China’s New Navy Commander Brings Operational Expertise 

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28-Dec-2023

 

[By Captain Christopher Sharman, USN (Ret.) and Dr. Andrew S. Erickson]

This article appears courtesy of CMSI and may be found in its original form (including Mandarin references) here

China’s Navy, the world’s largest by number of ships, has a new leader. On 25 December 2023, Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping, in his capacity as Central Military Commission (CMC) Chairman, promoted Vice Admiral Hu Zhongming to Admiral and appointed him Commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).[2] Hu’s predecessor Admiral Dong Jun attended the promotion ceremony, suggesting this is an orderly and expected transition—unlike recent removals of the PLA Defense Minister and the former Commander of China’s Strategic Rocket Forces.[3]

CMSI’s Perspectives and Key Take-Aways:

Admiral Hu’s operational experience commanding both submarines and surface ships will enable him to guide PLAN efforts to improve coordination across warfare domains.

Hu has experience commanding units operating throughout the South China Sea. He commanded the 2nd Submarine Base, which has nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) that will have operated in the South China Sea. Prior to 2010, he was a submarine Commanding Officer at the base, which means he likely operated in disputed waterspace.

This confers significant real-world experience operating in contested waters and may portend a vision to use the PLAN more aggressively in gray zone activities or even future conflict, although the Commander’s core responsibilities are to man, train, and equip the force.

Hu’s background fuses Theater Command experience with technical, exercise-testing, and operational knowledge which will enable him to focus PLAN efforts to address critical shortcomings with a fast-growing force.

Multi-fleet experience gives Admiral Hu unique insights into each fleet’s strengths and weaknesses that will enable him to provide organizational and training improvements to ensure PLAN readiness, as well as to offer uniquely tailored guidance for PLAN operational and tactical improvements.

As a submariner, Hu is well-positioned to help the PLAN prioritize and address its weaknesses in undersea warfare.

Hu’s first-hand experience averting a submarine disaster and keen understanding of the complexities of the undersea domain may portend a greater emphasis on damage control training as well as undersea warfare.

Hu has substantial international experience. He joined the PLAN’s first global circumnavigation in 2002. He was the PLAN lead (Executive Director) for the Sino-Russia exercise Joint Sea-2017, giving him personal familiarity in cooperating with a major strategic partner.[4]

Discussion:

As tenth Commander in the PLAN’s seventy-four-year history, Admiral Hu brings a broad organizational and functional background, as well as valuable technical and operational prowess to a force whose surface fleet and anti-surface mission and missiles have burgeoned dramatically but whose submarine leadership and training apparently still lag overall.[5]

In a pronounced—though hardly unique—pattern, PRC bureaucracy tends to incrementally test, groom, and socialize rising leaders over time. For the past two years (December 2021-December 2023), Hu served as the PLAN Chief of Staff with the same grade as the PLAN Deputy Commanders (Theater Command Deputy Leader). In this role, in September 2023 Hu traveled overseas to South Africa, where he paid a courtesy call at South Africa’s Naval Headquarters in Pretoria.[6]

In addition to this topline bureaucratic experience, Hu’s career reflects Xi’s military restructuring. Established on 1 February 2016, the Theater Commands offer both a more operationally-relevant means of organizing PLA(N) forces and the unprecedented prospect of allowing meaningful numbers of naval officers to attain leadership positions in military regional bureaucracies.[7] In December 2019, Hu received rank promotion to Vice Admiral (2 stars).[8] From December 2019 to December 2021, Hu served as the Commander of the Northern Theater Command Navy, headquartered in his hometown of Qingdao, and as a concurrent Deputy Commander of the Northern Theater Command with the grade of Theater Command Deputy Leader.

From 2016 to December 2019, Hu served as one of the PLAN Headquarters’ Deputy Chiefs of Staff with the grade of Corps Leader. Hu received rank promotion to Rear Admiral (1 star) in July 2014,[9] then became an Assistant to the Chief of Naval Staff in December 2014 with the grade of Corps Deputy Leader.[10] Hu began his systematic climb through navy leadership with appointment as the Commander of the Navy’s 2nd Submarine Base at Yalong Bay in Sanya, Hainan Province (MUCD 92730) starting in July 2013 with the grade of Corps Deputy Leader.

Born in January 1964 in the naval city of Qingdao, Shandong Province, Hu joined the PLA in 1979. He began his career in the submarine force and served with distinction in a wide variety of roles, including commanding a submarine. As of 1996, Hu served as Commanding Officer of the submarine “Great Wall 11” [11]. In 2008, as Commander of the 90th Detachment of the 2nd Submarine Base—one of the two units responsible for China’s nuclear-powered submarines—Hu was credited with numerous achievements in a special PLA Daily feature. His unit was recognized by the PLAN “as an advanced ship company standard-bearer, and by the fleet as a standard-bearer unit for grass-roots construction.” In 2006, the PLAN recognized Hu as “an excellent grass-roots master standard bearer,” credited with strong education and management contributions. For this, he was honored with one second-class merit and three third-class merits. Hu completed conventional submarine commanding officer comprehensive training, destroyer captain solo qualified training, and full subject training for “a new type of submarine.” The last almost certainly means qualification to command a nuclear-powered submarine, because the 2nd Submarine Base only has nuclear-powered submarines. Hu also participated in the PLAN’s first round-the-world cruise in 2002, as well as in many major exercises and drills. [12]

In 2009, as the Commanding Officer of a submarine, Hu was lauded for having previously avoided disaster during an “automatic steering depth test” during sea trials for a new type of submarine, improving testing procedures, and innovating training and real time communications measures to enhance safety during emergency conditions.[13] Apparently the mishap took place in less than 100m of water and the submarine’s underbelly actually grazed the seafloor.[14] The submarine in question was definitely a nuclear-powered boat, because it was from the 2nd Submarine Base, which only has nuclear-powered submarines.[15]

In July 2013, Hu was appointed Commander of the 2nd Submarine Base. As Commander of that base in 2014, Hu was credited with cultivating human capital necessary to unleash nuclear submarine combat power by taking measures to “train the troops with difficulty and rigor in accordance with actual combat needs” while emphasizing safety and accident avoidance.[16]

Xi’s selection of Admiral Hu Zhongming to lead the PLAN reflects his priority for PLA military commanders to have real-world operational experience and follows a trend of PLAN leaders who bring credible warfighting capabilities to their leadership roles. Hu’s operational experience will guide efforts to rapidly address identified shortcomings within the PLAN and to enhance its warfighting capabilities across all PLAN warfare domains and with other services.

Specifically, Hu has extensive experience in undersea warfare, heretofore a lagging area for the PLAN. He has first-hand familiarity with two key warfare communities (submarine and surface). Finally, he has considerable experience training forces—which will be his job: to man, train, and equip the service. The PLAN commander no longer makes operational decisions in peacetime, so how his units are used will ultimately be decided by the CMC and the Theater Commands.

Admiral Hu’s practical experience suggests he is likely to be a seasoned and pragmatic, if inevitably Party-controlled, interlocutor during diplomatic engagements with foreign Navy delegations. He is likely to be an operator’s operator, adeptly capable of addressing complex maritime issues—from the capability requirements to the Navy’s role in support of maritime disputes. The breadth of his operational assignments along with his unique maritime achievements suggest he is likely to command the respect of the PLAN and the trust of Xi at a time when the PLAN is charged with great responsibilities on a demanding timeline.

Notes:

[1] CAPT Sharman is Director of CMSI. Dr. Erickson is Professor of Strategy there. The views expressed here are theirs alone. They thank Ken Allen, Ryan Martinson, Joel Wuthnow, and anonymous reviewers for invaluable inputs.

[2] Hu was promoted to 3-star Admiral, the highest PLAN rank.

[3] : [Editor in Charge: Wen Teng], [The Central Military Commission Held a Ceremony for Promotion to the Rank of General. Xi Jinping Issued a Certificate of Order and Congratulated the Officers], [People’s Daily], 25 December 2023, https://wap.peopleapp.com/article/7297251/7135115.

[4] [The Sino-Russian “Maritime Joint-2017” Exercise Series Achieved Many Firsts], [China News Net], 25 September 2017, https://www.chinanews.com.cn/m/mil/2017/09-25/8339843.shtml.

[5] China Maritime Studies Institute, “Chinese Undersea Warfare: Development, Capabilities, Trends,” Quick Look Conference Summary (Newport, RI: Naval War College, 5 May 2023), https://bit.ly/CMSI2023.

[6] “PLAN CoS meets CSAN,” DefenceWeb, 7 September 2023, https://www.defenceweb.co.za/sea/sea-sea/plan-cos-meets-csan/.

[7] At a ceremony attended by the entire CMC, five new “Theater Commands” were established in protocol order—Eastern, Southern, Western, Northern, and Central—and their commanders and PCs were appointed. They replaced the former seven Military Area Commands (e.g., Military Regions)—Shenyang, Beijing, Lanzhou, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou, and Chengdu. Whereas the former Military Regions were primarily the regional Army Headquarters and dominated by Army officers, the five Theater Commands have become joint organizations.

[8] : [Editor: Han Jiapeng], [The Navy Held a General Promotion Ceremony—4 People Were Promoted to Rear Admirals], [Navy Today], 14 December 2019, https://web.archive.org/web/20191214091634/https://news.163.com/19/1214/12/F0C0Q4P40001899O.html. As a general rule, PLA rank and grade promotions have not occurred at the same time; however, this situation began changing in December 2019 when grade and rank promotions for 3-star flag officers occurred simultaneously. Although starting in 2017 the PLA has wanted simultaneous rank and grade promotions to occur at every level, it has been a very long and difficult process and has not yet been fully implemented.

[9] [Pu Haiyang], [The Navy Held a Grand Ceremony to Promote Flag and General Officers in Rank—Wu Shengli Read Orders, Liu Xiaojiang Presided Over the Ceremony], [People’s Navy], 11 July 2014, 1.

[10] [Wu Yaoqian], [Major General Hu Zhongming Serves as the New Assistant to the Chief of Naval Staff and Participated in the Navy’s First Round-The-World Voyage], [The Paper], 8 April 2015, https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_1318375.

[11] [Zhai Peineng and Guo Jianyue], [Building a Spiritual Civilization Based On One’s Own Position], [PLA Daily], 15 December 1996.

[12] [Constructing Military Camps and Martial Arts Sands—The Ninth Army Learning And Successful Pacesetters’ Style Record], [PLA Daily], 22 September 2008, https://mil.news.sina.com.cn/2008-09-22/0624522402.html.

[13] [Special correspondents Huang Yuping and Ye Wenyong], [Submarine Captain Hu Zhongming—Experimentation and Sea Trial without Fear of Danger], in [The People’s Navy Has Gone through Sixty Years of Ups and Downs, And a New Generation of Captains Has Gone to the Ocean], [PLA Daily], 24 April 2009, 3.

[14] See [Reporter Sun Guoqiang and Special Correspondent Ma Jun], [The Light of the Lifeline—A Record of Solid Political Work Carried Out at a Certain Submarine Base of the South China Sea Fleet], [People’s Navy], 23 March 2015, 1.

[15] For confirmation that it happened to a boat from that unit, see Ibid. Pre-2009, the 2nd Submarine Base was receiving both Shang- and Jin-class submarines; suggesting that the boat in question was perhaps most likely a Shang I, although it could have been a Jin.

[16] [Yu Zhangcai, Xiao Yongli, and Special Correspondent Shen Shu], [Strengthen the Military with the Spirit of Seizing the Day and Night—Students of the First Naval Training Class for Studying and Implementing the Spirit of President Xi’s Series of Important Speeches Talk About Their Learning Experience (Part 2)], [People’s Navy], 17 March 2014, 2.

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