Key point: Japan's navy is very advanced, but China has done an excellent job of catching up.
The People’s Republic of China Army Navy (PLAN) is experiencing an unprecedented rise in ships and capabilities. China is building virtually every class of warship, from aircraft carriers to corvettes simultaneously, and in some cases, by the dozen.
Of particular note is the Luyang III or Type 052D–class destroyer. Designed to provide anti-air area defense to a carrier battle group or amphibious ready group, the 052D is the defensive linchpin of any Chinese task force, particularly one operating beyond the range of land-based assets. Two destroyers have been commissioned into the PLAN, with another seven under construction and one more planned.
At the same time, Japan is looking to modestly expand its surface warfare capabilities. The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has approved plans to build two new Aegis air warfare destroyers, bringing the pacifist country’s overall number of Aegis ships to eight. Based largely on American equipment, the new destroyers will be Japan’s answer to 052D. (For the purpose of this article we’ll imagine the new Japanese destroyers as Atago-class destroyers with upgrades—or Atago Plus for short.)
Or will it? Has China built a destroyer with to match Japan’s top of the line destroyers, or will it have to wait until the next generation? Are the upgrades Japan has planned for the two new ships too little, too late, or do they provide a decisive edge over the 052D?
The centerpiece of the 052D is the combination of Type 346 Dragon Eye active electronically scanned array radar system and Type 518 L-band radars. A Russian expert claimed the Dragon Eye is capable of detecting the F-35, but there’s no firm evidence of that at this point. It is also not known if Dragon Eye is capable of shooting down ballistic missiles.
Atago Plus, on the other hand, is powered by the AN/SPY-1D(V) passive electronically scanned array radar. The Atago Plus–class was not originally purchased with software to engage ballistic missiles, but this is being remedied with an update. In terms of radar, the Atago Plus–class is the clear winner.
The 052D and Atago Plus both have a single main gun in the 127-millimeter to 130-millimeter class. For self-defense against missiles, small boats and fast attack craft the Chinese destroyer has two 30-millimeter guns and a H/PJ-12 anti-missile close-in weapon system (CIWS), the latter a seven-barrel 30-millimeter gatling gun. The Atago Plus–class has two Phalanx CIWS Block 1B, an upgraded version of the long-serving radar controlled gatling gun capable of engaging missiles and small boats.
In terms of gun armament, the two ships are a virtual tie. The Chinese ship has more guns, but we don’t know how effective they are. The Japanese ship has fewer guns but the systems are proven.
Both destroyers primarily rely on missile armament, with dozens of vertical launch silos providing flexible payload options. The 052D destroyer has 64 individual vertical launch silos. Japan’s Atago Plus–class destroyers have 96 individual silos—64 in the bow and 32 in the stern.
The silos on the 052D destroyer can be loaded with HQ-9B SAMs, CY-5 rocket-delivered anti-submarine torpedoes, and YJ-18 anti-ship missiles, China’s version of the Russian Klub. The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence estimates they will also at some point be equipped with a land attack cruise missile, possibly a naval version of the DF-10.
The 052D has more defensive systems—in addition to the silo-based surface-to-air missiles, it also reportedly has a quad pack of DK-10A medium range surface-to-air missiles, two 30-millimeter guns, and one H/PJ-12 and FL-3000N point defense anti-missile systems. It even has a 24 shot anti-submarine decoy system. Does this help the 052D’s defensive rating? A little, but not where it really counts: The Atago Plus’ defenses can cover a broader spectrum of threats to the task force, not just the ship itself.
The silos on the Atago Plus–class can carry SM-3 Block IIA ballistic missile interceptors, SM-2MR surface-to-air missiles, the newer SM-6 surface-to air-missiles, and ASROC, a system similar to the CY-5. Due to political reasons, Japan does not have land-attack cruise missiles.
The Atago Plus–class wins on defensive capability. The Atago-class is equally capable of intercepting sea-skimmers and ballistic missiles at the edge of space. It can carry fifty percent more missiles in its silos—all of which are defensive. On top of all that, it has multiple layers of anti-submarine warfare capability.
In the area of offensive missile armament, the 052D has a decisive advantage, being capable of loading all 64 vertical launch cells with anti-ship missiles. Of course no navy in its right mind would do that, but it does illustrate the flexibility of the Chinese system. The Atago Plus–class is limited to eight SSM-1B anti-ship missiles that, like the American Harpoon, are too large to fit in silos and must be stored on the deck or superstructure.
The 052D–class wins on offensive capability. It can pack a potent ship-killing punch — if it is willing to trade away defensive missiles. The fact that China has cruise missiles and no political qualms about deploying them gives the 052D a latent land attack capability.
Digital networking and information sharing capability is another area of increasing importance. China has the new Joint Service Integrated Data Link System (JSIDS) system, similar to Link 16. Japan on the other hand utilizes Link 16 itself. Not knowing much about JSIDS, we’ll call this one a draw.
So far, with the exception of offensive armament, the 052D-class has tied or come in a respectable second to the Atago Plus. But we haven’t even mentioned the specific upgrades the Atago Plus will have—upgrades that allow the ship to pull far ahead of its Chinese competitor.
The Atago Plus–class will utilize the U.S. military’s Cooperative Engagement Capability. CEC on the new destroyers—and Japan’s E-2D Advanced Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft—will allow the ships to share sensor data and provide targeting data for missiles.
An Advanced Hawkeye will, for example, be able to provide targeting data for SM-6 missiles fired from an Atago Plus—at targets out of range of the ship’s own radars. CEC will permit the Japanese ships to cooperate in a similar fashion with U.S. air and naval ships. Overall, CEC will allow the destroyers to leverage the power of similarly equipped ships in the area, increasing their useful range.
The Atago Plus–class is also being built with future weapon upgrades in mind. The ships are being built to accommodate electromagnetic railguns and lasers under development with the Ministry of Defense’s Technical Research Development Institute. Although neither weapon has achieved operational status, Japanese designers appear confident they are just over the horizon.
Overall, the Japanese destroyer is the better ship. The Atago Plus–class will do a better job of not only defending itself, but whatever other vessels it is designed to protect. Using CEC, the destroyers can utilize sensors on other ships and planes to extend its capabilities. It is definitely weighed toward a defensive mission and is weak in offensive capability, but the installation of a railgun may go a long way towards improving its ability to attack ships and land targets at a distance.
The 052D-class is a credible ship but there’s a lot unknown about it, particularly with regards to the effectiveness of the radar and the accuracy of its missiles. Having 50 percent fewer missile silos than its Japanese competitor hurts the 052D. The lack of an upgrade path seems a bit problematic in the long term, but it should be kept in mind that a successor, the 055-class, already appears on the verge of production.
So, if the two ships met on the high seas, who would win? It seems unlikely that either one could hurt the other with anti-ship missiles—both carry too much defensive armament for that. Adding another ship or two to escort—the entire point of both destroyers—would stretch the 052D’s capabilities. The Japanese ship could probably defend two other ships with ease—and then engage the Chinese ship with its railgun.
Both ships have good designs, but China’s is a little more of an achievement because the country’s shipyards are relatively new to building large modern combat ships. Noting that, the Japanese ship is the clear winner in our duel. It would undoubtedly be better to see these two fine ships working together than trying to tear each other apart.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and The Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter:@KyleMizokami. This first appeared in October 2015.