Preparing for 055 – what to know about the upcoming Chinese large destroyer
Satellite imagery of JNCX shipyard near Shanghai over the last few months has shown an impressive pace of work on the first unit of the 055 class large destroyer. Current estimates for the launch of the first unit project it to occur by mid 2017 at the earliest, but also possibly later on in the year.
A not insubstantial volume of defence media hoopla and speculation has surrounded this ship over the last few years since the first photos of the 055 class land based mock up surfaced in mid 2014. Some outlets have even taken the questionable route of comparing 055 to the US Navy’s Zumwalt class destroyer or jumping the gun even further and describing the 055 as a “dreadnought”.
Needless to say, once the first 055 destroyer is launched later this year and once photos of its launch spread their way across the internet, it is likely that the defence media will write even more rabid articles about the 055, and it is likely mainstream news media will report on this as well. One can also expect the launch of the first 055 to be linked with current geopolitical tensions in the Western Pacific (or at least placed within that context), and will also likely be described within the overall modernization effort the Chinese military is engaged in.
This write up therefore will seek to establish a few clear parameters for the 055 itself, including what we know (and don’t know) about its physical characteristics, role, the number to be built, and what its overall capabilities may look like. This will be followed by cautionary statements about how the 055 destroyer should be viewed within the larger framework of the (virtually inevitable) media excitement that will likely engulf this topic.
But first – why do we care?
It is a natural question to ask – why is the 055 news-worthy, and why has there been media chatter about this ship at all over the last few years? Sure, it is a new class of Chinese warship, and any new Chinese military development over the last few years has been met with a decent flurry of media activity, but what’s so special about the 055?
The answer, is size. Prior to the 055, the largest indigenous and modern surface combatant that the Chinese Navy has inducted is the ~7,000 ton full displacement 052D class destroyer, the first of which was launched in 2012 and entered service in 2014 (as of March 2017, five such ships are in service with another six in various stages of sea trials or fitting out and additional ships under construction). The 055 class destroyer on the other hand, is likely to be a significantly larger destroyer than the 052D class. Current estimates based on its dimensions and reliable rumours put its full displacement well over 12,000 tons and likely approaching 13,000 tons (more on this later) – in other words, the 055 will be the largest surface combatant the Chinese Navy has ever inducted up to that point.
Furthermore, at 12,000-13,000 tons full displacement, the 055 would also be one of the largest modern surface combatants built in recent memory. Only the Zumwalt class destroyer would be larger, with a full displacement of over 15,000 tons. Size does matter when judging a warship’s capability and potential, and large size also conveys a more psychological and headline grabbing factor as well. Calling the 055 a “super destroyer” or “cruiser” or (wincingly) a “dreadnought” plays to the imagination of the reader.
055 – characteristics
Speculation surrounding the 055’s physical characteristics have begun to consolidate after the initial wide range of estimates in 2014-2015, partly due to the prevalence of satellite photos over the last year showing the first ship advancing in construction, but also partly due to greater clarity from credible rumour sources and insiders. An initial overview made by yours truly herein 2016, and while most of the information remains relevant, it is wise to update some of it in light of new evidence.
For now, the current consensus of 055’s physical dimensions appear to hover around:
Length: over 175 meters but under 180 meters
Beam: about 20 meters, perhaps a little bit more but not likely more than 21 meters
Full displacement: over 12,000 tons but probably not above 13,000 tons, given the ship’s physical dimensions and the ship’s topside hull and superstructure configuration
Draft: hard to judge at this stage but likely proportional to the ship’s length and beam
By comparison, the Ticonderoga class cruiser has a length of 173 meters, a beam of 16.8 meters, and a full displacement of 9,600 tons, while the Flight IIA Burke class destroyer has a length of 155 meters, a beam of 20 meters and a full displacement of 9,200 tons. The Zumwalt class destroyer has a length of 180 meters, a beam of 14 meters and a full displacement in excess of 15,000 tons. It is worth mentioning that Chinese language media (both official and non-official) have often referred to the 055 destroyer as a “10,000 ton class destroyer” however this is a translation of the term “wan dun qu hu jian” or “ten thousand ton destroyer” which is more a reflection of the ship being in the “10,000 ton” weight class rather than having its empty, standard, or full displacement be at 10,000 tons exactly.
In terms of armament, the 055 is expected to field the same universal VLS first fielded aboard the 052D class destroyer, but in greater numbers. Consistent estimates based on rumours and based on 055’s configuration suggest a likely VLS number of 112-128 VLS cells, though there have been less credible suggestions that it may be as low as 96 cells, but at present the consensus suggests a 112-128 VLS count. Some seemingly official state media outlets have also suggested that the 055 will have a VLS count of 128, however we won’t know what the situation really is until we get pictures of the real thing. Other secondary armament that is widely expected to be present includes the H/PJ-38 130mm main gun, the H/PJ-11 30mm CIWS, and the HHQ-10 missile CIWS, as well as torpedo tubes.
There have been suggestions that the 055 may field rail guns or lasers/DEWs in the future, however this would be dependent on the ship’s mode of propulsion. The “initial batch” of 055s are expected to field four QC-280 gas turbines (the same kind which partially powers the 052D) arranged in a COGAG fashion, however it is widely expected that a subsequent 055 variant will field an Integrated Electric Propulsion system that would enable more power hungry weapons like rail guns or DEWs Chinese Naval R&D into IEPS has been quite well known in the PLA watching community, where Rear Admiral Ma Weiming is a significant driver (he is the same person behind the the Chinese Navy’s EM catapult programme), so a future “055A” with IEPS is currently considered to be on the cards for the future.
In terms of sensors, the 055 is expected to adopt some sensors that have been fielded on previous ships like the Type 346A APAR from the 052D class destroyer, but also possibly new sensors like an X band APAR and potentially a new volume search radar, but these have yet to be confirmed. The 055 will likely field a similar ASW/sonar sensor suite to the 052D, including a towed sonar and a variable depth sonar (an aft hatch for a VDS may already have been sighted in the 055’s hull). The 055 has also consistently been suggested to field much enhanced command and control and combat management capability over its predecessors, and given it is a newer ship and a much larger ship allowing for more internal processing power and volume for command staff, this is not unexpected. However the relative advancement of software and hardware behind such advances would not likely to ever be known.
The 055 is confirmed to have two helicopter hangars, but the type of helicopter they are meant to employ is not known. Previous rumours have suggested they would employ the Z-18F large ASW helicopter, but recent pictures of the ship under construction seem to suggest the hangars would only be able to accommodate a medium helicopter like Z-9, Ka-27 or Seahawk sized aircraft.
The 055 is also expected to field advancements in signature management compared to its predecessors, and this can partly be seen even in the Wuhan mock up’s greater integration of topside structures like the deckhouse and the smoke stack. The 055’s bow/prow also appears to be the first major Chinese surface combatant to be “enclosed” where bow knick knacks like anchors are placed below decks. However the 055 almost definitely does not seek to achieve a level of stealth that the Zumwalt class destroyer does.
055 – numbers
A big part of the 055 media story will be about its size, but perhaps the bigger and more geopolitically important issue is just how many 055s will be built. After all, one only needs to look at the Zumwalt class destroyer to see a very advanced and potentially very capable ship that has had its numbers significantly cut and causing unit price and subsystem price to inflate, causing further consequences for each ship’s capability. Indeed, with only three Zumwalt class destroyers to be built and the Flight III Burke destroyer slated to supplement and replace the US Navy’s ageing Ticonderoga class cruisers in the post 2020 era, it is instructive to understand the importance of quantity rather than only quality.
Past rumours have suggested that the 055s will not be built in small numbers. Indications for an “initial batch” was placed at anywhere between 4 to 8 ships, with subsequent batch orders to be followed, and the ships would be built at least two shipyards: JNCX (Jiangnan Changxing) near the city of Shanghai, and DL (Dalian) at the city of Dalian. The pace of construction was expected to be respectable but not too fast or too slow. JNCX was expected to build a couple of ships first and launch them before DL began construction of them.
Initial photos of the first 055 unit under construction at JNCX appeared on the Chinese internet in June 2016, as expected. However, subsequent satellite photos from a number of sources then indicated that the pace of construction at JNCX was faster than expected. Indeed, by early October, the modules for the first 055’s hull were all identified by satellite, but a new module appeared at that same time and it was realized this module was likely for a second 055 unit. Subsequent photos in November and December then showed the first 055′ major hull modules joined and assembled together and placed under cover for further work, while additional modules for the second 055 unit at JNCX also emerged and began assembly, and starting to look like what the first 055’s modules looked like in June, six months earlier.
Even more surprising than JNCX’s relatively fast pace of construction, was work at DL, which presented a surprise when satellite photos in late November 2016 appeared to show a large number of 055 modules in its staging yard, corresponding with insiders who confirmed with ground based photos that the modules were indeed for 055s. Photos in December 2016 and January 2017 further confirmed additional 055 modules being placed in the staging yard, with enough 055 modules estimated for at least 2 055s, potentially up to 3. While it was expected that DL would start construction of 055s eventually, it came as a surprise to see so many 055 modules at such a stage of relative completion, before JNCX had yet to even launch the first 055 unit.
Accompanying the emergence of these satellite photos in late 2016 and early 2017, were rumours that the Chinese Navy has increased the order of 055s in its initial batch, beyond the initially suspected 8 units (which was the high end estimate anyway), to potentially double digits (a number thrown around so far as been 12). Whether it means more ships will be inducted in the same amount of time (i.e.: increased production/commissioning rate), or if it the rate of construction will remain the same, is not yet known, but seeing the pace of construction at both JNCX and DL shipyards, it is easy to think it may be the former.
As of present, at least four 055 hulls (or modules for that many ships), have been positively identified. The final number of 055s to be built will not be known for many years, however it can be safely assumed to be significantly more than three (re: Zumwalt). The 055 is likely to spawn subsequent variants with advanced subsystems as they mature, such as IEPS, new sensors and exotic weapons like rail guns and DEWs. One only needs to look at how the original 052 class destroyer later gave way to the 052D.
055 – role
With the 055’s characteristics and numbers out of the way, one is able to make more informed speculation about the 055’s role. And in a way, this is perhaps the easiest task to do. When looking at the Chinese Navy’s missions and requirements over the next few decades, an increased demand for long range blue water operations becomes very apparent.
The 055 will take up the role of a traditional long range surface combatant – or as it may be called, a “cruiser”. The 055 will take the responsibility for being the primary “shield” of a task force like a carrier strike group, with the most capable air defence and command and combat management facilities among all the escorts in the group (which would include medium weight destroyers like 052C/Ds and 054As and the future frigate). 055s will also be large enough to conduct independent long range patrols when necessary, as well as likely able to be arranged with other 055s and smaller 052Ds to form surface action groups for missions if they demand it.
Numbers matter – if the Chinese Navy only had a handful of 055s at its disposal, the ability for the Navy to conduct those missions will be limited due to low availability of the ship type. However, over the next decade it is likely that a fairly large number of 055s will enter service. While they will definitely not be the most numerous ship type in the Chinese Navy by any means, they will likely be built in significant enough numbers to complement the large number of blue water capable air defence frigates and aegis-type medium weight destroyers to fill a much needed capability gap in the Navy.
It is also rather surprising that an official PLA affiliated news outlet was quite candid and accurate in describingthe role of the 055, stating “Type 055 undertakes multiple combat functions and is also responsible for escorting aircraft carrier battle group”. This of course is entirely sensible and consistent with what would be expected from this ship.
Finally, it is interesting to note that the PLA has been sensitive about how English language defence media have been portraying the 055 class as a “cruiser” as well as its potential to be a “game changer” in naval warfare.
From the same previous article, published in late February 2017:
“The reporter noticed that this wasn’t the first time that western media call China’s Type 055 guided-missile destroyer a cruiser.
Regarding this, Li Jie replied that in terms of tonnage alone, Type 055 is larger than many serving cruisers. America’s Ticonderoga-class cruiser, for instance, has a full load displacement of less than 10,000 tons. As a matter of fact, destroyer and cruiser aren’t that different today, and most countries don’t even develop cruiser anymore.
Going forward, destroyers will have ever larger tonnage and stronger functions with particular strength in a specific aspect, whereas cruiser has limited functions and is not as flexible as destroyer when carrying out missions.
“The fact that western countries call China’s Type 055 destroyer a cruiser indicates that they are looking at China’s military development with colored glasses and magnifying the function and role of China’s equipment. It’s a manifestation of the China Threat theory,” Li Jie added.“
“The U.S. media recently reported that the new type-055 guided missile destroyer of the Navy of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLAN) and the U.S. Aegis warship are on a par with each other in terms of power and strength and that the type-055 destroyer is one of the five weapons China might use to change rules of the game in the future.
However, Yin Zhuo, a Chinese military expert, said in an interview that the so-called type-055 destroyer is not the world’s largest guided missile destroyer and speculation that it will change the rules of the game is just an exaggeration.“
There are two rather interesting points to takeaway from this. First, is that the Chinese military is well aware of the cultural connotations of the word “cruiser” and the precedents for calling large surface combatants as “destroyers,” most notably by the quite large Zumwalt class destroyer. Naturally, if the Zumwalt class is referred to as a destroyer, the 055 which is about 2,000 tons lighter, would also rightly be called a destroyer.
Second, is the Chinese military’s sensitivity to the portrayal of the 055’s capabilities as a significant development. They continue to be averse to insinuations that their military capability is that great, and that is likely part of their distaste to the portrayal of Chinese military developments in a “threatening” manner by foreign media, but also at the same time is partly a reflection of their desire to maintain high operational security which seeks to cause foreign adversaries to miscalculate and often underestimate the true capabilities and true level of development of their various weapons programmes.
So what about the media?
Equipped with the above knowledge, one is able to hopefully view the media’s inevitable reporting on 055 in a more accurate and even handed light.
If an article or website sensationalizes the 055 as a “dreadnought” then one should be able to respond very skeptically to such a claim. If an article compares the 055 with the Zumwalt class, one should be able to think of the differences in role, size, and number between the two warship types and realise how I’ll advised such a comparison would be. If an article compares the 055 with the Burke class, one should also be able to consider the differences in role, size and number between the two warship types.
If an article tries to discuss the role of the 055 in the Chinese Navy and the geopolitical consequences of it, one should be able to take a step back and view the 055’s role in the Navy alongside other, smaller blue water capable ships like frigates (054A, and future 054B), and medium weight destroyers (052C, 052D). If an article tries to compare how capable an 055 is versus a Ticonderoga or a Sejong or an Atago or a Burke, one should hopefully be able to also understand such a “match up” is immensely unlikely to occur in a realistic conflict scenario as the navies of the opposing side’s will be fielding their warships as a “system of systems” rather than sending them piece meal, one against another in an equal fashion.
But at the same time, that doesn’t mean one should be blind to the rather unprecedented nature of the 055 both in context of the Chinese Navy and in context of global naval trends.
In the Chinese Navy, one needs to recall that this is the single largest class of surface combatant ever developed and produced, much larger than the previous 7,000 ton 052D. This is made all the more impressive by the fact that at least four 055s are currently under various stages of construction well before the first 055 unit has yet to be even launched, which is a significant departure from previous classes of major surface combatants where they were either variants of preceding existing hull types that were first produced in small numbers (such as the heritage of 052D/052C/052B/052, and 054A/054).
In terms of the world’s naval context, one only needs to look at how few navies are producing modern surface combatants with displacements well over the 10,000 ton class in the numbers that the 055 will be expected to be, to see how unique the 055 is simply as a class of warship in its own weight and capability category. The Zumwalt class as a 15,000+ ton class destroyer is advanced and impressive but is limited to only three units. The Flight III Burke which will likely succeed the Ticonderoga class in the near future makes advancements over the Flight IIA Burke but has a smaller VLS load than the Ticonderoga class and will only displace 10,000 tons full, which pushes at the end zones for the ship’s growth margins, and the US Navy’s “Future Surface Combatant” programme is only projected to produce a new warship in the 2030s. The Sejong class destroyer of South Korea is a very impressive ship as well, displacing at about 11,000 tons with three in service and another three looking to be commissioned over coming years and is technically one of the most heavily armed destroyers with 128 VLS as well as 16 dedicated slant AShM launchers, but their number will likely not exceed six in total by the mid 2020s. The Russian Navy is looking to build the formidable 17,500 ton Lider class “destroyer” to replace their ageing Soviet era large surface combatants, but the number of warships to be built and how reliably they can be delivered is a very open question, especially in light of difficulties and delays suffered by other surface combatant projects like the Gorshkov class frigate.
Thus, it is perhaps the psychological and cultural impact of the Chinese Navy fielding a large, modern surface combatant in significant numbers by the early to mid 2020s, which will be of most interest to media and may result in significant re-evaluation of the Chinese Navy’s stature. Of course, such developments do not directly translate to advances in warfighting capability in an immediate sense, as it would take a number of years for commissioned ships and commanders to fully learn how to best operate at the various levels of warfare (tactical, operational and strategic). However when one starts to look around the world and see how many navies are fielding a class of modern surface combatant with displacement well in excess of 10,000 tons, one is able to put the Chinese Navy’s own ambitions into context.