = 291,500 tons
Marine Nationale: the French Navy at present are equipped with four Durance class AORs which also double as command ships. However, at present it does not appear like the Marine Nationale is looking to recapitalize or expand its replenishment fleet, however it may eventually be replaced by the new BRAVE class AOR offered by DCNS, each with a full displacement of 30,000 tons.
If the four Durance class AORs are replaced on a one for one basis by the BRAVE concept: 4 x 30,000 ton BRAVE class AORs = 120,000 tons
Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force: the naval arm of the Japanese Self Defence Force is at present equipped with two 25,000 ton Mashu class AORs and three 15,000 ton Towada class AORs. At present there does not seem to be any programmes in development for a new class of replenishment ship that could enter service by 2020.
The JMSDF’s replenishment fleet in 2020 may thus remain as : 2 x 25,000 ton Mashu class AORs + 3 x 15,000 ton Towada class AORs = 95,000 tons
Indian Navy: the Indian Navy’s current replenishment fleet consists of a single 25,000 ton Aditya class AOR, the single 36,000 ton INS Jyoti AOR, and two 28,000 ton Deepak class AORs. There are plans for a new class of five replenishment ships, to displace 40,000 tons each, however at present it is unlikely that the first ship of the class could enter service by 2020. However, for the sake of comparison, it will be assumed that a single new 40,000 ton class AOR will be commissioned by the Indian Navy by 2020 in addition to their current replenishment fleet.
The IN’s replenishment fleet in 2020 may thus look as: 1 x 25,000 ton Aditya class AOR + 1 x 36,000 ton INS Jyoti AOR + 2 x 28,000 ton Deepak class AORs + 1 x 40,000 ton new type AOR = 157,000 tons
Bringing together the above projected data in a single table:
One can therefore see that the US MSC will have the world’s largest replenishment fleet by a large margin in 2020, even with the higher estimate for the Chinese Navy. However, the Chinese Navy by 2020 will likely having the world’s second largest replenishment fleet in displacement by a small margin over the Royal Fleet Auxiliary if based on a conservative estimate (105% the size of RFA, or 5% larger in displacement), and will likely have a significantly larger replenishment fleet than the RFA if based on a higher estimate (167% the size of RFA, or 67% larger in displacement).
Regardless of whether the higher or conservative estimate turns out true or somewhere in between, the Chinese Navy in 2020 will likely have a substantially more capable replenishment fleet than it does now and will allow for a larger number of blue water missions at greater scale than what they are currently able to achieve.
Assumptions of the Chinese Navy’s relatively limited blue water replenishment capability of the 2000s are today already obsolete, and by 2020 will likely be immensely incorrect. Accurate assessment of the Chinese Navy’s future blue water capable replenishment fleet is essential for understanding its future capability and goals.