China’s first quasi-stealthy new Type 055 destroyer is preparing for aggressive submarine-hunting missions near Taiwan and the South China Sea. How? By testing helicopter-dropped sonar and built-in anti-submarine technologies.
Part of the exercise included cross-domain networking initiatives wherein the surface destroyer networked with helicopters and other aircraft to track threats and transmit target data in real-time, according to the Chinese Communist Party-backed Global Times newspaper. The four-day exercises included what the paper called “realistic scenario-oriented anti-submarine training courses.”
In a manner apparently quite similar to how Arleigh Burke-class destroyers interoperate with Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawk helicopters, the new Chinese Nanchang destroyer dispatched a Z-9 search helicopter to deploy sonar equipment. The newspaper praised the Nanchang’s ability to discern submarine signals from other sources of undersea noise.
“Despite fishing boat activities in the vicinity of the exercise zone, which disrupted the sonar equipment's detection of submarines, the Nanchang was able to use its acoustic data analysis and application system to accurately distinguish the noises of the submarine,” the Global Times writes.
The extent of secure or hardened connectivity between the Nanchang and its sub-hunting helicopters would be crucial, as it may not parallel the U.S. Navy’s ability to quickly exchange threat data from undersea to helicopter and drones before reaching a host ship destroyer able to perform command and control.
The Nanchang also fires rocket-propelled, submarine-killing torpedoes and has an ability to conduct “joint fire strikes,” according to the Chinese paper.
The Chinese paper did say part of the intent of the anti-submarine drills was to ensure U.S. attack submarines could not operate near Chinese shores. However, it is not clear just how effective these new anti-submarine technologies would be against upgraded, high-tech, Virginia-class attack submarines equipped with new quieting technologies and stealth coating materials.
Virginia-class attack submarines are increasingly being thought of as platforms capable of conducting undersea reconnaissance missions, due to navigational, acoustic, and sensing upgrades.
Interestingly, it seems significant that the Chinese paper made no mention of undersea drones as being part of the Nanchang’s networked sub-hunting network. Many U.S. Navy surface ships, such as its Littoral Combat Ships, are able to launch and recover submarine-hunting drones and mine-hunting platforms. Any kind of effective submarine-hunting mission would benefit greatly from an ability to gather time-sensitive intelligence information from beneath the surface.
Ultimately, the success of the Nanchang’s ability to truly find submarines would not only rest on the range and fidelity of its sonar and acoustic-data collection and analysis but also upon an ability to securely network that data across domains in real-time. Submarines can of course quickly change position, so an anti-submarine mission would need to find a day to move information quickly or develop an extended “continuous track” because an attack submarine on a clandestine surveillance mission is not likely to stay in one place for long.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.