Chinese Navy 2020: the surface combatant fleet of the near future
The Chinese Navy is currently enjoying the fruits of a long planned modernization programme which began in the late 1990s.
The most visible change in Chinese Navy force composition can be seen in its rapidly modernizing surface combatant fleet, where new frigates (FFGs) and destroyers (DDGs) have been replacing old and antiquated FFGs and DDGs with obsolete capabilities reminiscent of the 1950s and 60s.
This gradual change has been noted by various think tanks, defence media, as well as annual government or military reports such as from the Department of Defence or the Office of Naval Intelligence.
However, there does not seem to be any authoritative projection of what the Navy’s surface combatant fleet will be composed of in terms of specific numbers and ship type, for the medium term future.
The purpose of this write up is therefore to project what the Chinese Navy’s main surface combatant fleet will look like by 2020. The year 2020 is selected for this prediction for a specific reason, because more distant years will become more and more susceptible to unforeseen future changes, and earlier years will produce less interesting results. The relative roundness of 2020 of course also makes for a more catching title.
The Chinese Navy’s primary surface combatant force is made up of six “destroyer flotillas” (roughly translated from “quzhujian zhidiu”). Each of the Navy’s three fleets is equipped with two destroyer flotillas (DESFLOTs, when going by the past US Navy acronym), and each DESFLOT is generally made up of about four DDGs and four FFGs, however the nature of the Chinese Navy’s modernization means some DESFLOTs are slightly more DDG heavy or FFG heavy than others as new ships are introduced and older ships are retired.
As of early June 2016, the order of battle for the Navy’s six DESFLOTs resembles this:
North Sea Fleet: 9 DDGs, 10 FFGs
1st Destroyer Flotilla: 4 DDGs, 4 FFGs
4 DDGs: x2 051C class, x2 052 class
4 FFGs: x4 054A class
10th Destroyer Flotilla: 5 DDGs, 6 FFGs
5 DDGs: x5 051 class
6 FFGs: x2 054A class, 4 053H3 class
East Sea Fleet: 8 DDGs, 10 FFGs
3rd Destroyer Flotilla: 4 DDGs, 6 FFGs
4 DDGs: x2 956EM/Improved Sovremenny class, x2 956/Sovremenny class
(Note, the above summary includes all commissioned ships, some of which are currently undergoing mid life refits.)
Overall, there are currently 27 DDGs as well as 28 FFGs in service between the six DESFLOTs. Among the 27 DDGs, 9 vessels are considered “aegis-type” (6 052C class, and 3 052D class). This orbat clearly demonstrates that the South Sea Fleet and East Sea Fleet presently field the most modernized DESFLOTs, with each having at least one full DESFLOT worth of aegis-type destroyers. The North Sea Fleet is currently under the process of modernization, and is expected to receive a full four 052Ds after the South Sea Fleet is equipped with the first four 052Ds. The East Sea Fleet is then expected receive a full four 052Ds after the North Sea Fleet.
In addition to DESFLOTs, Chinese Navy also fields a number of fast attack flotillas equipped with 022 class missile boats, as well as a number of frigate squadrons and subchaser squadrons which field older generation frigates such as the 053H class FFG as well as various 037 class subchaser variants. These frigate and subchaser squadrons are rapidly being modernized via 056 class corvettes, however they are not capable of blue water operations and are oriented for operations in territorial waters or regional waters at best. Therefore, the modernization of frigate squadrons, subchaser squadrons, and fast attack flotillas will not be considered in this write up.
It is important to contextualize the Chinese Navy’s current surface combatant fleet and its potential fleet of 2020, by examining the major classes of warships in service and under construction.
Let’s start with the destroyers:
052D class DDG: the successor class to the 052C, with major enhancements in sensor and weapon suites. Three currently in service, two undergoing sea trials, four undergoing fitting out, three under construction, with a final total of twelve ships confirmed at this stage (three ships commissioned, first ship commissioned in 2014). More may be ordered.
052C class DDG: a further evolution of the 052 class. It was the Chinese Navy’s first class of warship capable of true aegis-type air defence. Six constructed, all in service (two commissioned in 2005, four commissioned 2013-2015).
052B class DDG: a development of the older 052 class. It fields the imported Russian Shtil air defence system, using a domestic combat management system. Two constructed, both in service (commissioned both in 2004).
051C class DDG: an evolution of the older 051B class. It fields the imported Russian Fort air defence system (navalized S-300), but only carries one Tombstone fire control radar, insufficient for full 360 degree coverage. It also lacks a helicopter hangar, and uses older steam turbine construction. Considered to be a “lower risk” class of warship in case the initial two 052C class DDGs experienced delays. Two constructed, both in service (commissioned 2006-2007).
956EM/956/Sovrmenny class DDG: four vessels, purchased from Russia in two batches. There were reports that these warships were limited by poor command/control capabilities, and older steam turbine propulsion. The first two 956 class DDGs are currently undergoing a major refit, and the second two 956EM DDGs will probably undergo a similar refit in coming years. Four in service (first pair commissioned 1999-2000, second pair both commissioned in 2006).
052 class DDG: the Chinese Navy’s first gas turbine powered surface combatant. Underwent a mid-life upgrade in 2011, but still fields old and short range HHQ-7 SAMs and thus definitely not intended as any sort of air defence ship. Two constructed, both in service (commissioned 1994-1996).
051B class DDG: a single one-off warship class which fielded certain domestically produced sensors and weapons, but was obsolete on arrival. Limited by older steam turbine propulsion. Currently undergoing a major refit, including installing VLS. One constructed, in service (commissioned 1999).
051 class DDG: the Chinese Navy’s first ever class of domestic destroyer, with the first vessel commissioned in 1971, showing the true age of the type. The few 051 class variant DDGs which remain in service are blatantly obsolete, and likely to be replaced in coming years by the new 052D class DDGs. Seventeen constructed, only five remain in service (commissioned between 1982-1991).
Now, for the frigates:
054A class FFG: a highly successful evolution of the 054 class. The 054A is a modern, multirole medium sized surface combatant, and has served as the Chinese Navy’s blue water capable workhorse in the late 2000s and early to mid 2010s. Twenty two in service, with two more currently fitting out (first vessel commissioned in 2008, with an average of 3 vessels commissioned since then every year). Final count of twenty four 054As expected, possibly more on order.
054 class FFG: predecessor to the 054A class. This class featured a substantially more modern hull form compared to previous 053H variants, however it also used a similar weapons suite to the older 053H3 class as well. Two constructed, both in service (both commissioned in 2005).
053H3 class FFG: an evolution of the much older 053 class FFG. The few 053H3 class FFGs which remain in DESFLOT service are likely to be replaced by 054A class FFGs, and transferred to frigate squadrons for less intensive service. Ten constructed, all ten in service but only four in service as part of DESFLOTs (all ten commissioned between 1998 and 2005).
Fleet of 2020:
Based on the preceding information, it is reasonable to project that the Chinese Navy will be equipped with at least 12 052D class DDGs and 24 054A class FFGs before 2020, possibly more.
The tenth and eleventh 052Ds will likely be launched in the second half of 2016, while the twelfth 052D will likely be launched in the first half of 2017. Considering the time taken for fitting out and sea trial prior for previous 052C and 052D class DDGs, it is reasonable to estimate that there is a maximum period of two years between launch and commissioning that all future 052Ds will experience. Therefore, the twelfth 052D expected to be launched from Dalian shipyard in 2017 will most likely be commissioned in 2019 at the latest, with 2-3 052Ds commissioned each year between now and then.
Twenty two 054As are currently in service, and two additional 054As have been recently launched, making 24 total 054A class FFGs in the water at present. Given the fitting out and sea trial period of previous 054As, it will likely take about one year for these two recently launched 054As to enter service. Therefore, it is likely that by the end of 2017, 24 054A class FFGs will be in service.
However, a number of older DDGs and FFGs will likely be retired or reassigned from current DESFLOT units by 2020 as well.
All five 051 class DDGs are likely to be retired by 2020. However, the 052 class DDG and all ships built and commissioned after it will likely remain in service, considering that the two 052 DDGs were only recently refitted in 2011, and that even the lone 051B class is currently undergoing a major refit to extend its service life.
All four 053H3 class FFGs in DESFLOT service will likely be fully replaced by 054As, and reassigned to frigate squadrons.
Therefore, given all the above information, a reasonable (if not somewhat low end) prediction of Chinese Navy surface combatant fleet, looks like so:
Note, this projection does not assign the projected ships into DESFLOT units, due to the extra destroyers which will remain in service. It is likely that each DESFLOT will undergo an expansion of the number of ships in each unit, or new DESFLOTs may be commissioned to absorb the larger number of ships in general.
The predicted surface combatant fleet of 2020 above is likely a low end estimate, due to three factors.
1: the first ship of the 055 class large DDG is currently under construction and is expected to be launched in late 2016 or the first half of 2017, and will thus correspondingly probably be commissioned in 2019 or 2020. The 055 class is also expected to enter serial production immediately off the bat, therefore we may see a significant number of 055 large DDGs launched between 2017 and 2020, with the first one or two vessels commissioned before 2020.
2: additional frigates are highly rumoured to be on order, to supplement the 24 054As presently identified. It is not known if these additional frigates are the same 054A class or a successor class (variously called 054B and 057), however assuming there is only a one year delay between the launch of the last 054A and the launch of the next batch of frigates, we may correspondingly see an additional one or two frigates commissioned by 2020 beyond the 24th 054A.
3: additional 052D class destroyers are also recently rumoured to be on order. This would result in simultaneous 055 and 052D construction. Jiangnan Changxing shipyard most definitely has the capability to construct both 055s and 052Ds simultaneously, but it is not known if Dalian shipyard is able to. Either way, if additional 052Ds have been ordered and if production of additional 052Ds continue without pause, it is likely that we can see an additional one or two 052Ds commissioned by 2020 on top of the projected 12 052Ds.
If any of the above scenarios do occur, it is likely that we will see an expansion of DESFLOT units by the mid 2020s, or perhaps an expansion of standard DESFLOT ship composition.
However, there are also a number of possible factors which may delay or reduce the number of surface combatants which the Chinese Navy may field by 2020.
The most obvious factor is that of the domestic Chinese economy. Much news has been circulated regarding the supposed slow down of the Chinese economy, and while this is primarily a military oriented website, the fact remains that military development is inherently tied to economic health. Needless to say, if the Chinese economy experiences a major slowdown like the 2008 great recession, or if the economy collapses entirely, there will be major repercussions for the Chinese military’s procurement plans. The slightly politicized discussion around Chinese economic health and development prospects in a variety of media (as well as the inherent difficulties of tracking the Chinese economy) makes it difficult to truly gauge the Chinese economy’s medium term trajectory, however it is worth mentioning that even a “slower” growth rate of 6-6.5% in the next few years will add more GDP to the Chinese economy, than a 10% growth rate added to the Chinese economy in the mid or even late 2000s due to the sheer size of China’s current economy.
Other less significant factors that may affect Chinese surface combatant procurement include the risk of major military conflict (probably unlikely for the foreseeable future, tensions notwithstanding), as well as the possible risk of cataclysmic natural disasters that obliterate Chinese shipbuilding capabilities (very unlikely of course, but prudent to include it).
Contextualizing the 2020 fleet:
Sometimes it is easy to look at the present or near future and miss out on how things have changed.
As of early June 2016, the Chinese Navy has 27 DDGs in service among which 9 are aegis-type (6 052Cs and 3 052Ds). 28 FFGs are also in service, among which 22 are the 054A class.
By 2020, the surface combatant fleet will likely grow to 29 DDGs (with 18 being aegis-type 052C/Ds), complemented by at least 26 FFGs of which at least 24 will be 054A class.
But going back to the beginning of the decade in 2010, the Chinese Navy only fielded two 052C class DDGs in service: DDG 170 and DDG 171, the original pair of 052Cs first commissioned in 2005. The third 052C would be launched in October 2010, but it would be another three years, in October 2013, until the Chinese Navy would commission its third 052C after an eight year hiatus. But from October 2013 up to the present day in early June 2016, 4 052C class DDGs and 3 052D class DDGs would be commissioned, an average of about two destroyers per year.
In 2010, only 7 054A FFGs were in service. It would be two years later, in 2012 until the Chinese Navy reached double digits of 054As in service. But between 2010 up to the present day, 15 054A class FFGs would be commissioned, averaging an average 054A commissioning rate of over two per frigates per year.
The transformation of the Chinese Navy’s surface combatant fleet from the beginning of the decade to 2016 saw an impressive growth of aegis-type destroyers in service, and the establishment of a large and robust fleet of modern multirole frigates. The resulting increase in AAW capability, ASW capability and ASuW capability and command capability was substantial. Importantly, the increase from only 2 aegis-type ships to 9 aegis-type ships meant the lone pair of two 052C class DDGs were no longer forced to act as surface combatant “capital ships,” because more aegis-type capabilities were able to proliferate among the Navy’s DESFLOTs and became more commonplace.
The projected transformation of the surface combatant fleet from now until the end of the decade will either see a conclusion of frigate production or continued frigate procurement in the form of more 054As or a successor 054B/057. Regardless of what eventuates, by the end of the decade, the Navy’s frigate fleet will have matured to become a flexible and robust component within their DESFLOTs. Continued destroyer procurement in the form of 052Ds will reach a sustained and regular pace, and will almost certainly double the number of aegis-type ships the Navy has commissioned, from the current 9 DDGs to 18 DDGs by the end of the decade. This will help to further proliferate and normalize aegis-type capabilities among the Navy’s three fleets – capabilities that as recently as 2010 would have been considered rare.
It is reasonable to conclude that the Chinese Navy’s primary surface combatant fleet of 2020 will most likely consist of 29 destroyers (including 12 multirole aegis-type 052D class DDGs and 6 AAW oriented aegis-type 052C class DDGs), as well as 13 older but still relatively capable non aegis-type DDGs. These 29 destroyers will be supported within their DESFLOTs by a fleet of at least 26 FFGs, consisting of at least 24 054A class FFGs, and a lonely pair of 2 054 class FFGs.
However, it is very likely that this estimate is a conservative one, but for the sake of conclusion, let’s pin that number at 29 DDGs and 26 FFGs.
So what does a 29 DDG and 26 FFG fleet mean in terms of capability? Answering such a question will be a much more difficult undertaking. Operational capability will obviously depend on the advancements in sensors, weapons integration, training and logistics the Chinese Navy will undergo to absorb these new ships and to use them in an effective way. Needless to say, the fundamental qualitative capability of each ship compared to foreign counterparts is not known either, so it’s difficult to truly and accurately gauge the capabilities of Chinese Navy warships in an absolute or even relative way.
One major factor that can be observed, is the need for the Chinese Navy to induct a new, standardized ASW helicopter for its new surface combatant fleet. The current fleet is served by a number of Z-9 variants as well as Ka-28s in the ASW role, however these aircraft not optimal in capability compared to true medium weight ASW helicopters like the MH-60R or NH-90. This requirement may be fulfilled in coming years by an ASW variant of the Z-20 helicopter, which is an enhanced and reverse engineered version of the UH-60 (the Z-20 is distinguishable via its five blade main rotor and its slightly larger main cabin).
The accuracy of the predictions made in this write up can be judged in four years time. Hopefully by 2020, there will be sufficient information to make a projection for what the Chinese Navy’s surface combatant fleet will look like by 2025. Until then, it is probably best for all Chinese military watchers to sit back and enjoy the show.