Without much publicity China recently revealed a new, smaller (2,700 ton) replenishment ship for its growing number of island bases in the South China sea. This is a RO/RO (Roll On/Roll Off) type ship so it is easier to drive vehicles off onto the docks being built on many of these tiny (some man-made) islands. The new ship also has a helicopter pad for small (four ton) helicopters like the Z-9. One of these new ships appeared in late 2015 and apparently more are being built. They will replace the collection of commercial ships currently used to resupply these island bases.
Meanwhile China has, as of 2015 built eight of its larger (23,000 ton) Type 903A replenishment ships. During the first half of 2015 four of these ships were under construction simultaneously, a rare event for any country in peacetime. Since 2013 there has been a massive acceleration in the production of these ships. The first two of these tanker/cargo ships appeared in 2004. By 2008 these ships were regularly at sea supporting the task forces (each with at least two warships, plus the Type 903) sent to the anti-piracy patrol off Somalia for six month tours. The replenishment ship did just that, supplying fuel, water, food, and other supplies as needed. The replenishment ship would go to local ports to restock its depleted stores and return to the task force. China needs more Type 903s support the growing number of long distance training operations into the Western Pacific and the government has apparently responded with orders to a lot more. One reason Chinese warships are now being seen all over the world (on official visits and to show off) is because there are enough replenishment ships to support this sort of thing.
The third and subsequent Type 903s built were called Type 903A because they were 12 percent larger than the first two (which displaced 20,500 tons each) but otherwise identical. The Type 903s are similar to the twelve American T-AKE replenishment ships. These 40,000 ton ships service a much larger fleet than the eight (so far) Type 903s and are part of a larger replenishment fleet required by American warships operating worldwide.
Meanwhile China has, since the 1990s, trained more and more of its sailors to resupply ships at sea. It’s now common to see a Chinese supply ship in the Western Pacific refueling two warships at once. This is a tricky maneuver and the Chinese did not learn to do it overnight. They have been doing this more and more over the last decade, first refueling one ship at a time with the receiving ship behind the supply ship and then the trickier side-by-side method. This enables skilled supply ship crews to refuel two ships at once.
China got a sharp reminder of how essential the replenishment ships are in April 2014 when they joined the international military effort to find missing flight MH370. China discovered it did not have enough Type 903s and without access to foreign ports for resupply the Chinese Navy could not sustain large numbers of ships far from China. Chinese naval planners have long warned of this and the political leaders are now paying more attention. China sent two dozen warships and support vessels into the southern Indian Ocean in April 2014 and it was obvious that without access to nearby Australian ports the Chinese ships would not have been able to remain in the area for long.
The classic solution to this problem is a large fleet of support (“sustainment”) ships to constantly deliver food, fuel and other supplies to ships at sea. China is rapidly building such ships, but not enough of them to maintain a large force for an extended period. China is unlikely to obtain the overseas ports it needs to support its current expansion plans because Chinese expansion plans have angered nearly all the nations in area. China does have a few allies, like Pakistan, Cambodia and Burma. This would not be enough if it came to outright hostilities and some of these friendly ports blocked by neighboring countries that are at odds with China.
This logistical weakness is no secret but the Chinese have long played it down. After the April 2014 MH370 operation it became a much more visible issue. Chinese naval threats are now a bit less intimidating, until there are reports that China is building more sustainment ships than it already is. That is apparently happening.
This is all part of a Chinese navy effort to enable its most modern ships to carry out long duration operations. In addition to the ships sent to Somalia, the Chinese have been sending flotillas (containing landing ships, destroyers, and frigates) on 10-20 day cruises into the East China Sea and beyond. The MH370 search off west Australia was the largest Chinese fleet deployment in modern times.
The Chinese have been working hard on how to use their new classes of supply ships. These are built to efficiently supply ships at sea. In addition to learning how to transfer these supplies at sea the crews have also learned how to keep all the needed supplies in good shape and stocked in the required quantities. This requires the procurement officers learning how to arrange resupply at local ports in a timely basis. This was particularly important off Somalia, where warships often had to speed up (burning a lot of fuel in the process) or use their helicopters to deal with the pirates.
Modern at-sea replenishment methods were developed out of necessity by the United States during World War II because of a lack of sufficient forward bases in the vast Pacific. The resulting service squadrons (Servrons) became a permanent fixture in the U.S. Navy after the war. Ships frequently stay at sea for up to six months at a time, being resupplied at sea by a Servron. New technologies were developed to support the effective use of the seagoing supply service. Few other navies have been able to match this capability, mainly because of the expense of the Servron ships and the training required to do at sea replenishment. China is buying into this capability, which makes their fleet more effective because warships can remain at sea for longer periods.