China’s military continues to expand in capability, and the country’s level of assertiveness over South China Sea and East China Sea territorial claims is causing alarm in many Asian neighbours.
19th Mar 2012
People’s Liberation Army
NEW EQUIPMENT IN HONG KONG
Byline: Gordon Arthur / Hong Kong
China’s military continues to expand in capability, and the country’s level of assertiveness over South China Sea and East China Sea territorial claims is causing alarm in many Asian neighbours. China has a submarine base on Hainan Island, the country’s gateway to the South China Sea. The navy is also set to gain a fleet of new aircraft carriers, the first of which is undergoing testing after an intensive refitting period. At the same time, J-15 carrier-borne fighters are under development. The air force will receive the stealthy J-20 in future years, while production of the third-generation J-10 and J-11 is well under way. Indeed, these two types of fighter have been permanently stationed on the Tibetan Plateau since last year, a source of concern for India. The army, too, is receiving a whole host of new vehicles and platforms.
IHS Jane’s calculated China’s defence budget last year was USD119.8 billion, in contrast to the USD93 billion officially claimed by Beijing. The defence consultancy has also predicted China’s military budget will double between 2011 and 2015 to reach a total of USD238.2 billion. If correct, this estimate means China’s defence budget would eclipse the top twelve Asia-Pacific military budgets combined! Such an amount would be nearly four times Japan’s expenditure, the second-largest spender in the region. China has unveil its defence budget for the coming year at the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and it maintains double-digit growth levels.
The Hong Kong Garrison of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) often serves as a showcase for new equipment, and it can be a useful barometer of Chinese military progress. The rise of the “Middle Kingdom” is also illustrated by the rapidity with which new equipment is being fielded. This pattern was first demonstrated on 1 July 1997 during the official handover of the former British colony. As troops entered Hong Kong (HK) territory, they were seen wielding new 5.8mm Type 95 (QBZ-95) assault rifles, the first public display of the small arm that has since become the PLA’s standard personal weapon. For a military that remains opaque, the annual open days of three major PLA camps in HK (Stonecutters Island Naval Base, Shek Kong Airbase and San Wai Barracks) allow observers the opportunity to see interesting new hardware.
China’s pathway to establishing a viable helicopter manufacturing industry has been greatly aided by France. Starting with the Z-9, this was the result of a commercial venture with Aérospatiale that began in 1980, and it enabled China to license-produce the Eurocopter AS365N Dauphin 2. This programme was a key stepping stone that gave China access to dual-use technology, and the Z-9 become an important military helicopter for the PLA from 1994 onwards. The Harbin Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation (HAMC) not only produces this medium utility craft for China’s military, but it has also exported limited numbers to Kenya, Laos, Mali, Mauritania, Pakistan and Zambia.
Export Z-9 versions are offered with French Turbomeca Arriel 2C turboshaft engines, whilst PLA Z-9B craft are powered by the locally produced WZ8A engine based on the 705shp Arriel 1C1. However, some media reports suggest WZ8 engines have only half the lifespan of the equivalent French-built product and that they are plagued by technical problems. The French company Safran, via the Turbomeca Beijing Helicopter Engines Trading Company (TBHE), has assisted the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) in improving these engines. Indeed, fully half of all Chinese-produced helicopters in China are today powered by Turbomeca engines.
A PLA squadron with approximately ten Z-9B helicopters has been based at the former RAF airbase at Shek Kong in Hong Kong’s New Territories since 1997. A completely new variant of the Z-9B recently debuted in HK. Called the Z-9ZH, it is a dedicated command-and-control (C2) platform, and it differs from the standard Z-9B in several ways. It has received a longer bulbous nose with an integrated forward-looking infrared (FLIR) system. This is the same nose-mounted low-light TV and infrared search-and-track (IRST) unit from the Luoyang Electro-Optics Technology Development Centre as that fitted on the armed Z-9WA helicopter. This optical equipment provides the Z-9ZH with the capability of flying daytime and night-time missions in all weather conditions, although the craft does not carry weapons or have weapon pylons. The other main difference is evident in the cabin, where the standard rows of seats have been modified to accommodate a command console with radio sets and a multi-function display. A loudspeaker system is fitted beneath the fuselage on the starboard side.
Thanks to its optical and radio equipment, the Z-9ZH has an obvious application as an airborne C2 platform. However, the PLA states it can also be used for reconnaissance, patrol and search-and-rescue (SAR) missions. The Z-9ZH’s endurance is stated as 3 hours 40 minutes, or a range of 770 nautical miles. As part of a trend towards locating more advanced weapon systems in HK, last year the PLA started basing armed helicopters in the territory too. In October 2011, the military showed a Z-9WA fitted with rocket pods. While the Z-9WA is also capable of carrying anti-tank missiles, there is not much call for such weapons in HK, so only rocket pods have been observed thus far. The Z-9WA will retain its function as a light armed helicopter until the troubled Z-10 attack helicopter programme gets off the ground.
The Z-9 represented the first phase of China’s domestic helicopter programme, and the AVIC Helicopter Company (Avicopter) Z-15 in the 7-ton class represents stage two. This design is being jointly developed as the Eurocopter EC175. It is inevitable this Sino-French venture will follow the same route where the Z-15 will become a dual-use craft also suitable for the PLA. The Dong’an Company is developing the WZ16 turboshaft engine in partnership with Turbomeca specifically for the Z-15, and Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) certification is expected next year. The WZ16 is a 1,500kW powerplant based on the Ardiden 3, and it is also destined for eventual use on the Z-10 attack helicopter. China’s decision to domestically produce the WZ16 engine instead of using the Pratt & Whitney PT6C-67B of the Eurocopter EC175 means it will not be affected by any potential foreign embargoes regarding military usage.
In the meantime, joining the more capable Z-9 fleet in HK is the Z-8KH. The Z-8 is a copy of the Aérospatiale SA321Ja Super Frelon, and for now it is China’s largest locally built helicopter - at least until the heavy-capacity AC313 from state-owned AVIC enters service. The Z-8KH, of which four craft are thought to be based in HK, offers a significant troop- and cargo-carrying capacity, plus it is specially configured for SAR duties. A rescue hoist is fitted on the starboard side and a FLIR system is fitted under the nose. The Z-8KH has a stated endurance of 3 hours 55 minutes, and a combat range of 720 nautical miles.
For a long time the PLA refused to accept the Z-8 into service owing to its poor reliability levels. Manufactured by the Changhe Aircraft Industries Corporation (CAIC), it finally entered PLA service in 2002. Original craft used the license-built but unreliable WZ6 engine (a Chinese version of the 1,106kW Turbomeca Turmo IIIC), and its latest incarnation is meant to be the WZ6G2. Pratt & Whitney supplied PT6A-67B engines for the Z-8F and Z-8K series. Interestingly, the Canadian company also supplied similar 1,100shp PT6C-67C engines for prototype Z-10 attack helicopters being built by CAIC. However, the USA protested at the supply of these engines for explicit military craft, and the furore forced China to re-engine the Z-10 design. The new unit being developed is the 1,000kW WZ9 turboshaft, a process that has considerably delayed this attack helicopter programme.
The indigenous Avicopter AC313 achieved its maiden flight on 18 March 2010, and it is essentially an upgraded commercial design based on the Z-8. Powered by three Pratt & Whitney PT6B-67A engines, the new AC313 can lift a 4-ton payload and it uses 50% composites in its airframe.
As can be seen from this précis of Chinese military helicopters, primarily European technology through ‘civilian partnership’ has been a key ingredient in helping furnish the PLA with its current rotary-winged fleet.
Other important pieces of equipment that attract attention at the HK Garrison are armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs). No tracked vehicles are stationed in the highly urbanised territory, so the most capable AFV is the Type 92B (ZSL92B) 6x6 infantry fighting vehicle (IFV). First seen in HK in mid-2010, the Type 92B offers improved mobility and firepower compared to the incumbent 6x6 Type 91 (ZFB91) Internal Security Armoured Vehicles based in HK since 1997. The 15.68-ton ZSL92B features a 30mm cannon and the latest HJ-73D anti-tank guided missile (ATGM).
The 30mm cannon is based on the Russian 2A72 type, which is notable for its high firing rate of 300 rounds per minute. Related technology was transferred to China under a 1997 agreement relating to the fire control system of the BMP-3. The 30mm cannon’s effective range is 2,500m and it can also hit aerial targets. China developed its own 1.5-ton turret for the Type 92B, improving the elevation range from +60º to -6º. This IFV is also amphibious, and a total of nine troops can be carried in the rear compartment. The associated Type 02 (XJZ92) 6x6 armoured recovery vehicle (ARV), also present in the HK inventory, is able to recover and support the heaviest vehicles used by the local garrison.
The newest armoured vehicle to arrive is the Type 07 armoured command vehicle (ACV). First seen last year, it is based on the 6x6 chassis of the Type 92B. The rear compartment has been heightened to create a roomier area inside the hull. Unfortunately the PLA curtains off its bullet-proof windows so it is not possible to see the interior layout. However, it is assumed the Type 07 is filled with the latest radio and surveillance equipment. An extendable telescopic mast is fitted on the rear of the hull. The Type 07 ACV also features daytime and night-time cameras mounted on the front of the hull for surveillance purposes. It can achieve a maximum road speed of 85km/h, and also has the advantage of being amphibious at speeds of up to 8km/h. The 6x6 vehicle has a range of 800km. The Type 07 ACV, along with the Z-9ZH helicopter, illustrates the advances being made by the PLA in its drive towards fielding more effective battle management assets. Both of these platforms enable network-centric operations, and they can transmit and receive data in real-time.
Miscellaneous new items
The PLA continues to deploy EQ2050ER 4x4 Mengshi tactical vehicles manufactured by the Dongfeng Motor Corporation. These Humvee copies can be fitted with a 12.7mm Type 89 (QJZ-89) machine gun offering a maximum effective range of 1,500m, and allowing the vehicle to be used in the fast-attack role. The EQ2050 can transport a payload of 1,750kg. Troops are also equipped with Jialing JH600BJ sidecar motorcycles powered by a 590cc engine. A light weapon such as a 5.8mm QBZ-95 can be fitted on the motorcycle sidecar.
At the most recent public display, the PLA showed an NL28 crossbow. This weapon is designed primarily for antiterrorism and anti-riot duties, and as well as being lethal when firing arrows, it can fire steel pellets designed to injure rather than kill. Its effective range is listed as 80m when shooting arrows, or 40m when firing pellets. The crossbow is fitted with a telescopic sight. Also on show were handguns that fire a net (versions that fire either a single net or three nets were on display), and a BBQ-901 tranquiliser gun (a pistol-type air gun fitted with a folding stock). These non-lethal weapons offer the PLA, and presumably the People’s Armed Police (PAP) in China, a range of tools in their incessant battle against internal dissent.
At the San Wai Barracks in the New Territories, PLA personnel put on a simulated Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) demonstration. This event was notable in that it made use of DA-07 laser simulation equipment. Operated in similar fashion to the American Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MILES), Chinese troops wore helmet-mounted sensors and lasers fitted on their rifle barrels. When a hit is registered, a cartridge in the helmet emits coloured smoke. The system also features built-in GPS tracking for more effective after-action reviews. This DA-07 system underscores how the PLA is improving its training regimen through the application of new digital technologies.
The PLA has never actually revealed how large the garrison in HK is, with even the territory’s governing Legislative Council admitting in a 2009 session that it does not know the exact number. Nevertheless, it is believed the garrison numbers some 5,000 troops, and it generally makes a point of keeping a low profile.
However, the HK Garrison courted controversy in late April 2011 when it reacted to public protests about the arrest of outspoken contemporary artist Ai Weiwei on the mainland on 3 April. HK activists projected an image of the detainee and the words “Who’s afraid of Ai Weiwei?” onto the exterior wall of the PLA headquarters using a technique known as ‘flash graffiti’. The PLA responded angrily, saying such an act was “illegal” and that “no one can paint or project pictures and images onto the outer wall of the barracks without the garrison’s permission. Such an offence is a breach of Hong Kong law. The PLA reserves its rights.” The HK Police launched an investigation, although one lawmaker said there was no way the projection of messages onto a building could be construed as a criminal offence, especially when the Basic Law guarantees freedom of expression.
The HK Garrison acts as a useful gauge of the PLA’s ongoing pursuit of new technology and platforms. While heavy tracked vehicles, advanced missiles or fighters may not be located in the territory, the equipment being fielded does reflect the PLA’s move to increasingly networked and digitised systems.