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China’s first quasi-stealthy new Type 055 destroyer is preparing for aggressive submarine-hunting missions in water near Taiwan and the South China Sea by testing helicopter-dropped sonar and built-in anti-submarine technologies.
Part of the exercise included cross-domain networking initiatives wherein the surface destroyer networked with helicopters and other aircraft to track threats and transmit target data in real time, according to the Chinese Communist Party-backed Global Times newspaper. The four day exercises included what the paper called “realistic scenario-oriented anti-submarine training courses.”
Type 055 Destroyer: Submarine-Hunting
In a manner apparently quite similar to how US DDG 51 Arleigh Burke class destroyers interoperate with MH-60R helicopters, the new Chinese “Nanchang” destroyer dispatched a Z-9 search helicopter to deploy sonar equipment. The paper praised the Nanching’s ability to discern submarine signals from other sources of undersea noise.
“Despite fishing boat activities in the vicinity of the exercise zone, which disrupted the sonar equipment's detection of submarines, the Nanchang was able to use its acoustic data analysis and application system to accurately distinguish the noises of the submarine,” the Global Times writes.
The extent of secure or hardened connectivity between the Nanching and its sub-hunting helicopters would be crucial, as it may not parallel the US Navy’s ability to quickly exchange threat data from undersea to helicopter and drones before reaching a host ship destroyer able to perform command and control.
The Nanchang also fires rocket-propelled, submarine-killing torpedoes and has an ability to conduct “joint fire strikes,” according to the Chinese paper.
The Chinese paper did say part of the intent of the anti-submarine drills was to ensure U.S. attack submarines could not operate near Chinese shores. However, it is not clear just how effective these new anti-submarine technologies would be against upgraded, high-tech, Virginia-class attack submarines equipped with new quieting technologies and stealth coating materials.
Virginia-class attack submarines are increasingly being thought of as platforms capable of conducting undersea reconnaissance missions, due to navigational, acoustic and sensing upgrades.
Interestingly, it seems significant that the Chinese paper made no mention of undersea drones as being part of the Nanching’s networked sub-hunting network.
Many US Navy surface ships, such as its Littoral Combat Ships, are able to launch and recover submarine-hunting drones and mine-hunting platforms. Any kind of effective submarine hunting mission would benefit greatly from an ability to gather time-sensitive intelligence information from beneath the surface.
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Ultimately, the success of the Nanching’s ability to truly find submarines would not only rest on the range and fidelity of its sonar and acoustic-data collection and analysis, but also upon an ability to securely network that data across domains in real time. Submarines can of course quickly change position, so an anti-submarine mission would need to find a day to move information quickly or develop an extended “continuous track” because an attack submarine on a clandestine surveillance mission is not likely to stay in one place for long.
China has now already built eight new Type 055 stealthy destroyers, a class of next-generation destroyers likely intended to rival the US Navy’s emerging DDG 51 Flight III destroyers or even Zumwalt-class warships.
Three of these new Type 055 destroyers are already operational.
China and US: Ships & Shipbuilding
While the weapons, technologies and stealthy characteristics of these ships are likely to be of interest to Pentagon officials, the sheer pace of Chinese shipbuilding continues to be a cause of likely concern. China’s industrial apparatus, and ability to rapidly build ships, creates a circumstance which can enable the PRC to continue its large-scale Naval expansion at a pace tough for the US to match.
Multiple reports say China is on pace to double its fleet of destroyers within just the next five years. The concern, however, is by no means restricted to pure numbers but also grounded in uncertainties related to the relative sophistication and capability of China’s new destroyers. Having more destroyers does not necessarily equate to any kind of maritime superiority if they cannot compete with the range, precision, networking and overall capability of US destroyers.
Furthermore, the US Navy does have as many as 10 DDG Flight III destroyers under contract and is moving quickly to modernize its sensors, radar systems, computing and ship-integrated weapons.
A Chinese Communist party backed newspaper says the Type 055 destroyers are engineered for multi-mission operations to include land-attack, open water maritime warfare and anti-submarine missions. The new Chinese ships are armed with rocket-propelled torpedoes, operate sub-hunting helicopters and advanced sonar systems.
The first Type 055 Chinese destroyer, the Nanching, looks a bit like a hybrid between the US Zumwalt and Arleigh Burke DDG 51 class destroyers. It does have what appear to be some stealthy attributes such as a rounded front hull and smooth exterior with fewer protruding structures, yet there are mounted antennas and what look like masts on the back end as well. The helicopter landing area on the back of the Nanchang does look like a US DDG 51.
The Chinese already have three operational Type 055 destroyers, a number which interestingly matches the US Navy’s plan for three Zumwalt-class destroyers. What seems key is the question as to what kind of weapons range, radar, fire control and computing is aboard the Nanchang, as that will most likely determine the margin of difference regarding its ability to rival its US equivalents.
Perhaps of greatest consequence is the question of whether these Type 055 destroyers have any kind of Aegis-radar-like ballistic missile defense technology linking fire-control, air and cruise missile defense, ballistic missile defense and interceptor missiles able to fire from deck-mounted Vertical Launch Systems.
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Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven -the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.