By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization
(Washington D.C.) The Chinese Navy has now commissioned its 8th quasi-stealthy, high-tech and heavily armed Type-055 Destroyer, a development likely noticed by the Pentagon as the PRC Navy continues to accelerate both ship production quantity as well as advanced technology development.
Built with what looks like a curved US Navy Zumwalt-like stealthy configuration, China’s Type-055 destroyer looks like a hybrid blend between the stealthy Zumwalt-class destroyers and greatly up-gunned U.S. Navy DDG 51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. It has concentrated Vertical Launch Systems, a smoother, straighter hull configuration with fewer radar signature-increasing protruding structures such as guns on the side, deck masts or antennas.
Unlike the nearly completely smoothed over Zumwalt-class deck and hull structure, the Chinese Type-055 does have DDG 51-like protruding antennas on its back half, something which could reduce its stealth properties by virtue of being vertical structures likely to be detected by radar return “pings” and also emit a potentially detectable electromagnetic signature.
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The Chinese Communist party backed Global Times 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.
A recent report in the Chinese government-backed Global Times newspaper says “the PLA Navy commissioned its first Type 055 large destroyer, the Nanchang, in January 2020. Since then, the Lhasa, the Anshan, the Wuxi, the Dalian and the Yan'an have also entered service.”
Three of these new Type 055 destroyers are already operational. The first Type 055 Chinese destroyer 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
Ballistic Missile Defense System Type-055 Destroyer
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. The new Type 055 destroyers operate with mobile maritime, Aegis-like BMD, it could greatly erode any kind of U.S. military superiority at sea.
The Pentagon’s 2021 China report said the country plans to deploy a mobile, maritime ballistic missile defense system on board its new Type-055 stealthy destroyer.
Should this come to fruition, the People’s Liberation Army - Navy could take a huge step toward rivaling, challenging or maybe even matching the U.S. ship-based Aegis System for ballistic missile defense.
Ship-based BMD of course introduces new layers and new angles of protection and defensive countermeasures by being mobile at sea. Ship commanders can pick locations of great strategic import which increases the likelihood of intercepting an attacking ballistic missile.
“The PRC is working to develop BMD systems consisting of exo-atmospheric and endoatmospheric kinetic-energy interceptors. PRC state media confirmed the PLA’s intent to move ahead with land- and sea-based midcourse missile defense capabilities,” DoD’s 2021 “Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China” states.
U.S. Navy Aegis Radar System
As recently as last year, the U.S. Navy demonstrated an ability to use its Aegis Radar System to track and destroy an ICBM-target beyond the earth’s atmosphere using an advanced SM-3 Block IIA interceptor missile. U.S. Navy destroyers and cruisers are engineered with advanced variants of the well-known Aegis radar system, an integrated system of radars, sensors, fire-control technology and ship-fired interceptors.
Having a BMD system onboard a ship introduces paradigm-changing levels of mobility and defensive reach from the ocean as vessels can maneuver and stay in position relative to a given threat circumstance. Aegis-capable Navy destroyers have operated with an ability to conduct ballistic missile defense as well as air and cruise missile defense.
Navy SM-3s and SM-6s shot out of VLS have long been able to intercept ballistic missiles, some of them even being close to the boundary of the earth’s atmosphere. Now a variant called Aegis Baseline 10 radar enables BMD and air and cruise missile defense to operate from a single system. Building upon this, Aegis-capable ships are now demonstrating an ability to track and destroy enemy ICBMs traveling through space during the “midcourse” phase of flight on route to a target.
This technical possibility was something that was previously only possible with the use of land-launched Ground Based Interceptors. Now, this kind of advanced, long-range impactful missile defense is arriving at sea for the U.S. Navy. It appears this is exactly what China is attempting to match with its new destroyers reportedly being engineered with midcourse missile defense technology.
Type 055 Destroyer: Submarine-Hunting
China’s first quasi-stealthy new Type 055 destroyer has also in recent years been tested and developed for aggressive submarine-hunting missions in waters near Taiwan and the South China Sea, according to previous reports in the Global Times. By testing helicopter-dropped sonar and built-in anti-submarine technologies, the PRC Navy seems to be pursuing submarine-hunting possibilities, a strategy which makes sense given the technological sophistication of US Navy Virginia-Class attack submarines.
Part of the PRC-Navy’s sub-hunting 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 previous reports in the Chinese Communist Party-backed Global Times newspaper. The four day exercises included what the paper called “realistic scenario-oriented anti-submarine training courses.”
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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.
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.
New Shipyard to be Operational by 2023
Overall, 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.
While the weapons, technologies and stealthy characteristics of these Type 055 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.
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China has been quickly making progress with efforts to build a new shipyard in Shanghai to open this year, a large facility slated to build Chinese amphibs, destroyers. The new shipyard is “expected to be completed by the end of 2023. This includes a research and development building, a joint hull workshop, a curved section assembly workshop, a module center for outfitting, a painting workshop, an indoor dockyard, an outdoor dockyard, a dock basin and a dock for outfitting, enabling the production of six specialized ships a year.
“The new site is expected to allow China to build a range of warships - including amphibious assault ships, amphibious landing ships and frigates - faster, better and more efficiently,” the paper writes.
The high-pressure jet grouting pile is 40 percent complete, and the steel columns are in place.
The shipyard raises an interesting question about fleet size versus quality. Many maintain that even if the Chinese do now operate a larger number of warships, that does not mean that they are in anyway way superior. A superior warship in terms of sensors, weapons, computing and range could be well positioned to outperform a larger number of less capable ships.
While China may not have been able to match US Navy technological superiority on the ocean for many years now, despite how many ships they have, there is broad discussion that they are closing the gap quickly.
Given this scenario, building a larger and much more threatening group of new warships which are also competitive technologically presents what could be seen as an unprecedented threat.
Kris Osborn is 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.