Key point: Washington is rightly worried that the military balance is tilting further in Beijing's favor. The question is whether America can compete by building more and better ships than China can.
Does the United States have an answer to China’s new Type 055 destroyers? Does it need one?
On July 3 Dalian shipyard launched two of the big new ships, with some reports suggesting that the class may extend to twenty-four vessels. The ships are large and have more VLS cells than Flight III Arleigh Burke destroyers, although the latter still exceed the former in sensor integration and other capabilities.
Still, with the Navy’s cruiser force aging, does the U.S. Navy need to think seriously about its own large cruiser?
The Type 055 destroyers are large ships, probably displacing around thirteen thousand tons and carrying 112 vertical launch system (VLS) cells, in addition to a 130-millimeter gun and a wide array of sensors and defensive weapons. They are the world’s largest surface combatants apart from the Zumwalt class destroyers, which really are specialized land attack vessels. The overall production run remains uncertain, with a low estimate of six and a high estimate of twenty-four; much likely depends on how effectively the ship performs in PLAN service.
The United States has been slow to develop a replacement to the Ticonderoga class cruisers, which are somewhat smaller than the Type 055. The DDG-1000 class will end after three ships, and in any case the Zumwalts do not perform missions similar to the Type 055. The Obama administration cancelled the CG(X) program after cost projections became excessive. In response to the failure of the DDG(X) and CG(X) programs, the Navy decided to restart the Arleigh Burke program, which had the added benefit of improving ballistic missile defense capabilities. But apart from the Arleigh Burke Flight III ships, the U.S. Navy has no specific large combatants in its long-term plans. At the moment, the FFG(X) program is dominating the U.S. Navy’s procurement attention, as the shortcomings of the Littoral Combat Ship have demonstrated a need to fill the gap between the LCS and the Arleigh Burkes.
But the Ticonderogas will soon reach the end of their useful service lives, as will the oldest of the DDG-51 class of ships. Some have floated the idea of a cruiser based on the hull of the LPD-17, which would allow high energy production, a degree of modularity, and the inclusion of a wide variety of different systems. However, the LPD-17s are large and slow, likely incapable of keeping up with carrier battle groups. Another idea (floated by Tyler Rogoway, among others) is to modify the existing Zumwalt design for cruiser-esque purposes. But as of yet the Navy has made no firm determination about the future of its large surface combatant program.
But then there is little obvious need for a direct analogue to specific Chinese ship classes. The existing cruisers and destroyers of the U.S. Navy perform roles essentially similar to that of the Type 055s, even if the latter carry more VLS cells. And the era in which individual ships fight each other independently is long in the past; indeed, even during the dreadnought era individual ship-to-ship comparison rarely played out in actual combat.
In a fight between the United States and China, the U.S. Navy would use a wide variety of air, surface, and subsurface systems to track and destroy the largest units of the PLAN. While the additional VLS systems and sensors of the Type 055 will undoubtedly increase Chinese capabilities, they won’t be directed towards any specific U.S. ship type (other perhaps than aircraft carriers). Similarly, the U.S. Navy will find it far more convenient to sink the Type 055s with submarines and air-launched cruise missiles than it will with any specific ship type. And so the question is less “can the United States match the Type 055” than “what hull or set of hulls will make it easiest to match the capabilities that the Type 055 can offer?” There are a variety of technological developments (VLS, power generation, sensor capability, and future avenues in railguns and lasers) that suggest that size may once again be rewarded in naval architecture; the Type 055s offer China’s initial answer for how to take advantage of these developments, just as the Zumwalts represented an exploration of those capabilities on the U.S. side. Unfortunately, the former seem more likely to see long-term success than the latter.
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So the short answer to the question “does the United States need to respond to the Type 055” is “no, not in the medium term.” The longer answer is that the U.S. Navy needs to figure out its procurement and shipbuilding policies soon in order to credibly approach design of the next big surface combatant. As the Ticonderogas continue to age, they will leave a gap that a new large warship needs to fill, even if it is never likely to meet the Type 055 in direct combat. China has decided to take advantage of the efficiencies inherent in a large hull-type, not because of any specific competition with the United States, but rather because of the evolution of key technologies. The U.S. Navy can also take advantage of these evolutionary developments, even if it doesn’t specifically think of matching the Type 055, but it needs to sort out its long-term shipbuilding plans.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to the National Interest, is author of The Battleship Book . He serves as a senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. (This first appeared in mid-2018.)