However, these deployments have provided an opportunity for the ships and crews to practice and refine the ongoing resupply of warships, highly skilled maneuvers that are essential to keeping warships at sea for long periods, naval experts say.
The Chinese Ministry of National Defense said that the frigate Mianyang, the destroyer Harbin and the supply ship Weishanhu sailed on Feb. 16 from Qingdao on the 14th of the anti-piracy deployments.
While extra supply ships will extend the range and endurance of Chinese fleets, Beijing’s strategic objectives still remain relatively limited outside the nearby seas where it is locked in territorial disputes with some of its neighbors.
“They are focusing on securing sea lanes, counterpiracy and evacuating Chinese nationals in times of crisis,” Li said.
China’s expanding military transport capability is unlikely to have an immediate impact on its tense standoff with Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea that are close to logistics bases on the Chinese mainland, naval analysts say.
“Support ships will not change the nature of operations in the East China Sea, but will have an impact on the ability of the Chinese navy to conduct operations at sea, if the support ships are used to grow its professionalism and seamanship,” said Alessio Patalano, a Japanese military expert at King’s College in London.
For China’s top brass, the first test flight of the Y-20 was an important milestone as the PLA continues its transformation from a predominantly mass, ground army to a leaner, more mobile military force.
“These aircraft are vital if you need to move a lot of people and a lot of equipment some place very, very fast,” said Reuben Johnson, a Kiev-based military analyst and correspondent for Jane’s Information Group, who has studied the Y-20 program.
Reports in official Chinese media have said the Y-20 can land and take off from restricted airstrips, and it has the capacity to carry most PLA combat and support vehicles.
Chinese military planners have drawn lessons from the importance of heavy-lift aircraft in recent US and other Western military operations, where the capacity to shift troops and supplies to distant battlefields or trouble spots has delivered an overwhelming advantage, military analysts say.
The US military has a fleet of more than 300 heavy-lift Galaxy and Globemaster aircraft in service, along with more than 400 smaller-capacity transport aircraft.
Many of these aircraft can operate from short, uneven landing strips in remote and rugged terrain.
The PLA’s air-lift capacity is much smaller. It currently operates about 20 Russian-built Il-76 transport aircraft. The Il-76 has a 50 tonne payload compared with the Globemaster’s 77 tonnes and 118 tonnes for the Galaxy.
Additional Il-76 aircraft are reportedly on order from Russia, but production bottlenecks are holding up deliveries, Russian military experts say.
If China can introduce a sizeable fleet of Y-20 aircraft over the next decade, it will sharply enhance the PLA’s capacity to land troops and equipment on distant battlefields.
Military experts say this capability would be particularly important in an invasion of Taiwan should Beijing decide to use force to establish control over the nation.