China is adopting a multitier shipborne weapon system approach that flies in the face of the approach usually taken by modern navies. Instead of building a single design for weapons systems that is adapted for different ships, the Chinese Navy has developed specialized systems that perform similar functions on different-sized vessels.
Traditionally, nations that sell naval weapon systems field a given design applicable to a wide variety of ships. For the U.S. Navy, the Mk 41 vertical launching system (VLS) has been the standard missile launcher for U.S. surface combatants and for foreign military sales. Originally, three sizes of Mk 41 modules were developed: the large “strike” size—commonly referred to by the overall designation Mk 41—that holds Tomahawk cruise missiles installed on cruisers and destroyers; a middle “tactical” size; and a “self-defense” quad pack for foreign customers with smaller ships.
In addition to these three types, four variants of the topside shorter-celled Mk 48 VLS have been exported to six foreign navies but are not used by the U.S. Navy. The six-barrel 20-millimeter Phalanx Gatling gun close-in weapon system (CIWS) is fitted to a majority of U.S. Navy ships and is exported widely to allied nations. A third defensive system is the multinational Mk 116 rolling airframe missile (RAM) design, which is deployed in the Mk 49 21-cell launchers used by six nations, including the U.S. Navy. A smaller SeaRAM with an 11-cell launcher in a Phalanx frame is replacing the 20-millimeter Gatling gun.
Recently, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) not only developed its own versions of VLS, CIWS and RAM, but it also has fielded three different versions of each. This hints at a unique multitier weapon system design philosophy. No other nation has expended the monetary and engineering resources to field three different variations of a given weapon system for one service. Nor can most other nations afford to do so, considering the monetary, development and production costs. And, logistical support and training costs must be considered as well.
The RAM point-defense missile is the most obvious and least complicated example of shipborne standardization. The original RAM design has been developed jointly by the United States and Germany since 1976. The Block 0 RAM missile is 2.8 meters long, uses radio frequency (RF) midcourse guidance and infrared (IR) terminal engagement and has a 9-kilometer range.
A Chinese copy was introduced at the 2008 Zhuhai Airshow with the export missile designation FL-3000N. The PLAN designation is HHQ-10. The Chinese missile launcher designation HQ stands for Hong Qi, which means Red Flag. Naval launchers are “H” for Hai, for naval, or HHQ, which means Naval Red Flag. The HHQ-10 has RF midcourse guidance and passive IR terminal guidance. Both missiles have two RF horns protruding from the nose. The advertised statistics were a 9-kilometer range versus subsonic targets; a 6-kilometer range versus supersonic targets; and a minimum range of 500 meters with a missile speed of Mach 2.5.
The FL 3000N was only 2 meters in length. The shorter missile would have less room for its rocket, which could mean less range than the RIM 116. This is supported by the FL-2000 missile shown at the 2003 Paris airshow, which had a minimum range of 800 meters and maximum range of 8 kilometers. Minimum altitude was 4 meters and maximum altitude was 8 kilometers. These figures are different from the FL-3000N.
The first Chinese HHQ-10 design appeared on the weapon trial ship 892 in 2010, and it had 24 cells. Another 18-cell version of the HHQ-10 appeared on the carrier Varyag in 2011, which was renamed Liaoning upon commissioning in September 2012. A third launcher variant with only eight cells appeared on the new Type 056 corvette design at Huang Shipyard in 2012.
Rather than have a standard HHQ-10 launcher design for all vessels, China developed three different designs for different-sized vessels. Although it conflicts with the three-level concept, the fact that a fourth HHQ-10 launcher with 15 cells appeared in January 2012 at the Zhuhai Airshow in China only makes an even stronger case for four Chinese multiple weapon variations. Whereas the first three RAM versions each had a unique base platform for the missile cells, the 15-cell launcher shares the same base foundation as the eight-cell RAM. It would be possible for the 15- and 18-cell designs to share foundations, but the newer eight-cell design must be superior to the earlier 18- or 24-cell designs.
The first two Chinese Gatling CIWS clearly were copies of Russian and Dutch designs. The Chinese copy of the Soviet seven-barrel 30-millimeter AK-630 first appeared on the Type 054 frigate in 2003 and subsequently on the Type 022 guided missile patrol boat and the Type 071 amphibious assault ship. China modified the Dutch Goalkeeper CIWS for the 052B, 052C and 051C destroyers and designated it as H/PJ-12, or Type 730 in the West.
The Goalkeeper CIWS utilized the U.S. 30-millimeter GAU-8 Gatling gun. Dutch designers evidently preferred the 30-millimeter gun over the 20-millimeter Phalanx gun. Chinese engineers increased the Goalkeeper firing rate from 4,200 rounds per minute (RPM) to 4,600-5,800 RPM and replaced the Dutch tracking and search radars with their Type EFR-1 radar and OFC-1 electro-optic director. These two versions would seem sufficient to meet all PLAN CIWS needs, but a surprise came when a Type 1130 CIWS with 11 rotating barrels appeared on the Liaoning carrier in 2012. It has a noticeably bulkier chassis to handle the stresses of an increased firing rate of 9,000 to 10,000 RPM.
So, three different CIWS designs are being produced and fielded on ships. By contrast, the U.S. Navy has retained the lighter 20-millimeter Phalanx design for 20 years, with performance upgrades. It is possible that the AK630 and Type 730 CIWS would not have a heavier Type 1130 added if the high-value carrier had not required maximum protection from the numerous air-to-surface and surface-to-surface missiles it would need to counter. It also is possible the PLAN approach is not an intended Chinese three-level design, but just a result of imports—except for the spectacular 11-barrel version, which was a planned Chinese project.
Two Chinese VLS designs currently are designated HHQ-9 on the 052C and HHQ-16 on the 054A frigate. This does not include the Russian SA-N-20 VLS on the two 051C Luzhou air defense destroyers for the North Fleet. Western experts expected the Chinese VLS to be a clone of Soviet and/or U.S. existing fielded launchers. At first glance it would appear China copied the Soviet circular eight-cell S-300 launcher. Yet the HHQ-9 does not rotate below deck cells with only one hatch, but instead has separate hatches that open above each of the six cells, such as in the Mk 41. However, unlike the Mk 41, the HHQ-9 is cold-launched, as is the Russian S-300 missile after which it is modeled. So the HHQ-9 VLS is a unique Chinese adaptation of the Russian design.
The HHQ-16 that appeared on the upgraded 054 frigates designated 054A has rectangular-shaped VLS modules and hatches, and it very much resembles the U.S. Mk 41. The HHQ-16 essentially is a vertically launched version of the SA-N-7B with a 50-kilometer range that uses the associated copy of the Russian MR-90 tracking radar. The third example is still in design, and conflicting reports exist about which ship will be the first to have the new Chinese “universal” VLS launcher installed.
The launcher may have been tested on test ship 891 and installed on the Type 052D guided missile destroyer (DDG). This approach is complicated by Soviet VLS designs that, along with the American Mk 41 VLS design, have a major impact on the Chinese VLS designs.
While China is very secretive about its new weapon system details, open literature known as Guo-jia Jun-yong Biao-zhun (GJB), which translates to “National Military Standard,” gives indications of technology directions. These military standards usually focus on common hull, mechanical and electric topics, but GJB 5860-2006 describes a very interesting subject. The title of this specification is “surface ship missile universal vertical launcher general requirements.” It states the VLS will launch four different types of missiles: anti-aircraft, anti-surface-ship, antisubmarine and land attack cruise missiles. Additionally, the VLS can handle three sizes of launch cells.
The cell length or depth is up to 9 meters (29.5 feet) for large missiles, up to 7 meters (22.9 feet) for medium size and up to 3.3 meters (10.8 feet) in length for small missiles. The eight compartments or cells each can hold a single missile, although a requirement also exists for the smaller cell to hold up to four missiles, such as the U.S. Navy’s quad pack arrangement for the Evolved Sea Sparrow missile. The size of each launch cell is 850 millimeters square (33.45 inches square).
The universal VLS can cold launch missiles, such as the HHQ-9, but it also can hot launch missiles such as the HHQ-16. However, unlike the Mk 41-type VLS on the Type 054A frigate that has visible exhaust vents between the launch cell rows, the universal VLS employs a concentric canister launch approach with exhaust vent paths within each launch cell.
The universal VLS on 052D, which was just launched in October 2012, may contain the DH-10 anti-carrier missile rather than the topside two cell launcher tubes on deck as on test ship 892. The two-cell launcher could be a backfit to the 052C series. Jane’s Strategic Weapon Systems 2010 describes the DH-10 diameter as 0.75 meters (29.5 inches) and length as 7.2 meters (23.6 feet), which is different from Chinese websites that list a 0.68 meter diameter and length of 8.3 meters. These dimensions probably include the booster. Either set of dimensions should fit in the large cell with room to spare. Some room in the cell must be allowed for the hot rocket exhaust vent to channel rocket flame out the top.
One key fact about this Chinese universal VLS launcher is its similarity to the new U.S. Mk 57 peripheral VLS currently being introduced on the U.S. Navy’s DDG 1000 Zumwalt class. Both have hot and cold launch capable cells, but the Mk 57 does not have three different module depths. All Mk 57 modules are 14.2 feet deep (4.3 meters), with module width of 7.25 feet (2.2 meters) and canister length of 283 inches (7.19 meters) and canister width of 28 inches (711 millimeters).
Compared with the Mk 57 VLS, the Chinese universal VLS can launch much larger diameter and longer missiles. The GJB on the Chinese VLS was published in 2006 while the Mk 57 still was in development. The design timelines basically are in parallel, as are the first ship install milestones. So, the prior five or more year lag from Chinese to Western new weapon designs no longer exists for VLS.
No indication exists yet of a formal PLAN doctrine advocating three levels of a given weapon system. Also, China might have copied the three-size U.S. Mk 41 design just for the PLAN and not for export. Yet, other navies do not support such a duplicative weapon design policy across weapon lines unique to the Chinese navy.
James C. Bussert, employed at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia, is the co-author of “People’s Liberation Army Navy Combat Systems Technology, 1949-2010.” The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Defense Department or the U.S. Navy.