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China Keeps Rolling Out More Type 055 Destroyers

July 14, 2018

The first Type 055 destroyer being launched in June 2017. Via Xinhua/Chinese MND.

Earlier this month Chinese state media published news that launch ceremonies were held on July 3 for two completed Type 055 class guided missile destroyers. The event took place at a Dalian shipyard where naval surface combatants are assembled in near-total secrecy. This follows another low-key Type 055 launch in April, bringing the total number of these ship to four. The very first Type 055 was dramatically unveiled in June last year.

The Type 055’s are recognized as the largest modern warships made in East Asia that are on par with the US Navy’s Ticonderoga-class destroyers and Japan’s own Atago-class destroyers.

The remarkable pace of construction for Type 055 destroyers indicates how far China’s state-owned naval shipbuilding has advanced. It bears repeating at least one 100,000 ton supercarrier is under construction in Dalian this year with two other ski jump carriers now operational–the Liaoning and the still unnamed Type 001 that was launched in April 2017. Four months after the debut of the PLAN’s first domestically made aircraft carrier a giant supply and replenishment ship was commissioned.

These events are a sure sign the PLAN are readying genuine carrier strike groups with the same range and firepower as their counterparts in the US Navy. Each 12,000 or 14,000 ton Type 055 guided missile destroyer, for example, serves as a perfect escort for any supercarrier deploying several dozen multirole fighters. But since the true scale of the Chinese navy’s blue water ambitions haven’t been revealed, the total requirement for Type 055’s remains guesswork. Without an “air-sea battle” doctrine of its own, even the composition of a PLAN strike group is a mystery.

The likeliest arrangement for a PLAN strike group consists of one aircraft carrier accompanied by two or three air defense escorts. They’re joined by at least two anti-submarine escorts and either one or two submarines and a single replenishment ship. Since the only possible major conflict involving the PLAN in the near future is an assault on Taiwan, it’s possible the strike group supports a convoy of amphibious transports.

Whatever the PLAN’s carrier doctrine is, a shock and awe invasion of Taiwan is the obvious contingency these upcoming strike groups must train for. This is what took place this April when the Liaoning, a refurbished Ukrainian hulk that used to be deemed a “practice carrier,” sailed around Taiwan with its destroyer escorts over the course of a week. The exercise was seen as a veiled threat to discourage Taipei from asserting its full independence from Beijing. But sending its warships to blockade a stubborn rogue province isn’t without its risks.

Not only is Taiwan’s alliance with the US intact, meaning the US Navy will defend the island nation, but its own war plans are quite formidable. The ROC’s frigates and corvettes carry anti-ship missiles designed for knocking out aircraft carriers and other large surface ships. A PLAN strike group also needs to worry about air-launched cruise missiles delivered by the ROC air force’s Falcons and Ching Kuos. The serious risks posed by these missiles does make a maritime siege of the island almost impractical.

But if the PLAN’s ultimate goal is blocking the US Navy’s access to the East and South China Sea, accomplishing this is extremely difficult given the Indo-Pacific Quad’s own naval deterrence that puts the Chinese navy at a serious disadvantage. As startling as Beijing’s ambitious naval arms race looks today it seems Asia, and the rest of the world, must wait and see how the PLAN readies itself for an outsized role in the Pacific Ocean and beyond.

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