The Master ‘PLAN’: China’s New Guided Missile Destroyer

Posted on September 5, 2012

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China’s navy appears on the verge of creating a new class of warship. It could eventually alter the balance of naval power in the region.

We are loyal followers of baseball philosopher Yogi Berra, who reportedly proclaimed that “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Like the great Yogi, we seldom venture prophecies. But we did hazard one in The Diplomat late in 2010, namely that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) would defy those Western experts who opined that Beijing had slowed or halted its naval buildup.

For evidence, such experts claimed that the PLAN had stopped building guided-missile destroyers, or DDGs. If so, Beijing had made a conscious choice to limit its navy’s offensive punch. Not so, said we. Having experimented with various DDG designs, the PLAN was simply settling on a model that incorporated the best of each test platform. And indeed, DDG serial production has recommenced in earnest, judging from pictures of the new Type 052D Luyang II-class DDG that have surfaced on the Internet.

Until recently it was fashionable for Western PLA-watchers to contend that Chinese shipyards had slowed or stopped construction of major surface warships like DDGs in favor of smaller, shorter-range, seemingly more defensive-minded vessels like guided-missile frigates and fast-attack boats. They cited the dearth of clear-cut proof of DDG-building since 2005 as evidence of this supposed trend. From this they inferred that Chinese naval development had taken a less menacing turn.

This was counterintuitive at best. And indeed, a series of photos on Chinese and Western military websites over the past few years dispels such sanguine prognoses. The images indicate that Chinese shipyards had already resumed DDG construction by 2010, when we essayed our prediction about Chinese shipbuilding.

The latest reports suggest that Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai launched its sixth Type 052C DDG and is laying down an average of two hulls per year. The new combatant under construction within a nearby hangar appears to be the Type 052D, the 052C’s successor. Indeed, a well-known China-watcher confirms that one of the new vessels was launched last week. By no means does this mean the ship is ready for sea. An enormous amount of work doubtless remains to be done on it alongside the pier, per shipyards’ usual practice. Still, putting the first of its kind in the water represents an important milestone toward sending a new ship class to sea

The PLAN may have found its premier surface combatant.

According to the Taipei Times, this shadowy new vessel is an improved variant of the Type 052C, itself a man-of-war touted by Chinese naval enthusiasts as “China Aegis,” an equal to state-of-the-art U.S. Navy vessels. (We remain unconvinced by these claims.) The Type 052D is a stealthy, 6,000-ton, gas-turbine-driven ship boasting 64 vertical launch cells (VLS in Western parlance). A VLS cell is essentially a canister embedded in a ship’s hull. Each can disgorge one to four missiles, depending on the missile load. VLS allows for quick firing of anti-air, anti-ship, or land-attack missiles without the bother, delay, and technical headaches associated with uploading munitions onto launchers from magazines deep within the ship.

On paper, at least, the Type 052D appears to be a more modest version of the U.S. Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class DDGs and Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers. The PLAN DDG displaces less than the American vessels, which displace 11,000 tons and 9,600 tons respectively. This indicates that it has smaller fuel capacity and thus shorter cruising range. On the other hand,its dimensions are more than adequate for the types of regional missions it will likely be assigned in the “near seas” or the Indian Ocean. Its armament is smaller than that of the Burkes or Ticonderogas, which carry 96 and 122 VLS cells, respectively. But again, this Chinese destroyer packs a punch for localized conflicts in Asian waters. It will also operate under shore fire support in most cases, evening the firepower balance.

Since commencing its naval buildup in earnest in the late 1990s, Beijing has taken an eminently sensible approach to fleet development. So long as China’s strategic surroundings remained hospitable and the United States was content guaranteeing safe passage through international waters and skies, the PLAN could pursue leisurely “fleet experimentation.” Shipwrights built small classes of ships, kept the best features of each, and discarded the rest. This risk-averse approach made technological sense while the Chinese were attempting a qualitative leap in naval engineering.

The Chinese surface fleet, which consists of five relatively new destroyer classes of no more than two hulls apiece, bears out this go-slow approach. These ships need not remain close to home. The PLAN can extract real value from them, dispatching experimental vessels to distant waters to fine-tune crews’ skills, develop doctrine, and smooth out technical kinks. It has doubtlessly done so during counter-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean.

Ultimately, however, the PLAN had to settle on a single design for mass production. The timing appears auspicious for drawing this phase of Chinese fleet experimentation to a close. The PLAN’s first aircraft carrier, the refitted Soviet-built flattop Varyag, has undergone a series of sea trials. Recent reports indicate that the PLAN has been flight testing the J-15, a reverse-engineered derivative of the Russian Su-33 fighter plane that can operate from the Varyag’s decks. The chief element missing from an initial PLAN carrier group is a versatile picket ship to defend the capital ship against air and missile threats. The Type 052D could be it.

Admittedly,a new DDG will only complete the strictly material dimension of China’s carrier ambitions. Forming a Chinese carrier battle group on par with its American counterparts will remain a formidable challenge.Chinese planners will need to combine the carrier, its air wing, surface combatants, and possibly a nuclear attack submarine screen into a seamless, mutually supporting team.This is no easy feat.

But the destroyer’s usefulness will not hinge entirely on the fate of China’s carrier program. These are workhorse ships. A multirole DDG could be put to many other uses while the PLAN methodically masters the art of carrier operations. Notably, the Type 052D could join a surface action group (SAG) or amphibious task force to support and defend high-value ships other than carriers. It could also act as the centerpiece of such a group depending on the mission.

And it could do so throughout broad sea areas. Over the past five years numerous surface action groups, numbering up to eleven ships, have transited the international straits separating the Ryukyu island chain to reach the open Western Pacific. Four such groups voyaged to the high seas in the first six months of 2012 alone. Such naval activism strongly suggests that the surface action group will be a key organizing principle around which surface combatants will be deployed, with the Type 052D leading the way.

What will they do? Specifically, improved Luyangs could fend off air attacks against China’s Soviet-built Sovremenny-class destroyers, which specialize in ship-killing engagements. They could also accompany the small but growing numbers of amphibious assault ships Beijing has constructed to project power ashore. Such expeditionary strike groups easily outmatch those deployed by Southeast Asian navies. They would be particularly well-suited to seize islands in the South China Sea. The Type 052D, furthermore, could extend its protective air-defense umbrella over the nimble and stealthy Type 022 Houbei catamarans. These craft belie their diminutive size,sporting long-range anti-ship cruise missiles that allow them to assert or deny control of the seas vis-à-vis superior fleets.

In a Taiwan contingency, moreover, cutting-edge DDGs would offer Beijing a sea-based air-defense option that would further threaten the survivability of the embattled Taiwan Air Force.With its long detection and engagement horizon, a single Type 052D could cover wide swathes of airspace near or over the island, beyond the effective firingrange of shore-based surface-to-air missile units emplaced on the Chinese mainland. Type 052Ds cruising east of Taiwan could in effect surround the island’s air defenders, mounting a threat from all points of the compass when pilots take to the air.

Finally, the PLAN could dispatch such imposing frontline warships overseas, showcasing China’s military prowess to foreign audiences while advancing naval diplomacy. The bottom line is that more—and more capable—large-displacement destroyers will allow China to imaginatively combine different elements of its naval power for a wider range of missions.

In closing, it is worth speculating whether the regional naval balance of power will shift as a result of China’s DDG buildup. The short answer: yes. A casual calculation based on the IISS Military Balance is telling. If the PLAN puts ten Type 052Ds to sea, as the Taipei Times forecasts, then China will boast a fleet of six teen Aegis-equivalent warships—even in the unlikely case that it builds no more combatant ships of this type. By comparison, Japan and South Korea, the only Asian powers with similar naval heavyweights in their inventories,currently possess six and three Aegis-equipped destroyers, respectively.

On paper, at least, this officially makes China’s the leading indigenous Asian navy. Once the 052D contingent joins the fleet, the PLAN can expect to take on any regional fleet—excluding the U.S. Navy, of course—with better-than-average prospects of success. It will command a 16:6 advantage over the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, 16:3 over the South Korean Navy, and 16:9 over the combined Japanese and South Korean fleets. That’s significant.

Will the prospect of a tilt in China’s favor spur a new round of naval construction across the region in the coming years? Much depends on the United States’ staying power in the region, and on Asian countries’ capacity and willingness to bear the costs of an arms race. Now that the debate about the PLAN’s supposed building pause is over, it is time to ponder this troubling prospect.

Toshi Yoshihara & James R. Holmes

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Posted in: Politics