Rusty ships and unused aircraft carriers: the other side of Asia's militaries


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As China spends billions to upgrade and reorganize the People's Liberation Army, the deficiencies in competing Asia-Pacific militaries are coming into focus. And even some of China's much heralded military advances are drawing attention for their shortcomings. Here is a snapshot of some of Asia's less illustrious military kit.
BRP Sierra Madre
A shipwreck turned military outpost. Photographer: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images 
Nothing illustrates the disparity of power in the South China Sea more than the Philippine ex-naval vessel, the BRP Sierre Madre, run aground on the Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands in 1998. The ship, so rusted it's impossible to walk over parts of the deck, is manned by a handful of marines and sailors. Its dilapidation contrasts with the 3,200 acres of land reclaimed by China, creating seven islands in the same archipelago.
Big Number: It reportedly costs the Philippine government 3.6 million pesos ($76,900) in fuel each time it has to resupply troops on the Sierra Madre, who are replaced every three to five months. Each mission comes with the risk of run-ins with the Chinese coast guard.
BRP Rajah Humabon
The country's oldest active warship. Photographer: Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images 
The Philippine Navy frigate is a former destroyer with the U.S. navy, launched in 1943. Her weapons systems are of World War II origin and have barely been upgraded, according to Wu Shang-Su, a research fellow in the military studies program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
Big Number: Maintenance of the ship which patrols the South China Sea—or as Manila calls it, the West Philippine Sea—can cost up to 20 million pesos ($428,000), according to government tender notices in 2012.
HTMS Chakri Naruebet
 Thailand's first aircraft carrier ironically doesn't have aircraft. Photographer: Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket via Getty Images
The outsize ambitions of the Royal Thai Navy are on display at a dock at the Sattahip naval base, south of Bangkok. The aircraft carrier HTMS Chakri Naruebet has no aircraft and has mostly been consigned to port since the 1997 financial crisis led to a funding shortfall. The ship is sometimes used in disaster relief, transporting the royal family, and in May this year participated in anti-submarine drills alongside the U.S. Navy.
Big Number: Thailand bought it for $230 million in 1997. The Spanish-made aircraft carrier's runway is too short for any aircraft other than helicopters and Harrier planes that can take off and land vertically.
WS-10 Taihang Jet Engine
 The WS-10 Taihang turbofan engine on display at an air show in China. Photographer: Yang jia/Imaginechina via AP Photo
China's WS-10 Taihang jet engine is considered to be its best, yet it still disappoints, according to Richard Bitzinger, coordinator of the military transformations program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. It is underpowered and reportedly lasts only 30 hours before it needs an overhaul, he says. Consequently, most modern aircraft in the People's Liberation Army are powered by engines mostly from Russia or Ukraine.
Big Number: Last year, state media reported that China earmarked $16 billion in special funding for jet engine development.
China's Aircraft Carrier
 The Liaoning, China's first aircraft carrier, was commissioned in 2012. Photographer: ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images
The Liaoning is China's first aircraft carrier. Even when it is fully operational, it isn't expected to be able to execute long-range power projection similar to U.S. NIMITZ class carriers, according to the Pentagon. Liaoning's smaller size limits the number of aircraft it can embark, while the ski-jump configuration limits aircraft fuel and ordnance loads, the Pentagon said. In other words, the carrier-based J-15 aircraft has to be so loaded with fuel to take off that it is essentially a flying gas tank, incapable of carrying much in the way of weapons or operating off a carrier for long periods of time, according to Bitzinger.
Big Number: The carrier was bought at a bargain price of $20 million from a Ukrainian shipyard in 1998, according to media reports.
J-31 Stealth Fighters
 A Shenyang J-31 fighter jet, also known as "Gyrfalcon." Photographer: VCG via Getty Images
Debuted with fanfare at the Zhuhai Air Show as China's fifth-generation jet fighter, the J-31 stealth fighter attracts skepticism about its technical prowess. Richard Aboulafa, an analyst at aerospace and defense consultant Teal Group, based in Virginia, says that of 11 criteria to qualify as a fifth-generation fighter, the J-31 possess at best two.
Big Number: At a reported cost of $75 million each, the J-31 is certainly a cheap option—half the price of the U.S. F-35 stealth plane.
DF-26 Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile
 Military vehicles carrying DF-26 ballistic missiles. Photographer: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images
China's so-called "carrier killer" ballistic missile created a stir when displayed for the first time in the 2015 military parade in Beijing. With a range of 2,500 miles, the missile could potentially target a U.S. aircraft carrier. But fear not yet: the DF-26 is unproven against a moving target at sea, according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
Big Number: The U.S. is concerned about the development of the "carrier killer." The John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier that is destined for Asia will cost about $11.5 billion, not to mention the lives of its crew of more than 4,000.
Indonesia's Hercules C-100s
Indonesian search and rescue teams work at the site of an Indonesian military C-130 Hercules aircraft crash in Medan on June 30, 2015. Photographer: Kharisma Tarigan/AFP via Getty Images 
The state of some of Indonesia's military was highlighted when a 51-year old Lockheed C-130 aircraft crashed into a hotel, killing at least 150 people in July last year. The accident raised questions about the military's reliance on old aircraft and spending that prioritized the army over the air force. A Hercules plane carrying military personnel and their families crashed on Java island in 2009, killing around 100 people, and another went down shortly after takeoff in Jakarta in 1991, leading to over 130 deaths.
Big Number: Indonesia had at least 30 Hercules C-130s under its wing as of 2014.
USS Fort Worth
 The USS Fort Worth was crippled by a botched maintenance procedure. Photographer: Bay Ismoyo/AFP via Getty Images
The U.S. Navy's new Littoral Combat Ships are designed to plow shallow waters, hunt submarines and chase pirates in small, fast boats: perfect for the South China Sea. Except they keep breaking down. The USS Fort Worth was sent back to home base in San Diego from Singapore after a botched maintenance procedure crippled the ship in January. Another of its class broke down in December and had to be towed to shore.
Big Number: Repairs to the ship are estimated to cost between $20 million to $30 million, according to the Navy Times newspaper.

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