The Buzz

China's Testing Asia's Largest Warship

China is getting prepared to test what Asia’s largest surface warship since World War II, new satellite data reveals.

On Thursday, Popular Science’s terrific Eastern Arsenal blog reports, citing new satellite images, that China’s “Type 055 cruiser test rig in Wuhan is well on its way to opening for business.”

Photos of the test rig first appeared on Chinese internet in April of last year. January 2015 images showed the rig nearing completion. According to Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer, who together author the Eastern Arsenal blog, the Type 055 rig is “a rough approximation of the actual cruiser, with enough physical similarity to help training crew for procedures like helicopter landings and layout familiarization.”

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They also note that the rig has been equipped with electronics and sensors, to help Chinese sailors to familiarize themselves with those aspects of the ship.

Lin and Singer go on to note that, based on the size of the rig, Type 055 cruisers will have a length of 160-180 meters, a width of 21-23 meters, and displace between 12,000-14,000 tons. At that displacement, the Type 055 cruisers will be the largest surface warship built in Asia since Imperial Japan produced Tone-class heavy cruisers during the Second World War.

Regarding its mission, Lin and Singer note that “the Type 055 cruiser is expected to command Chinese taskforces, act as the center of fleet air defenses against enemy air attacks, escort carrier groups and launch barrages of land attack and anti-ship missiles to project Chinese airpower.”

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For these purposes, the Type 055 cruiser will have a helicopter pad and an incredible 112-128 vertical launch systems (VLS) cells for missiles. By way of comparison, the U.S. Navy’s Ticonderoga-class Aegis Cruisers have about 122 VLS cells.

The Type 055 cruiser’s VLS cells could be loaded with a variety of Chinese missiles, including the new YJ-18 anti-ship missile, HQ-9 long range surface to air missile, and the CJ-1000 land attack cruise missile. This would allow the cruiser to perform a diverse array of missions, from projecting power on land to protecting an aircraft carrier to waging naval warfare.

Previously, Chinese media outlets have said that the Type 055 will displace 12,000 tons and carry 128 missiles. They have also said that it could eventually carry laser weapons.

The Type 055 cruiser will also be a force multiplier for the rest of China’s carrier strike groups, thanks to the electronics support measures (ESM) mast that forms the highest point on the ship.

As Lin and Singer explain: “ESM is the practice of collecting, processing and analyzing electronic activity by the enemy, in order to improve the performance of one's electronics, and to calibrate electronic warfare systems.”

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Sitting atop the integrated mass of the ship, the ESM will boast three radar arrays. The specific radar systems are unknown at this time, but Lin and Singer suggest that they will be used for “fire control for surface to air missiles (SAMs), navigation and identification friend or foe (IFF) transmitter.”

Building a large-scale mockup to test a new ship before actual production begins is common practice for modern naval ship-building. The United States, for example, took this approach for both its Aegis and Zumwalt-class cruisers and destroyers.

The rationale, as Lin and Singer have previously explained: “is that they [test rigs] provide a cheaper and less risky alternative to rushing directly into ship construction; it is far easier to measure, modify and fine tune a land based system as opposed to a seagoing prototype hull.”

AMI International, an American-based consulting firm, has previously said that China will ultimately build around six Type 055 cruisers to go along with six 052C destroyers and eight 052D destroyers, all of which will be crucial parts of China’s Carrier Strike Groups and other naval units.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Flickr/Steve Webel