China’s growing naval power has become a frequent topic of discussion in recent years as Beijing has increasingly asserted itself in the maritime realm. While coverage of China’s aircraft carriers(s), submarines, and anti-ship ballistic missiles is frequent, the rapid modernization of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) surface naval vessels is not. This relative dearth of coverage is unfortunate as it results in the overlooking of a key, if not the most important, facet of China’s remarkable naval modernization.
The PLAN entered the twenty-first century with under a dozen warships that could be considered modern – most of them barely deserving that designation. The rest of the PLAN’s surface combatant force was composed of many dozens of destroyers and frigates, based mainly on 1960s-1970s era Soviet technology with a smattering of 1980s-vintage British, Italian, and French technologies added to update the designs. In other words, even those who claimed that China was an emerging great power couldn’t claim that it had a navy worthy of such a power.
At the start of the century the PLAN was in the early stages of what has turned into an extensive modernization effort. This effort began with the 1990s emergence of the two 052B Luhu-class, two Russian Sovremenny-class, and the indigenous 051B Luhai-class. Other than the Russian Sovremenny-class, these destroyers were of Chinese production and design. At the same time, the improved Type 053H3 Jiangwei II-class frigates program produced eight somewhat modern frigates. These classes formed the small core of an emerging modern navy.
Between 2000 and 2004, the only new surface naval combatant added to the PLAN were two of the eight Type 053H3 class frigates already mentioned. Beginning in 2004, the PLAN’s surface combatant modernization began speeding up. The PLAN has commissioned no less than 44 new surface naval combatants between 2004 and the time of this writing. This number only includes destroyers, frigates, and corvettes, and does not factor in the large acquisitions of submarines, patrol vessels, coast guard vessels operated by other government agencies, or amphibious transport vessels. It also does not include ships currently undergoing sea trials, of which there are six, the dozen plus ships in various phases of construction, or the dozens of vessels on order books. The bulk of these ships have been general purpose multi-role frigates and, more recently, patrol corvettes. At the same time, the PLAN has been building large numbers of air defence destroyers. The table below presents the number of surface combatants commissioned during this period.
The bulk of the PLAN’s modern surface combatants are composed of four classes: two related destroyer classes, one frigate class, and one corvette class. The PLANs main modern destroyers are the six 052C Luyang II-class. Six 052C destroyers have been produced with two commissioned in 2005 and the rest since 2013. These destroyers, the first advanced and indigenous air warfare destroyer China has produced, constitute the core of China’s destroyer fleet. China has evolved the 052C into the more advanced 052D air warfare destroyer.
The 052D deserves particular attention as it demonstrates China’s intent to produce large numbers of high end (and expensive) vessels instead of building only less expensive multi-role frigates. The first 052D was completed in 2012. One 052D is in service, one is undergoing sea trials, and two are in the late stages of production. A further four vessels are under varying stages of construction and an additional four are reported to be on order. In other words, since 2010, China has begun producing no less than 16 new air-warfare destroyers. Such a production schedule is only matched by the United States.
The ‘work-horse’ of the PLAN is the Type 054A frigate. Developed from the Type 054 frigate, of which two were built in 2003, the PLAN has built and/or commissioned nineteen 054As since 2006. These vessels are less advanced and capable than the Type 052C/D destroyers, but are also much cheaper. Since 2010, the PLAN has commissioned no less than sixteen 054As, with four more in the late stages of construction. At the same time, the 054As ‘work-horse’ role is being reduced by the introduction of the new 056-class corvette. The 056 is less capable and smaller (and much cheaper) than the Type 054As, but is suited to patrolling the South and East China Seas, freeing up the 054As for deployments further from China, such as the anti-piracy patrol off Somalia. As such, these small, modest vessels are extremely important to the PLAN’s future.
With the Type 056, the PLAN has the distinction of being the only country currently mass-producing (i.e. mass parallel producing, not serially producing) a large naval vessel. The number of Type 056 corvettes to be built is unclear, but open source estimates suggest the total figure may be well over thirty vessels in the short term, with the total likely of over fifty vessels. While such numbers are staggering, even more awesome is that fact that despite the first Type 056 being completed only in 2012, the PLAN has already commissioned no less than thirteen Type 056 corvettes. In addition, three 056s are undergoing sea trials and over five are in varying stages of production. In other words, by the end of 2014 the PLAN is likely to have commissioned just over twenty Type 056 corvettes. No country in the world comes close to matching such a production schedule.
In addition to the mentioned vessel classes, work is underway on at least two new classes. The first, the Type 055 destroyer, is a newly designed large destroyer, a vessel substantially larger than the already large Type 052C/D destroyers. The Type 055s will carry advanced air defence systems and large numbers of missiles in a vertical launch system. They will likely be the escort vessels for Chinese aircraft carriers. In addition, in an attempt to improve its anti-submarine warfare capabilities, China is believed to be beginning work on the new Type 054B class frigate. An evolution of the Type 054A, the 054B will likely take the place of the Type 054A at busy Chinese shipyards. In addition, the Type 056 corvette is being developed into a new anti-submarine variant. A few such vessels have already been constructed (they are included in the Type 056 production figures).
The Chinese navy has made remarkable progress in terms of submarines, aircraft carriers, and anti-ship ballistic missiles in the last decade and a half. At the same time, the PLAN has undergone an equally rapid and substantial modernization of its surface naval vessels. Indeed, few countries come anywhere close to the scale and substance of China’s surface combatant modernization. Overlooking these developments has consequences for the understanding of China’s naval trajectory.