Much has been reported on the Chinese navy’s recent milestones in surface warship procurement, from the recent dual launch of two 055 destroyers, to advancements in the carrier program and the winding down of 054A frigate production. Production of Y-8Q/KQ-200 ASW patrol aircraft, 052D destroyers, 056 corvettes, and 071 amphibious assault ships have also continued.
These projects were verified through “evidence” in the form of undeniable photos or video, often taken in early stages of construction, launch, or maiden flights. Furthermore, a crescendo of speculation for new People’s Liberation Army (PLA) projects often precede their photographic confirmation, and as of mid-2018 there are a number of projects that are likely to definitively emerge and become “confirmed” within the next few years.
To be neat, this piece will consider five major naval projects likely to emerge and become confirmed within the next five years.
1: The 054B frigate
After a production run of 30 ships with the first launching in 2006, 054A production has finally seemed to begin to wind down for the PLA Navy. While additional ships are expected to be produced for export to the Pakistan Navy, there are strong indicators that the PLA Navy will now move onto a further improved frigate class to complement their existing 054A fleet.
The name of this frigate has been variously called 054B and 057 over the years, but in recent times 054B appears to be the designation, possibly because the ship will be a derivative of the 054A hull rather than a clean sheet design. It is rumored that fewer than 24 054Bs are currently on order, and are to be produced at Hudong and Huangpu, the same shipyards that built all of the 054A frigates.
The size of the 054B is not expected to be significantly larger than the 054A, perhaps exceeding 4,500 tons and slightly approaching 5,000 tons, but it will remain comfortably in the medium frigate weight class. The ship is expected to feature improved sensors and a more stealthy external shape, with the inclusion of an integrated mast. The so called “rice lantern” mast tested at the Wuhan 701 Research Institute has been floated as a possible feature on the 054B but this naturally has yet to be confirmed. The 054B’s weapons suite is expected to be similar in capacity to the 054A, but it is not known if it will use 054A’s more limited hot launch vertical launch system (VLS) or the universal VLS equipped on 052D and 055.
Rumors surrounding the 054B have also consistently suggested it will feature a much improved anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability, building upon the robust foundations of the 054A, potentially in the form of enhanced underwater sensors. The 054B is also thought to be the first class of warship in the PLA Navy to field an integrated electric propulsion system, where breakthroughs have been alluded to by PLA and state-affiliated media in recent times. However it has also been suggested that initial hulls may use a less ambitious partial electric drive system instead, such as combining diesel electric propulsion with conventional diesel or gas turbines. In any case, the 054B is expected to field a more advanced propulsion system than the combined diesel and diesel system on the 054A.
2: 075 LHD
A landing helicopter dock (LHD) type amphibious assault ship has long been predicted for the PLA Navy in the years after the 071 landing platform/dock (LPD) emerged. One export model LHD has been showcased, displacing about 20,000 tons, but the PLA Navy’s future LHD will likely be substantially larger.
The designation of the LHD is 075; however, in earlier years it has been incorrectly named as 081 in a number of publications. The 075 is thought to have a full displacement less than 40,000 tons, perhaps around 36,000-38,000 tons. Such a displacement would be smaller than the America or Wasp classes in service with the U.S. Navy, but would still be the largest non-U.S. LHD or LHA by a significant margin.
Currently it is thought that three 075s have been ordered by the PLA Navy, with initial work on the first two having commenced within the last year or more. The class is to be built at Hudong Zhonghua shipyard, the same facility that built all of the PLA Navy’s 071 LPDs. Considering the timespan in which the rumors about the lead 075’s construction began to emerge, it is likely that photo confirmation of the lead 075 will be attained within the next year or so, likely in a late stage of assembly before the ship is ready to launch.
3: 003 CATOBAR carrier
In late July this year, pictures of a suspicious looking module appeared at a newly constructed fabrication area at Jiangnan Chanxing (JNCX) shipyard in Shanghai. This was thought to be the much anticipated third Chinese aircraft carrier, which will be the second domestic carrier to be constructed in China, and their first catapult equipped carrier.
This carrier was once called 002 or Type 002. However, recent developments in the last year have recognized that 002 is likely the official designation for China’s first domestic carrier (CV-17), which was constructed at Dalian and underwent its first sea trial earlier this year. Therefore, this much expected carrier is instead now designated as 003, or alternatively as CV-18. The first few pictures of the suspected 003 carrier module are reminiscent of when the first pictures of the 002 in assembly at Dalian appeared in April 2015. Insiders with a proven track record have long stated that 003 would be constructed at JNCX, with fabrication of its modules potentially having begun in mid 2017.
One interesting rumor surrounding the 003’s construction suggests that multiple large hull modules may be prefabricated at different locations around JNCX shipyard or even around different Shanghai shipyards, before being moved to a final dry dock at JNCX for assembly. Such an assembly method would be more reminiscent of the multisite modular construction that the U.K. used to assemble their Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, rather than assembling smaller modules together in the dry dock in a method used for the 002 and U.S. carriers.
Some of the 003’s rumored characteristics have remained consistent over the years. It is all but confirmed to be a catapult equipped carrier, forgoing the ski jump on the Liaoning and the 002, with up to three catapults in total. The 003 will likely have a full displacement approaching 80,000 tons. There are strong indications that the 003 will field electromagnetic catapults over steam catapults, but this is yet to be confirmed. The 003 will also likely be conventionally powered, though some recent indications suggest the possibility of nuclear propulsion cannot be ruled out.
In any case, it may take a year or so until photographic proof emerges that a carrier is indisputably under construction at JNCX such that even skeptics have to accept the fact. Most enticing is the recent rumor that a second Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) carrier (variously dubbed as the second 003, or even simply as 004), may be in early stages of construction at Dalian shipyard as well. If this were the case, it suggest a greatly increased pace of Chinese carrier construction than previously projected. However, at this stage it can only be confirmed that the 003’s modules have been photographed at JNCX, with irrefutable photographic evidence of its identity as a carrier likely to emerge within a year or so. In the longer term, the 003 is likely to be launched sometime in 2021.
4: 5th generation carrier-borne fighter
A number of articles in recent months have suggested that the PLA Navy is also interested in pursuing a next generation carrier-borne fighter. This is certainly true; however, it would be incorrect to characterize it as due to any recent or inherent deficiency in the existing J-15 platform, considering indications of a fifth generation carrier-borne fighter have been circulating for a number of years now. More importantly, the performance of the J-15 in Navy service does not suggest any level of inadequacy that exceeds what would be expected for the Navy’s level of expertise in conducting carrier flight operations.
Two competing designs for the carrier-borne fifth generation fighter are known to be under development, one at Chengdu and one at Shenyang, with the Navy yet to decide on a design. Furthermore, the exact configurations of the two respective designs are not confidently known. Shenyang is thought to be offering an upsized carrier compatible variant of its FC-31 technology demonstrator, whereas it has been suggested Chengdu may be developing a smaller variant of J-20 or a brand new design.
However, both designs will almost certainly be catapult compatible to exploit the 003 carrier’s catapults, meaning the aircraft will likely retain the ability to be launched from the existing STOBAR carriers as well. Given recent rumors of the carrier-borne fifth generation fighter’s development, as well as the timeline of carrier 003’s construction, it is very likely that the first prototypes for the fighter will make their maiden flight within the next five years at the latest. However, it should be noted that a catapult compatible, upgraded J-15 variant may also emerge before the fifth generation carrier-borne fighter, with both potentially operating in a complementary manner as a future airwing.
5: Fixed wing carrier-borne AEW&C
The timeline for the carrier-borne airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft is likely also tied to the projected in service date of carrier 003. In 2011, photos of a Y-7 derived demonstrator aircraft with a similar configuration to the E-2 family were leaked, and the aircraft was subsequently dubbed JZY-01. The airframe was not a prototype, but likely a structural technology demonstrator, and some recent images suggest it was handed over for tests as early as 2009.
The designation of the AEW&C aircraft to be derived from the JZY-01 demonstrator is currently thought to be KJ-600 or perhaps H-600. As a fixed wing, propeller driven AEW&C platform like the E-2 family, it will have to be launched from catapults to achieve safe take off performance and a satisfactory mission profile; therefore the KJ/H-600 will only be adopted aboard Chinese CATOBAR carriers.
An aircraft mock up consistent with the configuration of JZY-01 and the expected KJ/H-600 was first sighted aboard the carrier test facility at Wuhan in early 2017, all but confirming that such an aircraft is likely to emerge in the immediate future. Given the years of preceding risk reduction through the JZY-01 platform, as well as the Chinese aerospace industry’s experience with developing modern AEW&C aircraft, and the expected service date of carrier 003, it is virtually guaranteed that the first prototypes of KJ/H-600 will emerge within the next five years, likely far sooner than later.