There is an exclusive club of five maritime nations currently operating surface combatants that displace over 9,750 tonnes – or what in The Military Balance classifies as ‘cruisers’. Missile defence and the ability to fire larger cruise missiles require bigger radars and cooling systems as well as more missile-launcher space, which all contribute to driving up the size of the vessel.

China's first home-grown missile destroyer

By Tom Waldwyn, Research Analyst for Defence and Military Analysis

Whilst South Korea, Japan and the United States all have ongoing procurement programmes to build more vessels of this size, Russia and Taiwan (which qualifies thanks to a class of ex-US Navy vessels originally ordered by Iran under the Shah) do not and are unlikely to in the near future. However, Russia is refitting the two Orlan-class nuclear-powered cruisers to have new systems and may do the same for the Atlant class, but the Project 23560 Lider-class cruiser, which is showcased at arms conventions, is unlikely to be ordered anytime soon.

Global cruisers

The Type-055 programme, however, will see China join the ranks of states building new cruisers. With the launching of the first of class at Jiangnan Shipyard in June 2017, an in-service date of sometime in 2018 can be expected, following sea trials. The Type-055 has an active electronically scanned array air-search radar, similar to that fitted to China’s Type-052D destroyers, as well as an integrated mast housing more radar and sensors. The 2017 US Department of Defense (DoD) report to Congress on the Chinese military featured for the first time the US designation ‘Renhai’ for the class. The report expects the vessel to be armed with the new YJ-18 anti-ship missile ‘and its variants’ and sees the class as fulfilling a carrier-escort role. Based on imagery available so far, the vessel appears to have an opening at the rear, probably for a Variable Depth Sonar. Some improvements appear to have been made to features and equipment that also appear on other classes, such as the H/PJ-38 gun and decoy launchers, in order to reduce the vessel’s radar cross section.

China’s naval modernisation covers all areas of the fleet, and the speed and scale of it is impressive. But what makes the Type-055 and China’s aircraft carriers even more significant is that these are not replacing existing vessels (see below), but are new capabilities. The Type-001 Liaoning, commissioned in 2012, is providing the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and PLAN Air Force with valuable training and experience in the complex environment of carrier-borne naval aviation. The launch of the first Chinese-built carrier, the Type-001A, in April, means we can expect to see the PLAN send a carrier group further afield on exercises in the relatively near future.

Selected Chinese Navy shipbuilding programmes

As mentioned above, the US DoD’s latest report on the Chinese armed forces suggests that the Type-055 may be used in a fleet protection role similar to the US Ticonderoga-class cruisers, which are used as air-defence command ships. The entry into service of several aircraft carriers and Type-055 cruisers would give China the platforms to begin operating a US-style carrier strike group, if that is their intention. Some in China have suggested that the Type-055 could also be used as the command ship for other naval formations.

However, whilst the construction and eventual introduction of these new capabilities are significant, many questions remain concerning how China plans to employ these new vessels once larger numbers are in service.

This analysis originally featured on the Military Balance+, the new IISS online database that enables users in government, the armed forces and the private sector, as well as academia and the media, to make faster and better-informed decisions. The Military Balance+ allows users to customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

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