In December 2017 China launched its 29th Type 054A frigate. This is a modern design and the first one entered service in 2008. That’s a lot of new frigates in a short time. The 4,000 ton Type 054A replaces the Cold War era Type 053, a 1,400 ton ship based the Russian Riga class frigates. As recently as 2012 China was still refurbishing Type 053 frigates, apparently in order keep them in service for another decade or more. Originally built in the 1990s, the six Type 053H1G ships refurbed in 2012 were the last of 53 built over about twenty years. Based on the older Russian Riga class frigate, the Chinese expanded the original 1,400 ton Riga design (armed with depth charges, three 100mm guns and torpedoes) to a missile laden 2,500 ton vessel equipped with modern electronics. These “evolved” Type 053s were built for export. The late model 053s performed well and refurbishing six of them was a cheap way to get some additional ships for increasing coastal security.
The Type 054 was based on Western, not Russian, designs. The Type 054A is the first Chinese warship equipped with VLS (Vertical Launch System) and has 32 VLS cells for HQ-16 anti-aircraft missiles. There are eight anti-ship cruise missiles, a 76mm gun and two 30mm multibarrel autocannon for anti-missile defense. There are six torpedo tubes and twelve launchers for anti-submarine rockets (carrying depth charges). There is also a hangar for a helicopter. All this is handled by a crew of 165. The Type 054A has a top speed of 48 kilometers an hour and endurance of about three weeks on internal fuel (moving at cruising speed). Type 054As have been seen refueling and taking in other supplies at sea.
Two Type 054s were built and put into service by 2005 mainly to test the design at sea under realistic conditions. This led to a lot of changes, including a weight increase of about five percent, and production of this improved model, the 054As, began in 2007. By 2012 ten of these had been built and by 2016 there were 25. Apparently only about 30-40 Type 054As will be built because similar ships under construction may include one or more of the Type 54B, a 5,000 ton warship that is similar in shape to the 054As but has a new 20 MW all-electric power plant that enables the ship to go a little faster and spend more time at sea without refueling. The 054Bs are apparently designed with long range escort in mind and as part of aircraft carrier or amphibious task forces. The VLS cells in the 054B will be larger (and perhaps more numerous) and able to handle longer range anti-aircraft missiles. The 054Bs will come with upgraded electronics and an ASW helicopter.
Compared to Western ship builders the Chinese have demonstrated an ability to rapidly develop improved versions of ship designs it is comfortable with. This has been the case with frigates and destroyers as well as diesel-electric submarines and support ships. Since the 1980s China has become a major manufacturer of merchant ships and has transferred a lot of that design and manufacturing capabilities to its naval buildup. It is somewhat similar to what the United States went through during World War II (including the design and production improvements that began in the late 1930s.) It was a major war and the U.S. was a major shipbuilder. This time around there is no war, but China does have the resources to build a large modern fleet in a short period of time and that is what they are doing.