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(AGENPARL) – GLOBAL, lun 19 ottobre 2020

The Type 055 Renhai destroyer, which displaces 12,000 tonnes, represents a significant advance in People’s Liberation Army Navy blue-water surface combatant vessel capabilities, in terms of both size and complexity

The Type 055 is significantly larger than preceding vessels such as the Type 052D and incorporates a number of features that illustrate the progress being made by Chinese shipbuilders with regards to incorporating complex technology onto surface assets. Despite claims to the contrary, however, the Type 055 as currently constituted is not a game-changing asset. If previous Chinese shipbuilding experience is any guide, it represents the first step in a developmental sequence that could give China a new generation of qualitatively first-tier surface combatants. Moreover, the investment in the Type 055 offers important insights into Chinese perspectives on future warfare and attempts to maximise their fleet’s effectiveness in the future operating environment.

The Current and Future Capabilities of the Type 055

Though nominally a destroyer, the Type 055 is closer to the US Navy’s Ticonderoga-class cruiser in terms of its displacement and capabilities. The 12,000-tonne vessel carries 112 vertical launch system (VLS) cells. This is slightly fewer than the Ticonderoga class, but the nine-metre-long VLS cells on the Type 055 have a greater volume, allowing them to hold larger and thus longer-ranged strike and defensive missiles. Unlike those of its counterpart, the VLS cells of the Type 055 can also support both hot and cold launches. The vessel can significantly outrange its current competitors with the 400-km-class supersonic YJ-18 anti-ship cruise missile. Moreover, the VLS cells on the Type 055 can carry the Yu-8 anti-submarine rocket (ASROC) as well as the CJ-10 land-attack cruise missile, allowing it to target a broad variety of threats.

The vessel also carries significant defensive firepower including the 300-km-class HHQ-9B surface-to-air missile (SAM), as well as the 40-km-class HQ-16B and up to 24 shorter-range HQ-10 SAMs. The ship also features a 130-mm H/PJ45A-130-1 forward gun and a 30-mm Type 1130 close-in weapons system for last-ditch defence.

The Type 055 has several qualitative advantages over competitors such as the Ticonderoga class and the Japanese Kongo– and Atago-class destroyers in terms of stealth and sensor capability. Its Type 346B AESA radar confers advantages in both accuracy and resistance to detection and jamming over vessels which use a PESA, such as the AN/SPY-1. Moreover, unlike both predecessor vessels such as the Type 052D and its U.S Navt and Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force counterparts, the Type 055 features an integrated mast. In addition to advantages in terms of improved sensor deconfliction and thus accuracy, an integrated mast reduces overall radar cross-section and the amount of hull space taken up by mounting sensors.

The Type 055 likely features greater protection against subsurface threats than its predecessors. It features both hull-mounted and towed sonar arrays, and is capable of carrying two ASW helicopters such as the Z-9, Z-18 or the more modern Z-20. In addition to its capacity to launch the Yu-8 ASROC, it will likely be able to launch 324-mm torpedoes from tubes located amid ships.

Despite all this, the Type 055 is not necessarily a game changer in its current form. Chinese analysts note that despite its likely advantages in organic situational awareness compared to the JMSDF’s newest Maya-class destroyer, the Type 055 likely suffers from poorer battle management and C2 capabilities than its Japanese counterpart. Given the importance placed by Chinese analysts on integrating vessels into a system of systems in line with network-centric principles for both air defence and surface strike missions, such software limitations are important. Moreover, despite the substantial build-up of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in recent years, it remains outmatched in terms of numbers of large surface combatants of the size of a guided missile destroyer (DDG) or greater by the JMSDF (to say nothing of the US Navy). Even significant additions to the eight Type 055 cruisers currently joining service will not initially change this. Finally, the Type 055 is yet to incorporate an integrated full electrical propulsion system, which limits future capability growth in terms of railguns and directed energy weapons.

The Type 055 as a Template

Despite current limitations, when viewed within the context of the PLAN’s historical approach to developing platforms, the Type 055 has an altogether greater significance. The Chinese approach to the construction of large surface combatants has been characterised by periods of experimentation, followed by sharp bursts of rapid serial production once design was deemed suitable. For example, China produced six different kinds of DDG between 1990 and 2012, incorporating both foreign systems such as the Mineral fire-control radar and various evolutionary iterations of domestic Chinese technology. Once the Type 052D was identified as an optimal design, however, the PLAN procured 14 of these vessels in six years with plans to build significantly more over the next decade. In a similar pattern, China procured limited numbers of four different kinds of Frigate  before settling on the Type 054A as a model for serial production. The real significance of the eight Type 055s procured, then, is as templates for future mass production of more mature and capable iterations.

In terms of potential Type 055 evolution, it has been suggested that the large VLS cells of the vessel coupled with their capacity for cold launches could enable a marinised version of the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) to be carried by the Type 055. They would still rely on targeting data from a complex system of off-board sensors much like ground-based DF-21D brigades, but their ability to fire the ASBM from forward positions would significantly expand the theoretical threat radius against foreign large surface combatants. Ballistic missiles launched from mobile, well-protected cruisers would also significantly complicate an opponent’s ballistic missile defence posture by multiplying the potential threat vectors.

A second and highly likely development in the Type 055 programme is the adoption of an integrated electrical drive system. This would increase the vessels’ speed, make it quieter and facilitate the incorporation of a railgun. Chinese analysts appear confident that this will be the case, pointing to the development of the indigenous QC-280 gas turbine engine as an important step towards developing an all-electric drive. Currently, however, the Type 055 lags behind vessels such as the UK’s Type 45 and US Zumwalt-class DDGs in terms of the possession of an integrated full electric propulsion system.

Finally, further development of the C2 and battle management systems is likely since the PLAN plans to use the Type 055 as a command node to provide battle management, greater situational awareness, and target cueing to smaller assets such as FFGs and corvettes using its more capable sensor suite.

The Strategic Implications of the Type 055

Though it is not a game changer in its current form, the Type 055 is a template for a future vessel that may very well be. If weapons such as the railgun and the DF-21D are integrated, the vessel could represent a step change in the lethality of surface-based firepower.

The Type 055 will likely form part of future PLAN carrier battle groups, but could also play a role as a key component of hybrid surface action groups comprised of vessels of varying sizes and capabilities. In the medium term, it can provide long-range air defence to smaller assets such as the Type 056 corvette, the Type 022 missile catamaran and even the Type 054 FFG. While it is unlikely that China has mastered coordinated fleet-wide battle management on any-sensor, best-shooter principles, the Type 055 could still extend a protective umbrella over these assets and provide them with improved situational awareness and potentially target cueing. In the longer term, as Chinese integrated C2 and battle management improves, the Type 055 could act as the central node in a system of vessels which have credible missile suites but more limited sensors, C2 and battle management systems.

The emergence of the Type 055, coupled with the investment by Japan and South Korea in large vessels such as the Maya– and Sejong the Great-class DDGs, raises important questions about wider naval development trends. They challenge the emerging view that future war at sea will be based around a paradigm of distributed lethality, to which large numbers of less easily identifiable small assets will be central. First, the battle between size and stealth may not be altogether settled. Though it is true that large platforms are easier to detect and represent single points of failure, they also have advantages, particularly with regards to power generation. These may enable them to leverage new technology to become more survivable in the missile age, and thus exploit the inherent firepower advantages they enjoy. Moreover, the potential capabilities of the Type 055 as a C2 node for smaller vessels suggests that such large assets may have a role even in a future dominated by distributed networks of cheap assets. Despite the growing importance of smaller distributed manned and unmanned assets, middleweight ships which can be built in large enough numbers to not represent a single point of failure but which have an organic capacity for battle management and C2 will be critical to ensuring that networks of distributed assets retain coherence. As such, a distributed future fleet of small vessels may yet find itself knitted together by large surface combatants like the Type 055.

Sidharth Kaushal is the Research Fellow for Sea Power at RUSI.


Banner Image: Type 055 first of class ‘Nanchang’ at sea during trials. Source: Chinese Internet


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