The idea of a Coast Guard is one that has blurred in recent decades, with US Coast Guard vessels serving as far away from home as the Persian Gulf on a regular basis. Still, the Chinese Coast Guard's upcoming 10,000 plus ton super high-endurance cutters are clearly another sign of the country's extra-territorial ambitions.
For some prospective, America's largest non-icebreaker Coast Guard vessel is the Legend Class National Security Cutter, with a displacement of about 4,500 tons fully outfitted. Once China's massive cutters comes online, some predict they will push well over 12,000 or even close to 15,000 tons with all her systems installed. That is about three times the displacement of the National Security Cutter.
In other words, China's new class of Coast Guard vessels are freakin' huge. So big in fact that they will outsize America's Ticonderoga Class Guided Missile Cruisers by as much as 50%.
There are two of these ships currently under construction at Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai. One has already received paint and appears to be ready for its sub-systems and missionized gear to be installed, while the other is still in an early stages finishing.
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Reports state that these ships will be able to hit 25 knots and will be outfitted with 76mm naval cannons, two secondary gun turrets, two anti-aircraft CIWS mounts as well as being able to carry at least a pair of large Z-8 multi-role helicopters. These helicopters, somewhat akin to a CH-53 Stallion, could move a lot of personnel and material very quickly without a port available.
Each ship will most likely deploy to one of China's main maritime territorial dispute zones. One of which is the Senkaku Islands in East China Sea, where China is locked in a Cold War-like dispute over claims on the islands against Japan. The security situation around the deserted islands has progressively devolved over the last half decade or so, with overlapping air identification zones setup by both countries and belligerent maneuvering by Chinese and Japanese flagged ships becoming the norm.
The very existence of Japan's notoriously large, extremely long endurance, 9,000+ ton displacement, Shikishima Class Coast Guard patrol ships, of which there are two in service, may have pushed China to rationalize building such a massive pair of Coast Guard vessels themselves. In fact, there are stark similarities between China's new class of super-sized patrol vessels and Japan's Shikishima Class design which are known to patrol the waters around the Senkaku Islands.
Another area many hundreds of miles from the Chinese mainland that these new mega Coast Guard patrol vessels could regularly roam is in the South China Sea. China is actively 'building islands' in the area, especially on Fiery Cross Reef near the western edge of the disputed Spratly Islands. Such a drastic engineering feat so far from home is seen by neighboring countries as China's blatant attempt to control highly strategic shipping lanes and rich fishing grounds in the region. Not to mention that the South China Sea is becoming known for being rich in untapped natural resources, which equates to an independent and abundant energy source that China clearly needs.
China is not alone in its attempts to increase its territorial reach via the construction of man-made islands in the area. Countries such as the Philippines and Malaysia and others have also attempted similar, albeit less ambitious projects. Still, China is using its unique military capabilities and geopolitical weight in the region to protect its island building program while also projecting its maritime will sharply against smaller regional powers.
Eventually, an air base, located on one of China's man-made islands, that can field fighter and long-range transport aircraft, a project that appears to be already well underway, could add very sharp teeth to China's territorial claims.
One of the best write-ups on China's man-made islands and the effects of the multitude of claims on the different portions of the South China Sea by different regional powers can be read by clicking here, it is highly recommended.
As a result of China's increasing activity in the area, regular rammings and 'soft skirmishes' between Chinese vessels and other local fishing and governmental patrol ships occur regularly. With this in mind, sending one of China's new super-sized Coast Guard vessels to reinforce its claims on the area makes total sense.
Additionally, having a 'Coast Guard' flagiship, as opposed to a heavily armed Navy vessel, in the area also provides 'favorable optics' to the world that China is simply enforcing its rightful borders, albeit in a big way.
Above all else, what these new vessels really give China is maritime persistence far from home and the ability to project power without appearing outright expeditionary in nature. A vessel as large as the ones being built in Shanghai could stay at sea for many weeks at a time without the need for bunker ships and they could operate independently as a sea-base of sorts in areas where landmass is highly limited.
What this all adds up to is the clear picture that these ships are tailor-built for the two main maritime disputes the country is involved in at this time and their size and capabilities could allow them to work as much as supply, or even 'occupation sustainment' ships than as patrol vessels.
The high-dollar investment into such a unique capability is just another signal that China will not bow to anyone in the hemisphere who challenges its rising maritime supremacy.
Sources: Janes, Center For International Maritime Security, BBC
Top shot and second shot of unfinished hull via Chinese Internet, Japanese Coast Guard vessel via Wikicommons/Hunini, other photos via AP.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com