Media reports surrounding Chinese Navy (or the People’s Liberation Army Navy, PLAN) developments over recent years have predominantly focused on advancements in anti-surface and anti-ship capabilities, with some more recent coverage acknowledging gains made in anti-air warfare albeit in a much delayed fashion. However, PLAN anti submarine warfare (ASW) has continued to be portrayed as a significant deficiency, with only some articles in the last few years taking note of new platforms, weapons, and sensors that have been introduced. This piece is part one of a two part series that will consider the transformation of PLAN ASW capabilities in recent years. Part one will examine the rapid advancement of organic ASW capabilities seen aboard PLAN surface combatants.
Surface Combatant ASW in the Early 2010s
For many years prior to the early 2010s, the PLAN had only a small number of surface combatants equipped with competitive ASW sensor suites and weapons suites. Virtually all Chinese modern and non-obsolete destroyers (DDGs) and frigates (FFGs) built up to that point were equipped with hull mounted sonar (HMS) and tube launched lightweight torpedoes; however, such systems were only suitable for short-range, last-ditch detection and engagement. More modern DDGs such as 052Cs and 052Bs, and FFGs such as 054As were also equipped with a towed array sonar system (TASS) that provided significantly longer range detection and engagement potential than HMS – however, TASS ships were small in number at the dawn of the 2010s, numbering in the single digits for DDGs and FFGs.
Therefore, as recent as the early 2010s, the PLAN suffered from a small quantity of surface combatants equipped with TASS, and virtually no ships were equipped with modern variable depth sonar (VDS) that was expected aboard more competitive ASW ships. ASW weaponry was also limited to tube-launched lightweight torpedoes and rocket-launched depth charges, without a longer range missile/rocket launched torpedo system such as the U.S. Navy’s RUM-138 VL-ASROC in service yet. Furthermore, the PLAN did not have a modern, corvette-sized warship that could conduct the ASW role in China’s immediate periphery, with only larger blue water capable ships such as DDGs and FFGs equipped with the (then) top end ASW sensors. The greater cost, as well as smaller number of DDGs and FFGs relative to a corvette-sized ship, also limited the availability of ASW warships, reducing the area of effective coverage near China’s periphery during both peacetime and wartime.
A Surface Combatant Sensor Surge
The PLAN surface combatant boom that began in the early 2010s resulted in the mass production of a number of classes that would prove to become important ASW surface combatant platforms. The most important of these include the 052D DDG, the 054A FFG, and the 056/A corvette. Their transformation of PLAN ASW capability is a result of their mass fielding of new ASW sensors and weaponry. A new type of VDS was observed aboard the 17th 054A FFG (sometimes unofficially called the 054A+), and the same type of VDS has been fitted aboard the 052D as standard equipment beginning from the lead ship. The same type of VDS has also been sighted aboard a variant of the 056 corvette, dubbed 056A.
In terms of numbers, as of early September 2018, the PLAN’s VDS equipped warships are composed of:
- 12 VDS equipped 054As (sometimes called 054A+) in service with two more in fitting out, from a total completed production run of 30 054As.
- 8-10 052Ds in service, out of a total of 14 launched and fitting out, with production continuing at shipyards in both Dalian and Shanghai.
- Approximately 20 056A corvettes in service, with another 10 in various stages of launch and fitting out. A total of 60 056 ships are expected to be produced by 2020, of which approximately the first 20 were built as standard 056 “no-VDS” corvettes, while the latter 40 are expected to be 056As.
- It is also worth adding that the new 055 large DDGs in production have been identified with a similar sized opening in its aft indicative of a VDS and will almost certainly be equipped with a similar or superior ASW suite as existing ships.
Furthermore, it is important to note that all of the VDS equipped surface combatants are “two-tailed” – that is to say, they field both a towed VDS as well as a linear TASS. Such an ASW sensor arrangement is not standard ASW fit for most surface combatants around the world, and tends to be reserved for more dedicated ASW warships. Therefore, the speed and breadth with which this type of sensor outfit has proliferated among recent PLAN warships has been impressive. Each of these warships also features an HMS as well, but as aforementioned, the utility of such a sensor for modern ASW is rather limited.
The exact designation of the VDS fitted to the 054A+, 056A and 052D (as well as the 055) is not known. There is also some question of whether the 056A corvette fields the same VDS and TASS as the larger 054A+ and 052D. Given the 056A is a much smaller warship (1,500 ton category) compared to the 054A+ (4,000 tons) and the 052D (6,000-7,000 tons), this is not an unreasonable assertion. However, external photos of the VDS and TASS aboard the 056A and equivalent photos for the 052D and 054A+ externally and internally seem to suggest similar physical dimensions. Considering the 056 family of corvettes has an elevated helipad to accommodate the taller aft decks and lack a helicopter hangar, it seems a deliberate design choice was made to allow the 056A to field DDG- and FFG-class ASW sensors aboard a corvette sized ship.
New Shipboard Sensors in Context
The qualitative capability of the two tail VDS and TASS outfit cannot easily be knowingly compared with systems around the world, given that figures for their performance are not known. However, some educated guesses can be made as to the way in which past systems had been rolled out among the PLAN fleet. Whether it was anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, new radar systems, close-in weapons systems, or entire new ships, generally the modern PLAN has only procured systems in large numbers if they reach a level of adequate technology and competitive capability. That is to say, the modern PLAN has not mass produced any system that has been outright obsolete or significantly inferior to foreign equivalents since PLAN modernization has begun.
The qualitative gain in capability of two tail VDS and TASS compared to past ships that only fielded HMS or HMS and TASS would likely mirror experiences of other leading navies with their own modern VDS-equipped warships. Broadly speaking, the benefits of VDS include greater detection ranges, the ability to alter submerged depth for optimal detection and tracking, and operation across a wide range of oceanic environments. Therefore, even if one were to ignore the relative capability of the PLAN two tail VDS and TASS outfit versus foreign equivalents, it would not be a stretch to say that it almost certainly offers a vast advancement in ASW sensing capability compared with older ships equipped with only HMS and TASS, let alone only HMS.
To put the above statement in context, it suggests the two tail VDS and TASS aboard the 1,500 ton 056A corvette is technically superior to the 052C DDG – once among the best ASW sensor-equipped ships in the PLAN – which is only equipped with TASS and lacks a VDS. A review of the numbers show the PLAN surface combatant fleet fielded zero two tail surface combatants prior to March 2014. Slightly more than four years later, as of September 2018, there are about 42 two tail warships in service, of which about 20 are 056A corvettes intended for near-seas missions, and 22 are blue water capable 052D DDGs and 054A+ FFGs.
Going forwards, it is likely that at least a total of 40 056As will enter service by 2020, with the last two 054A+ hulls entering service by 2020 as well. However, an indeterminate number of 052Ds and 055s will continue to be produced going forwards, and the expected 054B frigate will likely field an ASW suite at least as capable as what is currently in service. Of course, backing up the fleet of two tail ships are a large number of single tail DDGs and FFGs equipped “only” with a TASS. These ships include the standard first 16 054A FFGs, as well as six 052C and two 052B DDGs, and various older refitted DDGs and FFGs. A single tail TASS is the standard ASW fit for many general purpose warships around the world, and some leading surface combatants lack even a TASS, though we won’t name names.
Shipboard ASW Weapons
Revelations of shipboard ASW weapons have further cemented the ASW advancements that PLAN surface combatants have enjoyed in recent years. Two new ship-launched ASW rocket and missile systems in recent years have contributed to this. The first of these is the Yu-8, a weapon similar to the U.S. Navy’s VL-ASROC that can be vertically launched from the 054A’s vertical launch system (VLS). This system is said to have a range of about 50 km, and carries either a Yu-7 or Yu-11 lightweight torpedo. A 50 km ranged weapon greatly extends the capability of a surface ship to organically engage a submarine at safer distances, especially when paired with more capable sensor suites such as the two tail VDS and TASS outfit. Furthermore, the Yu-8 is almost certainly capable of being equipped aboard all 054A ships, not merely the two tail “054A+” ships, which greatly expands the ASW lethality of single tail 054A FFGs as well. There is currently no evidence that Yu-8 has been integrated into the universal VLS that equips the 052D and 055 – however, it is likely only a matter of time until Yu-8 or a similar weapon is paired with the universal VLS.
A second, more mysterious weapon is a larger cruise missile-like weapon that has been test fired from the ST-16M slant launcher. The launcher typically carries YJ-83 family anti ship missiles and is widely fielded aboard PLAN warships, including all 054As, 056/As, and older DDGs and FFGs. This mysterious weapon is equipped with fold out wings, a ventral air intake, and thought to carry a lightweight torpedo; however, the overall size and configuration of this weapon’s platform suggests a much greater range than the Yu-8. It is not known if this system is currently in service, though its development implies the PLAN is looking to greatly expand the ASW engagement envelope that some warships can enjoy, at the expense of giving up a YJ-83 missile one-for-one. If a vertically launched variant of this weapon is developed, it will likely be too large for the 054A’s VLS but the more voluminous universal VLS aboard the 052D and 055 may be able to accommodate it.
Organic sensor capabilities aboard PLAN surface combatants have made a vast leap in quantity and quality in merely four years due to the introduction of the two tail VDS and TASS suite. When paired with the in service Yu-8 system employed from 054A FFGs, as well as new and upcoming ASW weapons, PLAN warships are finally adequately equipped with organic ASW systems comparable to other international high end ASW ships.
However, a navy’s overall ASW capability depends on more than organic shipboard sensors and weapons. The situation for PLAN shipboard ASW helicopters remains in transition, and land-based fixed wing ASW platforms are also a burgeoning new capability that has yet to reach a critical mass. Other relevant ASW developments include a class of new ocean surveillance ship, as well as developments of seabed mounted sensors and advancements in new technologies such as unmanned underwater vehicles. These domains, as well as the potential strategic doctrine of PLAN ASW capabilities, will be considered in part two next month.