TAIPEI — China's Navy will outnumber the largest competitor in the region — Japan — in the number of phased-array radar-equipped destroyers in 2018, if production continues on schedule.
On Dec. 22, China commissioned its fifth 052C destroyer, the Jinan, leaving one last ship of that type to be finished.
The People's Liberation Army Navy's (PLAN's) procurement of Luyang-class Type 052C/Ds and Type 055 guided-missile cruisers with phased-array radars will provide long range anti-aircraft warfare (AAW) support to four planned carrier strike groups. They will also provide coverage for high value units such as 20,000-ton Type 081 amphibious assault ships, said Tony Beitinger, vice president of market intelligence for AMI International.
"AMI anticipates that the PLAN will build: six Type 052Cs, eight 052Ds and six Type 055 cruisers. The 052Cs are already in the PLAN inventory while the 052Ds are under construction and will enter service by 2018. The new cruiser design should start construction by 2016 and conclude in 2024."
Toshi Yoshihara, author of the book, "Red Star Over the Pacific," said, excluding the US Navy, this buildup will "tilt the naval balance of power in maritime Asia." The only two other Asian navies with warships of equivalent capability are Japan's, with six phased-array radar-equipped destroyers, with plans to build two more, and the South Korean Navy, with three similar destroyers.
China's new destroyer deployments will "significantly increase the PLAN's ability to operate at distance, with its own AAW capability much improved," said Bernard "Bud" Cole, author of the book, "The Great Wall at Sea." It will make the PLAN more formidable in the face of possible opposition from Japan or other Asian naval and air forces, he said.
The question is whether confidence matches competence. Most sources agree the ships will be no match for destroyers deployed by Japan, South Korea and the US Navy.
"One swallow does not make a spring; neither does any specific vessel make a comprehensive operational picture in the maritime theater," said Ching Chang, a research fellow at Taiwan's ROC Society for Strategic Studies.
"The 052C/Ds have a long way to go in terms of matching the US Navy's Arleigh Burke-class," Chang said. "Please check the signal cables' arrangements to the mast and the navigation light allocations on the stern. It is pathetic to spend so much money to build a major combatant with such a low level of industrial discipline."
One-to-one comparisons are problematic, Yoshihara said. "The 052s have to be put in the context of China's unique strategic and operational needs. Individual ship capabilities and total ship numbers may fall short compared to the US Navy. But, the 052s may be good enough for China's local circumstances."
Chang calls it dangerous and lethal to believe that the PLAN will completely emulate the US Navy in either hardware or software.
"The mission role of the 052-class destroyer may not be necessarily identical to any equivalent of other navies," he said.
There are many indications revealing that PLAN exercises with destroyers are conducted differently from the US Navy. "The PLAN surface combatants coordinate intensively with the bombers from either their Navy or aviation units or their [People's Liberation Army Air Force] colleagues." This is also true with their joint operational exercises conducted by surface combatants with their shore missile batteries, fast attack missile boats, and submarines, Chang said.
Chang warned that it might be fun for military fans to compare the 052C/Ds with the Arleigh Burke, but "we should remember that the maritime campaign was not and will not engage pairwise between equivalent combatants."
AMI's Beitinger said that although the 052s are primarily being built for fleet air defense within a larger carrier group force structure, "they also will have the capability to contribute medium/long range air defense of national infrastructure, coastal and offshore, in an integrated national air defense system."
James Holmes, professor of strategy, US Naval War College, said that if China can mass shore- and ship-based armaments against US task forces, the outcome could be very different than what ship-to-ship comparisons imply.
"The naval balance depends on where on the map a confrontation takes place," he said. "In all likelihood, that will be in the China seas or adjacent waters, within reach of shore-based components of Chinese seapower. These are the great equalizer. Or could be if Chinese armaments live up to their billing."
The new destroyers will serve as PLAN's "workhorses," giving the Navy more flexibility, Yoshihara said. Roles include forming surface action groups, joining amphibious task forces, and pickets for carrier strike groups. "In a Taiwan contingency, the 052s could also provide area-wide air defense coverage near or over the island, complicating Taipei's ability to defend its airspace."
Holmes added: "It is true that our Burkes carry more rounds of ammunition, more fuel, and so forth than the Type 052s. But it's also true that PLA Navy task forces will operate under the protective umbrella of shore-based tactical aircraft and missiles. And they will have missile-armed patrol craft and diesel submarines to act as offshore pickets."
The 052D and 055 ship construction schedules mirror the three-ship aircraft carrier program underway. The three conventionally powered carriers are to enter service between 2020 and 2024 in addition to the aircraft carrier Liaoning, which entered service in 2012, AMI's Beitinger said.
The multimission 052C/Ds and later the 055 guided-missile cruisers will provide long-range air defense as well as a more balanced AAW/point defense, anti-surface warfare and anti-submarine warfare capability compared to earlier major surface combatant designs.
The PLAN will probably employ one cruiser and two destroyers as part of a carrier strike group or amphibious group, he said.
The PLAN remains in the nascent stages of carrier operations and training and will continue to incrementally integrate additional ships, submarines and aircraft into a strike group structure over the next decade, Beitinger said.
AMI expects regional countries will view these developments as a "significant threat to stability, particularly as the PLAN refines and perfects its ability to operate a carrier or amphibious strike group and project power at sea or over land."
As for the US and Taiwan, "the PLAN will further develop its anti-access/area-denial capabilities using ballistic missiles, submarines and carrier strike groups as part of a layered strategy to control and deny access to areas of the South China Sea and East China Sea," Beitinger said.