April 23, 2013: The escort group for China’s first aircraft carrier (the Liaoning) is being formed. It currently consists of two Type 051C destroyers and two Type 054A frigates plus a supply ship. It is similar to what the U.S. has long used, which is currently 3-4 destroyers, 1-2 frigates, an SSN (nuclear submarine), and a supply ship. Chinese SSNs are few and not very good, which is why China probably has not assigned one to their escort group.
The Type 51C is a 7,100 ton destroyer, optimized for anti-aircraft defense. It carries 48 Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles (range 150 kilometers) in vertical launch tubes, plus eight C-803 anti-ship missiles (range 300 kilometers), one 100mm gun, two 30mm anti-missile autocannon, six torpedo tubes, and a helicopter. It has a crew of 290 and a top speed of 48 kilometers an hour.
The Type 54A frigate is a 4,300 ton ship with a top speed of 49 kilometers an hour. The crew of 165 operates a 76mm cannon, two 30mm multi-barrel anti-missile autocannon, eight C-803 anti-ship missiles, six anti-submarine torpedoes, 12 240mm anti-submarine rockets, 32 vertical launch cells containing anti-aircraft or anti-submarine missiles, and a helicopter. For both ships the radars, sonar, and electronics are all Chinese made.
As Japanese and South Korea have done, China appears to be following the American lead in destroyer design. The principal American destroyer is currently the Burke class. This is a design that is the culmination of over half a century of World War II and Cold War destroyer design experience. Even after the Burke was designed, in the 1980s, the design evolved. The first Burkes were 8,300 ton ships, while the latest ones, laden with more gear and smaller crews, are 10,000 ton ships (what heavy cruisers weighed in World War II). With a top speed of nearly 50 kilometers an hour, their main armament is 90 vertical launch tubes flush with the deck that can contain anti-aircraft, anti-ship, anti-missile, or cruise missiles. There is also a 127mm (5 inch) gun, two 20mm anti-missile autocannon, six torpedo tubes, and two helicopters. The Burkes were well thought out, sturdy, and they got the job done. They became irreplaceable, and thus this class of warships will last more than half a century.
China is using its new Type 903 replenishment ships for its most important missions. The first of these 23,000 tons tanker/cargo ships appeared in 2004. The replenishment ship provides fuel, water, food, and other supplies to the task force it supports. The replenishment ship would go to local ports to restock its depleted stores of fuel, water, food, and other necessities.
The Type 903 is similar to the twelve American T-AKE replenishment ships in service. These 40,000 ton ships service a much larger fleet than the four Chinese Type 903s and are part of a larger number of replenishment ships the United States uses. China needs more replenishment ships now because it is more frequently sending warships long distances, not just to the Somali coast but also far into the Pacific.
The Liaoning is a 65,000 ton ship that had spent over a year on sea trials and began operating jets from its flight deck six months ago. China has stated that the Liaoning will primarily be a training carrier. The Chinese apparently plan to station up to 24 jet fighters and 26 helicopters on the Liaoning and use the ship to train pilots and other specialists for four or more additional carriers that are to be built. The new escort group will enable escort ships to practice operating with a carrier.