The first 055 has been launched: here’s seven reasons why it’s a big deal
Three years of patience and drip-feeding of information is about to be rewarded, with the launch of the first 055 class destroyer from Jiangnan Changxing shipyard expected to occur within days having occurred, with ceremonial signal flags raised and hull painted.
[Update, 28/06/2017: launch of the lead ship has occurred, with some surprisingly clear official photos of the launch ceremony having been released]
However the launch of the first 055 will likely spark a flurry of media activity from all stripes of bloggers, defence media, and even mainstream news media outlets. Many of these outlets and sites will try to decipher and consider what the consequences of the 055 class destroyer will be. However, few of those outlets will likely have had continuous PLA following experience, and even fewer are likely to have had the step by step analysis of the trickle of 055 related rumours and information over the course of the three and a half or more years, to form fully rounded interpretations of this new vessel.
The purpose of this write up is to condense the consequences of the new 055 class into seven discrete points, effectively, for why the 055 class is a “big deal”. PLA watchers and general military enthusiasts alike, let’s get hype.
We now have many satellite photos of the 055 class to be able to gain an accurate estimate of the 055’s physical dimensions, and this author’s estimates put the ship at a length of about 180 meters with a beam of about 20 meters.
The Wuhan mock up has provided also us a very accurate gauge of what the physical top side configuration of the ship will likely look, providing indication of the ship’s large and integrated topside superstructure configuration.
For context, 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 24 meters and a full displacement in excess of 15,000 tons.
Therefore, the 055 is estimated to have a full displacement in excess of 12,000 tons, potentially approaching 13,000 tons. This corresponds with the statement of at least one Chinese military commentator that was published on an official PLA news outlet describing 055 as having a full displacement of 13,000 tons.
The size of the 055 cannot be understated. The next largest surface combatant the Chinese Navy has ever domestically produced is the 7,000 ton 052D with a length of 157 meters and a beam of 17 meters. Furthermore, the number of world navies which are currently building surface combatants significantly in excess of 10,000 tons or have concrete plans to build them in the near future can be counted on one hand, namely the US Navy, Zumwalt class; ROK Navy, Sejong class; Chinese Navy, 055 class. The Russian Navy with their Slava class and Kirov class cruisers also fit the bill, however those ships most definitely are not exactly recent or modern.
Needless to say, only a few navies in the world are fielding or are planning to field surface combatants of such an ambitious size. And size — as later points will show — does matter.
The 052D class was armed with 64 universal Chinese Navy Vertical Launch System cells. The 055 is expected to field 112 to 128, potentially up to double the number. Such an armament will make the 055 class one of the most well armed surface combatants in the world, not only because a 112-128 cell count is among the world’s largest, but also because the CN VLS cells are each 0.85 meters in diameter and up to 9 meters long, thus significantly larger than equivalent universal VLS cells of other navies whether it by the Mk-41, the Mk-57 or the SYLVER. When arranged in the cold launch mechanism to use the full cross section of a cell, the CN VLS has the potential to field a significantly wider missile than other equivalent VLS cells in the world.
Of course, it is important to note that many other ships have a large number of VLS too. The Ticonderoga class fields 122 VLS as well as 8 dedicated slant Harpoon AShM launchers, while the Sejong class fields 128 VLS with 16 dedicated slant AShM launchers making it arguably the most heavily armed universal VLS equipped surface combatant in the world. And that doesn’t count the mighty Kirov class battlecruisers undergoing refit to be equipped with a large number of modernized UKSK VLS and new SAM VLS.
But with a 112 or 128 VLS count for the 055 class, and fielding a universal VLS cell with a large cross sectional area, its hitting power will be indisputably among the top tiers of the world’s surface combatants.
[Update, 28/06/2017: photos of the 055’s amidships configuration at launch appear to suggest its VLS will be 112]
3: Sensors and electronics
The 055 is expected to field the latest generation of the Chinese Navy’s sensors. Some of these sensors may be versions of existing systems, or variants of existing systems, or new systems altogether. The 055 is expected to field the same S band APAR as the 052D or perhaps a newer and more capable variant, as well as an X band APAR atop its integrated mast. A variety of passive sensors like a new ESM suite, EO/IR cameras, as well as datalinks are expected to round out the electronics suite. An aft volume search radar has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the 055 as well, but this is still under some debate and will likely only be settled with clear photos of the real 055 ship itself.
[Update, 28/06/2017: photos of the ship at launch appear to show an aft sensor dome atop the helicopter hangar structure with no indication of a volume search radar]
Furthermore, the 055 is expected to field a substantially more modern and more capable command and control and battle management system, fulfilling its role as a command ship and as a “shield of the fleet” in a manner similar to leading air defence cruisers. Given the 055’s substantially larger size than the preceding 052D class, such a prospect is not only logical but almost expected.
4: Production pace
The first modules for the 055 were sighted at JNCX shipyard in early/mid 2016, corresponding with rumours in late 2014 that the first 055 had begun steel cutting. However, given the 055 was not only a wholly new warship design, but also the largest Chinese surface combatant ever developed by a large margin, it was thought that production of the 055 class would proceed in a slow, or at least cautious manner. Perhaps only one shipyard would build the 055 for a few years to start off with, and perhaps at a pace of only one per year.
What was not expected, was for two different shipyards to both produce 055s, and each to build two 055s concurrently. By October 2016, modules for the second 055 at JNCX were sighted. And by late November 2016, modules for two 055s were sighted and the latest photos going into 2017 confirmed that two 055s are being simultaneously assembled in the same drydock alongside one another.
In other words, four 055s were under various states of assembly and construction at the same time before the first 055 had even been launched, and all this in a new clean sheet design of a surface combatant whose full displacement was almost double that of the previous largest surface combatant that the Chinese Navy had ever domestically produced.
The pace of this construction for a new and large warship is a significant departure from the 2000s, where new warship designs were built in pairs or small numbers before embarking on larger production numbers, and even those warship classes tended to be derivatives of existing designs (such as 052B, 052C, 052D, or 054, 054A, or 051B, 051C). This pace of construction for the 055 likely reflects a much increased confidence of the Chinese Navy in their domestic industry’s capabilities, not only in terms of ship design and shipbuilding, but also in terms of their assessment of the 055’s ability to fulfill the Navy’s requirements and its overall competitiveness compared to other surface combatants in the world.
The most powerful warship in the world will have little impact on a Navy’s overall combat capability if there are too few of them. The realities of naval maintenance and readiness means only a fraction (often said to be 1/3) of a fleet or a warship of a certain type are deployed at any one time. Therefore, if say only three warships of a certain class were built, then it means during any one time only one warship would be deployed. It does not matter if that warship is the most advanced or most capable warship of its generation, but if there are only a handful in service, it means only about one third of that handful will be deployed at any one time. (This may or may not be a cheeky reference to a certain uber-advanced super warship class that a certain powerful navy has recently commissioned, I shall let the reader judge for him or herself.)
For the 055, at time of writing in late June 2017, we can confirm that four 055s are definitely under construction. Concrete information for the Chinese Navy’s future procurement plans are of course impossible to come by, but some quite reliable sources in the past have suggested the “first batch” of 055s will be at least 8 in number. The natural implication of this of course, is that there will likely be subsequent batches of 055s in coming years, to follow the first batch of at least 8 ships. Considering the fast rate of production for the 055 class thus far, it would not be unexpected for the number of 055s to reach in the double digits by the mid 2020s. Whether that means 10+ or perhaps 20+ is a tenuous matter which naval analysts all around the world will likely nervously deliberate, but at this stage it is reasonable to judge that the final number of 055s will definitely be significantly greater than three ships.
6: Future Proofing
The 055 is a new clean sheet ship design and it is also a large design. Given the pattern of previous Chinese Navy surface combatant development, it is likely that the 055 will form the basis for future variants as well, likely with the hypothetical designations of 055A, 055B and so on.
The way in which the 055 may evolve is not certain, however the Chinese Navy’s robust R&D into integrated electric propulsion, rail guns and lasers is quite well known and they are likely pursuing future sensor technology that will be power hungry and space hungry as well. The reasonably large size of the 055 hull will therefore provide substantial room for future growth for new systems and new technologies, just as the original 052 hull evolved into the 052B, 052C, and 052D. The importance of future growth capacity that a hull can offer has been on full display in the US Navy, where concerns over space and power generation for the Flight III Burke have called into question its suitability for mounting a sufficiently powerful variant of its Air Missile Defence Radar that the USN originally sought, let alone whether such a ship would have the ability to eventually mount new power hungry weapons like rail guns and lasers.
Future variants of the 055 will likely not suffer such constraints in anywhere near the same degree given its large size and thus larger growth capacity. At this stage it would therefore not be unreasonable and in fact be logical to expect a future 055 variant to be equipped with IEPS, railguns, and/or lasers.
In many ways, this last reason is a sum of all of the previous six. Until the last few years, the very notion that the Chinese Navy may even have the potential to develop and induct a modern surface combatant with a full displacement in excess of 10,000 tons would have caused skepticism among more than a few defence commentators.
However as of 2017, it has become certain that not only is the Chinese Navy developing a modern, heavily armed, surface combatant whose full displacement is significantly in excess of 10,000 tons, but it is also producing this warship in a fast pace and this warship’s final production run will likely be in the double digits, while also forming the basis of future variants with more exotic power generation and weapons systems. Once the 055 class destroyers start entering service by the end of this decade and going into next decade, perceptions of the Chinese Navy’s capability will likely undergo a paradigm shift.
There are very few nations who are building or are expected to build modern surface combatants well in excess of 10,000 tons in any sort of significant number. In fact, at present, there is only one. Of course, the future is not guaranteed, and events may unfold which may cause the Chinese Navy to reduce the number of 055s they produce or change their naval doctrine.
But the prime role of large surface combatants in the public and media perception of a navy’s stature cannot be doubted, and while naval comparisons should never be bastardized to a comparison of size and number, the effect of the 055 class that is not only significantly larger than surface combatants of almost all global navies, and being produced in significant numbers, will elicit a psychological re-assessment of just what the Chinese Navy is and where it is headed.
There is only so much we can definitively claim with the information we have on the 055 class at present, however based on that information and the application of logic, it is enough to extrapolate a number of likely or virtually confirmed conclusions that have been listed above.
The 055 class will be launched in the coming week or even within a few days of this being written. Progressively clearer photos taken from the ground will emerge in subsequent hours, days and weeks in a strip-tease-esque manner that experienced PLA watchers have learnt to endure, and if we are lucky we may even receive prompt clear satellite photos of the first 055 as well to settle certain matters around its configuration.