Over the past few decades, China’s economy has grown at a startling pace — by some estimates, Chinese GDP is larger than that of the United States when adjusted for purchasing power parity. However, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is still in the process of translating this newfound prosperity into global influence. One area in which China has traditionally lagged behind Russia and the United States is that of military power projection. During the Cold War, China’s major concerns were a Soviet invasion or a conflict with America in the western Pacific, so its military was geared towards deterring interference in the immediate area. Moreover, China’s official foreign policy doctrine eschews intervention in the affairs of other states, so the PRC has historically shied away from the infrastructure necessary for military operations in far-away locales.
Yet, much has changed since the Cold War, and with the growth of China’s economy has come increasing entanglement in global affairs and increasing assertiveness in the western Pacific. As such, China’s military is being reformed, enhancing its capacity to confront other regional powers such as Japan, the United States, Russia, etc. Overall, the force has been reduced in size, with more emphasis placed on the type of high-tech equipment necessary for high-intensity combat and complex global missions.
Due to China’s sizeable coastline, reliance on maritime trade, disputes over various islands, and adversarial relationship with Taiwan, the navy has been a primary focus of the modernization effort. Moreover, navies have long been the primary instrument of power projection and thus global military influence. This article will examine how the Chinese navy, officially named the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), has changed from 1990 to 2018. The focus will be on changes to China’s carrier, surface combatant, and submarine fleets; naval aviation, auxiliary vessels, and amphibious warfare capabilities are not considered for the sake of brevity. Chinese equipment will be referred to primarily by its PLA type designation, but Western intelligence nomenclature will be included in parenthesis when applicable.
The above chart is compiled based on information from the Office of Naval Intelligence’s report on the PLAN. Various sources tend to disagree somewhat on the size of the PLAN, since it is often unclear whether older PLAN vessels are combat-ready or have been relegated to secondary duties. As such, this chart is supplied not to make a definitive statement on the size of the PLAN but rather to illustrate broad trends.
Regardless of which source one consults, the total number of PLAN combat vessels has not increased since 1990. In fact, the PLAN’s size declined rapidly after the Cold War ended before rebounding somewhat in 2005. This trend was driven by the retirement of obsolete missile boats and conventional attack submarines, a step taken to reduce the number of small, low-quality, short-range combatants and make way for modern assets. Excluding missile boats and conventional attack submarines, the PLAN actually grew from 1990 to 2015. Notably, China did not operate any carriers or corvettes until the 2010s, when the Type 001 and Type 056 were introduced.
Of course, raw hull counts do not paint an accurate picture of naval strength — a large force can be quite weak if its assets are not high-quality and it does not possess the numerous other factors necessary for success in naval warfare, such as skilled seamen and up-to-date intelligence.
Contrary to the downward trend depicted in the graph, the PLAN now is far more lethal than it was in 1990 due to significant strides in Chinese military engineering and a staggering increase in the quality of Chinese ships. The remainder of this article will provide an account of changes (usually improvements) in PLAN vessel quality during the past three decades. Most of the specifications in this article are from GlobalSecurity.org, IHS Jane’s, The Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World, The Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapons Systems, or the author’s knowledge. A note is made when sources contradict.
In the interests of concision, gun armaments will generally not be covered, since doing so would add significant bulk while not contributing much to the overall picture — guns have been largely relegated to a secondary role in naval warfare. Unfortunately, accurate information regarding Chinese sonars is difficult to come by, so consideration of anti-submarine warfare will be somewhat sparse as well.
In 2013, China commissioned its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning. The ship’s life began in Ukraine during the Cold War. Originally laid down as a Kuznetsov-class aircraft-carrying cruiser, construction of the vessel was halted when the USSR dissolved in 1991. The unfinished hull was listed for sale and purchased by China, which towed the ship to the Dalian naval shipyard and fitted it out.
The Kuznetsov class was not a fully-fledged aircraft carrier design but rather a hybrid fitted with both aviation facilities and large P-700 (Shipwreck) anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), hence the unusual “aircraft-carrying cruiser” designation. While there were some tactical justifications for this atypical configuration, the primary purpose of the P-700s was to allow passage through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits. Turkey prohibits aircraft carriers heavier than 15,000 tons from transiting, but Russia successfully argued that its “aircraft-carrying cruisers” should be exempted. China neglected to fit Liaoning with her intended anti-ship missiles and instead converted her into a fully-fledged carrier.
At approximately 60,000 tons fully loaded, Liaoning is one of the larger carriers in service today but is still around 40,000 tons lighter than an American supercarrier. She is powered by conventional steam turbines and boilers. Her armament, three HQ-10 short-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) launchers (18 missiles each) and three Type 1130 CIWS units (both discussed in following sections), is purely defensive in nature. The ship appears to be equipped with a Russian Fregat MAE-3 radar and a Chinese Type 346 radar (also discussed in following sections).
Unlike American aircraft carriers, Liaoning uses a short takeoff but arrested recovery (STOBAR) aircraft handling system, in which an angled ramp is used to assist takeoff in lieu of a catapult. According to the DoD, the STOBAR system restricts the maximum range and payload of the fighters carried by Liaoning. Furthermore, utility aircraft built for cargo transport, airborne early warning, and anti-submarine warfare are not powerful enough to launch from STOBAR carriers — on Liaoning, helicopters fulfill these roles, but their performance is inferior to fixed-wing aircraft. The maximum strength of the air wing is speculated to be 20-25 J-15 carrier-based fighters (a copy of the Russian Su-33) plus 10-15 helicopters.
However, Liaoning has not yet been seen carrying a full complement of aircraft or conducting operations in a manner that suggests combat readiness. This is unsurprising given the difficulty of preparing pilots and sailors for carrier-based operations. Many experts believe Liaoning is intended purely as a training vessel, at least for the immediate future.
While the remainder of this article will not discuss future classes, the full carrier picture cannot be effectively portrayed without mentioning the Type 001A, a design based off of the Kuznetsov blueprint but designed for production in China. A Type 001A is currently being fitted out at Dalian and should be completed in the near future as China’s first combat-ready aircraft carrier. Once China has operational carriers, the PLAN will be able to conduct airstrikes, humanitarian assistance, aerial reconnaissance, and other high-intensity operations around the globe. The new carriers could also be of utility in naval warfare, although the Type 001 and 001A are significantly inferior to their American counterparts, especially with regards to their air wing. In order for China’s carriers to operate safely, they will need to be escorted by air defense ships, most likely the Type 052C and Type 052D, which are discussed in the next section.
One realm in which the PRC has made remarkable strides is that of destroyer engineering and production. In 1990, the PLAN’s destroyer fleet consisted of two designs, the Type 07 (Anshan) and the Type 051 (Luda). The former was a class of four thoroughly-obsolete World War II-era destroyers transferred from the Soviet Union. They were fitted with HY-2 anti-ship missiles, a derivative of the subsonic Soviet P-15 Termit (27 nmi range and 500 kg warhead,) but were severely lacking in anti-submarine and anti-air capabilities thanks to their advanced age. By the early 1990s, The Type 07s had all been decommissioned.
China’s next destroyer class, the Type 051 (Luda), was a perpetual work in progress with a large array of variants — no two Type 051s are exactly the same. Nevertheless, Type 051 ships can be divided into two main groups: those launched without air defense missiles (all variants prior to the Type 051G II) and those equipped with the Crotale or HHQ-7 SAM (the Type 051G II and Type 051DT).
Laid down during the 1970s, the original Type 051 variants were the first destroyers built in China. Like the Type 07, they completely lacked SAMs, a glaring omission even during the seventies. Though considered a destroyer class by the PLAN, the Type 051 displaced around 3,700 tons fully loaded, far less than a typical destroyer (and less than China’s newest frigates). The class’s air search radar complex consisted of a Type 515 (a 2D air search unit derived from the Type 517) and a Type 381, one of the earliest Chinese 3D air search radars. Anti-ship armament was six HY-2s, like the Type 07. Despite armament limitations, this class brought improvements in other realms, especially electronics — the Type 051 is often cited as the first PLAN class to incorporate an integrated combat system.
The Type 051GII and Type 051DT variants of the Luda were China’s first ships equipped with air defense missiles. France supplied the TAVITAC combat system, Crotale naval SAMs, the Sea Tiger radar system, and Exocet ASCMs to arm two Type 051DTs in a sale which proved highly beneficial to China’s indigenous manufacturing capabilities. While arms sales were later suspended, Chinese engineers already had what they needed — the Sea Tiger was reverse-engineered into the Type 363, the Crotale was reverse-engineered into the HHQ-7, the Exocet provided inspiration for the C-80X series of ASCMs, and TAVITAC has informed subsequent Chinese combat systems.
Armed with indigenous replacements for the banned French gear, China continued to modernize its Type 051 fleet. The post-embargo Type 051GII/DTs use the HHQ-7 (Crotale derivative) SAM, which is housed in a trainable, reloadable eight-round launcher, for air defense. The HHQ-7 has a maximum range of about 6.5 nmi and employs command link guidance. According to Jane’s and other sources, the HHQ-7’s minimum engagement altitude is around 30 m, whereas many sea-skimming missiles fly lower than 15 m. This, combined with the system’s short engagement range and rather imprecise guidance system, means the HHQ-7 is probably not a reliable defense against modern ASCMs.
For air search, the 051GII/DTs are equipped with the 2D Type 517A, a design based on the 1950s-era Soviet Knife Rest. The Type 517 is a long-range (150 nmi+), low-frequency system which uses cross-braced Yagi-Uda antennae atop a rotating mast. In addition to the Type 517A, the Type 363 (Sea Tiger derivative) or Type 354 are used for shorter-range 3D tracking. Like previous Chinese destroyers, the 051GII/DT places an emphasis on anti-surface warfare; its original armament was six HY-1J ASCMs, which were similar to the HY-2 used aboard the original Type 051. However, during modernization, the HY-1Js were replaced by 16 C-802 subsonic, sea-skimming anti-ship missiles with a range of 97 nmi. Though development began on the C-80X series of missiles long before the PLAN received Exocets, later variants such as the C-802 are remarkably similar to the Exocet and seem to have taken at least some inspiration from the French missile. A license-produced French DUBV-23 sonar gives the Type 051DT some anti-submarine capabilities, although the class did not have anti-submarine torpedoes until sometime in the early 1990s, when two triple lightweight torpedo tubes for the Yu-7 (probably derived from the Italian A244/S, according to IHS Jane’s) were added.
There are discrepancies regarding the status of the Type 051GII/DT — Jane’s World Navies does not list any Ludas as active but most other sources (including ONI) include them in ship counts.
During the 1990s, the PLAN commissioned three new destroyer classes: the Type 052A (Luhu), the Sovremenny, and the Type 051B (Luhai).
The Type 052A, a class first commissioned in the early 90s, has the same armament as the post-modernization Luda IVs — an octuple HQQ-7 SAM launcher and 16 C-802 ASCMs. Yet, it featured improvements in many other realms — the class is notable for its extensive usage of Western equipment purchased before Tiananmen, including American LM2500 gas turbines (the same ones used aboard the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer), German MTU diesel engines, Italian torpedo equipment, and French electronics. Its original long-range air search radar was the massive Type 518, a one-off design used only with the two Type 052As. However, these radars have since been replaced by the Type 517A. Finer 3D tracking was originally provided by the French DUBV 15 Sea Tiger radar (since replaced with the Type 363). While the range of the Type 363 is rather short (about 60 nmi according to Jane’s), the Type 052A does not have any SAMs which would necessitate long-range 3D targeting. Another of the class’s advances was a pad and hangar for medium-lift helicopters, a feature standard for the surface combatants of most navies but not previous Chinese ships.
The Type 052A was a substantial improvement in capabilities for the PLAN and represented a shift towards a multirole design philosophy. However, certain aspects of the design (especially air defense) were still inferior the destroyers of other navies, and the <5,000-ton loaded displacement was rather light for a destroyer. Two Type 052As were built before further production was prevented by the Tiananmen Square incident; the PRC could no longer obtain the necessary Western systems due to sanctions. Both Type 052As remain in service and have been modernized — it is believed that many of their Western systems, such as the gas turbines (according to Jane’s), have been replaced due to China’s inability to obtain assistance maintaining them.
Cut off from the technologies necessary for the Type 052A, China designed the Type 051B. Despite some regressive features, such as a return to steam turbine propulsion, the Type 051B brought many improvements, including a stealthier silhouette than the Type 051A. At 6,000 tons full load, the Type 051B was significantly larger than any previous Chinese destroyer.
Only one Type 051B, Shenzen, was built; she was commissioned in 1999 and remains in service. Shenzen featured the venerable octuple HHQ-7 launcher and 16 C-802s upon commissioning, but her C-802s have recently been replaced by eight supersonic YJ-12A ASCMs with a probable maximum range of >100 nmi and the HHQ-7 has been supplanted by a 32-cell VLS for HHQ-16 SAMs and Yu-8 anti-submarine rockets (discussed in frigate section.) These modernization efforts imply that Shenzen will remain in service for a while longer. She was originally fitted with the Type 382 3D air search radar and a Type 517, but these have been supplanted by a Fregat MAE-3.
Two 30 mm Type 1130 rotary-cannon-based CIWS systems, which are 11-barreled derivatives of the seven-barreled Type 730, were added as well — like the American Phalanx CIWS, the Type 730 and 1130 are self-contained and automated, using their own radars and electro-optical sensors for guidance. The gun limits maximum engagement range to <3 nmi.
Similarly to the Type 052, the Shenzen has facilities for two helicopters. Despite her “Type 051” designation, Shenzen is not based on the same hull blueprint at the Luda — the PLA’s type classification scheme is rather opaque and pieces of equipment which share a numerical designation are not always derivatives of each other.
China also began to negotiate the purchase of Sovremenny-class destroyers from Russia during the late 1990s. Since the collapse of the USSR and the end the Sino-Soviet Split, Russia was less concerned about the strategic implications of selling high-end military hardware to the PRC. Moreover, a number of Soviet ships and submarines laid down during the Cold War were no longer deemed necessary and had to be sold. As a result, China was able to purchase two Sovremennies which had already been laid down and two new-builds. The first Sovremenny was commissioned in 1999, the same year as Shenzen. It is possible that the Sovremenny purchase took precedence over Type 051B production thanks to the Sovremenny’s largely-superior systems; this would explain why only one Type 051B was constructed.
Relative to Western combatants commissioned during the 1990s, the Sovremenny was not a particularly modern class; it retained steam turbines propulsion and used rail launchers for its SAMs. Nevertheless, it offered relatively up-to-date Soviet electronics as well as missiles superior to China’s indigenous designs. The Sovremenny’s anti-ship armament consisted of eight 3M-80E Moskit supersonic missiles with a range of 86 nmi for the first two ships and 130 nmi for the improved variant included with the second two, according to Jane’s. All ships were armed with twin rail launchers for the 9M38M1 missile (also used in the land-based Buk air defense system). The 9M38M1 is a semi-active radar homing missile with a 13.5 nmi range and high-altitude capabilities. Thus, while not a long-range air defense solution by any stretch, the 9M38M1 was a considerable improvement over the line-of-sight, command-guidance HHQ-7. Supplemental defense against very close threats is provided by four automated AK-630 rotary cannons. The Sovremenny buy included Ka-28 Helix medium-lift helicopters for use with the ships. The four Sovremenny-class vessels remain in service and have been extensively upgraded, with indigenous Chinese systems supplanting many of the Russian ones.
In 2004, two Type 052B (Luyang I) ships, equipped with the 19 nmi max range, rail-launched 9M38M2, were introduced into service. This class transplanted much of the Russian equipment found on the Sovremenny into a Chinese-designed hull, allowing the PLA to field Russian systems while carrying out the majority of the shipbuilding work in-house. The Fregat MAE-3 is used for air search, as in the Sovremenny. Above the bridge is a large radome housing the Russian long-range Mineral-ME surface search radar, which is used for target detection and ASCM guidance. The PLA reverse-engineered the Mineral-ME to create the Type 366, a common sight on subsequent PLAN combatants. 16 C-802 ASCMs are installed between the masts. The Type 052B is notable for its employment of combined diesel or gas (CODOG) propulsion, albeit with Ukrainian DT80 turbines and German MTU diesel engines. While the Type 052B was short-lived, with only two ships built, its blueprint formed the basis of China’s first indigenous area air defense destroyers: the Type 052C and Type 052D.
Before discussing these classes, however, the Type 051C (Luzhou) must be mentioned. The Type 051C does not fit in neatly with the overall trajectory of Chinese shipbuilding, since it was commissioned after the Type 052C but is inferior in many respects. The class appears to have been a sort of stopgap solution intended to bolster the PLAN’s air defense capabilities until the Type 052C entered service. In order to reduce complexity, it was based on the Type 051B’s hull and utilizes steam turbine propulsion as well as a Russian Fregat MAE-3 radar and long-range (~90 nmi, estimates vary) 48N6E missiles housed in a revolver-style VLS. That the Type 051C entered service after the Type 052C was probably unintentional — a logical explanation is that the Type 051C became delayed but, rather than canceling the two vessels for which initial work was already complete, the PLAN decided to go ahead and complete the ships, both of which remain in service. Although the Type 051C appears to have a hangar at its stern, the class is unable to embark a helicopter because of intrusion by the aft VLS cells.
China’s next surface combatant class was the Type 52C, which performs a similar air defense role to the Type 051C but does so with indigenous systems. The first Type 052C was commissioned during the same year as the Type 052Bs, but the two classes were not built contemporaneously — the Type 052Bs were laid down a year earlier than the first Type 052C. Two main advancements set the Type 052C apart from its predecessors: the HHQ-9 SAM and the Type 346 (Dragon Eye) air search and fire control radar.
The HHQ-9 is similar in appearance to the 5V55R and 48N6 missiles used by the Russian S-300 air defense system, although the relationship between the two is debated — Jane’s reports that the HHQ-9 is not a direct derivative of any Russian missile, while Air Power Australia describes the HHQ-9 as “clearly derived” from the S-300 family of missiles but with substantial alterations.
As with many pieces of modern Chinese military hardware, the HHQ-9’s exact technical specifications are contested, but estimates of its maximum range tend to cluster around 80 nmi — identical to the 48N6. In any case, the performance of the HHQ-9 should be considered roughly equivalent to other contemporary medium-to-long range SARH air defense missiles such as the S-300 and the American Standard Missile 2. The HHQ-9’s deployment is a monumental leap for China’s naval air defense capabilities, especially compared to the PLAN’s previous indigenous solution, the HHQ-7. However, the HHQ-9 does not quite bring the PLAN up to parity with the cutting-edge missiles of other countries, since the American Standard Missile 6 (SM-6) and the Russian 48N6DMK still outrange it by over 50 nmi.
Since high-performance SAMs are only useful when paired with a powerful radar, China developed the Type 346 for use with the HHQ-9. Unlike past Chinese radars, many of which were based on Soviet or Western designs, the Type 346 was developed indigenously and does not appear to be a direct copy of any foreign design.
The Type 346 is similar to the AN/SPY-1D used aboard the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer insofar as both have four large, superstructure-mounted antennae and provide constant 360-degree coverage. However, the two differ in many aspects. Most importantly, the Type 346 is an active electronically scanned array (AESA), while the AN/SPY-1D is a passive electronically scanned array (PESA). AESA technology is newer and generally superior, but many factors (such as radar size, power, signal processing, etc.) influence overall performance and thus it is difficult to compare the Type 346 to other high-end radars based on the limited information in the public source.
The Type 346 is comprised of four large S-band faces providing long-range search capabilities and eight smaller, static C-band units (two per S-band face) are used for SARH target designation. This configuration differs from the AN/SPY-1D, which employs three rotating dish-type AN/SPG-62s for fire control. Estimates place the Type 346’s maximum detection range in search mode as >160 nmi against a typical high-altitude target, par the course for a modern destroyer-sized air search radar. Other radars fitted to the class include the Type 366 surface search radar and the Type 517B.
The Type 052C’s HHQ-9 missiles are housed in eight sextuple vertical launch clusters for a total of 48. Unlike the American Mk 41 VLS, these cells are specific to the HHQ-9 and cannot be loaded with other missiles. In addition to the HHQ-9, the Type 052C has two quadruple canister launchers for the subsonic C-602 anti-ship missiles with a maximum range of 120 nmi. Two Type 730 CIWS units provide terminal defense. The class’s powertrain is CODOG with Ukrainian turbines and German diesels, like the Type 052B, and displacement is around 7,000 tons full — lighter than the Arleigh Burke class and its derivatives but still quite large. Six Type 052Cs have been commissioned and remain in service. Construction of the class has ended in favor of the Type 052D.
Building on the capabilities of the Type 052C, the Type 052D (Luyang III) incorporates a new 64-cell multipurpose VLS capable of accommodating surface-to-air, surface-to-surface, and anti-submarine missiles. As a result, the Type 052D’s loadout can be tailored to the mission, and new missiles can be incorporated with minimal effort. For long-range air defense, the Type 052D supposedly utilizes the HHQ-9A missile, of which little is known — it is likely an extended-range variant of the HHQ-9. Were the HHQ-9A to have a maximum range comparable to the SM-6, it would require an active radar seeker. In addition to a Type 730 (or Type 1130 on later ships), the Type 052D features the new 24-round FL-3000N point defense missile launcher, a weapon highly reminiscent of the American Mk 49 RAM launcher. Unlike the Type 730/1130, the FL-3000N is not self-contained and requires targeting instructions from the host ship to function.
For propulsion, the Type 052D has Chinese QC280 gas turbines, which are based on the Ukrainian turbines purchased for past combatants (including the Type 052B and C). The QC280 may not be state of the art, but it appears to be reasonably reliable, as Type 052Ds have completed lengthy deployments without issue. This is a significant feat considering the complexity of turbine manufacturing. China has made substantial investments in developing turbofans for its combat aircraft, and since static gas turbines are a closely related technology (many are aeroderivative), one can expect significant strides in Chinese naval propulsion going forward.
The Type 052D also utilizes an improved version of the Type 346, referred to as the Type 346A, whose distinguishing feature is a flat exterior rather than the convex shape of the original Type 346. In addition, the array size has been increased, bolstering performance, and the cooling system has supposedly been changed from air to liquid. Curiously, the 2D Type 517B is still carried aboard the Type 052D despite its humble origins. Since this radar operates at a low frequency (like many other early air search radars), its purpose is likely stealth target acquisition. As in the Type 052C, a Type 366 radar is used for surface search.
In conclusion, the Type 052D is a relatively close approximation of modern Western destroyers and high-end air defense frigates, especially the Arleigh Burke, which appears to have provided inspiration for Chinese naval engineers. Unsurprisingly, American destroyers still have a number of advantages, including the long-range Standard Missile 6, the anti-ballistic Standard Missile 3, a superior sonar system, etc. Nevertheless, when one compares the Type 052D to the Type 051B, it is clearly evident that the PLAN has made rapid strides in addressing its traditional deficiencies in area air defense and large surface combatant design over the past few decades.
In fact, the Type 052D is one of the heaviest multirole surface combatant classes in active production and, if the more optimistic reports regarding its capabilities are true, may be one of the most capable as well. For the PLAN to go from having only point air defense capabilities in the 1990s to commissioning multirole destroyers with area air defense capabilities and AESA radars in the 2010s is a remarkable feat and shows that China’s engineering prowess is improving more rapidly than most (if not all) other countries in the world. There is still undeniably progress to be made before China can match the best and newest Western designs, but there is no reason to believe that China cannot catch up in the near future.
Convergence with the Western standard can be observed in China’s frigate fleet as well. At the beginning of the 1990s, the PLAN still operated a number of ex-Riga-class gun frigates — these had Soviet systems and very little combat capability thanks to their lack of missiles. The ex-Rigas were rapidly decommissioned as newer ships came online.
In 1990, the bulk of the PLAN’s frigates were Type 053 (Jianghu) guided missile frigates built beginning in the 1970s. Displacing less than 2,000 tons, these ships, like many other frigates of the Cold War, were small. In addition to anti-submarine mortars, depth charges, and 100 mm guns, the class’s primary armament was four HY-2 missiles. While the configuration varies considerably from ship-to-ship, none of the examples produced have integrated anti-air missiles. This was unusual — even Warsaw Pact frigates built during the 1970s and onwards had at least a point defense anti-air system. Here, a parallel can be drawn to the destroyers in service with the PLAN during the 1990s, which also had substandard air defense equipment compared to the destroyers of other navies. According to GlobalSecurity.org, the Type 053s had other severe deficiencies, including a lack of gunfire control radars, poor damage control systems, and underpowered generators. In addition, the class lacked a helicopter hangar and flight deck.
While the anti-surface Type 053 was by far the most numerous frigate class in 1990, China did have an air defense frigate class at the time: the Type 053K (Jiangdong), which was introduced during the 1970s. The Type 053K design was armed with the short-range, rail-launched HQ-61, one of China’s first indigenously-developed anti-air missiles. Since the HQ-61 launchers replaced the HY-2 ASCMs, the Type 053Ks were purely air defense ships. In the end, building a whole class around the HQ-61, which had a maximum range of 5 nmi and was not a terribly effective weapon, did not appeal to the PLAN. As a result, the Type 053K had a limited production run of two vessels — both were decommissioned by the early 1990s.
To bolster the frigate force, two new designs — the Type 053H2 (Jiangwei I) and Type 053H3 (Jiangwei II) — were launched in the nineties. These classes marked a transition from the outdated configuration of the Type 053 and 053K, with their single-role specialization and their lack of a flight deck, to a modern multirole design philosophy with facilities for an embarked helicopter.
The Type 053H2G featured six HQ-61s in a trainable, non-reloadable launcher and six C-802 ASCMs. For air search, the class used a Type 517 for long-range, high-altitude detection and a Type 360 surface search/air search radar for lower-altitude 3D detection. The Type 360 is reportedly based on the Italian RAN-10S radar. Anti-submarine capabilities were still lacking in this class, as it relied on anti-submarine mortars and did not embark an anti-submarine helicopter. Despite the significant upgrades in capabilities relative to previous frigate classes, the Type 053H2G was still a small frigate, displacing <2,300 tons. The Type 053H2Gs have been transferred to the Chinese Coast Guard and stripped of their major weapons systems.
Further improving upon the Type 053H2G, the Type 053H3 has an eight-round HHQ-7 SAM launcher instead of the HHQ-61, among other improvements. Anti-ship armament was boosted from six to eight C-802 ASCMs. The decision to replace the HQ-61 with the HQ-7 suggests that the former performed rather poorly. The Type 053H3 is equipped with the Type 517B and Type 360 air search radars and weighs displaces around 2,400 tons full load — still on the light side. The class’s combined diesel and diesel powertrain (CODAD) makes use of domestic 1
In 2005, the first Type 054 (Jiangkai) frigate was commissioned, representing a significant evolution in Chinese frigate design. With regards to armament, the Type 054 was nearly identical to the Type 053H3 which preceded it, save for the addition of two triple lightweight torpedo tubes — a feature typical of Western frigate designs but not found on Chinese vessels until the Yu-7 became available. In addition, the Type 517 radar set was deleted in favor of a Type 360 and Type 364 working in tandem. The Type 364 is a combined surface and air search radar designed for detection of high-speed, low-altitude threats such as ASCMs. It helps cue CIWS and has a detection range of 15.5 nmi against a .1 m² (stealthy) target according to World Naval Weapons Systems.
The Type 054’s main innovation, however, was its distinctly modern hull with remarkable adherence to stealth techniques — even the 100 mm H/PJ87 naval gun is housed in an angular reduced-cross-section turret. Displacement was increased to nearly 4,000 tons at full load, whereas previous Chinese frigates topped out at under 2,500 tons. Like the Luyang I, it appears that the Type 054 was a sort of intermediate class designed to bridge the gap between old and new by incorporating tried-and-true weapons systems aboard a groundbreaking hull design and paving the way for the Type 054A, which would fully leverage the new hull.
The Type 054A is the PLAN’s newest frigate class, built on the platform of the Type 054 but incorporating a new 32-cell VLS system which appears to have been designed specifically for smaller vessels such as frigates. While IHS Jane’s describes the system as cold launch, other sources dispute this notion. Moreover, Chinese television footage depicting an HHQ-16 launch appears to show an exhaust plume preceding the launch of the missile, which clearly suggests a hot launch mechanism similar to that employed by the Mk 41 VLS.
The HHQ-16 missiles are a Chinese derivative of the Russian 9M38 series of missiles, albeit with some alterations to the airframe. The missile’s purported maximum range is 21 nmi — similar but somewhat inferior to the smaller American Evolved SeaSparrow — although the HHQ-16 does have a substantially larger warhead. Like most newer Chinese surface vessels, the Type 054A has two Type 730 CIWS units.
As can be seen in the image above, the Type 360 has been swapped for a superior Russian Fregat MAE-3 unit, which reportedly has an instrumented (maximum) range of 162 nmi but detects “fighters” at 97 nmi and “missiles” at 20.5 nmi according to Deagel. Of course, the radar cross-section of various fighters and missiles vary by orders of magnitude, so these figures are difficult to interpret (but nevertheless respectable). The Type 364 has been retained for surface/low-altitude search duties, and a Type 0366 is present for ASCM guidance.
In addition to the HHQ-16, the Type 054A’s VLS is capable of launching 16 nmi range CY-5 anti-submarine rockets which are roughly analogous to the American ASROC. This, combined with the two triple lightweight torpedo tubes and two anti-submarine mortars, gives the class substantial anti-submarine striking power. However, the Type 054A’s sonar is a copy of the somewhat dated Russian MGK-335 system, and only hulls 18 and onwards have the variable depth sonar used in all Russian installations of the MGK-335. As such, it would appear that China has room for improvement with regards to indigenous sonar engineering. Despite being a relatively new ship class, The Type 054A comprises a significant portion of the PLAN’s fleet, with 26 vessels in service and four more under construction according to IHS Jane’s.
Overall, the Type 054A, like the Type 052C and D, represents convergence with modern Western shipbuilding practices. This means heavier displacements, modern radars, integrated electronics, datalinks, and (most obviously) a substantial improvement in anti-ship and anti-submarine armament. These features translate into significantly enhanced survivability and lethality, especially against aerial threats. In combat, the Type 054A can operate independently of other assets if necessary, whereas older frigates could have survived a high-end conflict only by avoiding attack and hugging the shore. The Type 054A could also play a role in escort formations and carrier groups, with its 32 HHQ-16 and CY-5 missiles providing short-range defense against cruise missiles and submarines.
In 1990, there were no corvettes in PLAN commission, aside from the ex-Riga frigates, whose 1,400-ton displacement could warrant their classification as a corvette.
Since the newer Type 054 and 054A frigates displace around 4,000 tons, the PLAN designed the Type 056 and 056A corvettes to fill the lightweight niche. The ~1,500-ton class’s primary armament is a pair of two-cell launchers for C-802 missiles. Air defense is provided by an eight-cell launcher for HHQ-10 point defense SAMs, which have a maximum range of around 5 nmi, and two triple lightweight torpedo tubes are installed used for anti-submarine duties. In addition to the 76 mm H/PJ-26 naval cannon, remote 30 mm cannons are fitted for use against light boats. The Type 364 radar provides both surface and air search capability. Although there is no hangar, a pad for medium-lift helicopters is present.
According to IHS Jane’s, all Type 056 corvettes launched since October 2015 are fitted with towed array and variable depth sonars, a variant known as the Type 056A. Given their light displacement and limited air defense capacity, the class is better-suited for littoral duties than blue-water operations.
The Type 054 is quite prolific, with 40 ships commissioned as of 2018 and many more on order. By carrying out relatively low-intensity operations, the Type 056A will free up larger combatants for more important duties. The class’s armament is typical for a corvette — the American Littoral Combat Ship has a similar configuration but lacks cruise missiles, although the US Navy has explored the possibility of adding over-the-horizon offensive capabilities. Unlike the LCS, however, the Type 056/056A is rather slow at 25 knots maximum speed due to its somewhat underpowered CODAD powerplant.
One way in which the PLAN differs from Western navies is its continued employment of missile boats (also known as fast attack craft) to achieve cost-effective sea control and area denial. While missile boats suffer from restricted range and endurance due to their small size and are generally not seaworthy enough for blue-water operations, they form a key component of China’s defensive portfolio by providing a cheap means of getting anti-ship missiles within range of their targets. Two to four missile boats, each of which may only displace a couple hundred tons, can field the same number of anti-ship missiles as a 6,000+ ton destroyer. Missile boats are small and maneuverable but lack substantial defensive weaponry, instead relying on their speed and reduced signature to survive.
In 1990, the Type 021 (Huanfeng) missile boat still served in large numbers. This class was an unlicensed copy of the Soviet Osa-class missile boat. With a small displacement of around 200 tons and a maximum speed of 35 knots, these vessels were optimized for high-speed swarming attacks. Their armament consists of four HY-2 missiles and two gun mounts (one fore one aft) for either 25 mm or 30 mm guns. A Type 352 radar provided fire control for the missiles. However, many units lacked a fire control radar for their guns. Over 100 copies were originally produced, although most had been moved to reserve by 1990. The last were retired in the late 2000s.
Beginning in 1991, Type 037/1G (Houxin) missile boats were commissioned. The hull is based on the Haizhu-class patrol boat but with box launchers for four C-801 anti-ship missiles (22 nmi range). Relative to the bulky and obsolete HY-2, the smaller, stealthier C-801 has a much better chance of penetrating ship air defenses. The Type 037/1G It is a larger vessel than the Type 021, displacing nearly 500 tons, and is armed with twin 37 mm AA guns but no SAMs. Unlike the Type 021, the Type 037/1G comes standard with a navigation radar, a Type 352, and a gun fire control unit. Maximum speed is 32 knots. A total of 26 were produced, with six sold to Bangladesh and 20 still in service with the PLAN.
At the same time, the more advanced Type 037II (Houjian) missile boat was being built as well. Primary improvements include the provision for six C-801s and a heavier gun armament (one 37 mm mount plus two 30 mm mounts). A new missile fire control radar, the Type 756, is installed as well [disagreement between Jane’s and CFOTW). The type was a bit ahead of its time — its new systems and license-produced diesel engines were complicated and expensive, leading the PLAN to order only six vessels.
By far the largest breakthrough in terms of PLAN missile boat design is the Type 022 (Houbei), an aluminum catamaran class with a wave-piercing hull originally designed by the Australian company AMD Marine Consulting as a high-speed ferry. The design is stealthy, featuring smooth surfaces and a superstructure blended with the hull. Its loaded displacement of around 200 tons is quite small, as is its complement of only 14 men, suggesting a high degree of automation relative to previous Chinese missile boats. Waterjet propulsors mated to diesel engines propel the Type 022 to about 36 knots. Two quad missile launchers, which are integrated into the hull, fire C-802 anti-ship missiles with a range of 97 nmi. Gun armament has been de-emphasized in this class, with only a single 30 mm unit at the bow.
Ballistic missile submarines
China’s first nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), the Type 092 (Xia), was commissioned in 1987. As the first SSBN built by an Asian state and one of few in the world, the Type 092’s completion was certainly an impressive feat, especially considering the effort involved little Soviet help (the Sino-Soviet split was in full effect during the sub’s development). The class is a lengthened version of the Type 091 nuclear attack submarine and displaces around 8,000 tons submerged. Only one example of the class, Xia, is believed to be in working order, although there are unconfirmed reports that a second boat was launched and was subsequently either decommissioned or lost in an accident.
Due to the inherent difficulties of SSBN engineering and construction, Xia was not without flaws. Multiple sources report that the vessel suffers from poor noise dampening and a leaky powerplant, among other issues. As a result, Xia is not believed to have ever sortied outside China’s territorial waters. In addition, her 12 JL-1A SLBMs have a maximum range of 1350 nmi, which means that striking European Russia or the continental US would require a lengthy transit to an exposed firing position. As such, Xia does not offer global deterrence. Until the 2007 introduction of the Type 094, Xia was China’s sole SSBN, so the PLAN lacked sea-based deterrent while she was in port or laid up — a frequent occurrence even for fully-developed SSBN. Due to the class’s poor performance, limited missile range, and limited production run, it never truly guaranteed a second-strike capability. Indeed, naval reference sources disagree on whether Xia was ever really in active service or whether she was more of a technology demonstrator and status symbol.
The Type 094 improves significantly upon its predecessor and provides a substantially more robust nuclear deterrent, although its capabilities are still not commensurate with those of Russian or American SSBNs. Its design is based on the Type 093 (Shang) nuclear attack submarine, a slightly larger vessel than the Type 091, giving a total loaded displacement of around 10,000 tons. Four Type 094s are in service; it is unclear whether more are under construction. Their primary improvement is the JL-2 ballistic missile with a range in excess of 4,000 nmi — this places Russia, India, and Hawaii within range from China’s territorial waters, although a strike on the continental US would require firing from the middle of the Pacific. Little is known about the Type 094 and its capabilities, but US naval intelligence charts from around 2010 depict the Type 094 as having a sonic signature equivalent to early Soviet nuclear submarines, implying that American anti-submarine assets would be able to easily detect the Type 094s. However, it is likely that the Type 094 will be improved over the course of its service life, which could significantly enhance survivability.
In sum, China has just recently acquired persistent sea-based deterrence with the four Type 094 SSBNs. While they mark a significant improvement over the Type 092, their ability to provide a credible second-strike capability against the continental US is still unclear due to their reportedly high noise signature and the need to fire from the middle of the Pacific where American assets are profligate.
Nuclear attack submarines
In 1990, the PLAN’s nuclear attack submarine fleet consisted of five Type 091 (Han-class) vessels, the design upon which the Type 092 is based. The Type 091 displaces around 5,500 tons submerged and is armed with six 533 mm torpedo tubes, which can be used to fire heavyweight torpedoes with an 8 nmi range or C-801A anti-ship cruise missiles with a 21.5 nmi range. Around 2000, the third, fourth, and fifth ships of the class were given mid-life refits while the other two boats were decommissioned. Since the Type 091 served as the basis for the Type 092, the two classes have similar shortcomings; the Type 091 suffers from poor sonic performance and radiation leakage. However, the Type 091 has seen more action than the Type 092, with active deployments beyond China’s territorial seas including an incident in which Type 091 submarines shadowed USS Kitty Hawk and an anti-piracy deployment.
The Type 093 has complemented but not replaced the Type 091 in PLAN service. Unlike the Type 091, Russia was closely involved with the design of the Type 093. There are two variants of the class, the 093 and the 093G. Four boats have been commissioned to date — the two Type 093 boats were commissioned in 2006 and 2007, and the Type 093Gs were both commissioned in 2016. The armament of the Type 093s is identical to the Type 091, while the Type 093Gs are believed to have VLS tubes for YJ-18 ASCMs (discussed more extensively below). The YJ-18 is analogous to the Russian 3M-54 Klub and may have a range in excess of 270 nmi. It employs a hybrid flight profile, traveling at subsonic speed until closing on its target, when it accelerates to ~Mach 3 in order to evade ship defenses. In terms of sonic performance, DoD materials and other sources indicate that the original Type 093 has still not caught up with newer Russian SSNs. However, nearly a decade elapsed between the commissioning of the Type 093 and 093G, so it is probable that the latter includes substantial improvements in noise reduction.
Overall, it is difficult to arrive at detailed conclusions about China’s SSN fleet given the secrecy of the program. However, intelligence analysts tend to agree that Chinese SSN technology lags behind that of Russia and thus even further behind that of the United States. It also seems that the SSN program has not advanced as quickly as the surface combatant fleet. This should not be surprising, as nuclear reactor technology is less readily developed/imported/copied due to its sheer complexity and the care with which the few SSN-operating countries guard their knowledge. Nevertheless, China is committed to investing in nuclear submarines and will continue making progress going forward.
Conventional attack submarines
The last category to be considered by this article is the conventional (non-nuclear) attack submarine, a favored tool of the PLAN due to their low cost and considerable offensive power, especially in the littorals. In the early 1990s, the PLAN’s conventional submarine force consisted of Type 033 and Type 035 boats. The former was a license-produced copy of the 1950s Soviet Romeo-class submarine. Before the Sino-Soviet Split, the USSR donated Romeo class blueprints to China and gave substantial assistance in establishing the production line. While the USSR itself abandoned the Romeo class rather quickly, the PLAN ran with the design, producing over 80 vessels and making substantial improvements.
The Type 033 (Romeo) class was a small submarine, displacing only 1,700 tons submerged. Its armament consisted of eight 533 mm torpedo tubes. Despite the age of the design, it served into the 2010s. While the Type 033s were fairly obsolete by this time, diesel-electric submarines are quiet while operating on battery power regardless of their age, so even old assets can pose a threat. Moreover, in the littorals, older designs such as the Romeo are easier to conceal since the topography of the seafloor and the quantity of noise pollution pose serious detection challenges, and the shorter combat distances make endurance less of a concern.
China’s other conventional attack submarine class during the early 1990s was the Type 035 (Ming). Based on the Type 033 blueprint but with substantial changes to the majority of its systems, including the hull, the Type 035 was more evolutionary than revolutionary. In terms of armament, the Type 035 has six bow-mounted torpedo tubes capable of firing either wire-guided/acoustic or wake-homing torpedoes. There are four variants of the Type 035 — 035, 035A, 035G, and 035B (in order of chronology and presumably capability). Some uncertainty exists as to the disparities between each variant — Combat Fleets of the World asserts that the Type 035B, of which five were produced, employs substantial noise reduction techniques, while other sources do not bother to distinguish between Type 035 variants. Around half of the boats have been retired, and they will be completely phased out as newer classes enter service.
The next conventional submarines commissioned by the PLAN were not built by China but purchased from Russia. As discussed previously, the collapse of the USSR allowed China to purchase advanced military equipment from Russia to compensate for the arms embargo imposed by the West. In the mid-1990s, an order was placed for two Project 877EKM Kilo-class submarines, which had previously been destined for a Warsaw Pact navy, and two Project 636 Kilos, known in the West as Improved Kilos. While both are derived from of the basic Kilo blueprint, the difference in performance between the 877 and 636 cannot be overstated. The relatively-old 877s did not offer a revolutionary expansion of capabilities, but the 636s are believed to be among the quieter diesel-electric submarines in service and provided a level of stealth not previously possessed by the PLAN. China decided to purchase eight more Project 636Ms after the original order had been placed.
The Kilos received by the PLAN displace around 3,000 tons submerged and are armed with six 533 mm torpedo tubes. The 877EKM and 636 are both equipped to fire wire-guided and wake-homing torpedoes, and the 636 is armed with 3M-54E1 Klub anti-ship cruise missiles as well. The 3M-54E1 has a range of 97 nmi and cruises subsonic with a Mach 2.5 terminal sprint. The Kilos are fitted out with Russian systems and electronics.
Given China’s history of reverse-engineering the military technology it purchases, it is likely that the advanced sound-dampening measures employed aboard the Kilo 636s have been analyzed extensively by the PLAN. However, reverse-engineering potential was not the only factor driving the PLAN’s decision to procure the 636 — were that the case, only a few boats would have been necessary.
The Type 039 (Song) submarine, China’s conventional submarine with an all-indigenous hull design, first entered service in 1999. However, the Type 039 was conceived before the Kilo purchase and began testing in 1991. The first vessel of the class had an unusual stepped sail and appears to have suffered extensive difficulties during the testing regime, hence the type’s late introduction into service. Subsequent vessels were produced with a conventional sail design and designated Type 039G. Since the Type 039 and 039G are believed to be similar except for the sail , the two will be referred to collectively as the Type 039(G). The Type 039(G) is believed to incorporate a number of Russian and Western technologies, including French-designed sonars and German-designed diesel engines. In 2006, a Type 039G surfaced within torpedo range of the American aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, giving rise to speculation regarding the Type 039(G)’s capabilities (and the American carrier group’s lack thereof). While the Type 039(G) is not believed to be state-of-the-art, it is nevertheless impressive that the boat was able to evade detection. Taken as a whole, the incident demonstrates the substantial capabilities of the Type 039(G), the overall low noise of diesel-electric submarines when running on batteries, and the inherent difficulties of conducting anti-submarine warfare, especially in crowded littoral areas.
China’s newest submarine class is the Type 039A (Yuan). Despite this designation, it is not a close derivative of the Type 039(G) — the two have remarkably different hull shapes and, at least externally, do not exhibit much commonality. Rather, the Type 039A’s silhouette more closely resembles that of the Kilo — this could be incidental or a result of lessons learned from the Russian boats. Unlike the Kilo, however, the Type 039A incorporates an air-independent propulsion system.
Conventional diesel-electric submarines rely on batteries for stealth operations, severely restricting their endurance and requiring low cruising speeds, since batteries cannot match the energy density of diesel or nuclear fuel. Activating diesel generators allows for higher speeds and recharges the batteries, but diesels are relatively loud and require snorkels or surfacing. Air-independent propulsion systems (AIPs), which vary in their specifics depending on the implementation, use energy sources (other than batteries) which do not require access to the atmosphere for continued operation. AIP submarines have drastically-enhanced submerged endurance relative to diesel-electric boats and tend to be very quiet. While inferior to their nuclear counterparts with regards to speed and endurance, AIP submarines are smaller and cheaper to compensate. Moreover, designing and implementing an AIP system is much easier than engineering a stealthy nuclear powertrain.
Displacing around 3,600 tons submerged, the Type 039A is larger than both the Kilo and the Type 039(G). Its armament is the standard array of 533 mm torpedoes as well as the C-801A. Other equipment varies slightly from boat to boat, and some sources sub-divide the Type 039A into further variants. Thus far, 15 Type 039As are in PLAN service, with five more on the way.
To bolster the striking power of its submarines, the PLAN has developed a new ASCM, the YJ-18, which bears close resemblance to the 3M-54E and employs the same speed profile — a subsonic cruise and a supersonic terminal sprint. The YJ-18 is known to be currently deployed aboard the Type 093G, Type 052D, and Type 051C. According to a 2015 DoD report, the YJ-18 will also equip the Type 039(G), Type 039A, and potentially the Kilos. This would seem to imply that it has torpedo-tube launch capability, although it is possible that VLS cells are being backfitted (or that the DoD report is incorrect).
The capabilities of the missile are also contested — DoD reports cite a maximum range of 290 nmi, implying substantial improvements over the 3M-54E upon which it is supposedly based, though others are skeptical. Should the YJ-18 be deployed aboard submarines, the weapon could prove a serious menace.
The C-801A’s range is relatively short and would require PLAN submarines to come fairly close to their targets in combat, increasing the likelihood of detection. The YJ-18, on the other hand, could be fired from well outside of sonar range. In fact, were the 290 nmi figure to be accurate, YJ-18 equipped submarines would be capable of striking targets well past Taiwan without having to leave the Chinese coastline. Most of the South and East China Seas would be within range from positions near the coast as well.
In just under three decades, the PLAN has gone from an obsolete force to one of the most powerful navies in the world. It is not necessarily notable that the PLAN has improved — all navies (generally) improve over time — but rather that the rate of improvement has been extremely rapid. Back in the 1990s, the United States was building Arleigh Burke-class destroyers; in 2018, the United States is still building Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. During the same time period, the PRC has designed and launched six destroyer types and has introduced numerous missiles, radars, and engines into service. The story for frigates is quite similar. As a result, the PLAN now possesses surface combatants capable of not only defending themselves against attack but also contesting large swaths of airspace, striking at great range with ASCMs, and escorting fleets. China’s new assets would pose a serious threat to aircraft and ships near flashpoints such as the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, the South China Sea, and Taiwan, should conflict occur. During peacetime, the PLAN’s new fleet helps deter interference in the western Pacific. The advances in area air defense also pave the way for the PLAN to constitute an operational carrier strike group, which could deploy to conflict regions and project Chinese power worldwide.
Despite its newfound emphasis on large, high-end surface combatants, the PLAN has not abandoned its distributed, anti-shipping roots. The new Type 022 missile boats and Type 039A submarines, both of which are state-of-the-art and profligate, demonstrate that China remains committed to the aggressive deployment of short-range offensive platforms as a means to obtain local sea control. Though most Chinese vessels deploy the C-80X series ASCMs, which are not the most challenging to intercept, the sheer quantity of missiles would be enough to overwhelm all but the most coordinated opponents, and the newer YJ-18 poses a more serious threat.
Yet, to say that China has become self-sufficient in naval technology to the degree of the United States, the United Kingdom, or Russia would be erroneous — many of the PLAN’s major systems are still derivatives if not outright copies of dated foreign designs. In order to match the quality of Western navies, China will need to transition from playing catch-up to producing indigenous designs which are themselves on the bleeding edge. In some realms, this has already occurred, but in others the PRC has a ways to go.
Nevertheless, that the gap has narrowed significantly is undeniable. Whereas the ways in which Chinese naval assets were inferior to their counterparts used to be obvious, the discrepancies are now more subtle and are often speculative. Given China’s rapid economic growth, high defense spending (second only to America), and large pool of engineering talent, it seems all but inevitable that the PRC will achieve technological self-sufficiency in the near future. Regional adversaries are already overmatched by the PLAN, and, if it is not careful, the US Navy will find its missions in the western Pacific quite vulnerable as well.