Can China's 'Dreadnought' Tip the Naval Balance?

Beijing is dropping hints about its mysterious new warship.

As the U.S.-China naval rivalry unfolds across the Asia-Pacific, Washington sails with significant confidence through these turbulent waters. After all, the U.S. Navy still far exceeds the Chinese Navy in gross tonnage, retains the advantage in key domains such as submarine quieting, has a huge network of bases, and possesses loyal, highly motivated and strong allies to boot. Still, as this Dragon Eye column has pointed out in several instances, Beijing also has some reasons for confidence in this nascent rivalry.

With respect to the territorial disputes on China’s maritime flank, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has an enviable level of strategic focus, but far and away its most important advantage is its favorable geography. That is to say that Chinese military planners enjoy the potent benefit of interior lines in almost any conceivable military scenario versus the United States. “Interior lines” is just a fancy way of saying that China can bring much more firepower to the fight much faster than the United States, at least in the initial phases of any military contest.

For these basic reasons, Western defense analysts should avoid being dismissive of emergent Chinese naval capabilities, even if the Chinese navy remains smaller and less experienced. It seems likely, moreover, that Beijing has indeed stepped up the pace of its naval building program, perhaps in part as a strategy to keep its shipyards humming at a time of contracting commercial orders. Indeed, Chinese shipyards do tend to build commercial and military vessels side by side in the same yard—a rather different model than the one employed by Western shipbuilders.

Just over a decade ago, Western naval analysts (including this one) marveled over the PLAN’s new “Red Aegis” Type 052C destroyer, the first Chinese warship to wield both phased array radars and vertical launch systems (VLS). Today, an improved variant of that ship, Type 052D, is in serial production, predicted to run to between eight and twelve hulls. This Dragon Eye will not focus on that impressive vessel, but rather will peer into the future and look at the ominous “dreadnought” on the horizon, China’s Type 055 cruiser, which is currently in development.

Some further hints about the mysterious behemoth, suggested as 11,500 tons fully loaded, were revealed in the Chinese magazine Shipborne Weaponry (舰载武器), published by a Zhengzhou institute of the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC). According to this description, which includes several rather detailed line drawings, the ship is projected to be 175 meters in length and twenty-one meters wide, with a draft of 6.5 meters and a top speed of thirty-two knots. The ship will wield four types of “new-type” (新型) missiles (discussed below), but that arsenal does not even account for the “long-range land attack cruise missile” (远程对地巡航导弹) and “sea-based missile interceptor” (海基反导导弹). In addition to electric drive propulsion, this analysis boasts that the the all-important phased array radars have been upgraded to include both X-band and S-band arrays—and thus may be on part with America’s top air-defense ships. This analysis holds that 055’s larger displacement will enable “larger weapons magazines and enhanced combat potential, so that its distant seas comprehensive fighting power will be much stronger” than its predecessors.

The article states directly both that Type 052C and D destroyers were constrained in their size by propulsion issues, and that engines for large surface vessels have formed a major technical bottleneck for the Chinese Navy. An interim step in the development process was the “indigenization” (国产化) of the Ukrainian GT25000 that resulted in the apparently “stable, reliable … [and] fuel-efficient” Chinese QC-280 gas turbine engine. Speed, acoustic and efficiency gains from electric propulsion are noted and the analysis goes on to claim that a major research “breakthrough” on this technology was accomplished by Wuhan shipbuilding research institute 712, so that by 2012, electric drive was already being incorporated into various Chinese prototype vessels, including non-naval platforms.