5.3   Modernization of the PLA Navy I - Surface Combatants

1 April 2018

In line with the new goals set for the PLA, the most notable improvements have come in China’s naval, air, missile, space, and C4ISR capabilities.

During the past two decades, China’s ambitious naval modernization has produced a more technologically advanced and flexible force. Currently, the PLAN possesses more than 300 surface combatants, submarines, amphibious ships, and missile-armed patrol craft.[1]

Types of Warships (In descending order in term of size)


Modern cruisers (CG, C for cruiser, G for guided missile) (battlecruiser, heavy cruiser, light cruiser) are generally the largest ships in a fleet after aircraft carriers, and can usually perform several roles. Historically, they were generally considered the smallest ships capable of independent operations. The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 placed limits on the construction of ships with a standard displacement of more than 10,000 tons and an armament of guns larger than 8-inch (203 mm). Currently only two nations operate cruisers: the United States and Russia. China will join the rank with its Type 055 CG.

A destroyer (DDG, DD for destroyer, G for guided missileis a fast, manoeuvrable long-endurance warship intended to escort larger vessels in a fleet, convoy or battle group and defend them against smaller powerful short-range attackers. Destroyers have steadily grown in size (now 5,000 to 10,000 tons) and capability. Generally, a destroyer is considered to be a ship that has all of the sensors (including a sophisticated phased-array radar), combat systems, and weapons needed to operate in a high-threat environment. Modern destroyers, also known as guided missile destroyers (DDG, DD for destroyer, G for guided missile), are equivalent in tonnage but vastly superior in firepower to cruisers of the World War II era, and are capable of carrying nuclear tipped cruise missiles. A number of world navies are currently building ships that, while called frigates, more accurately represent destroyers in size and capability.

A frigate (FFG, FF for frigate, G for guided missileis a medium-sized surface combatant (2,000-5,000 tons) that is either suited for one specific role (anti-submarine warfare or anti-air warfare), or has lesser all-around capabilities than a destroyer. In modern navies, frigates are used to protect other warships and merchant-marine ships, especially as anti-submarine warfare (ASW) combatants for amphibious expeditionary forces, underway replenishment groups, and merchant convoys. It is generally the smallest surface combatant that can conduct extended blue-water missions in a high-threat environment.

Corvettes are fast, well-armed ships that displace between 700 and 2000 tons. They are traditionally the smallest class of vessel considered to be a proper (or "rated") warship. They are also the smallest platforms capable of accommodating the sensors, weapons, and combat systems needed to operate in a medium threat environment. They are generally not intended for extended ocean-going operations, and are best suited for regional operations. Corvettes are sometimes referred to as light frigates (FFLs). The warship class above the corvette is that of the frigate, while the class below is coastal patrol craft and fast attack craft.

A cutter is typically a small, but in some cases a medium-sized, watercraft designed for speed rather than for capacity. In modern usage, a cutter can be either a small- or medium-sized vessel whose occupants exercise official authority (e.g. coast guard).

Cruisers, Destroyers, Frigates & Corvettes


When China launched its naval rearmament program in the 1990s, it focused on building large numbers of small- and medium-size corvettes, frigates and destroyers. To acquire the necessary technologies, PLAN purchased a total of four Sovremenny-class destroyers between 1996 and 2002 from Russia followed by Sovremenny II-class guided missiles destroyers in 2006. Using reverse engineering, the PLAN has been able to progressively switch to locally producing a number of classes of modern surface combatants, including guided missile frigates (FFGs) and guided missile destroyers (DDGs) with greatly improved anti-surface and anti-air warfare capabilities. [2]

Since the early 1990s, PLAN has been able to deploy 6 new classes of destroyers and 4 new classes of frigates, all indigenous produced. Between 1991 and 2016, PLAN has commissioned 21 destroyers and 39 frigates into service. In addition, 41 corvettes (JIANGDAO class or Type 056/056A) have been commission by 2017 since the vessel was first introduced in 2013. They are meant to replace both older small patrol craft as well as some of the PLAN’s aging JIANGHU I-class (Type 053H) frigates.[3] Type 056A corvette is an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) variant of Type 056. Some observers project an eventual corvette force of 60. China is also building large numbers of cutters for its coast guard, and the total numbers of larger cutters have grown in recent years.


Hence, even though the most symbolic event portending China growing sea-power is the commissioning of its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning in September 2012, the most significant progress really lies in smaller and advanced fast-attack crafts.[4] Give that PLAN’s objective is not sea control but sea denial in the China Seas, these vessels, coupled with land-based missiles and effective underwater warfare, are lower costs and less vulnerable than large carriers. Used in large number in coordinated attacks, they could present a more serious sea-denial threat than the traditional large carriers.


The improvement is not only in term of number. The new vessels demonstrate a significant modernization of PLA Navy surface combatant technology that rapidly allows PLAN to narrow the technology and capability gap with modern navies. According to US Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), the JIANGKAI-class (Type 054A) frigate series, LUYANG-class (Type 052B/C/D) destroyer series, and the new RENHAI-class (Type 055) cruiser are considered to be comparable in many respects to the most modern Western warships.[5]

One key area of improvement is the arsenal carried by the new vessels. Older surface combatants carry variants of the YJ-83 anti-submarine cruise missile (ASCM, 65 nm, 120 km). The newer ones such as the LUYANG II DDGs are fitted with the YJ-62 (150 nm, 222 km) ASCM while the latest vessels such as LUYANG III DDG and RENHAI missile cruiser (CG) are fitted with a variant of China’s newest ASCM, the YJ-18 (290 nm, 537 km).

In particular, the RENHAI-class Type 055 CG just unveiled in June 2017 has caught the attention of military observers. The 128 missiles it carries in vertical cells make it the surface warship with the largest weapons-loadout in the Pacific region. More importantly, armed with the long-range supersonic YJ-18 and YJ-12 over the horizon (OTH) anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), the Chinese cruiser currently out-competes US Arleigh Burke class destroyers and the bigger Ticonderoga class cruisers, highlighting a major failure in US Navy planning that stretches back to the 1990s. Both ships rely on fewer and shorter-range Harpoon anti-ship missiles (ASMs) and on aircraft carriers that are themselves vulnerable to China’s ballistic missiles. The US Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), under development since 2009, would right the balance, but not for years to come, and meanwhile China will continue improving its capabilities. Reaction times to the latest supersonic and hypersonic anti-ship weapons can be as short as 15-30 seconds.[6] With the Type 055 cruiser, China has caught up with, or surpassed, the other Pacific powers in terms of sheer seagoing firepower.


In 2015, ONI stated that, until recently, “China’s force modernization has concentrated on improving the quality of its force, rather than its size. Quantities of major combatants have stayed relatively constant, but their combat capability has greatly increased as older combatants are replaced by larger, multi-mission ships.”[7] With the quality now catching up, however, some categories of ships are set to increase in number over the next few years.


Indeed, the launching of new vessels has picked up speed in recent years. In 2014 alone, more than 60 naval ships and craft were laid down, launched, or commissioned. In 2016, the PLA Navy commissioned 18 ships, including a Type 052D guided missile destroyer, three Type 054A guided missile frigates as well as six Type 056 corvettes. In January 2017 alone, the Navy commissioned three ships—one destroyer, one electronic reconnaissance ship and one corvette.[8]


Despite the increase in number, however, the Chinese fleet still lags behind the US and barely exceeds Japan based on overall number of seagoing vertical missile cells, a useful shorthand for naval power. China’s 39 modern destroyers and frigates — excluding the Type 055 — together can deploy around 1,500 cells. This is significantly less than the nearly 5,000 missile cells possessed by the US Pacific Fleet’s 36 Burkes and 12 Ticonderogas but marginally more than the 1,000 cells carried by Japan’s 19 modern destroyers.[9]


Another notable area of improvement on PLAN newer surface ships is their shipboard air defence. Instead of the legacy destroyers and frigates’ point air defence capability with a range of just several miles, the newer vessels are equipped with medium-to-long range area air defence missiles. This will become critical as the PLAN expands operations into distant seas beyond the range of shore-based air defence systems.

Aircraft Carriers


Despite the current operational emphasis on small and advanced fast-attack vessels, however, China is still set to add more carriers to its fleet. Carriers are important because they help to enable task group operations in “far seas.” Moreover, carriers have a certain great-power aura because so few countries have them. As a start, PLAN will need at least three aircraft carriers so that one can be on active duty, one can train personnel, and the third can receive maintenance.[10] Chinese military strategists, however, point out that to protect China’s territories and overseas interests, China needs two carrier strike groups in the West Pacific Ocean and two in the Indian Ocean. Hence, China needs at least five to six aircraft carriers.[11]


Based on current rate of construction, China can produce 6 aircraft carriers by 2030. As of end of 2017, China has begun testing the second carrier (Type 001A, speculated to be eventually named Shandong) which is slated to begin sea trial in 2019 and to be commissioned in 2020. Even though this Type 001A second carrier is produced indigenously, it is still a slightly modified version of Liaoning. One key difference is that the design will be more ‘humanised,’ which means all personnel on the carrier will enjoy a more comfortable and modern environment. Second, the control-tower superstructure also appears to have been modified to accommodate new radars and masts. More significantly, its larger hangar and a different flight deck arrangement allow 001A to embark up to 35 J-15 carrier-based fighters, as opposed to 24 on the Liaoning.[12]


Despite the improvements, China’s second aircraft carrier remains far from the state-of-the-art. One deficiency is that it uses the same simple ramp, known as a ‘ski-jump’, adopted by Liaoning instead of the catapults to launch aircraft into the sky. Great Britain, India and Russia use similar ramps because of their technical simplicity and significantly lower cost. The disadvantage with the use of the ski-ramp is that PLAN’s only carrier fighter J-15 must carry less than full load of bombs or fuel to be able to take off. This limits the two carriers’ combat effectiveness. J-15 is the first carrier-based fighter China spent more than a decade developing based on a prototype of a fourth-generation Russian Sukhoi Su-33 that is now more than 30 years old. With a maximum take-off weight of 33 tonnes, J-15 is the heaviest active carrier-based fighter jet in the world. Even the US Navy’s new generation C13-2 steam catapult launch engines, installed on Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, would struggle to launch the aircraft efficiently. [13]


Moreover, the same weight limit problem is extended to other larger and heavier aircrafts like the airborne early warning aircraft or on-board delivery aircraft. The PLAN currently operates a version of the Changhe Z-18 transport helicopter fitted with a multimode active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar on board the Liaoning as its airborne early warning platform. Compared to a fixed-wing turboprop aircraft like the Hawkeye, a helicopter has significantly reduced endurance and operating altitude, which results in a significantly reduced time on station and radar range, respectively.


To solve the problem, PLAN has to come up with an electromagnetic aircraft launcher system (EMALS) which can only be installed on a nuclear-powered carrier because of its high power consumption. This indeed is likely to be one of the major improvements for the third aircraft carrier designated Type 002 rumoured to be currently under construction in Shanghai. Type 002 is much bigger, probably nuclear powered and will be much more like US aircraft carriers in both form and function. More importantly, it will feature an advanced EMALS which China has succeeded in developing after it acquired the ability to produce a key component used in high-efficiency electric energy conversion systems. The indigenously developed EMALS, touted to be more advanced and more reliable than the system used on the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford, has been shown to be able to catapult the J-15 fighter more easily and efficiently.  More significantly, in addition to giving J-15 additional range and payload, the EMALS could also allow the carrier to carry fixed wing Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEWC) and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) aircraft. This will in the end help to increase the combat power of the entire Chinese carrier group.[14]


In addition, PLAN has also developed a medium-voltage, direct-current transmission network to replace an earlier system based on alternating current. The new power-generating system not only permits the use of the new EMALS without resorting to nuclear power but could also allow future PLAN warships to be armed with modern high-energy arsenal like electromagnetic rail guns and directed-energy weapons. [15]


Meanwhile, there are also talks about adding fifth-generation fighters J-20 and J-31 to China's future straight-deck aircraft carriers equipped with the EMALS. J-31, a stealth fighter, is also known by its official name Shenyang FC-31. It made its debut in Zhuhai Airshow in 2014 offered to overseas buyers as an alternative to the American F-35.[16] Both J-20 and J-31 are originally designed for the PLAAF but can be modified (e.g. with folding wings and reinforced landing gear) and deployed as carrier fighters.[17]

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[1] See ONI. (2015). Pg 13.

[2] See Bill Gertz. (2017). “Why America Should Fear China's Submarine Fleet.” National Interest. June 21, 2017.

[3] See Ronald O’Rourke. (2017). Pg 32 – 37.

[4] See Adolfo Arranz & Dennis Wong. (2017). “Liaoning: everything you need to know about China’s first aircraft carrier.” SCMP. July 7, 2017.

[5] See ONI. (2015). “The PLA Navy: New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century.” Office of Naval Intelligence Report, p. 13. 

[6] See Anders Corr. (2017). “China's New Destroyer, The U.S. Navy's Anti-Ship Missile Failure, And Preemption.” Forbes. July 1, 2017.

[7] See ONI. (2015). Pg 5 – 13.

[8] See Zhang Tao. (2017). “Navy Upgrades Missile Destroyer.” China Military. February 22, 2017.  

[9] See David Axe. (2017). “China’s Giant New Cruiser Matches America’s Naval Firepower.” National Interest. October 5, 2017.

[10] Zhang Tao. (2016). “2nd Aircraft Carrier To Have Military Focus.” China Daily, January 4, 2016.  

[11] See Yang Sheng. (2017). “2nd carrier almost complete.” Global Times. February 21, 2017.

[12] See Jamie Seidel. (2017). “China is about to launch its second aircraft carrier, 001A.” News.com.au. March 6, 2017.

[13] Minnie Chan. (2017). “China’s Aircraft Carrier Conundrum: Hi-Tech Launch System for Old, Heavy Fighters.” South China Morning Post. November 19, 2017.

[14] See Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer. (2016). “The Next Generation of China's Carrier-Borne Fighter, The Flying Shark, Takes to the Skies.” Popular Science. September 20, 2016.

[15] See Mike Yeo. (2017). “China claims breakthrough in electromagnetic launch system for aircraft carrier.” DefenseNews. November 9, 2017.

[16] See Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer. (2017). “China's J-31 stealth fighter gets an improved prototype—and a potential future on a carrier.” Popular Science. May 2, 2017.

[17] Deng Xiaoci. (2017). “Future Chinese Aircraft Carriers to Feature J-20, J-31 Stealth Fighters.” Global Times. December 6, 2017.