What does China have planned for the Type 055 cruiser (or cruiser-size destroyer)?
Over the past month, numerous reports have emerged about the progress of the class of large ships. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has reportedly ordered four ships, in two groups. The first ship, building at Dalian, will likely hit the water next year, and potentially commission in 2018 or 2019.
Guesses regarding size have ranged from 12,000 to 20,000 tons, with most estimates concentrating on the lower end. Expectations about employment of the ships vary quite a bit, but there is general agreement that the PLAN has determined that it needs a large ship able to operate at great distance from home bases, and that will presumably include anti-air, anti-submarine, and anti-surface capabilities. Like many modern surface combatants, the Type 055 will apparently have features designed to reduce its radar cross section and thus enhance survivability.
Mission matters quite a bit for the final configuration of the class. The Type 055 looks like the core of a long-range battlegroup, or the central part of the escort for another major PLAN asset, such as an aircraft carrier or a big amphib. These ships will show the flag as China’s navy demonstrates its increasing range, scope, and power. The need for range, self-sufficiency, and multi-mission capability creates the need for size.
It’s worth noting that other navies have found different reasons for constructing large ships. The Soviets built big cruisers as platforms for cruise missiles designed to strike American carrier battlegroups. China, however, already has plenty of ways to attack carriers, with surface ships being among the least cost-effective platforms. Moreover, the engineering of cruise missiles has changed over the years, reducing the footprint needed to carry effective offensive weapons. For their part, the Americans designed the 14,000 ton Zumwalt-class around a series of innovative technologies, for which the destroyers will serve as a test bed and demonstrator.
Given the multi-role mission described above, the Type 055 looks more like a large Arleigh Burke or KDX type cruiser/destroyer, rather than a throwback to the Kirov/Slava cruisers or something new and experimental like the Zumwalt-class destroyer. Given the limited global need for large, expensive ships that fulfill these roles, the construction of the Type 055 may not portend a new era of competition in dimensions.
That said, the large size of the ship could be used to accommodate a variety of different advanced technologies. Larger ships can generate more power and accommodate a larger Vertical Launching System capacity. As new offensive and defensive technologies emerge, power generation may enable large ships to effectively defend themselves from an array of threats, while also maintaining devastating offensive capabilities.
Long story short (or perhaps Big Story Small), technological trends may again reward size in surface combatants. If so, shipbuilders and naval architects around the world will have a great deal of work to do.