Sunday, 31 August 2014

Placing China's Type 055 cruiser in perspective

In an earlier report we mentioned China planning to build a cruiser, the Type 055. At the time the main speculation was about what kind of role this Type 055 cruiser would play in future operations and whether the Chinese would go for a defensive setup in which the Type 055 would protect capital ships or whether China would still deploy the ship in accordance with Soviet naval tactics and use it as an offensive weapon releasing a large amount of missiles on enemy ships.

Recent statements by Mister Fang Bing, a military expert from PLA National Defense University, have given us new insights on how China plans the shape its navy. At the moment China’s most modern destroyer, the Type 052D, serves as the warship the People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN, Chinese Navy) is using to protect its capital ships. Even though the Type 052D guided-missile destroyer is an impressive opponent for China’s enemies to be faced with it still lacks the capacity to carry a lot of firepower. The Type 052D only has 64 vertical launch systems (VLS) compared to 96 on an US Navy Arleigh-Burke class destroyer and a Japanese Kongo class destroyer, and compared to the South Korean Sejong the Great class destroyer with 128 VLS .

Type 055: The design resembles a US Navy Arleigh-Burke class destroyer

These figures makes it painfully clear that China’s main rivals all have destroyers that are better armed. As such, China seeks to build warships with a bigger missile capacity. A 10.000 ton destroyer is proposed, compared to the 7.500 tons of a Type 052D class destroyer. These figures coincide with the speculated numbers of China’s Type 055 cruiser. The Type 055 should weigh around 12.000 tons and have a missile capacity of 128 VLS, giving it the same capacity as the Sejong the Great class.

Although at 12.000 tons, the Type 055 qualifies more as a cruiser then a destroyer, it should be noted that all of the mentioned destroyers, except for the Type 052D, weigh above 10.000 tons when fully armed and loaded. As such, a Type 055 can be also be called a destroyer, albeit a very large one but then again, the US Navy Zumwalt class destroyers come in at 14.500 tons .

Comparing weight and missile capacity with other ships it seems that China’s Type 055 cruiser concept is more of large modern destroyer. Even more important is the recent news that China not only plans to build a 10.000 ton destroyer but that these ships are meant to replace the Type 052D destroyers. The Type 052D currently serves to protect the PLANs capital ships, such as aircraft carriers and they are speculated to be the core of China’s carrier battle group. As such, the Type 055 would serve as a defensive warship, protecting capital ships against incoming threats like missiles, aircraft, submarines and ships. This shows that China is changing its tactics and doctrines and is copying the US Navy style of how to make and operate carrier battle groups. This also means that China would appear to abandon the Soviet missile doctrine in which destroyers and cruisers are meant to be offensive units to charge at enemy warships and unleash a large barrage of missiles once within range.

China’s Type 055 cruiser design turns out to be more of an attempt to build a large and modern destroyer. When compared to similar vessels of the US, Japanese and South Korean navies the Type 055 has both the same weight as missile capability. Although initially reported to be a cruiser its weight of 10.000 or even 12.000 tons makes it balance somewhere between a destroyer and a cruiser. Still, the Type 055 might be the final step that China needs to take to design warships equal to its rivals and therefor close the technological gap between the PLAN and its main rivals.
Intended to be the replacement of the Type 052D, the Type 055 might become the backbone ship in a carrier task force to protect China’s aircraft carriers against enemy threats. As such, the PLAN is mimicking the US Navy in how to set up a carrier battle group and marks the shift between an offensive Soviet missile tactic to a more modern western style of naval tactics.