A look at recent Cape Town visitor, PLAN replenishment ship Weishanhu

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Any naval flotilla that is operating far from home, and carrying out long, tedious, patrols is always going to come up against their endurance, in terms of fuel, required to keep them out at sea and doing the job they were sent out to do. An anti-piracy patrol is no good to anyone if the patrolling warships have to keep disappearing over the horizon, and head back to the nearest friendly port to get a top up of bunkers.

The only way to get over that aspect of requiring fuel, and stores for that matter, is to take it all with you when you head out to sea. Of course, operational warships are hampered by what they can store, and in sufficient quantity, to stay out for long periods of time. The answer to the problem is obvious. Take it with you in vast quantities, but on a vessel specially designed to carry fuel, foodstuffs, fresh water, and dry stores. A vessel known as a Fleet Auxiliary, Replenishment Oiler, or Combat Stores vessels.

The decision by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) of China to conduct anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, in order to safeguard their commercial interests, meant that any flotilla sent out to conduct that operation would need to have a fleet auxiliary along for the ride. Since they undertook their very first anti-piracy operation in 2008, the PLAN have settled on a set up that every Escort Task Force (ETF) will consist of two warships, and one auxiliary.

On 24 July the PLAN 43rd Escort Task Force (ETF), consisting of the Type 052DL destroyer CNS ‘Nanning’ (DDG162), the Type 054A frigate CNS ‘Sanya’ (FFG552), and the Type 903 replenishment vessel CNS ‘Weishanhu’ (AOE887), arrived in Cape Town. Unlike the recent visit of a poorly maintained Russian Naval oiler, the PLAN vessel was a true bluewater vessel, designed exactly for the task for which she was accompanying the 43rd ETF. Replenishment At Sea (RAS).

Replenishment at Sea (RAS), when done properly with a vessel capable of doing it, is about being able to replenish any warship whilst maintaining your operational status. This means that the auxiliary vessel must be able to conduct replenishment operations whilst underway at speed, and do so in four planes, namely horizontal, vertical, alongside, and astern.

One of two auxiliary replenishment vessels, known as Type 903 vessels, CNS ‘Weishanhu’ was built at the Hudong-Zhonghua shipyard in Shanghai, which is owned by Guangzhou Shipyard International Co. Ltd., who are part of the Chinese state-owned China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC). She was launched in July 2003, and commissioned in April 2004. Her NATO reporting classification is known as the ‘Fuchi’ Class.

She is 179 metres in length, and has a displacement tonnage of 20,500 tons. She is powered by two SEMT-Pielstick 16PC2 6V400 diesel engines producing 24,000 bhp (18,000 kW), and driving two KaMeWa controllable pitch propellers for a service speed of 20 knots. She has an operational crew of 130 persons, and a range of 10,000 nautical miles.

The Type 903 replenishment class of vessel was originally designed to support the, then, new Type 052B and Type 052C class of guided missile destroyer, known as the ‘Guangzhou’ class by the PLAN, but given the NATO reporting classification name of ‘Luyang I’ and ‘Luyang II’ class.

She has a liquid bulk cargo capacity of 10,500 tons of fuel oil, 250 tons of fresh water, and 680 tons of bulk solids, including stores and ammunition. For her underway replenishment at sea (RAS) operations, she is fitted with two underway RAS stations, on each side, for liquid transfers, and has one bulk stores transfer station per side. She is also capable of conducting underway refuelling operations over the stern.

For vertical replenishment she is equipped with a helideck, and a hangar, capable of handling a Harbin Z-8 helicopter, which is the Chinese copy of the French Aerospatiale SA321 Super Frelon helicopter (as previously used by the SAAF), or a Changhe Z-18 helicopter, which is the Chinese modernized, and upgraded, version of the Harbin Z-8.

As a replenishment vessel, she is not armed for offensive operations, but has only defensive, close range, armaments fitted. These are four sets of the H/PJ76F 37mm twin autocannons. There are two sets mounted forward of the accommodation, and two sets mounted either side of the helicopter hangar. These close in weapons systems (CIWS) have a range of less than 5km.

Unlike the Russian ‘Kama’ auxiliary, that accompanied the ‘Admiral Gorshkov’, which is capable only of stern refuelling, and at slow speed, CNS ‘Weishanhu’ (AOE887) is capable undertaking her RAS operations at her full sea speed of 20 knots. She is assigned to the PLAN South Sea Fleet, which has its naval base at the port of Zhanjiang, in the Chinese southern Guangdong Province. The South Sea Fleet is responsible for naval operations in the South China Sea.

This is not the first time that CNS ‘Weishanhu’ has been engaged on one of the PLAN Escort Task Force operations to the Gulf of Aden. In fact, she took part in the first ever ETF that was completed in 2008. She has since completed more than half a dozen ETF missions, excluding her current mission as replenishment vessel for the 43rd ETF.

In better days, back in August 2013, when she was the replenishment vessel for the 14th ETF, CNS ‘Weishanhu’ conducted joint naval exercises, in the Gulf of Aden, with the US Navy Arleigh Burke destroyer USS ‘Mason’ (DDG-87). Both vessels were conducting anti-piracy patrols, and they carried out exercises in Visit, Board, Search, Seizure (VBSS) operations, where US Marines boarded CNS ‘Weishanhu’, which acted as a pirate mother ship.

During her patrols with the 43rd ETF in the Gulf of Aden, she was called on to proceed directly to Port Sudan, with CNS Nanning, to evacuate all non-essential Chinese citizens from Sudan, due to the outbreak of civil military conflict in the country. Over a period of three days, she completed two evacuation voyages, where together the two 43rd ETF vessels carried 1,171 people to the safety of the Saudi Arabian port of Jeddah.

It is strange that wherever they go, and whatever the circumstances, that the PLAN vessels must have printing press onboard, as they always arrive displaying a fresh banner espousing words of political theatre that are to do with why the vessels have arrived in that particular port. In this case of Port Sudan, the 43rd ETF vessels displayed a red banner saying “Chairman Xi sends warships to take everyone home”.

On conclusion of their anti-piracy patrols, the 43rd ETF went on a ‘fly the flag’ cruise to five West African countries, including Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Gabon and Congo. On arrival in Tema, Ghana, the vessels displayed red banners stating “China-Ghana Friendship is Time-Tested”, and on arrival in Owendo, Gabon, the fresh new red banners stated “Vive l’Amitie Sino-Gabonaise”, which translates as ‘Long Live China-Gabon Friendship’.

It is all part of the well-rehearsed political theatre that is present at all major events in China, Russia and North Korea. On arrival in every port, the Chinese Embassy staff, their families, and any other local Chinese citizens are ordered down to the docks, where they line the quayside, normally behind their own fresh red printed banner, all waving Chinese flags, and all smiling.

This piece of political theatre may well have been the reason for Transnet being pressured into allowing the 43rd ETF to go alongside at the V&A, which is banned for all other visitors.

The lining of the ships rail is a time honoured naval tradition. What is slightly different in the case of the PLAN vessels is that the crew lines only that side of the warship that will be going alongside the quayside, and not the other side. The lining of your upper deck with your crew harks back to the Nelson days of sail, and of traditional line of battle ships. To show your host your friendly, and peaceful, intentions, you would close your gunports, and have your guncrews visible on the upper deck, thus showing that your guns were unmanned, and that you had no intention of taking them by surprise with a gun attack from within the confines of the harbour as you sailed in.

As the size of vessels within the 43rd ETF was such, it was not possible to berth all three warships alongside one quay, and so the two largest, CNS ‘Nanning’, and CNS ‘Weishanhu’ went alongside either side of Jetty 2 at the V&A, with the smallest member of the ETF, CNS ‘Sanya’, going double banked on the outside of ‘Weishanhu’. This was done because to place ‘Sanya’ alongside the cross wall would have had her directly on to a public quay, and not within the confines of a security fence, as happens on Jetty 2.

The magnificent sight of the 43rd ETF finally departed from the magnificent VA& Waterfront on 29 July and, no doubt, that the crews would be looking forward to be finally heading east for China, after being away for over six months. The flotilla sailed from Cape Town, enroute for Zhanjiang, and home.

Written by Jay Gates and republished with permission from Africa Ports. The original article can be found here.