Sunday, March 01, 2009

Force Projection

I went to the Ontario Science Centre with Corwin's class field trip on Friday. There is a special exhibit on currently called Sultans of Science, and one of the displays reminded me of something that I noted over Christmas and had been meaning to write about.

The display that got my attention was about Zhang He -- born to a Hui Muslim family in Yunnan Province but captured as a boy and delivered to the imperial capital in Beijing where he grew up to become one of the greatest mariners in history. Zhang He was the admiral who led 7 Chinese expeditions consisting of hundreds of ships and thousands of men into the Indian Ocean in the early 1400's, and possibly around the Cape of Good Hope into the Atlantic. The last of these expeditions was in 1433. After Zhang He's time, the Ming dynasty gave up naval development, and Chinese sea power became a thing of the past.

In late December 2008 -- 575 yesrs after the last voyage of Zhang He -- the Chinese navy sent a flotilla consisting of two destroyers and a supply ship to join the international force currently patrolling the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia. This area has achieved some notoriety by the actions of Somali based pirates who have attacked shipping, and captured various merchant ships which have been held for ransom.

Canada had a naval presence here, in the form of Task Force Arabian Sea, consisting of (mid 2008) the frigates HMCS Ville de Qu├ębec and HMCS Calgary; the destroyer (and command ship) HMCS Iroquois; the supply ship HMCS Protecteur. Canada led Combined Task Force (CTF) 150 from the beginning of June 2008 until handing off to the Danes in the middle of September. CTF 150 was a multinational naval coalition that operated from the Red Sea to the Strait of Hormuz, through the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea as far south as the coast of Kenya. The Canadian part of this effort was called Operation Altair. In January 2009, CTF 150 was replaced by CTF 151, an American-led international initiative.

Chinese participation in the protection of merchant shipping in the Gulf of Aden consists of the missile-armed destroyers DDG-171 Haikou (photo above) and DDG-169 Wuhan, and the supply ship Weishanhu. These are reported to be among China’s most sophisticated vessels, having all entered service this decade. They will operate alongside other international warships, including the Canadian frigate HMCS Charlottetown, patrolling the area near the Gulf of Aden, part of the Suez Canal route.

The Chinese news agency Xinhua has said that the fleet will mainly protect Chinese vessels, including those from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, but will also escort foreign ships passing through the area on request. After three months the ships will be replaced by another flotilla, depending on UN Security Council decisions and the situation at the time. China has said its warships will investigate any suspected pirate vessels, and approach them and demand that they show their relevant documents and certificates.

The three ships of the Chinese flotilla left Hainan Island on December 26, and within days passed through the Strait of Malacca, arriving in Somali waters by January 6. Upon arrival, they immediately began their escort duties. In the last two months, they have conducted over twenty escort runs each involving multiple ships, including protection of at least one Taiwanese ship and rescue of an Italian freighter.

These types of operations will give the Chinese navy an opportunity to develop and practice their blue water capability -- the ability to operate far from home for extended periods of time. The developing Chinese space program will make similar demands, requiring tracking ships to be deployed at long distances to support communications with orbital missions.

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