Surface Forces: Relentless And Ultimately Successful

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October 30, 2019: In September 2019 China launched its fifth Type 55 class destroyer. This 12,000 ton warship is comparable to the late model American Arleigh Burke class and is, in fact, a bit larger and more heavily armed with similar weapons. In fact, the Type 55 is more similar in size to the failed American Zumwalt class destroyer. The Zumwalt contained too many new technologies that proved too expensive and too unpredictable to put into service. The U.S. Navy kept spending more money on development in a futile effort to get the Zumwalt to work and the effort was canceled, with only three Zumwalts built and none of them fully operational yet.

The Type 55 is also similar to the American Ticonderoga class cruisers, which are 10,000 ton ships based on 1970s and 80s technology that paved the way for the Burkes. From 1980 to 1994 27 Ticonderogas were built and 22 are still in service. The Ticonderogas, like the Burkes, were based on the successful Spruance class destroyers. The success of the 31 Spruances, built between 1972 and 1983, led to the Burke class which has been in production since 1988 with 67 in service, five under construction and orders for at least ten more planned. The latest version of the Burke is nearly as large as the Ticonderogas and in many ways more capable. This is apparently what the Chinese are trying to do with the Type 55. Despite using proven (by the Americans) technologies, the Chinese are having some problems betting the Type 55s into service. That is not unusual and has become an accepted part of how the Chinese develop new warship designs.

The first Type 055 destroyer was launched in June 2017. This was not unexpected because evidence of such a ship (Internet photos of ship mockups for training and chatter about that) began showing up in early 2015. Back then it appeared that this new (Type 055) 12,000 ton cruiser class ship would have as many as 128 VLS (vertical launch system) tubes and much else besides. China claimed this ship would be the equivalent of a Burke class destroyer. The Type 55 would be, and now is, the largest surface combat ship China has ever built. The Type 55 turned out to have 112 American type VLS cells as well as an Aegis type radar system and four locally built gas-turbine engines. These engines provide 150,000 horsepower and a top speed of 55 kilometers an hour. There are also six generators producing 30 megawatts of power for future weapons like rail guns and lasers. Also carried are hangers for two helicopters.

Before 2015 the then new Type 52 destroyers were described as similar to the Burkes but in reality, the Type 052s were “Burke Lite” while the Type 55 is much closer to the Burkes in capabilities and, at least on paper, surpasses the American ships in some ways. It was believed that the first Type 055 would enter service in early 2018 and the sea trials would 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. It is not unusual for new Chinese ships to go through years, rather than weeks or months of sea trials and keep looking for and fixing problems until the ship is ready. Sometimes it isn’t and in those cases you see only one or two of those ships built as the designers start again. This approach can take a long time but it has worked for the Chinese.

In fact, the development program for the Type 55 began in the 1980s as China obtained, by purchase or espionage, sufficient modern technologies to build a Western type destroyer. The initial model was the American Spruance and the first two Type 52s were mainly for testing those new technologies. Two Type 52s appeared in the 1990s and only two of these 4,800 ton ships were built because these were for technology development. There followed two 6,100 ton Type 52Bs in 2004. At the same time six 6,500 ton Type 52C also began entering service and these turned out to have the right combination of successful technologies. That led, in 2014 to the 7,500 ton Type 52D and at least 20 of these are under construction or in service.

By 2013 the first of the Chinese Type 52D 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 Burke class destroyers. The first Burke entered service in 1991 and that ship became the new target for Chinese destroyer developers.

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 ground-attack 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 Type 052B, 052C and 52D destroyers have entered service. These ships were a deliberate effort to develop something similar to the U.S. Burkes. The Type 52D was considered a success and that made it possible to move forward with the more ambitious Type 55. You can see the similarities. The Type 52D is 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 Type 55 is a larger version of the Type 52D but with more advanced versions of the weapons and electronics carried by the 52D. The 52D was also the first Chinese destroyer to use Chinese made gas-turbine engines. Over the last three decades, China had acquired much of this gas-turbine tech from American designs and from Ukrainian gas-turbine manufacturers. Many Chinese destroyers still use Ukrainian gas-turbine power plants.

The older Type 052B destroyers were 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 are a single 100mm gun and two 30mm autocannon, for anti-missile defense. There is also one helicopter.

Type 052C were the first to 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 are 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 7,100 ton Type 51C destroyers appeared. About the same size and displacement as the 52Cs but not using the Western VLS system. The 51Cs 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 are 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.

 


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