China Employs Ships As Weapon Test Platforms
A handful of designs serves to validate indigenous and reverse-engineered technologies.
The People’s Republic of China has been introducing diverse new classes of ships into its navy for decades, but it also has employed some as vessels for weapons trials. Three ships distinctly have served as test platforms for many of the new technologies that entered service with the People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN. An examination of these trial ships can illustrate the next generation of technologies about to be incorporated in the navy.
The first nominal weapon trial ship was the 1,200-ton Yanxi class AGE hull 701 Hsun, built in Shanghai in 1970. It carried no systems other than anti-aircraft guns and radars, but it did support Soviet Styx surface-to-surface missile (SSM) launch and recovery during tests.
In March 1997, the Zhonghua Shipyard in Shanghai launched the 6,000-ton Dahua class ship Shiyan for testing modern naval weapon systems. The ship, hull 970 (experimental), initially was hull 909, which was built as a weapon range test ship. It deployed to the South China Sea test range in January 1998. The trial equipment tested included electronic countermeasures (ECM), a prototype vertical launching system on the bow and several copies of the Russian MR-90 Front Dome fire control radar to illuminate air targets. The 970 operated off of Japan in February 2000 as an electronic intelligence (ELINT) ship prior to PLAN East China Sea exercises.
The lead Dahua class ship frequently changed hull numbers. Launched as 909, the hull number was changed to 970 by the time of its completion in August 1997. The hull number was changed again to 891 as a weapon trial ship in October 2002. China’s changing of ship hull numbers and even names makes determining the actual history of one particular hull difficult, which certainly is a reason for this practice.
After its was converted to 891 in Wuhu shipyard, the ship—a Western designation was Wuhu-B—served as an at-sea training platform with spaces enlarged to provide training class rooms as well as its intelligence collection duties. The ship is 6,000 tons fully loaded, with a speed of 20 knots, and 130 meters in length with a crew of 80. It had several antenna platforms that were empty, but her new trials role would change that.
The ship originally had a 3-D Sea Eagle S/C radar aft and Type 360/S Seagull-S radar forward. The 891 ship was the sea prototype host for the active electronically steered Type 456 phased array radar in the early 2000 time frame; it had exposed water cooling pipes that would not be visible on the production model on the 052C. The radar had a convex curved outer protective cover rather than the flat array faces on Russian or U.S. Aegis. The Nanjing Radar Institute is credited with its development. The Type 456 is a C-band system different than other X-band radars such as from the Ukrainian Kvant Bureau. It would appear in Jiangnan Shipyard three years later on the impressive Type 052C warships.
In 2008, three Front Dome illuminator radomes appeared for testing. Initial vertical launch systems (VLSs) on the 052C had HHQ-9 six-round cells that did not rotate, contrary to Soviet design practice. The Chinese fired numerous HHQ-9 rounds from the module on the bow of 891 in 2006-2007. Later the ship was fitted with an HHQ-16 launcher with rectangular module cover cell VLS installed forward with its associated MR-90 tracking radars. It appeared very similar to the U.S. Navy MK 41 VLS rectangular module cells and, like the MK 41, it employed hot launch. This ultimately would be featured in the very successful 054A Jiangkai II series production frigates in 2005.
The increased priority for indigenous development of sensors and weapons for new classes of warships in the early 2000 time frame required a dedicated hull for ship-at-sea testing. Two missile tracking radars were removed and replaced by three MR-90 radomes. Although designations and descriptions are unknown, the large 30-foot and 20-foot diameter spheres probably were a satellite communications system and prototypes of the Soviet SR-64 search, track and target designation radar known as Seagull. The VLS on the bow was replaced by a new concentric model hot/cold launch version destined for the new 052D destroyer in 2012.
In July 2012 new photos of the 891 were released. Its old convex 052C radar on the bridge has been replaced with a new flat-faced active electronically steered array radar. This would go on the next-generation Type 052D. There are no external water cooling pipes visible as in the earlier prototype version.
The Hudong-Zhonghua Shipyard launched a Dahua class large research ship. The second new construction weapon trials platform ship, the Hua Luogeng, was commissioned in August 2005. It was built specifically because the 891 hull could not handle all the testing for the increased number of new weapons/sensors.
In October 2008, a new mechanically trained planar array radar was installed that looks like the HK-CL continuous wave (CW) precision measurement radar shown at prior international show displays. It features two large 22-foot-long rectangular array panels that are separated by a 5-foot gap. An X-band solid-state active phased array radar, it can track four separate targets out to 112 kilometers with one band and out to 92 kilometers with dual band.
An interrupted CW scan would enable tracking multiple targets using time sharing illuminators. Its elevation coverage is from minus 3 degrees to 93 degrees, and it covers 360 degrees in azimuth with accuracy of 0.45 meter/radian for each. It appears to have different frequencies or pulse repetition frequency for complex scanning, including height determination.
Another new weapon on the bow was a 24-cell HHQ-10, which is the indigenous version of the export FL-3000N rolling airframe missile (RAM) first seen at the 2008 Zhuhai Air Show. Two years later, another version of the HHQ-10 with 18 cells was mounted on a helicopter deck on the stern of the 892. The 18-cell HHQ-10 also was installed on the carrier Liaoning in 2011. A third smaller version with only eight cells would appear on the Type 056 corvette in 2012. A fourth 15-cell version was shown at the Zhuhai 2012 airshow.
The O-1 level aft has a huge 20-foot-diameter satellite antenna radome. One can speculate about which new class warship will feature this, or which existing ships will backfit it in future refits. There is a large platform raised about six feet on the helicopter flight deck aft which appeared to be a landing deck for tests with new helicopter or unmanned aerial vehicle design launches. The second HHQ-10 RAM was mounted on it later. The aft mast structure has an unidentified small planar array antenna, possibly for target designation on a new ship.
In August 2012 photos were released showing a large DH-10 land attack cruise missile (LACM) cell installed just aft of the bridge. This missile has been deployed on land as part of the Army Second Artillery Corps. The first missile brigade was based in Yunnan Province. Having the DH-10 on a ship is similar to the U.S. Navy Tomahawk missions that have been very successful. The DH-10 range of 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) compares to the Extended-Range Block 3 Tomahawk range of 1,000 miles. The DH-10 is estimated to have about a 25 percent larger diameter than the Tomahawk, which would make it a problem to fit into an HQ-6 or HQ-9 VLS launcher.
The trial ship 893 recently was commissioned in November 2011, which was unexpected as there already were two ships filling this unique requirement. No other navy has required three different weapon trial vessels. It is possible that the three test ships allow each of the three fleets to have their own trial ship for their unique mission needs. For example, the North Sea Fleet usually features air defense systems facing Japan and Russia. The South Sea Fleet has South China Sea island and Indian Ocean sea lines of communication protection roles.
The 893 has a raised bow breakwater to reduce water over the bow and a never-before-seen 30-foot-tall, 3-foot-diameter satellite communications antenna on the forecastle. The ship has an enclosed foremast instead of the latticework mast structures found on prior vessels. The foremast’s three yardarms feature new paired round flat-faced antennas that look similar to electronic support measures (ESM) jammers, but their exact function is unknown. Several new radomes seem designed for satellite communication and targeting links, probably UHF or Ku band.
Although usually covered, a gun aft of the bridge on AO 885 appears to be a new H/PJ15 remote control 30-millimeter gun. A large articulated crane is on the stern aft of the helicopter deck. It is manufactured by the South China Marine Machinery Plant (SCM) in Wuzhou, China. A previous sea survey ship had an 8-ton-capacity crane with a 15-meter reach radius. The characters 53-11M on the crane could indicate 53-ton capacity with 11-meter radius on this crane. If fully extended, it would reach several feet aft beyond the stern. Its purpose could be to deploy remote autonomous water vehicles for testing. It is not a towed surveillance array handling system.
Observation of the experimental equipment on 893 should provide insight to next-generation PLAN warship sensors and weapons. Based on the choice to go into series production of the successful 052C Aegis design, the logical systems to be expected would be the next-generation Aegis design. A next-generation 052D recently has appeared in Western literature and blogs. The long-range phased array air defense radar and new VLS already have been installed on 891 and 892. New data links required to track and coordinate the battle group have not been seen on the 893 yet.
The obvious benefit of studying the technologies that appear on 891-893 is to preview next-generation systems. The anomaly of finding systems installed after they already have been on active warships points to another benefit. When China copies imported systems, it needs to test these reverse- engineered models, and that would be done on 891-893. This reveals which foreign systems have been copied, or reverse engineered, that require at-sea testing. For example, the imported Russian radars usually have slight but discernible physical differences in the antenna structure or identification friend-or-foe from the Chinese copies.
One difficulty is to determine which type of equipment is inside the radomes or spheres. They can be ECM or ESM, or satellite communications or navigation, or fire control track, for example. Even if the functions were known, the multiple antennas inside one radome may be unknown on several systems. An exception is the Bandstand (Russian Mineral-ME) with an I-band active radar and multiband (I,G, E/F and D) passive radar and mutual data exchange and orientation I-band radar. This type of detailed information is available from Russian export brochures, not from Chinese sources.
Although the three Chinese naval weapon test platforms reflect their pace of copied or new development systems, the USS Norton Sound (AVM-1) with its Aegis radar, NTDS and coordinated multiship integration sets a hallmark of achievement that may never be equaled by any navy. The 84 Aegis radar destroyers, cruisers and foreign military sales ships including ballistic missile defense are a naval revolution of worldwide impact.
China’s advanced AESA radar and probable “universal VLS” would provide the 052D with technology equal to the U.S. Navy DDG-1000 Zumwalt class still being built. The Zumwalt has a MK 57 hot/cold VLS with large and small cells. The 891 was the trial ship for testing a hot/cold VLS launcher. The lead 052D was launched in August 2012.
The DH-10 LACM is in a topside launcher cell on 892, which could be backfitted to destroyers without the universal VLS. This is supported by a September 3, 2012, article in China Military News that states that “this standard has been applied to the 052D missile destroyer,” which indicates that the DH-10 would be in the universal VLS and not topside. The pace of the Chinese naval combat system new designs is obvious when they need three vessels dedicated to this task.
James C. Bussert, employed at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia, is the co-author of “Peoples 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.