The Chinese Navy Vertical Launch System (CN VLS) is a new type of universal, modular VLS capable of carrying and launching multiple types of missiles, similar to the US Navy’s Mk-41. However the CN VLS is also capable of launching missiles in a cold launch and hot launch method.
A modular VLS for the Chinese Navy has long been expected by the Chinese military watching community, however the first VLS type onboard a Chinese ship was a cold launched, space inefficient, circular VLS aboard the 052C destroyer first launched in 2004, and was only capable of firing the HHQ-9 LR SAM. The second VLS type was a hot launch VLS very similar in arrangement to the US Mk-41 and European SYLVER, which equipped the 054A class frigate and is capable of firing both HHQ-16 SAMs and VL ASROC type weapons. However neither of these two VLS was truly multirole like the Mk-41.
But by the late 2000s, credible rumours of a new 052D class destroyer began to emerge, with a consistent rumour being that the ship would be equipped with a new universal VLS to be the Chinese Navy’s new generation multirole VLS.
This was confirmed in spectacular fashion in late 2012, when the first 052D was launched, revealing its VLS in clear detail. Furthermore, 052D’s launch was accompanied by the “leak” of a document for a Guojia Junyong Biaozhun (National Military Standard, similar to MIL-STD for western military forces), revealed many details of a new universal VLS that could only logically be attributed to the 052D’s new VLS.
The GJB document provided a wealth of reliable information regarding the CN VLS’ dimensions and function.
-VLS canister diameter is 0.85m (which is larger than the US Navy’s new Mk-57 VLS, which only has a diameter of 0.71m, and further larger than the Mk-41 VLS, which has a diameter of 0.635m)
-VLS canisters come in three lengths, 9 meters, 7 meters, and 3.3 meters (which is similar to the strike length, tactical length and self defence length canisters for the Mk-41 VLS)
-The VLS is capable of quad-packing missiles, as well as firing surface to air missiles, cruise missiles, anti ship missiles, and anti submarine missiles
-The VLS is capable of cold launching missiles, whereby a missile is ejected (such as via compressed gas) out of its canister, and its engine only ignites once it is in the air well clear of the ship and the VLS.
-The VLS is capable of hot launching missiles, but each canister has its own “concentric” vent for missile exhausts. The CN VLS lacks a central vent that all eight VLS canisters are connected to (as in the Mk-41), but instead a vent is present (and likely removable) within each canister intended for hot launch.
Cold launch vs Hot launch:
Cold launch of missiles helps to reduce damage incurred to the VLS itself during the launch process. A cold launch method also removes a fundamental limitation to the size of a missile that can be launched, where a larger missile produces a larger fiery exhaust, but that exhaust must be safely vented through a hot launch method. A cold launch method removes the need for a vent as the missile only ignites when it is well clear of the ship, thus potentially allowing for much larger missiles to be safely launched.
However, cold launch may also present some additional mechanical risks, such as if a missile’s engine does not ignite after ejection, whereupon it would inevitably fall back down, potentially back onto the ship it was ejected from. The risk of this occurring is debatable however, as Russian, Chinese, and even some western missile systems are now fielding cold launch methods in a variety of highly demanding roles.
Another minor disadvantage of cold launch missiles is that they have slower engagement time compared to a hot launch missile whose engine directly ignites from inside the VLS.
Hot launch VLS provides a missile with faster response time and more immediate kinetic energy from launch, thus potentially may be more useful for medium and short range SAMs where seconds are immensely important for intercepting an incoming missile. Hot launch VLS may also be more reliable than older cold launch VLS, as there is no risk for a missile failing to ignite in mid air and falling back down as in cold launch; if a missile fails to ignite in hot launch, it simply remains within the canister.
However, hot launch VLS are also heavier and more complicated and subjected to greater temperatures and potential damage, adding cost and reducing lifespan of the VLS module compared to a cold launch VLS.
By combining the potential for cold launch and hot launch in a single VLS, the CN VLS will provide greater flexibility and allow the Chinese Navy to more appropriately select differing launch methods for differing missiles in the most efficient way.
In terms of footprint, a standard eight cell CN VLS module is somewhat larger than an equivalent Mk-41 eight cell module, however, each canister of a CN VLS is also substantially larger than a canister of a Mk-41 canister, and that means a CN VLS could potentially carry and launch much larger missiles than a Mk-41. Indeed if the CN VLS was required to take advantage of its immense diameter, it could launch a missile via the cold launch method, which removes any need for internal concentric vents.
Ultimately all else being equal, a larger missile could translate into a greater payload, greater range, more powerful guidance and ECCM, among other important capabilities.
The multirole nature of the CN VLS will allow it to carry a variety of potential current and future missiles, among a wide variety of categories.
Surface to Air Missiles: the long range HHQ-9 SAM and future variants will likely be the predominant LR SAM of the CN VLS (similar to the Standard family for the Mk-41 VLS); HHQ-16 may also be adapted to be fired from the CN VLS, however it is doubtful if future variants will be developed given the potential for quad packed medium range SAMs could replace it; quad packed SAMs such as a variant of the DK-10 SAM will likely be developed and integrated to become the Chinese Navy’s equivalent to the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile.
Anti Ship Missiles: the Chinese Navy currently fields a number of AShMs which could potentially be integrated into the new CN VLS, including new variants of the legacy YJ-82, or the YJ-62 which is similar to the Tomahawk Anti Ship Missile. However, at this stage the only AShM that is expected to be integrated with the CN VLS is the YJ-18 AShM, which is thought to be a Chinese equivalent to the Russian 3M-54 (a subsonic AShM in cruise phase with a supersonic terminal phase). Rumours have also suggested a possible “YJ-100” which would be an anti shipping variant of the CJ-10/DF-10 LACM and may thus have substantial powered range in excess of 1,500km, but doubts remain. The large diameter of the CN VLS means it may also accommodate future AShMs of large size, such as hypersonic AShMs.
Land Attack Cruise Missiles: the CN VLS is expected to carry an LACM similar to the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile often launched from the Mk-41 VLS. The most likely contender within the immediate future is a vertically launched variant of the CJ-10/DF-10 LACM, which exists in air launched and ground launched variants. Future LACMs will likely also be integrated into the CN VLS as they are developed.
Anti Submarine Warfare Missiles: the CN VLS is expected to accommodate a vertically launched ASROC type weapon, a capability already present on the 054A’s VLS. It is likely that initially the CN VLS will be capable of launching the same type of VL ASROC as the 054A (possibly called Yu-8), but a larger diameter and heavier weapon may be developed to take advantage of the CN VLS’s larger diameter.
Ballistic Missile Defence and Anti Satellite Missiles: while the Chinese military has yet to receive any BMD or ASAT weapons in service, it has conducted a variety of tests and various missiles are known to be under development with BMD and potential low orbit ASAT roles, which may fit inside the dimensions of the CN VLS. However, it may take a number of years until such a weapon emerges, and more time after that for such a weapon to even be integrated into the CN VLS. But such a possibility should not be excluded.
The first Chinese Navy ship to receive the CN VLS is the 052D class destroyer. It is expected that all new major surface combatant classes which follow the 052D will also be equipped with the CN VLS. The 055 class large destroyer will almost certainly carry the CN VLS, likely in large numbers between 112-128 cells. A successor frigate to the current 054A will also likely carry the CN VLS. Other ships such as aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships, down to future corvettes, may also carry small numbers of CN VLS for self defense roles to supplement CIWS. Export frigate and destroyer designs offered by China will also likely include the CN VLS with export cleared munitions as well.
Existing ships with older launch systems and older VLS such as the 052B class, Sovremenny class, 052C class, 051C class and 054A class, may also potentially be refit with the CN VLS via upgrades, but whether the Chinese Navy decides to embark on an expensive upgrade is another matter. Needless to say, refitting such ships with a new, larger VLS would require some meaningful structural changes.
Overall, it is virtually assured that the CN VLS will become the Chinese Navy’s primary offensive missile launching tool, and will be as ubiquitous to the Chinese Navy in the foreseeable decades as the Mk-41 VLS has been and will be for the US Navy. Therefore a careful appreciation of the CN VLS is necessary for any serious watcher of the Chinese Navy.