China's launched its first Type 055 destroyer today—the most advanced surface combatant Beijing has ever designed and fielded. Pictures of the visually striking ship whipped around the internet, with many people being surprised that China was producing such an impressive warship. The truth is, the Type 055 is the J-20 stealth fighter/interceptor of the high-seas, and it not only is a showcase of China's rapidly evolving surface warfare and weapons development capabilities, but also a sign of what Beijing's overall maritime strategy will be in the not so distant future.
When it comes to the Chinese Navy, the Type 055 is very roughly analogous to something between the American Ticonderoga class cruiser a Zumwalt class destroyer, in that it has similar capabilities and size to the Ticonderoga class, but it also packs new technologies that will impact the future of Chinese surface combatant design like the Zumwalt class does. The ship's stealthy exterior and its enclosed sensor mast are situated in between the latest Arleigh Burke class destroyers and the Zumwalt class developmentally speaking.
The Type 055 could just as easily be classified as a cruiser than as a destroyer. It's 590 feet long and displaces between 10,000 and 12,000 tons. That is 81 feet longer and up to nearly 2,500 tons greater than America's latest Arleigh
Burke class destroyers, making it closer in size to the US Navy's Ticonderoga class cruisers than anything else. It also packs a Ticonderoga class's magazine size, with 128 vertical launch cells available. The Arleigh Burke class has 96. These cells will be stuffed with land attack (YJ-18), and anti-ship missiles (YJ-12), as well as anti-submarine rockets (CY series). Yet, just like America's Ticonderoga class cruisers, area air defense and slinging surface-to-air missiles will likely be this ship's overwhelming mission set and it's specially outfitted with a high-end sensor package that will exceed in this role.
This new ship relies on a dual-band radar system similar in concept to the one that was supposed to be deployed on the DDG-1000 Zumwalt class and that is currently equipping the USS Gerald R. Ford. Two sets of active phased array radars, one being the larger S-band arrays on the vessel's super structure and the other being the smaller set of X-band arrays in the ship's enclosed sensor mast, equip the ship. The S-Band system is used for long range search and track, while the much more sensitive X-band system is used for tracking smaller, stealthier and high-speed objects with greater fidelity at lesser ranges. There are cross-over in capabilities between the two sensor arrays, which also adds to redundancy. No other ship in China's inventory possesses such a high-end radar system.
The ship is likely to be primarily armed with a sea-going version of the HQ-9 long-range surface-to-air missile, as well as the HQ-16 medium-range SAM, and possibly quad-packed DK-10As. The DK-10A is based on the PL-12 air-to-air missile, and would act as a intermediate-range air defense missile roughly similar to the U.S. Navy's RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM). As time goes on, these ships will likely field other air defense missiles, like weapons capable of swatting down endoatmospheric hypersonic vehicles or China's own mid-course ballistic missile defense interceptors. These more exotic missiles could make good use of the ship's dual-band radar, advanced combat system, and plentiful VLS farm.
The ship's anti-submarine warfare capabilities will also surpass the capacity of other Chinese warships, including space for two helicopters (eventually likely ASW variants of the Z-18) in its rear hangar and an expanded flight deck size. The ship will also likely use towed and variable depth sonar for hunting submarines, and will have its own torpedoes and rocket assisted torpedoes to prosecute marauding underwater threats.
A H/PJ-38 130mm main gun and a H/PJ-11 30mm close-in weapon system (CIWS) round out the ship's major armaments. It will also likely receive China's "FL-3000N" version of the RIM-116 rolling-airframe missile system mounted in a turreted canister on the rear of the ship's superstructure. This combined with the 30mm CIWS will give the big surface combatant a strong close-in defensive capability against sea-skimming missiles, low-flying aircraft, and small boats.
These ships are rumored to be equipped with integrated electric powerplants, whereby the ship's turbines provide electricity to drive electric motors that then turn the ship's screws—a major advancement in Chinese warship design if confirmed. They also feature the latest in electronic warfare capabilities and the most advanced mission systems deployed by the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to date.
Regardless of the Type 055's multi-mission capabilities, these ships are being built to be the preeminent escort for the Chinese carrier battle group, acting in a similar role as the Ticonderoga class cruiser does today. This will include being the command and control hub for the battle group's anti-air warfare operations. In this role the Type 055 will fulfill something of a missing link within the People's Liberation Army Navy's order of battle, with the Type 052D destroyer being the most capable surface combatant before it—but one that is far more limited in capability and weapons capacity than the Type 055.
With the PLAN slated to field a fleet of at least four aircraft carriers in the coming decade, the reason for building four of these ships at this time is clear. There will be at least one for each carrier battle group, and when the carriers are not sailing, these ships will be able to show the flag by themselves far from home, and bringing high-end multi-mission and command and control capabilities to smaller PLAN task forces. It is also likely that another four Type 055s will be built at some time following the initial batch, as China's aircraft carrier fleet expands.
In the end, China's new Type 055 destroyers are another indication of the amazing strides the country has made in their attempt to reach some sort of parity in multiple domains of warfare with the U.S. and especially its regional allies. That's not to say these ships and their weapons are as capable as their American counterparts, because in many ways they are not. Even China's shipbuilding capabilities are rumored to be lacking, especially in terms of quality, when compared to their American counterparts. The level of integration between their ship's sensors and weapons, the reliability of their missiles—especially when countermeasures are present—and their missile's overall performance abilities remain a question mark as well.
But that's not really the point. The point is that China is preparing for a future of major naval power projection, with this vessel class sailing closely alongside their aircraft carriers—two of which are built. Together they are the most visible centerpieces of a much more aggressive and farther reaching naval strategy. This may not leave the US Navy shaking in its boots, but when it comes to regional powers such as India and Japan, that is a different story. These ships and the carriers they will support will likely end up having a persistent presence in the South China Sea, Taiwan Strait, Indian Ocean, and East China Sea—all places where tensions are high and territorial issues are top of mind.
The Type 055 is also another signal that China can no longer be viewed as a potential adversary living in a perpetual "catch-up mode" technologically speaking. The Chinese are increasingly doing things their own way and even tacking big independent technological risks, such as incorporating a dual-band radar into a picket ship before the US does. So the Chinese military, and the industry that supports it, still be copycats when it comes to defense concepts, but increasingly less so in terms of discreet hardware and integrated weapons systems themselves.
As time goes on, this change will leave the US and its allies reacting to Chinese military developments more than in the past. And China's weapons developments, which were largely based on questionable facsimiles of US or Russian systems in the past, are now becoming far less predictable and as a result are more concerning.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com