China Develops Aircraft Carrier Group Leader
A large hull under construction may be the vanguard of a carrierfleet escort.
China is determined to project power globally by developing homegrown aircraft carriers. After purchasing a surplus Soviet-era aircraft carrier from Russia, China now is striving to establish an indigenous assembly line for carriers and the ships that would constitute a carrier task group.
The Chinese training carrier Liaoning will be replaced by the first of several Chinese-designed aircraft warships. Western analysts have been quick to point out that a Chinese carrier task group requires accompanying cruisers or destroyers that can escort, screen and protect the high-value carrier from near and far threats. The latest 052C and 052D Aegis-type guided missile destroyers (DDGs) are approaching the desired ship type, but the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) sees the new U.S. DDG-1000 Zumwalt and Arleigh Burke Flight II classes as what it wants to emulate.
Chinese spies and hackers have been busy trying to get all the intelligence they can about the U.S. ships, according to many reports. The latest 12-ship 052D model has a Chinese-designed vertical launching system (VLS), gas turbines and active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. The new 10,000-ton-class surface battleship mentioned by PLAN chief Adm. Wu Shengli is designated Type 055, although it is too early in the development stages to be certain. A December 2014 photo claims to show the first 055 hull under construction at Jiangnan Shipyard, but it is suspect, Chinese bloggers say. The second hull will be built at Dalian shipyard. Hull width is around 19 meters and length is from 160 meters to 180 meters, larger than Type 052D and the U.S. Ticonderoga (CG-47) class. Tonnage figures on PLAN DDGs that have been operational for several years range from 7,000 tons to 10,000 tons on 052C, and China has never published the crew numbers. The Type 055 should be the first PLAN warship over 10,000 tons—possibly as high as 13,000 tons fully loaded—which is more cruiser size than destroyer.
Enough data exists to make a good estimate of what the Type 055 will be capable of and what new technologies it will capture. The old days of new PLAN warships using Russian and Western weapons, sensors and propulsion finally are coming to a close, even though many of the systems that are likely to be on the Type 055 were derived from foreign systems and/or designs. Self-sufficiency has been a major goal of the PLAN since its birth in 1949.
Producing reliable propulsion plants, whether diesel or gas turbine engines or electric motors, long has been a problem for China. Setting aside the various imports and copies in the 1950s and 1960s for smaller vessels and escort imitations, the French Pielstick diesel engine series and the acquisition of LM 2500 marine gas turbines from the United States for the 051 and 052 class DDGs are milestones in China gaining modern Western propulsion technology. Ukrainian DA-80 gas turbines were used on China’s 052B and 052C destroyers, but they had blade problems. The last two 052Cs, hulls 512 and 513 built at Jiangnan, sat pierside for more than two years without being accepted by the PLAN. During that time, the first next-generation 052D was launched in that same shipyard. DA-80 propulsion plant problems could have been a contributor to that. AVIC Aviation Engine Corporation, formerly Xi’an Aero-Engine PLC, combined experience in domestic gas turbines with the DA-80 and developed the 30-megawatt (MW) QC-280 shipborne gas turbine for the new 052D DDGs at Jiangnan Shipyard. After blade quality was improved and Ukrainian Zorya JSC technical assistance and parts were provided, the QC-280 units advanced.
The 055 and other large vessels such as the new aircraft carrier will use QC-280 gas turbine technology. This is a sea change for the PLAN. Since 1965, French S.E.M.T. Pielstick 12 PA6 diesel engines were the standard for PLAN warships. The 052 series of destroyers, however, all use license-produced Shaanxi Diesel Engine Works-manufactured MTU 20V 956TB92 diesel engines rated at 6 MW of power, which might be retained.
More recently, Chinese propulsion plants have been increasing in power and efficiency to produce better medium-size vessels than imported models to handle the new blue-water challenge of larger ships from destroyers, amphibious types and even aircraft carriers. Some Western contractors have aided this change. For example, Kongsberg Maritime and Danish ABB Limited are providing advanced power technology to longtime Chinese manufacturer Zhenjiang Marine Electrical Appliance.
As part of its efforts to boost its maritime production power, China is advancing its radars. Globally, many countries are working hard in the field of long-range radar technology. Even the United States is developing a replacement for the famous S-band AN/SPY-1 radar that has been the benchmark of long-range naval radars for several decades. Two revolutionary U.S. designs are competing for new-construction ships. The Gerald R. Ford nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and the Zumwalt DDG are getting the dual band radar (DBR), and Aegis Arleigh Burke Flight II is receiving the Air and Missile Defense Radar. The Raytheon S-band SPY-6(V) and X-band SPQ-9B are on Flight III Aegis DDGs. The Raytheon SPY-3 X-band multifunction radar is on the DDG 1000.
The S-band Type 346 copy of Aegis radar introduced on China’s 052C DDG in 2004 is upgraded to a new active phased array radar 346A on Type 055. The radar arrays are larger, with greater power, more sophisticated signal processing and longer range. The Type 348 radar supports the HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). China is tracking these parallel designs for its Type 346A AESA radar housed in a ship’s bridge. The DDG 51 class has had antiballistic missile (ABM) upgrades in its Aegis Weapon System (AWS). The DDG 1000 is replacing the AWS with a new total ship computing environment that does not include ABM features.
China has continued to rely on Soviet-era P-band Yagi antennas on the Type 517H 2D air search radars, placed aft on 052 series DDGs for anti-stealth purposes and possibly topside weight concerns. The 055 reportedly has a mechanically rotating planar L-band 3D for anti-stealth purposes, similar to French/Italian Thales/Solex 51850M SMART-L radars on recent Horizon and Type 45 destroyers. The 055 anti-stealth radar designation is possibly Type 518. The transfer of an L-band stealth track to the weapon-linked 346A may be difficult.
China has learned the lesson of Western electromagnetic interference (EMI) tragedies, such as the sinking of the HMS Sheffield by an Argentine Exocet missile off the Falkland Islands because its electronic support measures (ESM) system was switched off to allow satellite communications. At Wuhan, more than 750 miles inland, China has a long building housing the Institute 701 Chinese Warship Research and Design Center, similar to U.S., U.K. and French electronic integration facilities. In mid-2014, the original mast was removed and placed adjacent to the Liaoning bridge and flight deck mock-up built on the roof. A mock-up of the Type 055 bridge and main deck was constructed during 2014 and 2015 for EMI testing. On the center’s roof is a mock-up of the 055 deck from just forward of the 130-millimeter gun to part of the helicopter landing pad aft. In April, a model of the new integrated radar, communications and electronic countermeasures (ECM) X-band sensor mast that would sit atop the bridge housing the ammunition, explosives and dangerous articles (AEDA) was added alongside the 055 hull.
The carrier bridge and flight deck built at Wuhan for Liaoning in 2009 can provide an estimate of when construction will begin on the Type 055. The time from the fabrication of the Liaoning flight deck and superstructure on the 701 institute roof until commissioning of the carrier was about two years.
When the 055 finally is built and launched, China will have an advantage because its naval missiles outrange those of the West. The range of the 055’s YJ-18 anti-ship cruise missile is 220 kilometers, or about 140 miles. It has a cruising speed of Mach 0.8 and a terminal speed of Mach 2.5 for the last 40 kilometers. By comparison, the U.S. RGM-84D Harpoon ASM has a 149-kilometer (93-mile) range and Mach 0.85 speed.
The new YJ-100 cruise missile claimed by some to be on Type 055 never has been developed, but China is adding new missiles to other vessels. China’s area defense anti-air missile HQ-9A on 052 class ships is being augmented by the new 24-cell HHQ-10 point defense SAMs. Still, the SM-2 SAM on U.S. DDGs outranges the HQ-9A. The latest U.S. Block IV Tomahawk land attack missile with a 1,300-kilometer range is emulated in the CJ-10 land attack cruise missile. With a range exceeding 1,500 kilometers and a similar inertial navigation system, its terrain contour features were developed 35 years earlier in the Tomahawk. The CJ-10 has evolved from earlier DH-10 and HN-2 air and shore systems.
VLS also is evolving. The original Chinese VLS was modeled after the Russian S-300F/SA-N-6, with eight cells in a circular pattern and cold launch pop-up missiles from cells directly below. The U.S. Navy’s MK 41 VLS is a hot-launch system—the missile’s booster ignites below decks and has vents for the flames. The Chinese HQ-9 looked similar but differed by having its six cells rotate like a revolver to fire from one cell below. The 32-cell, rectangular module design, like the MK 41 VLS design, appeared a few years ago on the 054 frigate. The 052D DDG had 64-tube VLS cells, and the 055 is estimated to have 122 to 128 cells total in forward and aft VLS modules. The DDG 1000 and Flight II have 80 and 96 VLS cells, respectively.
Usually, China is secretive about the details of its new weapon designs, but its new “universal” VLS design—which likely is on the Type 055—was revealed in an open literature “national military standard” Guo-jia Jun-yong Biao-zhun (GJB) 5860-2006. It is more versatile than prior VLS designs, with three 9-, 7- or 3.3-meter cells. Cell diameter is 850 millimeters with a provision for multiple quad-pack missiles, and can accommodate both cold- and hot-launch missiles as it uses concentric canister launch technology similar to the Mk 57 peripheral VLS on the Zumwalt class. The long cell can hold the DH-10 land attack cruise missile.
Western observers were surprised when China replaced the new PJ-87 100-millimeter gun on the Type 052 series DDGs with a special project PJ-38 130-millimeter gun resembling the Russian AK-192 gun on the new Russian 22350 Gorshkov-class frigate. The PJ-87 gun had jamming problems, and the new Russian AK-192, from which the PJ-38 was copied, is advertised to fire ballistic or guided missile rounds like the 155-millimeter advanced gun system (AGS) on the Zumwalt. China did not want to have a main battery that was less capable than the Zumwalt’s, but the AGS range of 180 nautical miles reportedly is much longer than the PJ-38’s.
Antisubmarine sensors anticipated on the 055 include medium-frequency and high-frequency bow sonars and two towed body sensors, one an active low-frequency source and the other a passive receiving sensor for long-range detection and tracking. The alleged new generation WHH004 antisubmarine weapon launcher is an enigma, based on trade show pictures of a 400-millimeter shore-based system that does not exist yet. The universal VLS can accommodate an antisubmarine weapon, but there is no evidence that an antisubmarine rocket (ASROC) even has been tested. Illustrations of the seven 055 VLS payloads list YU-8 as the ASW missile. The “YU” is a torpedo designation, not including a rocket motor and associated airframe separation assembly required by ASROC. A YU-2 torpedo rocket displayed in Beijing is a copy of the Russian airdropped RAT-52 that was cancelled in 1962.
Most reports about Type 055 do not mention combat direction systems, but one institute is known to have such equipment on the 052D, and it is reasonable to expect more advanced and capable versions for the 055. The Jiangsu
Automation Research Institute (JARI) installed the Jiangsu Research Combat Control System (JRSCCS) with five workstations on an Ethernet local area network with a video bus. This fairly simple architecture, designated OFC-3/IR-17, would be greatly expanded for the added requirements of 055, but it provides insight on the organization likely to be involved. Russian assistance is hinted at in another Chinese Web page with a combat data system illustration that has 12 workstations and combat system blocks on an Ethernet named “Meridian” in Cyrillic.
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.