Warrior Video Above: USS Zumwalt Commander Capt. Carlson Describes Riding the Stealthy Ship in Stormy Seas

By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) Chinese Naval modernization, emerging high-tech weaponry and massive fleet expansion effort are putting growing amounts of pressure upon the U.S. Navy as senior leaders continue to work with Congress and Pentagon leaders regarding an optimal fleet size configuration plan.

The Navy’s fleet size “aim point,” which may or may not come to fruition, was still to pursue a 500 ship fleet as of late last year, yet budget considerations, threat developments and new technologies could always emerge as potentially complicating variables.

Last Fall Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told SeaPower Magazine that Congressional and Pentagon budget support will be needed to approach this aim point in the next 25 years. The Future Naval Force Study, released last year, was reported as calling for 143 to 242 unmanned surface and undersea vessels, including 119 to 166 USVs and 24 to 65 UUVs, according to a report in National Defense magazine.

Many Congressional decision-makers now deliberating fleet size issues and budget variables, regardless of any arrived upon final number, seem extremely concerned about the threats posed by the Chinese Navy.

“Fleet size considerations need to examine a combination of capacity and capability. So it's two factors. It's not only quantity, but its quality. You know, for years, we looked at the Chinese and said ‘they got quantity, but they don't have quality.’ Well, let me tell you, the Chinese have quality now,” Rep. Rob Whitman -(R) Va., ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, told The National Interest in an interview.

A quick look at the Chinese-government backed newspapers lend plenty of evidence to Wittman’s comment. The Chinese are doubling their numbers of destroyers in just the next five years and adding a new class of high-tech, stealthy Type 055 destroyers; they have already fielded two new amphibious assault ships and will soon launch a third; they are adding new Jin-class ballistic missile submarines armed with much longer range JL-3 nuclear missiles; China is building carrier-launched 5th-Gen stealth fighter jet variants and, perhaps of greatest concern, rapidly growing its fleet of aircraft carriers. China has already copied U.S. Navy dual-carrier warfare preparation exercises by deploying several carriers at once in the direction of Taiwan and the South China Sea.

A report in the Chinese government-backed Global Times newspaper last year says China’s third carrier is likely to formally enter service by as soon as 2025. Unlike the Ukrainian-built Liaoning, China’s first carrier, and its first domestically built carrier, the Shandong, the third Chinese carrier is not built with a ski-jump kind of aircraft take-0ff ramp. Rather, it looks more like a large, flat-decked U.S. carrier, and the use of an electromagnetic catapult is exactly the kind of technology now used by the U.S. Ford class.

“The aircraft carrier is still the most powerful platform for power projection, and the concept is still extraordinarily vital. If it was not the Chinese wouldn't be building aircraft carriers. So they are looking to catch up because they understand you’ve got to deploy power away from your shores,” Wittman said.

Regardless of its eventual numerical size, it is clear and self-evident that the Navy’s future fleet will consist of a mix of manned and unmanned platforms operating in close coordination with one another to support an integrated and networked force.

When large numbers of drone ships are factored into the equation, the possibility of building a 500-ship Navy seems somewhat more attainable, given that the drone ships will operate in many different shapes, sizes and form factors. Also, many of them can be similar and therefore easier to produce and they greatly fortify the Navy’s "mothership" strategy which calls for large platform manned ships to operate large numbers of interconnected drones.

“What we have to look at is, you know, what can our platforms do? What can we do to make our main platforms even more effective? What can we do in developing unmanned platforms that have a reliable and dependable level of function?” Wittman asked.

Chinese Destroyers

The Chinese Navy may double its fleet of destroyers in just the next five years, bringing increased reach, firepower and missile defenses to new areas around the globe.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy, which now fields twenty destroyers, is expected to operate as many as thirty-nine of the warships within five years, a move which massively expands the attack reach of the Chinese Navy.

“As of mid-2020, the PLAN currently fields 20 modern aegis-type* destroyers in its order of battle, supported by another 11 older, non-aegis-type destroyers. These 20 modern aegis-type destroyers are made up of six Type 052Cs, 13 Type 052Ds, and one lead Type 055,” a story in The Diplomat writes.

The increase in destroyers parallels a much larger Chinese Naval expansion now causing concern among Pentagon leaders.

A recent Congressional report maps out China’s ambitious aircraft carrier modernization plan. Citing that the Chinese Navy, now having 360 ships, has already well surpassed the U.S. Navy’s 297 ships in terms of sheer size.

Having already launched its second carrier, the Shangdong, the Chinese have embarked upon the construction of a newer, far-more capable third aircraft carrier, according to a May 2020 Congressional Research Service Report, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities.”

The People’s Liberation Army Navy, a report in The Diplomat says, will likely have 400 ships and at three-to-four aircraft carriers by 2025.

Following the construction of its first indigenously-built carrier, the second carrier in the fleet overall, modeled after its ski-jump-configured Ukrainian-built Liaoning, the PLAN has embarked upon a larger, flatter, more modern carrier platform with smooth, longer-range electromagnetic catapults similar to the U.S. Ford-class.

An electromagnetic catapult generates a fluid, smooth launch, which is different than a steam-powered “shotgun” type take off. Also, an electromagnetic catapult extends an attack envelope well beyond what China’s existing ski jump launch makes possible.

China’s emerging Type 055 destroyer is also attracting attention from U.S. planners. Interestingly, the ship represents an apparent Chinese effort to build a stealthy destroyer.

The ship has a blended body-bow, smooth exterior, absence of large protruding deck masts and few external deck-mounted weapons. In some respects, the ship does appear to resemble some elements of the U.S. Navy’s stealthy USS Zumwalt destroyer.

The Nanchang has very similar-looking deck-mounted guns and a smooth, flat, roundly curved deckhouse. Like the USS Zumwalt, there is a decidedly linear, inwardly-angled hull-deckhouse connection.

It has narrow command post windows and appears to mirror the hull deckhouse configuration of the USS Zumwalt to some extent with radar panels blended into sides of the ship.

Also, the central placement of the deckhouse, blended with a back end area, might represent a deliberate effort to align the ship’s center of gravity and therefore decrease the possibility of capsizing in rough seas.

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Some of the ship’s stealth features were pointed out in a 2018 story in The Diplomat, which describes the ship as having a “flared hull with distinctly stealthy features including an enclosed bow,” and hidden mooring points and anchor chains.

This deck structure indeed does reveal an apparent attempt to engineer a ship with a lower radar signature, as there are no externally mounted, angular or protruding weapons systems hanging from the sides of the ship.

There are few separated large, pointy antenna masts apart from one aligned straight up on top of the deckhouse and a small cluster on the back end.

However, unlike the USS Zumwalt, which aligns VLS (Vertical Launch Systems) along the periphery of the ship deck, the Diplomat describes the Type 055 destroyers as having a “64 cell block of VLS.” More concentrated VLS might seem to leave a ship more vulnerable to catastrophic attack should an incoming weapon hit the centralized group of VLS.

Having VLS on the periphery, however, would enable many VLS to sustain functionality in the event that some were disabled or destroyed by enemy attacks. Also, closely stacked VLS would emit a larger heat signature should multiple missiles be launched concurrently.

Chinese Amphibs

The Chinese Navy has now launched a second large amphibious assault ship engineered to carry weapons, helicopters, troops and landing craft into war, a move which further changes international power dynamics by strengthening China’s ability to launch expeditionary maritime attacks.

The ship is described at the second Type 075 Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD), somewhat analogous to the U.S. WASP-class. This Chinese amphibious assault ship reportedly displaces as much as 30,000 tons and is able to carry as many as 28 helicopters, a report from Naval News states. The report adds that the new People’s Liberation Army Navy LHD is likely powered by a diesel engine with 9,000kW, four Close In Weapons Systems and HQ-10 surface-to-air missiles. The new ship’s “aim is likely to increase the “vertical” amphibious assault capability with the very mountainous East Coast of Taiwan in mind,” the Naval News report writes.

The addition of more LHDs certainly increases China’s maritime attack power, making it a formidable threat along the Taiwanese coastline. Photos of the ship show well-deck in back, capable of launching ship-to-shore transport craft similar to the U.S. Navy Landing Craft Air Cushion or newer Ship-to-Shore Connector. Such a configuration makes it appear somewhat similar to U.S. Navy WASP-class which, unlike the first two ships of the America-class, also operates with a well-deck from which to launch large-scale amphibious assaults.

The Chinese LHD operates with a displacement of roughly 10,000-tons less than its U.S. counterpart. However, despite an apparently smaller size, it may operate with as many or more helicopters; if reports that the Chinese LHD can operate 28 helicopters are true, that would appear to be a larger number than the roughly 22 operated by U.S. LHDs. Regardless, it does not appear as though the Type 075s operate anything like the Short-Take-off-and-Landing F-35B stealth fighter which launches from U.S. LHDs. F-35Bs, combined with Harrier Jets and Ospreys are likely to push the number of aircraft operated by U.S. LHDs somewhat higher than that Type 075. The aviation centric first two America-class ships and the legacy WASP boats both now operate with F-35s. Having the F-35 is likely to give U.S. LHDs a decided advantage over these emerging Chinese counterparts; not only does it bring the prospect of stealth and air support, but also brings new dimensions of ISR to maritime warfare. The possibility of establishing air supremacy during an amphibious assault with an F-35 or even merely fortifying an advance with 5th-generation air power, is reshaping amphibious attack strategy with unforeseen advantages.

While threats to Taiwan may jump out as the first and most apparent area threatened by expanding Chinese amphibious forces, the South China Sea will also be increasingly vulnerable. In particular, when it comes to ship-to-shore transports, a Type 075 could dispatch groups of troops, weapons and even armored vehicles for attack, as well as large numbers of amphibious assault vehicles. Several of these ships operating in tandem would easily enable a Chinese amphibious assault to annex or overwhelm large areas of the disputed island areas. Also not likely to be lost on U.S. observers is that two capable LHDs of this kind massively increase China’s expeditionary capability, introducing new dimensions to the prospect of large-scale amphibious attacks against major-power target areas around the globe.

High Tech vs. Fleet Size

Would a high number of warships be enough or could fewer high-tech ships controlling unmanned systems have an equivalent or even superior impact? 

Some have maintained that the technology woven into modern and emerging future vessels is so sophisticated that they would have give America an advantage without necessarily adding large numbers of new ships. 

The hope is that long-range sensors, multi-domain synergy, manned-unmanned teaming and a large platform “mothership” might achieve the requisite combat superiority without necessarily relying upon hundreds of ships.

However, others argue that the current fleet is simply ill-equipped to meet combatant commander’s demand for sustained and widespread global operations. Such a concept provides the foundation for why the Navy has been asking for as many as twelve carriers and a fleet as large as 355 ships or more. 

Navy shipbuilding plans have specified a path to achieve that goal, a roadmap that includes adding submarines, destroyers, a new fleet of amphibious assault ships and, of course, an additional carrier. 

Some observers point to the size of the Navy during the Reagan era, which exceeded 500 ships, as a way to make the point that a more sizeable fleet enables the service to project global power, protect strategically vital global waterways and of course deter potential adversaries. 

However, the seemingly contrary points of view on a large Navy vs fewer higher-tech drones invites an interesting thought. Why not both? Each strategy might bring an unprecedented advantage to maritime warfare.

There are several reasons why it is likely to make sense to pursue such an ambitious strategy, provided budget priorities could be properly aligned.

If that happened, two concerns come to mind: multi-domain warfare and major power two-front war. After all, it is well known that modern warfare changes the equation in a radical way, removing the likelihood of traditional, more linear force-on-force engagement limited to a narrow or clearly defined geographical area. 

Warfare today will be multi-domain, dispersed, information-driven and will heavily involve previously less-impactful domains such as cyber, space, electronic warfare and artificial intelligence.

Long-range weapons and sensors, over-the-horizon aerial nodes, undersea-surface-air-land networking and emerging space weapons and warfare technologies will expand warfare in seemingly limitless ways. No longer will a fleet of battleships or a carrier strike group simply target a geographical region for targeted attacks. 

While those missions will still exist, future engagements will rely on the speed of processing information. For instance, stealth bombers, tanks, submarines and destroyers will all operate as combat platforms as well as information nodes connecting otherwise separated areas of combat operation. 

Perhaps a forward-operating armed Unmanned Surface Vessel network with other surface drones to identify an enemy submarine attack force with sonar? The unmanned system, able to operate safely close to the enemy, sends real-time data to air drones and surface ships to attack from afar. 

One senior Navy leader put it in “mothership” terms, saying that big platforms such as amphibious assault ships could command and control a fleet of literally thousands of unmanned systems. Imagine this fleet conducting surveillance missions, testing enemy defenses, finding optimal areas for attack, performing high-risk targeting missions, and transporting amphibious forces and weapons for attack. All of this involves at least networking with undersea, surface and air platforms. This enables manned ships to operate in a more disaggregated, yet intricately connected, fashion. In turn, such a manned-unmanned fleet could operate over a wide swath of combat operations. 

Aerial nodes such as F-35s can detect and relay threats from beyond-the-horizon, tracking approaching enemy fire from previously impossible distances. Self-guiding cruise missiles and deck-launched rockets can find and hit targets from new distances as well, all the while leveraging data sharing from forward operating drones. Such systems could quite possibly be able to laser “paint” targets for large ships, send real-time video, help guide surface, air and undersea attacks. Finally, newer methods of undersea GPS-like communications technology are fast emerging. 

What all of this may amount to, simply put, is that both a larger Navy and groups of advanced technologies would be needed for a major-power engagement of any kind, let alone some kind of two-front U.S. war against both Russia and China simultaneously. 

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. 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 Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.