On July 3, China launched two new Type 055 destroyers in Dalian, at the same yards that refit and built the PLA Navy’s two aircraft carriers. The Type 055 brings significantly greater capabilities over the Type 052D destroyers that preceded it and are closer in size and capability to U.S. Ticonderoga-class cruisers.
At nearly 600 feet long and 13,000 tons displacement, the Type 055 is larger than the U.S. Navy’s Ticonderoga-class cruisers, but smaller than its new Zumwalt-class destroyers, which are roughly 9,800 tons and 16,000 tons, respectively. The Type 055’s primary armament are its 112 vertical launch tubes capable of launching air defense missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, or strike cruise missiles for attacking targets on land. This is a significant increase in capacity over the China’s Type 052D destroyers, which have 64 vertical launch tubes, but not that many more than U.S. Arleigh Burke destroyers’ 96 launch tubes, and still less than the Ticonderoga cruiser’s 122 launch tubes.
The Type 055’s superstructure appears to borrow heavily from later U.S. Arleigh Burke designs, but mated with a high-freeboard hull more commonly seen on advanced amphibious ships like China’s Type 071 LPD and the U.S. San Antonio-class. U.S. analysts and ship designers have previously considered using the San Antonio hull-form for the U.S. Navy’s next generation cruiser.
Some Chinese analysts claim that the Type 055 may one day be armed with an advanced electromagnetic railgun. The ships appear to have been built with significant excess electric generation capacity, suggesting that the hulls were envisioned to accommodate some sort of future energy weapon. Earlier this year photos appeared suggesting that China may have installed a prototype railgun on a small amphibious vessel for at-sea testing.
The Type 055’s 130 millimeter gun is similar to the U.S. Navy’s 5 inch gun, which has an advertised range of about 13 nautical miles, though both are believed capable of firing advanced munitions with longer ranges. The U.S. Navy’s electromagnetic railgun prototypes are envisioned to shoot projectiles at ranges between fifty and one hundred nautical miles.
Since the Type 055 is closer in size to a U.S. cruiser, it is possible that the PLA Navy intends to use them to escort its growing fleet of aircraft carriers. In the U.S. Navy, cruisers typically accompany aircraft carriers and coordinate air defense for the overall strike group.
China has now launched four Type 055s but none are yet in commissioned service with the PLA Navy. The first two were built in Shanghai; the first was launched last June, and the second this past April.
While the pace of China’s warship construction is extraordinary, the PLA Navy still lags behind the U.S. Navy in the number of advanced large surface combatants. China operates about 16 advanced destroyers in addition to the four Type 055s not yet in service, and about 10 more are under construction, including several more Type 055s.
The U.S. Navy currently operates sixty-five Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, with another 12 planned or under construction. A new “Flight III” variant of the Arleigh Burkes with an entirely new advanced air defense radar and substantially increased electrical power generation are planned to enter service in the early 2020s.
The United States also operates 22 Ticonderoga-class cruisers, though these ships are rapidly nearing the end of their intended service life. The U.S. Navy has considered decommissioning the class before, but are now likely to be extended until a replacement cruiser has been chosen and funded.