The 054A class guided missile frigate (FFG) is a modern, medium displacement surface combatant intended for multiple roles, including anti air warfare (AAW), anti submarine warfare (ASW) and anti surface warfare (ASuW).
The 054A class is a notable class of ship in the Chinese Navy, as it was arguably the first mass produced modern, blue water capable surface combatant, that could conduct multiple roles using relatively modern subsystems. The 054A class can conduct AAW at medium ranges through the use of a vertical launch system (VLS) based surface to air missile (SAM), and also ASW via the ship’s onboard sonar systems, its ASW helicopter, and its VLS based anti submarine rocket (ASROC) weapon.
The 054A class was preceded by an initial pair of 054 class FFGs, both of which were launched in 2003 and commissioned in 2005. The 054 hulls were larger and much stealthier compared to the designs of older 053, 053H2G, and 053H3 class FFGs, but many key weapon systems – especially the 054’s short range HQ-7 SAM based upon a mechanically rotating launcher – were still no better than the obsolete 053 and 053H3 family.
A truly competitive FFG for the Chinese Navy required a medium range SAM capable of engaging multiple targets simultaneously at longer ranges to provide area air defence for a task group, and such SAMs should optimally be launched from a VLS. A VLS allows for greater rate of fire, greater reliability, and full 360 degree coverage without having to mechanically orientate a launcher. Such an AAW capability would also require more capable radars and datalinks to support its function. The 054 hull was likely developed with an upgrade such as this explicitly in mind, and indeed the 054A may have been the ship’s originally intended configuration, but delays in subsystem development may have forced the navy to accept an initial pair of lower risk, lower capability ships instead.
The 054A class FFG thus emerged from its 054 predecessor, and the lead vessel was launched in 2006, and commissioned in 2008. As of early June 2016, 22 054As have been commissioned, giving an average of slightly under three 054As commissioned per year. Another two ships are currently being fitted out or undergoing sea trials, thus capping 054A production to a rumoured 24, though it is possible more may subsequently be ordered, or that 054A could be succeeded by a potential 054B.
All 054As were built in Huangpu shipyard in Guangzhou, and Hudong-Zhonghua shipyard in Shanghai, and up to this point each shipyard have constructed 12 054As each.
The 054A is without doubt a success story in the Chinese Navy’s modernization drive which began in the early 2000s. Mass production and commissioning of the 054A class has allowed the Chinese Navy to conduct true blue water missions in a more consistent fashion – indeed, ships of the 054A class has participated in more Chinese Navy anti-piracy taskgroups than any other class of surface combatant, and any Chinese Navy visit to foreign nations typically includes at least one 054A as well. Proliferation of the 054A class also finally provides an AAW and ASW backbone for the Chinese Navy’s current order of battle, until sufficiently large numbers of 052C/052D destroyers are able to take on that mantle and can allow 054As to perform less intensive and supplementary AAW and ASW picket duties.
Dimensions and Layout
The 054A class is 134 meters long, with a 16 meter beam, and at full load displaces slightly over 4,000 tons. The 054A class’ propulsion is a Combined Diesel and Diesel arrangement, where four domestically produced 16PA6-STC diesel engines (of the French SEMT-Pielstick design), and each is said to generate 5,700 kW output.
A single helipad can accommodate a medium size helicopter up to and including the size of a Dauphin, H-60, or Ka-28. A single helicopter hangar can also embark a Dauphin or Ka-28 helicopter permanently. Further investigation shows that the dimensions of a folded Ka-28 are similar and slightly larger than that of a folded SH-60/MH-60 helicopter.
This is important, as the Chinese military is currently developing the Z-20, a helicopter heavily influenced if not reverse engineered from the UH-60 (albeit with some modifications such as a five bladed main rotor, and possibly a slightly larger cabin), and thus a navalized Z-20 may feature folded dimensions similar to the SH-60/MH-60 family and an 054A could thus permanently embark a navalized Z-20, which would be a substantial improvement in its ASW helicopter capability compared to older legacy Z-9s or Ka-28s.
The 054A class FFG is a multirole capable frigate, and its armament reflects this. For anti surface warfare, 8 canted YJ-83 AShM launchers are mounted between the main forward superstructure and the aft superstructure/smoke stack. A PJ-26 76mm gun fulfils duty as the ship’s main general purpose gun. Two triple 324mm torpedo launchers amidships and two six tube 240mm depth charge rocket launchers both fulfil the role as close in ASW weapons. Two eighteen tube decoy rocket launchers can deploy a variety of chaff, flare, or other rocket payloads for soft kill and hard kill counter measures.
A pair of PJ-12 (also known as Type 730) close in weapon systems (CIWS) provide a robust last ditch anti air, anti missile and anti surface capability. The PJ-12 is a 7 barrel, 30mm calibre gatling gun featuring its own fire control radar and electro-optic targeting system. PJ-12 is similar in arrangement to the Dutch Goalkeeper CIWS, but is reportedly actually influenced by the aborted French SAMOS CIWS. The seven barrel PJ-12 equips 054A hulls 1 to 17, from the 18th 054A onwards, the seven barrel PJ-12 was replaced by the more formidable PJ-11, an eleven barrel variant of the PJ-12 that had previously only been fitted aboard the aircraft carrier Liaoning.
However the greatest leap in weapons capability offered by the 054A class compared to its predecessor frigates, is due to its 32 cell vertical launch system. A VLS offers many advantages compared to traditional arm based missile launchers: it simplifies the missile launch process with substantial reduction in moving parts, a VLS removes the need for reloading onto a launcher between firing, a VLS increases rate of fire and allows for 360 degree coverage without need for an arm launcher to rotate to face an oncoming target, and a VLS also potentially allows for more different types of missiles to be fired from a single system compared to an arm launcher.
The 054A’s VLS is a hot launch type VLS, where missiles ignite their exhausts within the canister and exhaust is vented from the VLS outwards, before the missile propels itself from the VLS. 054A’s VLS arrangement is thus very similar to that of the US Mk-41 VLS and the European SYLVER VLS.
The primary weapon fielded aboard 054A’s VLS is the HHQ-16 medium range SAM. The HHQ-16 is a domestically produced SAM derived from the Russian 9K37M1-2 Shtil naval SAM, and HHQ-16 features a similar arrangement of control surfaces and overall dimensions, though HHQ-16’s strake and tail configuration seems to bear greater resemblance to the US Navy’s SM-1/2/6 series of missiles. HHQ-16 is a semi active radar homing SAM with an effective range estimated around 50 kilometers which is sufficient for area air defence and to provide protection for other ships within a task force, however improvements in guidance and propellant could substantially increase the range of the missile given the HHQ-16’s large overall dimensions. HHQ-16 is suitable against both high flying aerial targets as well as sea skimming targets such as anti ship missiles.
The 054A’s HHQ-16 SAMs have demonstrated an ability simultaneously engage multiple targets in a multi-axis manner, and based on the number of terminal fire control radar illuminators, it is expected that at least four targets can be engaged simultaneously in a multi-axis fashion, with possibly eight or more targets at maximum, depending on effective time sharing of illuminators. Needless to say, the ability to engage multiple aerial targets simultaneously, at high and low altitudes, between short and medium range, is a vast improvement compared to the older HHQ-7 short range SAM, whose anti air capabilities are closer to a CIWS than a true air defence weapon.
Beyond HHQ-16, 054A’s VLS has also long been rumoured to be capable of firing a vertically launched ASROC type weapon. It is well known that Chinese Navy has developed a series of ASROC type weapons in the CY missile family. Similar to the US Navy’s ASROC system, the CY family joins a lightweight torpedo to a missile booster, which provides surface combatants with a longer range stand-off ASW weapon compared to traditional tube launched light weight torpedoes.
It is only recently that pictures and video have come to light which provide evidence of this capability. Unfortunately, the designation of 054A’s VL-ASROC weapon is not yet known (it has been variously referred as Yu-8 and CY-5), but there is now little doubt that such a weapon certainly exists and is part of 054A’s VLS weapons options, thus substantially improving the ASW capability of all 054A class FFGs.
054A’s weapons suite is supported by a modern electronics suite, including a number of active and passive sensors and countermeasures. The centrepiece of 054A’s sensor suite is the Sea Eagle radar mounted atop the main forward superstructure. Sea Eagle is a twin face, mechanically rotating solid state 3D phased array radar, and may operate in the C band. Despite featuring similarities to the Russian Top Plate radar, the Sea Eagle radar is actually a development of the original Sea Eagle radar deployed on the lone 051B class destroyer (DDG 167). The Sea Eagle radar aboard 054A is an air and surface search radar, and in the air defence role, Sea Eagle is supported by four terminal illuminators which heavily resemble the Russian MR-90 design, and is thought to operate in the X band. Terminal Illuminators help to designate targets for semi active radar homing missiles such as the HHQ-16 during the terminal engagement phase.
Additional radars include a Mineral-ME derived OTH surface attack radar atop the deckhouse, and a Type 364 surface search radar is mounted atop the smoke stack.
Passive electronic support measures, active electronic warfare arrays, and electro-optic sensor turrets are also mounted around the ship.
The 054A class also fields a comprehensive undersea sensor suite for ASW roles. All 054As are equipped with a bow sonar and a towed array sonar as well as a towed torpedo decoy system, and from all ships from hull 18 onwards have also been equipped with an additional variable depth sonar, appearing to be the same type mounted on the 056A class corvette. Such a comprehensive sonar suite, combined with a hangar and helipad for a helicopter, makes the 054A a very viable and competent ASW surface combatant within the Chinese Navy’s order of battle.
054A also features a medium size Combat Information Centre, estimated to feature at least 15 consoles of different types, and a central forward display.
Role in Chinese Navy:
The 054A class provided the Chinese Navy with a modern, blue water capable, medium displacement surface combatant capable of performing competitive AAW and ASW tasks for the first time. However, it is the large production run of 054A which caused 054A to have such a significant influence on the Chinese Navy.
The mass production of 054A finally gave the Chinese Navy a competitive workhorse that could operate in both high intensity and low intensity missions, in both the western pacific and in blue water half way around the world, such as the Gulf of Aden.
In blue water, the 054A can participate as part of a task force or a carrier strike group as an AAW or ASW picket, 054A can conduct convoy protection, anti-piracy duty (as many 054As have done so in the Gulf of Aden), showing the flag missions, or military operations other than war such as disaster relief or evacuation of personnel (as it had done in Libya in 2011 and Yemen in 2015).
Generally, 054A can conduct AAW, ASW, ASuW in both open ocean and littoral waters, and its modern datalinking and surveillance capabilities and its CIC allows it to act as a command ship if necessary. The well balanced offensive and defensive capabilities of 054A means it could have a role in an operation of any scale, from low intensity anti-piracy patrols, to high intensity major fleet confrontations against an advanced opposing force.
054A is likely to be succeeded by a new frigate design, possibly derived from the same 054 hull, that has been variously called 054B and 057. A next generation frigate would likely feature new developments in propulsion (including integrated electronic propulsion), it would likely be equipped with integrated mast technology, improved sensors, integration of the new common VLS system (first deployed aboard the 052D class destroyer), as well as possibly doubling hangar capacity to fit two helicopters. This next generation frigate is expected to emerge before 2020, once 054A production has finished.
Regardless, the 054A FFG and future frigate classes will remain a key part of the Chinese Navy’s surface combatant order of battle. The US Navy has opted for a high-low capability fleet in a large number of aegis type destroyers and cruisers complemented by a number of lower capability Littoral Combat Ship/Fast Frigates, but the Chinese Navy seems to be adopting a different high-medium-low capability fleet structure, where a true medium capability frigate class of warship sits between high capability destroyers (052C/D and 055 classes), and low capability corvettes and fast attack craft (056/As and 022s).
Overall, the 054A class is a modern, medium sized, blue water capable FFG oriented for AAW and ASW. It is the first mass produced surface combatant which is modern and capable of blue water operations, and has demonstrated its usefulness in a variety of missions, including participating in long distance anti-piracy patrols, operating as part of a high capability naval task force, or conducting lone patrol missions in regional waters near China. Thus, 054A can be considered to be the class of warship which truly pushed the Chinese Navy into the modern era not only in terms of qualitative capability, but also in terms of the quantity of capability.