A New Naval Oil Tanker Will Help China’s Navy go Blue Water

On May 31st, the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) fifth Fuchi class Type 903A replenishment ship was launched at the Guangzhou International Shipyard in Guangzhou, China. With a 23,000 ton displacement capable of carrying 11,000 tons of supplies, the Type 903 class is China’s most modern and largest indigenous replenishment oiler ship*, which resupplies warships at sea with fuel and other supplies. This 903A ship still needs to be fitted out with refueling and cross ship transfer conveyer belts. The Fuchi class’s ability to transfer fuel and dry supplies to warships on the high seas in Underway Replenishment (UNREP) missions means that PLAN warships can remain on patrol instead of returning to port for fuel and food.

Replenishment ships are a must have for any modern navy that wishes to undertake expeditionary and blue water control missions. The U.S. Navy (USN)’s current replenishment ship (the USN calls them oilers) is the 40,000 ton Henry J. Kaiser class, of which the USN has 15 ships, each capable of carrying up to 25,000 tons of fuel. The Royal Navy has eleven ships in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary: the tanker Fort Victoria displaces 31,000 tons and can carry about 15,000 tons of fuel. The French Navy’s four Durance class replenishment ships can carry about 10,000 tons of fuel, at a full displacement of 17,000 tons.

The Type 903A, an improvement of the Type 903, can carry over 10,000 tons of fuel to simultaneously refuel two other ships. The Alongside Connected (ASC) method of replenishment that the PLAN uses requires a high level of naval skill to maintain coordination: warships must sail alongside the replenishment ship at 12-16 knots, with only 30 yards of distance. The replenishment ship then launches cables to the receiving ships, those cables help guide and connect fuel lines and zip lines that sling across dry cargo like rations and ammunition. The Type 903A also carries two Z8 helicopters to airlift larger sized cargo like machinery spare parts.

The Fuchi class ships have been in high demand for PLAN operations. The Weishanhu and Qiandaohu have already been deployed to the Gulf of Aden to support Chinese destroyers and frigates conducting anti-piracy patrols; the_ Qiandaohu_ also resupplied PLAN ships searching for Flight MH370 this March in the South China Sea. The Qiandaohu will also be present at RIMPAC 2014 to support the PLAN warships at the naval exercise.

Given that the East Seas Fleet already has two Type 903s, and the South and North Sea Fleets each one, this 903A is likely destined for the South Seas Fleet (SSF) since the SSF currently deploys the Type 052D Luyang III class destroyer, China’s most advanced surface warship. The SSF is also responsible for defending Chinese interests in the volatile South China Seas. Increasing number of PLAN replenishment ships means that China can increase the number and duration of its naval deployments in distant waters like the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean beyond the Second Island Chain. An even larger successor to the Fuchi class, estimated to be equal to the USN Kaiser replenishment ship, would support larger ships like aircraft carriers and the Type 055 cruiser.

* The 35,000 ton Type 908 Fusu class replenishment ship is the PLAN’s largest oiler, but is based off of a Soviet hull

Special Thanks to Josh Brine for corrections on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary

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