In January 2014 China put two of its new Type 056 corvettes into service. That followed the commissioning of eight 056s in 2013. The first 056 entered service in February 2013 and twenty are being built in four shipyards. All will be in service by 2015. These ships appear to be playing a crucial role in Chinese efforts to seize control of the South China Sea. China has also exported the 056 to Thailand (as a specialized coastal patrol ship) and Bangladesh (as a more heavily armed “frigate”).
The Type 056s are 1,400 ton ships armed with four C-903 anti-ship missiles (200 kilometers range), a FL-3000N anti-aircraft missile (nine kilometers range) launcher (with eight missiles), two 30mm remotely controlled autocannon, six torpedo tubes and one 76mm gun. The ship has air and sea search radars plus sonar and a helicopter platform in the rear and is used mainly for offshore patrol. The ship is highly automated and has a crew of only 60.
The 056s are replacing an aging fleet of Type 053 class frigates. It was one of these ships (the Dongguan) that ran aground on a reef off the Philippines coast near Half Moon Shoal in 2011. This happened 111 kilometers from the Philippines (Palawan Island) and over 1,100 kilometers from the Chinese mainland. Letting a 2,400 ton warship (carrying a crew of 200) move around in these shallow and treacherous waters at night was asking for trouble. The waters west of the Philippines (including all the reefs, shoals, atolls, and islets claimed by China) are shallow and full of obstacles just under the water. Even shallow draft fishing boats proceed carefully and usually just in daylight. GPS and recent efforts to fully map (chart) the area have made it safer but only for those who proceed with care. China eventually got the Dongguan off the reef. A Type 056, which has a shallower draft and more modern navigation systems, would probably not have gone aground in the first place.
China recently upgraded the Dongguan and the other five Type 053H1G frigates, apparently in order keep them in service for another decade or more. Originally built in the 1990s, the six Type 053H1G ships were the last of 53 Type 053s built over about twenty years. Based on the older Russian Riga class frigate, the Chinese expanded the original 1,400 ton Riga (armed with depth charges, three 100mm guns, and torpedoes) design, to a missile laden 2,500 ton vessel equipped with modern electronics. The few Type 053s still in service are mainly used for coastal patrol. But the 053 design grew too large for this job, and the smaller Type 056 sets that right. The Type 056 is more Western than Russian in its design and demonstrates how mature Chinese warship design and manufacturing have become.