The United States Navy (USN) has recently awarded the contract for its future frigate project – FFG(X) – to the Italian company Fincantieri, adopting their FREMM frigate design, outfitted with various U.S. developed sensors and weapons systems. The FFG(X) will be a much-needed warship for the USN, balancing cost with capable and proven subsystems, and will help to augment the USN’s current surface combatant roster when the first ship enters service, possibly around 2027.
With the USN’s future frigate path more or less set for the next decade, it is a good time to review where the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) sits with its own frigate class of warship. This article will briefly consider the current state of the PLAN’s primary frigate fleet and summarize current rumors and information for its upcoming frigate trajectory.
Whispers of a Type 054A successor
The Type 054A class frigate was first launched in 2006 and commissioned in early 2008, and the 30th and final vessel was launched in mid 2018 and commissioned in early 2019, making for 30 such frigates commissioned over the course of 10 years. For much of the 2010s, the 054A class served as the PLAN’s workhorse surface combatant, offering a good combination of acceptable combat capability and blue water capability, while serving in increasingly significant numbers. Four 054A derivatives, called 054APs, are currently being produced for export to Pakistan, and are likely to see certain subsystem modifications from the PLAN’s current in-service 054As.
It is only with the large-scale production of the 052D destroyers (likely to end at about 25 ships) that the PLAN’s 054A fleet will begin to be matched by a similar number of modern, larger, and more capable destroyers.
However, the end of 054A production for the PLAN had been long rumored to be followed by a successor design to the 054A, sometimes called 054B, sometimes called 057. As of early mid 2020, various Chinese PLA watchers have begun to report rumors that an 054A successor frigate could be expected to emerge within the next few years. The prospect of a successor class to the 054A is an important development to watch, as the rather fast production rate of the 054A and its respectable anti-air, anti-submarine, and anti-surface warfare (AAW, ASW, ASuW respectively) capabilities provided the PLAN with its first true mass-produced modern surface combatant.
For the purposes of this article, the future frigate will be referred to as Type 054B, which appears to be the consensus designation at this present moment in time.
In many ways, the Type 054A offered an exceptional balance of capability, range, cost, numbers, and technological maturity for the PLAN and the Chinese shipbuilding industry of the time, and fit the roles of a frigate within the overall fleet structure quite comfortably. The 054A was well suited to conduct blue water missions and conduct low and medium intensity missions independently as well contribute to higher intensity missions alongside more advanced combatants and task forces. The 054B is likely to aim for a similar capability profile for the PLAN fleet structure of the 2020s and beyond.
For AAW missions, the 054B will likely aim to achieve at least medium-range air defense, with potential for long-range air defense, and also with an emphasis to defend against small- to medium-scale saturation strikes, preferably with a way to balance cost effectiveness and increased sensor range and radar horizon. The 054B will likely seek to enhance the 054A’s ASW mission as well, by integrating more modern ASW sensors as well as adopting a more capable ASW helicopter (namely the Z-20F helicopter), and new propulsion systems are expected to be quieter as well. The ASuW mission will likely leverage modern but existing weapons systems that have been fielded such as the YJ-18 or YJ-12 anti-ship missile (AShM), which is substantially more capable than the 054A’s YJ-83.
The 054B is also likely to enjoy improvements in speed, range, and endurance compared to the 054A. In terms of speed, one of the most consistently rumored goals is to achieve greater speeds than the 054A’s top speed of about 27 knots, for the purposes of keeping up with a carrier strike group as well as to chase hostile nuclear submarines.
To enhance the 054B’s endurance crew habitability, the ship will likely have to be somewhat larger in overall displacement than the 054A as well, but it is not known how much larger it may be. In this author’s opinion, the full displacement of the 054B is unlikely to displace as much as other global upcoming frigates such as Type 26 (nearly 8,000 tons) or the FFG(X) (nearly 7,500 tons), but rather trend to a more conservative 5,500 tons, which would still be some 1,500 tons heavier than the 054A. However, this number is only the author’s personal speculation.
AAW and Propulsion
In terms of AAW subsystems, the 054B’s most major departure from the 054A is likely to be an improved radar system. Photos earlier this year depicted a twin face phased array radar system mounted atop one of the PLAN’s test ships. The size of this radar appears to be slightly bigger than the Sea Eagle radar that equips the 054A class, and its configuration and overall appearance in context of China’s known radar industry, has lent speculation that it may be an active phased array radar (APAR) perhaps derived from the Type 346 family of radars that equips the 052C, 052D, and 055 destroyers.
The configuration of the radar itself is of some interest, as it appears to be a twin face/twin array design atop a rotating mount, which looks designed to be placed atop a mast. Being placed atop a mast affords greater radar horizon to detect low-flying targets such as sea skimming missiles at greater distances. Furthermore, a rotating twin array configuration would only need to rotate 30 times per minute to achieve a 1 second refresh rate, which is not as persistent as a three or four fixed array configuration but still offers near constant monitoring capabilities. In exchange for a 1 second refresh rate, this configuration allows each of the mast mounted twin arrays to be greater in size compared to if three or four individual fixed arrays were mounted at the same height.
Such a radar configuration is not dissimilar to the Royal Navy’s SAMPSON radar, which equips its Type 45 destroyers.
As far as AAW armament is concerned, it is yet to be confirmed if the 054B will be equipped with the same universal vertical launch system (UVLS) that arms the 052D and 055 destroyers, or if it will use the same VLS as the 054A. The UVLS is more capable, able to accommodate more payload types, and more future-proof than the 054A’s VLS; however, it is also slightly larger in terms of deck footprint and penetration as well. Needless to say, the type of VLS that the 054B is armed with will determine the missile armaments that it can accommodate. If the UVLS is adopted, then in theory all current and future payloads developed for the 052D and 055 could also be equipped on the 054B (tube length permitting). If the 054A’s VLS is adopted, then the 054B will likely be primarily armed only with improved variants of the HHQ-16 family of surface-to-air missiles and the Yu-8 family of ASW missiles.
The specific propulsion and power system of the 054B is also a matter of some uncertainty. The rumored propulsion configuration of the 054B has been said to be an integrated electric propulsion system, or some kind of combined electric system. However the number and type of different prime movers is not known either, such as the number and types of gas turbines versus diesels.
The presence of an electric propulsion system or a combined electric system has been one of the longer-term rumors surrounding the next generation frigate, which would be the first for a Chinese warship. Chinese naval advances in the electric propulsion domain are not new or unreported on, and the idea of the 054B being the first ship to feature a new propulsion system is well within the realm of imagination. After all, the 054A itself featured a number of new subsystem types as well; in particular it was the first PLAN ship class to be equipped with a hot launch VLS that was capable of launching more than one payload type.
Procurement Scale and Speed
One of the most notable characteristics of the 054A was the pace at which ships were built and commissioned. Thirty ships were launched over the course of 10 years, for an average of three ships per year, with a peak of four ships launched in 2011. It is not known how many 054Bs may eventually be procured; however it is likely that the 054B will also be built at the Hudong and Huangpu shipyards where the 054As were constructed, and a similar pace of launch is therefore also quite plausible.
It is possible that the lead 054B could be launched around 2022, entering service around two years later. Recent rumors have suggested steel cutting for the 054B occurred some time ago, and the presence of the new radar system aboard a test ship is also consistent with the likely emergence of the ship it is meant to be equipped on in the near future. Of course, such predictions are subject to change, but at this stage a 2025 date for the 054B to enter service appears reasonable.
The total number of 054Bs that the PLAN will procure is also difficult to predict, not only because it is difficult to predict the production run of a ship so early on, but also because we do not know what the future PLAN surface combatant fleet structure may look like.
With the introduction of the 055 class of large destroyer, the PLAN’s modern blue water surface combatant fleet is roughly separated into three major weight classes; the 13,000 ton category, the 7,000 ton category, and the 4,000 ton category. The 054B and 054A will likely together be composed of a 4,000-5,000+ ton category, while a large production run of 055s and a likely 055A successor will firmly plant the 13,000 ton category into the future. But it is not yet known if a new 7,000 ton category warship to succeed the 052D will also be built – a national 052E. While rumors surrounding a notional 052E have circulated, it is far less concrete than assertions of the 054B let alone the 055A. If there is no future 7,000 ton warship, one possible alternative is that the production run of the 13,000 ton and 4,000-5,000 ton categories could be far greater than otherwise predicted.
More productive rumors for the future PLAN fleet structure may come to light by the mid-2020s, but at this stage there is only speculation.
Multiple navies around the world during this decade will see new frigate designs emerge. The U.K. will see its Type 26 and Type 31 frigates reach fruition. Australia and Canada have adopted Type 26-derived frigate designs as their future frigates as well. France has its new FTI frigate and Italy will see its PPA patrol frigate, both of which will complement their respective navy’s existing FREMM and Horizon-class ships. Spain’s F110 class frigate will also complement its existing F100 class frigate. And of course the U.S. Navy’s FFG(X) will offer a long-awaited, blue-water capable surface combatant capable of independent medium-intensity operations.
The Chinese Navy is also likely to partake in this festival of frigates, offering a successor to the 054A, its first modern, mass-produced workhorse of the century. However, the 054A’s level of technology was significantly behind that of the world’s leading naval technologies particularly in the domain of sensors and propulsion, albeit still modern and sufficient for PLAN requirements of the time. The current body of rumors strongly suggests the 054B’s subsystems will be far more competitive and perhaps cutting-edge in certain respects, relative to the 054A. As with many other current PLAN projects, watch this space.