According to a report earlier this week by IHS Jane’s 360, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has commissioned its first Type 056-variant Jingdao-class corvette (Type 056A) with an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) specialization. The Type 056 corvettes entered service in the PLAN in 2012 and are stealth missile corvettes. They primarily specialize in anti-surface ship warfare. Although rumors of an ASW-focused Type 056-variant have been around for at least a year, Jane‘s cites a ” PLA-linked media report on 11 November” as noting that a vessel named the Zhuzhou has been inducted into the PLAN’s South Sea fleet as the 18th Jingdao-class corvette, and is the first with ASW capabilities.
Despite a bid modernize its navy and develop expeditionary capabilities, anti-submarine warfare has long been the Achilles heel of the PLAN. In fact, the PLAN’s dearth of ASW capabilities has been so notable that rival regional navies, including Vietnam and Japan, have made investments in either acquiring or developing submarines to counter China. Notably, Vietnam, which was locked in a conflict with Beijing over the positioning of a Chinese oil rig in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), is adding six advanced Kilo-class Russian submarines to better police its waters and deter Chinese aggression. Instead of making ASW a priority, the PLAN has directed the bulk of its modernization effort toward anti-ship and anti-air warfare platforms.
While Beijing outclasses Vietnam’s navy in every other regard, both in terms of sheer numbers and capabilities, submarines represent an asymmetric challenge to China’s ability to patrol its claimed waters in the South China Sea without opposition. This has been the primary motivation for the PLAN’s interest in ASW. As long as it remained a coastal force focused on anti-access scenarios (say, against the United States), ASW was a much lower priority than interdicting surface ships and aircraft. However, in recent years, the Chinese navy has started playing a more forward role in maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the prospect of submarine proliferation in the region has led to Beijing playing catch-up on ASW.
The Type 056A is the natural next step for Beijing in ASW. It began developing its ASW capabilities in the South Sea initially with an investment in coastal ocean-floor acoustic arrays which would help it detect foreign submarine activity. Where that technology relies on the adversary’s proximity to the coast, a frigate properly equipped for ASW bypasses that limitation.