A Type 052C Luyang II-class destroyer

By Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson

Now that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has commissioned its first aircraft carrier and may be looking to assemble one or more carrier groups over time, what about the rest of the fleet?

One development that carries broad implications for the enhancement of Chinese sea power is the recent launch of the first editions of the new 6,000-ton Type 052D Luyang III-class destroyer, which marks a new stage in the PLAN’s prolonged period of experimentation with different destroyers.

The Type 052D represents an evolution of the existing Type 052C Luyang II-class destroyer. The latter are now in mass production, with 8 hulls in service, the first commissioned in 2004. At least six 052Cs have been launched since the end of 2010, according to Chinese media reports, of which two are reportedly in service at present. Beijing appears to have decided that the Type 052 series, a rough analog of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers that form the backbone of the U.S. Navy, is the latest class of warship whose design is good enough to justify large-scale production.

While China mass-produced lower-quality Romeo- (Type 033) and Ming-class (Type 035) submarines and Jianghu-class (Type 053) frigates in an earlier era, today’s large-scale warship production meets much higher standards and is geared primarily to replacing older vessels entering mass obsolescence rather than expanding the fleet numerically. That said, it is well within China’s shipbuilding capabilities to both boost the quality of the fleet and boost its numerical strength, should the country’s leadership decide to do so.

If China fielded 10-15 advanced destroyers like the Type 052D, it would, holding other numbers constant, become the second-largest surface combat force in the Asia-Pacific region after the U.S. Navy. Given the rapid ramp-up of Type 052C production in the past several years, we think the prospect of similar mass production of the Type 052D is quite possible. As a mass-produced vessel class, the Type 052D may now be joining China’s 60+ Houbei-class (Type 022) missile catamarans, 16-19 Jiangkai II-class (Type 054A) air defense frigates, 13 Song-class (Type 039) and 8-9 Yuan-class (Type 041) conventional submarines, and 3 Yuzhao-class (Type 071) amphibious assault ships.

Why mass production of the Type 052D matters strategically

The Type 052D’s emergence suggests that China’s naval shipbuilding capability is maturing further, with China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) ‘s new shipyardon Shanghai’s Changxing Island becoming a capable facility for constructing modern surface combatants. It offers further evidence that China can produce warships quickly using modular construction techniques and perhaps other advantages such as lower cost labor than its competitors can access. Series production tends to reduce unit costs because shipyard workers and suppliers find ways to increase efficiency as they spend significant time and energy on the same tasks and improve their operational practices.

Analysis by RAND ( pdf) demonstrates that doubling the procurement rate of warships in the U.S. decreased unit costs by 10%. Given that Chinese shipbuilders are still building up their modern naval construction industrial base, the efficiency gains in China are likely to be larger as domestic efficiency increases and Chinese manufacturers displace foreign parts that may cost more.

The modular construction capabilities now on display in CSSC’s yards took time to develop, but now China’s warship builders are creating a wide and deep base of expertise in the area. CSSC has been employing such techniques on the Jiangkai series frigates, the first hull of which was commissioned in 2005, as well as the Type 052C and now the Type 052D. This shows that at least three different Chinese shipyards are now able to mass produce advanced surface combatants, which demonstrates that China’s military shipbuilding institutions are clearly becoming “learning organizations.”

The 052D differs significantly from its predecessor the Type 052C in several important ways. It has a completely different type of vertical launch system (“VLS”), with missile canisters instead of what look like revolvers; a different gun system; and what appear to be bigger phased-array radar faces. The VLS system is potentially the biggest development. The 052C’s likely complement of 64 VLS tubes with a more advanced surface-to-air missile (“SAM”) will offer strong area air defense capability, which can enhance the combat effectiveness of other PLAN surface ships and submarines by protecting them from enemy strike and anti-submarine warfare aircraft.

Meanwhile, China’s long-established cruise missile industry is producing a wide range of extremely capable anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs). China’s record to date of developing advanced ASCMs gives every reason to believe that new variants of even greater capability will continue to emerge and be outfitted on PLAN vessels like the Type 052D.

Strategic questions moving forward

A host of important questions remain regarding the Type 052D, the answers to which would help military planners and policymakers outside of China better understand the impact that the ship is likely to have. The answers to many of these questions–for instance, how good shipboard electronics systems are and how well crews can use their ship to fight modern battles–will become clearer over time as the PLAN makes decisions regarding operational approaches and training intensity and more Chinese sailors gain experience through both tours in the Gulf of Aden and exercises closer to home.

The Type 052D appears to be a very modern warship that, with continued improvements in China’s maritime surveillance and targeting infrastructure and more intensive training of crews, can help make the PLA Navy even more formidable throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Regional neighbors such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea are likely to respond by augmenting their ownnavies and reaffirming diplomatic and security ties with the U.S.

Andrew Erickson is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and a research associate at Harvard’s Fairbank Center. Co-founder of China SignPost, he blogs at www.andrewerickson.com.

Gabe Collins is co-founder of China SignPost, founder of ChinaOilTrader.com and is a J.D. candidate at the University of Michigan Law School.

(c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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