This is Part II of a two part series, directly following from Part I.
Destroyers and frigates in perspective – Surface combatants are the workhorses of a navy, and the capability and number of such ships determine a navy’s ability to project a presence in areas close to home and further away in blue water. Like most modern navies, the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s) primary surface combatants are destroyers and frigates, and during the 2010s their destroyer and frigate fleet have enjoyed a significant elevation in the capability of new ships being commissioned as well as the number of new ships commissioned.
By the end of 2019, the PLAN fielded 18 Aegis-type destroyers in service (including 12 052Ds and six 052Cs; not including one 055 which is in service but as a first-of-class warship is likely not combat ready), as well as 30 blue water capable anti air warfare frigates (30 054As). This is not including some 11 non-aegis type destroyers in service and about a dozen pre-054A frigates.
However, when the PLAN entered the decade in January 2010, they only fielded two Aegis-type destroyers to their name (the original two 052Cs produced in the mid 2000s), and only four 054As among their modern frigate force. It would be 2013 until the PLAN received their third aegis type destroyer in the form of a third 052C, although the first two months of 2010 would see two 054As be commissioned.
Nevertheless, the growth from two modern Aegis-type destroyers in service to 18 such vessels within a decade – or even less than a decade given the first three years of the 2010s saw no new Aegis-type destroyers commissioned at all – is unprecedented, not only in terms of naval capability but also in terms of shipbuilding prowess. The growth from four modern frigates to 30 modern frigates within a decade is similarly notable, and has helped to establish the 054A class as among the most widely produced blue water capable surface combatants in modern times.
Production of the 052D destroyer is expected to continue for a year or so, likely to cap off at around 25 hulls (the last of which will likely enter service in the early 2020s). 054A production for the PLAN has ceased at 30 with the last hull launched in mid 2018. Production of the 055 will likely continue for another year or two until 10 to 12 hulls are reached, then it too will complete. It is expected that some time into the 2020s a successor class or variant of each recent combatant category (i.e.: 055, 052D, and 054A) will emerge and enter serial production. However, the destroyer and frigate fleet that the PLAN will field once the current construction phase finishes by the early 2020s will likely see the PLAN enjoy the world’s second most capable surface combatant fleet. Such a prospect would have been difficult to envision in 2010.
A large destroyer called 055 – On the subject of surface combatants, the 055 “large destroyer” deserves a point of its own. While it has often been described as a “10,000 ton class” destroyer, the ship’s actual full displacement is likely closer to 13,000 tons. Its overall armament, displacement and estimated capability have caused some foreign observers to describe it as a cruiser instead. The PLAN appears to describe it as a “large destroyer” in their literature – however regardless of what one calls it, the 055 is very much quite a bigger ship than most other modern surface combatants around the world built in recent memory.
Only a few navies have built modern surface combatants displacing significantly greater than 10,000 tons, and even fewer navies have built such ships in sizable number either. When rumors of 055 first circulated, many PLA watchers expected perhaps only 6 or so ships might be built during its entire production run. After all, as a modern 13,000 ton destroyer built in recent times, it is only smaller than the 15,000-plus ton Zumwalt-class destroyer and displaces about the same amount more versus a Flight III Burke as a Flight III Burke displaces to an 052D.
However, it quickly became apparent in 2017 that 055 production was proceeding at a brisk pace, as four hulls were already visually identified before the first hull was even launched. Additional rumors from reliable sources then suggested that the initial batch of 055s might “only” number eight to 12 ships, while it would be followed sometime in the 2020s by a larger production run of a successor 055 variant. Almost overnight, the evaluation of 055s as a low density, rare “capital ship” changed into one where the PLAN might field a 13,000 ton destroyer as a major surface combatant category in its own right. As of late 2019, the first 055 is commissioned in an initial capacity, with five in various stages of fitting out or sea trials, and at least an additional three to four thought to be in various stages of construction.
Prior to the arrival of 055, the PLAN’s most capable surface combatants tended to be smaller and less well armed than the most capable ships of its neighbors. In terms of “high end” surface combatants, Japan fields a total of six existing 10,000 ton Kongo and Atago-class destroyers with two new Maya-class destroyers upcoming in the early 2020s, and Korea fields three existing 11,000 ton Sejong-class destroyers with a further three expected by the mid to late 2020s. The psychological effect of the PLAN potentially fielding a double digit number of 13,000 ton destroyers by the early 2020s – from zero such ships prior to 2019 – is not insignificant, especially when considering it is likely to be followed up by a larger number of more capable variants around the mid 2020s. Therefore in some ways, the story of 055 in the 2010s is the naval equivalent of J-20.
A surge of corvettes – On the opposite end of the surface combatant spectrum, the unprecedented pace of launch and commissioning of the 056/A class corvettes are a noteworthy and important development for the PLAN as well. The first hull was launched in May 2012, and as of early January 2020, 71 hulls have been launched in the water of which 52 are in service. These 1,400 ton corvettes provide a modern, multirole surface combatant for relatively low intensity general patrol duties near Chinese waters, with substantially more modern weapons and sensors (not to mention being substantially more comfortable) than the 037 family of submarine chasers that preceded them. This frees up larger frigates and destroyers to conduct other missions either near Chinese waters or in more distant blue waters.
Additionally, the 056A variant – succeeding the baseline variant in production after about the 26th 056 hull – has the distinction of fielding a much enhanced anti-submarine warfare (ASW) suite, including a towed array sonar and variable depth sonar set that appears to be the same model that equips the much larger 054A+, 052D and 055 ships. The sheer number of 056A corvette hulls equipped with a comprehensive ASW suite, has substantially enhanced the overall density of the PLAN’s ASW capabilities among its surface combatant fleet.
Amphibious Assault – The PLAN has always fielded a respectable force of medium sized landing ship tank (LST) ships, but the Chinese Navy entered the 2010s with only a single 25,000 ton 071 class landing platform dock (LPD) service. In the subsequent decade however, an additional 7 071 LPDs were launched, with five of those commissioned before the end of 2019 for a total of six 071 LPDs in service. As far as in-service large amphibious assault ship tonnage goes, this places the PLAN’s 071 fleet as second largest in the world, albeit still significantly lower than the U.S. Navy’s overall amphibious assault fleet.
2019 saw the launch of the PLAN’s first long awaited 075 landing helicopter dock (LHD) and confirmation of the construction of the second as well. While it will be a few years until the first 075 enters service, the emergence of the 075 class LHD will likely greatly augment the PLAN’s overall amphibious assault capabilities in the early years of 2020s.
Carrier has arrived – The advancement of PLAN carrier capability needs no introduction. Beginning with no carriers at the dawn of the 2010s, and ending the decade with two 65,000 ton aircraft carriers is no small feat. Of course, significant caveats are noted, such as how the current CV-16 Liaoning and CV-17 Shandong are transitory designs for the PLAN, and it is often rightly stated that the PLAN have yet to master institutional carrier operations expertise.
However, considering the PLAN enjoyed zero experience operating an aircraft carrier prior to Liaoning entering service in September 2012, the speed at which the PLAN moved with training and flying their J-15 airwing and exercising with escort ships is also undeniably impressive. The pace at which Shandong was constructed, launched, and trialed at sea before entering service, is also impressive given it is the first ever aircraft carrier built by the Chinese shipbuilding industry. Both carriers will likely serve key formative roles as seed carriers for developing a robust core of operational expertise for officers, crew, and pilots. The 003 carrier is expected to enter service around the mid 2020s, and is likely to supersede both Liaoning and Shandong in capability, however these two ski jump equipped carriers will likely still remain as viable combat ready aircraft carriers in their own right, especially if future 5th generation carrierborne fighters are designed to be cross compatible between catapult and ski jump launch methods.
Blue water reach and replenishment – The proliferation of modern blue water capable surface combatants in the PLAN also coincided with an increase in replenishment vessels. The Chinese Navy held a fleet of five replenishment ships entering 2010, of which two were the very old 905 class, one was a unique one-off 908 class, and two the more modern 20,000+ ton class 903. The 2010s saw six additional improved, larger 903A class replenishment ships commissioned between 2013 and 2016. An additional 903A was launched in 2018 and is being fitted out at present.
The increase in modern replenishment ships as well as modern blue water capable combatants has enabled the PLAN to sustain a permanent naval presence of at least three ships in the Gulf of Aden as well as to deploy one to two small surface action groups around the Indian Ocean or Pacific without straining their overall fleet. The ability to conduct regular blue water deployments is a significant advancement compared to the rate at which the PLAN conducted such deployments in the 2000s.
Additionally, a pair of 45,000 ton 901 class replenishment ships was commissioned between 2017 and 2018, marking them among the largest replenishment ships in the world. This class of ship is thought to be designed with replenishment of carrier strike groups in mind, and in many ways it is as indicative of Chinese naval projections as its procurement of aircraft carriers and large destroyers are.
Elusive nuclear submarines – Nuclear submarines are among the closest guarded secrets for the entire PLA. No one in the PLA watching community has full confidence as to the exact number of different variants of a nuclear submarine class, let alone the exact fleet size. However, the 2010s did produce two important developments for Chinese nuclear attack submarine (SSN) and ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) development.
First – In the mid to late 2010s, the community finally received confirmation of additional 09III SSN hulls. It was well known that at least two 09III SSNs were produced and commissioned in the mid 2000s, however after that period the trail appeared to go cold. But between 2015 and 2019, pictures of additional new 09III variants and hulls emerged all designated under the tentative 09IIIA name. As of 2019, it is thought that perhaps a total of six to eight 09III SSNs have been produced in total.
Second – The construction of a much speculated nuclear submarine production facility at Huludao and rumors of a successor 09IIIB and 09V class SSN and 09VI class SSBN have caused significant speculation as to what the 2020s will show for Chinese nuclear submarine. Construction of this facility and its potential consequences has been covered in a prior, dedicated piece, therefore will not be discussed again here.
Regional reach – The modernization of the PLA’s conventional regional strike capabilities have been covered quite extensively by the foreign defense commentary. The KD-20/DF-10 family of air and ground launched cruise missiles – deployed aboard H-6K bombers (carrying up to six KD-20s) and ground based launchers (carrying three DF-10s), respectively – has provided the PLA with a significant conventional strike capability reaching out to at least 1,500 km from its borders when calculated by the range of the missile itself. The exact inventory of the PLA’s KD-20 and DF-10 missiles is not known, nor are the number of DF-10 ground launchers, however counting the serial numbers of H-6K bombers confirms that there are at least 80 H-6Ks in service since the type first entered service in 2011.
The emergence of new conventional ballistic missiles such as the DF-16 and DF-26 as well as improved variants of existing DF-11, DF-15 and DF-21 variants, has also enhanced the PLA’s ability to strike targets in the region. The DF-26 and DF-21D in particular have been heavily covered for their status as the PLA’s anti-ship ballistic missiles, and while questions regarding their capabilities and the redundancy of its supporting kill chain do exist, the weapons appear to have significantly affected the way in which potential adversaries are planning their future naval operations.
The nuclear question – The exact number of Chinese nuclear warheads and the exact number of Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are unknown to the public at large, for good reason. However, the 2010s have seen the PLA Rocket Force (and Second Artillery before it) advance their ICBM technology with more survivable and more capable land based systems.
The DF-31A ICBM was well known to exist before the 2010s, however the emergence of DF-31AG at the PLA’s 90th anniversary parade held at Zhurihe base in 2017 was a slight surprise. The DF-31AG fields a much more integrated and off-road capable transporter erector launcher compared to the prior DF-31A, though it is not known if the missile itself has undergone any improvements as well.
The DF-41 ICBM was revealed at China’s national day parade held for its 70th anniversary on October 1, 2019, confirming the weapon is in service status after over a decade of rumors and blurry pictures. While the exact capability and number of DF-41 is not known, it is generally accepted that it should boast a greater range and payload than DF-31A/AG.
It appears DF-41 and DF-31A/AG will be the PLARF’s primary land based ICBMs into the 21st century, but it is yet to be seen what the total procurement size will be, nor is it known if the overall size of the PLA’s ICBM fleet will change either.
The 2010s also saw the PLAN’s 09IV SSBN fleet seemingly mature with a fleet strength of four to five boats. The JL-2 submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) was also revealed at the at the 2019 parade, signifying its in-service status as well. But naturally, we are not aware of the quantity of missiles that the PLAN has available, nor are we aware of what sort of deterrent patrol doctrine or status that they currently employ.
Needless to say, the question of the PLA’s nuclear capabilities will remain very significant going into the 2020s, not only in terms of the procurement size of confirmed systems that we are aware of, but also in terms of any additional new systems that may be developed such as the much rumored JL-3 SLBM.