Twenty-five Type 054A frigates have now entered service with the PLAN and a further two have been launched. Representing an intermediate level of capability between the fleet’s larger Type 052 series destroyers and the littoral warfare-orientated Type 056 corvettes, these frigates are the workhorses of the blue water fleet. These pictures show Huangshan, one of the earlier members of the class, on exercises off the Chinese coast in April 2017.
The PLAN Type 054A frigate Hengshui pictured operating with the US Navy destroyer Stockdale (DDG-106) during the RIMPAC 2016 exercise on 28 July 2016. In spite of occasional collaboration, countering Chinese ‘expansionism’ in the Pacific is one of the main strategic challenges facing the United States and its allies.
China’s maritime ambitions continue to be supported by an ongoing construction programme that is unequalled globally in terms of quantity and surpassed in scope only by that of the United States. One measure of the speed with which new vessels are entering service is the estimate that a new Type 956 corvette was commissioned, on average, once every six weeks during 2016. An interesting status check on China’s maritime ambitions was provided by the American CNA research centre in a report entitled Becoming A Great ‘Maritime Power’: A Chinese Dream published in mid-2016. The report confirmed previous analysis that suggested the People’s Liberal Army Navy (PLAN) is steadily transitioning from a single-minded focus on offshore waters defence (otherwise known as an anti-access/area denial or A2/AD strategy). Instead, the continued importance placed on defending the near seas will be balanced by a greater emphasis on blue water power projection. As part of this trend, the PLAN will complete a process of overhauling other major ‘blue water’ navies such as those fielded by France, Russia and the United Kingdom to become the second largest ocean-going fleet by 2020.
This trend is supported by table below, which highlights the PLAN’s most important warship classes. Additional detail on recent developments with respect to key types is provided below.
Aircraft Carriers and Amphibious Ships: A highlight of the last year was China’s launch of its first indigenously-constructed Type 001A aircraft carrier from the Dalian Shipbuilding Industry Company’s yard on 26 April 2017. The new ship’s design is based closely on that of the existing Soviet-origin, Project 1143.5/6 Kuznetsov class carrier Liaoning (ex Varyag). However, reports suggest that she will incorporate a number of detailed improvements. Completion of fitting out is likely to take two–three years and it therefore seems it will not be until the 2020s that she will join Liaoning in operational service. In the meantime, China is said to be working on a follow-on Type 002 carrier design that will incorporate a conventional catapult-assisted take-off but arrested recovery arrangement.
Renewed construction of amphibious ships also reflects an expeditionary focus. A fifth Type 071 amphibious transport dock was launched from Shanghai’s Hudong-Zhongua yard in June 2017and a sixth vessel is said to be under construction. There have also been reports that work has begun on a long-awaited Type 075 of broadly similar size to the US Navy’s LHA/LHD types.
Surface Combatants: PLAN surface combatant construction continues to encompass three major elements. The most potent of these is a series of general-purpose destroyers, of which the Type 052D variant is the latest to enter service. Six of the class have been commissioned since 2014, with another seven launched to date by the Jiangnan-Changxing yard in Shanghai and by Dalian Shipbuilding. The 7,500-ton ships are now being followed into production by a new class of 10,000-ton Type 055 ‘Renhai’ destroyers. The first of these was launched from Jiangnan-Changxing on 28 June 2017. Although official details are sparse, it appears that the new ships will be equipped with similar sensors and weapons to those found on previous Chinese destroyers. However, their missile capacity may be expanded from sixty-four to as many as 128 vertical launch cells. To date, two pairs of Type 055s have been observed under construction at Jiangnan-Changxing and Dalian Shipbuilding but it would seem likely that many more will be ordered in due course.
The second strand of construction relates to the intermediate frigate-sized vessels of the Type 054A ‘Jiangkai II’ class. Twenty-five of these have entered service since 2008, with the most recent, Wuhu, commissioning on 29 June 2017. As for the destroyers, construction has been split between two yards: the Hudong-Zhongua facility in Shanghai and the Huangpu Shipyard in Guangzhou (Canton). Both of these have each launched a further vessel of the class. Like the destroyers, the Type 054A frigates have a blue water, general-purpose orientation, albeit their diesel propulsion may limit their effectiveness in an anti-submarine role. Development of a more silent diesel-electric or integrated electrical propulsion variant has been rumoured for some time but, if correct, this has yet to produce a tangible result. Some commentators have suggested that the PLAN is waiting for domestically-produced technology to reach sufficient maturity before switching to construction of a new class.
The final class of surface combatant under assembly is the Type 056/Type 056A ‘Jiangdao’ corvette, the latter being distinguished by a modification of the ship’s stern to accommodate a towed array. Over thirty of these diminutive littoral warfare vessels have been delivered from four shipyards since 2013 and some analysts believe that as many as sixty may ultimately be completed.
Submarines: Tangible information on the development of the PLAN’s submarine force remains difficult to obtain. This is particularly the case with respect to the nuclear-powered force of strategic and attack submarines, about which only vague details exist. Most commentators believe that four or five Type 094 ‘Jin’ class strategic submarines were completed in the first decade of the millennium and all these are now regarded as being operational. They are reported to be noisier even than the oldest Russian strategic submarines remaining in service, negating much of their second-strike potential. A follow-on Type 096 ‘Tang’ class, armed with an improved JL-3 ballistic missile and presumably equipped with better noise-reduction technology, has been reported as being under development for some time. However, American intelligence assessments suggest that construction will only begin in the early 2020s. Meanwhile, the two initial Type 093 ‘Shang’ class attack submarines delivered in 2006–7 have recently been joined by a quartet of improved Type 093A/Type 093G ‘Shang II’ variants. These are believed to have been lengthened to incorporate vertical launch tubes for cruise missiles. As for the strategic submarines, it appears experience gained from operating these boats will be used to inform the design of a further class – variously reported as the Type 093B or Type 095 – that will probably also not be built until the 2020s. A number of older nuclear-powered submarines of the 091 and 092 types remain in commission. Their operational status and utility must be regarded as being marginal.
There is slightly greater clarity around the flotilla of conventional submarines, which form one of the most potent weapons in the PLAN’s A2/AD arsenal. Three main classes of submarine – the domestic Type 039 ‘Song’ and Type 039A/B ‘Yuan’ series and the Russian-built ‘Kilos’ – form the operational force. These are backed by a steadily diminishing force of Type 035/035G ‘Ming’ submarines based on the 1950s-era Russian ‘Romeo’, which are now used largely for training. Recent reports suggest that construction of ‘Yuan’ class boats has now resumed after a considerable gap. At least three new submarines are expected to join the existing thirteen members of the class. The reason for the hiatus in production since the end of 2013 is not known for certain but may relate to the development of improved AIP technology for this latest batch.
Other Vessels: The construction of warfighting vessels is being supplemented by a wide range of minor warships and auxiliaries. These range from a sail training ship – the PLAN’s first – to a new 50,000-ton semi-submersible vessel broadly similar to the US Navy’s Montford Point (T-ESD-1). Making good the previous deficiency in replenishment vessels remains an area of focus. With the eight-strong Type 903/903A class now completed, attention has turned to the new Type 901 ‘comprehensive supply ship’. The 45,000-ton design is reportedly powered by gas turbines to keep pace with a carrier task force. It has multiple fuel hoses to allow simultaneous provision of both marine and aviation fuel as well as a significant dry stores transfer capability. The first member of the class commenced an extensive period of sea trials in December 2016. A second member of the class will also soon be ready for launch.