Should the Navy Fear China's 'Streetfighter' Ships?

Chinese sailors stand guard onboard the Shi Jia Zhuang, a Luzhou class missile destroyer, at Valparaiso port, about 75 miles (121km) northwest of Santiago

China could be on the cusp of a deploying a new frigate design altogether—ironically one that draws substantially on a key naval architecture innovation of the American Littoral Combat Ship.

Chinese Navy watchers can be forgiven for focusing their attention on capital ships, such as the aircraft carrier program and the new “cruiser” Type 055. There has even been some speculation lately that revolutionary rail gun technology could be integrated into the new cruiser project. That would seem unlikely at this late date, but it will no doubt be an interesting day in world history (and one coming up relatively soon) when China’s first aircraft-carrier battle group sets sail for the Indian Ocean. And the first cruise for that battle group into the Atlantic may not be too long after that, given the unfolding scope of Chinese naval ambitions. Yet the aircraft-carrier project is mostly of symbolic import—significant, to be sure, but not overly concerning.

The strategic issue that might cause more anxiety is the ever-growing prospect that Beijing wields the requisite amount of firepower to “call the shots” in the western Pacific. For that purpose, a vast clutch of smaller ships is likely to be far more determinate than some expensive behemoth that would most likely become a prize for lurking submarines in any hypothetical conflict. Indeed, the Chinese appear to have embraced with gusto the “street fighter” naval concept that originated almost two decades ago in U.S. Navy circles, but which also has a longer history dating back at least to the so-called “Jeune École.” The cheaper, more numerous small surface combatants were intended to give a country options short of sending in major naval forces that could spur escalation or, alternatively, place those capital ships at unacceptable risk. There seems to be wide agreement among naval analysts, moreover, that Beijing has bested Washington, at least in round one of this particular naval strategic contest. That is because the PLAN’s Type 056 corvette and the Type 054 frigate have been judged to be highly successful ship classes, while the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) has struggled, to say the least.

We will not rehearse the difficulties of that unfortunate contest here, but it is worth considering that China could be on the cusp of a deploying a new frigate design altogether—ironically one that draws substantially on a key naval architecture innovation of the American LCS. About a year ago, China unveiled a model at an Abu Dhabi arms show that raised significant eyebrows. That model was analyzed thoroughly in various defense fora. However, this Dragon Eye column can perhaps fill in these analyses by exploring the new Chinese frigate concept through the eyes of Chinese naval analysts themselves, since a few articles have now been published in the major Chinese naval magazines.

A 2017 article from Modern Ships (现代舰船) explains that the Chinese trimaran frigate had an important precursor that afforded Chinese engineers good experience with this type of vessel. This precursor is a little-known ship type called the Type 917 trimaran rescue ship (三体救生船). Three prototypes were built, starting in 2012, and, perhaps indicative of the design’s importance, one prototype was given to each of the PLA Navy’s three fleets. The design was apparently highly successful in the rescue role. But what really seems to have impressed Chinese naval architects was apparently the fact that the 550-ton Type 917 could have roughly the same dimensions in its flight deck as a four-thousand-ton Type 054 frigate. Beyond the design bureau, however, the article notes that Chinese were sorely disappointed (让人大跌眼镜) by the fact that Type 917 was no “Chinese LCS,” because it had little armament to speak of.