China launched the first of four Type 055 destroyers at the end of June. This was not unexpected because evidence of such a ship (Internet photos of ship mockups for training and chatter) began showing up in early 2015. Back then it appeared that this new (Type 055) 12,000 ton cruiser class ship would have 128 VLS (vertical launch system) tubes and much else besides. China claimed this ship would be the equivalent of a U.S. Burke class destroyer. The Type 055 would be, and now is, the largest surface combat ship China has ever built. Before 2015 the new Chinese Type 052 destroyers were described as similar to the Burkes but in reality the Type 052s were “Burke Lite” while the Type 055 is much closer to the Burkes in capabilities and, at least on paper, surpasses the American ships in some ways. The first Type 055 won’t enter service until early 2018 and the sea trials will be closely watched by foreign navies. This is usually very revealing about what works and what doesn’t. The Chinese have, so far, been quite persistent in fixing flaws discovered during sea trials and regular operations and that makes the new Chinese ship designs rather more frightening.
The development of Chinese destroyer design since the 1990s is a good example of how this works. In 2013 the first of the Chinese Type 052D destroyers was seen on sea trials in the East China Sea. This design appeared very similar to the American Aegis equipped destroyers (especially the Burke Class). Three versions of the Type 052 destroyer had, since 2001, advanced Chinese destroyer design considerably and China now has ships similar in capabilities to the 8,300 ton American Arleigh Burke class destroyers. This is currently the principal American destroyer with 66 in service, three more under construction and at least nine more planned. The first Burke entered service in 1991.
Burke design is the culmination of over half a century of World War II and Cold War destroyer 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. This is what heavy cruisers weighed in World War II. With a top speed of nearly 50 kilometers an hour, Burkes have a main armament of 90 VLS 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, 6 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 likes the sound of that and is trying to match the Burkes and proceeding in that direction one destroyer design at a time.
Since 2003 two Type 052B and six Type 052C destroyers have entered service. These ships appear to have been part of a deliberate effort to develop something similar to the U.S. Burkes. Now five 052Ds is in service, five are building and at least eight more are planned. These appear to be 7,500 ton ships armed with 64 American style (hot launch) VLS tubes for anti-aircraft (HQ-9), cruise, or anti-ship missiles. There is a single 130mm gun, six torpedo tubes (for submarines), and two 30mm autocannon for anti-missile defense. There is also a helicopter hanger and landing platform.
The older (2004) Type 052B Guangzhou Class Destroyers are 5,900 ton general purpose ships (with anti-ship/submarine/aircraft capabilities). Armament consists of 48 HQ-16 anti-aircraft missiles (range 30 kilometers) and 16 C-802 anti-ship missiles (range 120 kilometers). There is a single 100mm gun and two 30mm autocannon, for anti-missile defense. There is also one helicopter.
Type 052C Lanzhou Class Destroyers are 7,100 ton ships that first appeared in 2005. These ships use cold launch VLS (Vertical Launch System) tubes. There are 48 HQ-9 anti-aircraft missiles. There are also eight C-602 anti-ship missiles, in two four-cell launchers. There is a single 100mm gun and two 30mm autocannon for anti-missile defense. There is also a helicopter. These ships are mainly for air defense and use a phased array radar similar to the American Aegis system.
Around the same time two Type 051C destroyers appeared. About the same size and displacement as the 052Cs but did not use the Western VLS system. The 051Cs were the first ships with an Aegis type radar and carried 48 Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, and eight anti-ship cruise missiles that could also be used for land attack. There is a single 100mm gun and two 30mm autocannon for anti-missile defense plus six torpedo tubes and a helicopter pad (but no hanger).
All these new destroyer designs were leading to something that could match the Burkes, which also underwent many changes as new batches were ordered and older Burkes were usually upgraded with newer equipment found in later ones. China will copy foreign ideas and technology and keep building new versions until they get it right. They are relentless and often ultimately successful. That is more impressive than just building a lot of warships.