American intel estimates of Chinese naval power believe the Chinese fleet is now larger than the United States fleet of 293 major warships. The U.S. Navy still has a considerable edge in tonnage, manpower, firepower and experience. China plans to close all those gaps by mid-century. China is doing this by building modern ships faster and in larger quantities than the U.S. is capable of. Moreover, the Chinese build them on time and apparently under budget. China also sends those ships to sea frequently in an effort to close the crew skill gap.
This massive and speedy fleet expansion began in the 1990s and by 2015 was obviously succeeding. What was remarkable about this was that China was creating a navy unlike any that China has ever had before. This is a high-seas, or “blue water”, fleet. In the past China only possessed a coastal force but that has changed. That was pretty obvious when the Chinese Navy released a new recruiting video in mid-2015. This one showed large new Chinese warships operating far from China. The crews were depicted as young, bright and dedicated. China needed to attract high-quality men (and some women) to make these ships work. That had proved difficult at first because China has no tradition of making a career in a navy that spends a lot of time far from home. In response the navy began spending a lot of money and effort to create an image of the navy as a modern and exciting place for smart young Chinese to be. This effort was not as successful as desired but it did bring in a lot of what the navy was looking for. This was unusual because it is well known that the Chinese military has always had a hard time attracting the smartest and most capable young Chinese to serve, especially for long periods.
China is having fewer problems building the ships it needs for this new fleet. This became evident in 2014 as China began building, launched or put into commission over sixty vessels. From that point on the plan was to continue building at that pace into the early 2020s. The 2014 naval building plans included several aircraft carriers, 26 destroyers, 52 frigates, 20 corvettes, 85 missile armed patrol boats, 56 amphibious vessels, 42 mine warfare ships and nearly 500 auxiliary craft of which ten percent are large seagoing ships. While a lot of these new ships are to replace older, Cold War era, Russia designs, all new construction is based on Western designs and built to operate long distances from China. Naval air power is also being expanded with additional helicopters, modern fighters, missile carrying bombers and long-range UAVs. China is also building more diesel-electric submarines and continuing to perfect (get to work properly) its nuclear powered subs.
By 2020 the Chinese fleet had (in active service) two aircraft carriers, 75 subs, including seven SSBNs (nuclear ballistic missile subs), eight SSNs (nuclear attack subs), 60 SSK (non-nuclear attack subs). There are 300 surface warships including 50 destroyers, 49 frigates, 71 corvettes, 109 missile boats, 94 small ASW (anti-submarine warfare) ships and 17 gunboats. There are 75 amphibious ships including (in order of size) two LHDs, eight LPDs, 32 LSTs and 33 LSMs. There are 287 support ships including 36 mine clearing vessels, 19 oilers (for refueling ships far from a base), 30 coastal oilers, 27 fleet supply ships (for resupply at sea), six troop transports and a lot of harbor, training and medical support ships as well as intelligence collection ships, hospital ships, submarine rescue ships. The Chinese navy has also made arrangements with the operators of over fifty civilian cargo ships and ferries to make their vessels quickly available in the event of a major emergency. That comes to 743 active ships with over sixty percent combat ships and the rest support vessels. That support force is the true mark of a major high-seas fleet.
China has left its Cold War era ship designs behind and is copying Western ships. So are the Russians, but not as competently as the Chinese. Nor can the Russians build dozens of new warships a year and have them operate reliably. American intel collecting aircraft, ships and satellites monitor sea trials for new Russian and Chinese ships and note that the Chinese are doing much better. Now the largest fleet in the world is Chinese and it is looking to be a far more dangerous adversary than the Soviet fleet ever was.
The Chinese ability to build new warships quickly is remarkable. This applies to their largest ships (carriers and carrier-like amphibious ships). This speed and quantity was first demonstrated with their new destroyers.
In late 2019 China launched its sixth Type 55 class destroyer. One is already in service with another five expected to follow in the next few years. These 12,000-ton warships are comparable to the late model American Arleigh Burke class and is in fact a bit larger and more heavily armed with similar weapons. The Type 55 is more similar in size to the failed American 15,000-ton Zumwalt class destroyer. The Zumwalt contained too many new technologies that proved too expensive and too unpredictable to put into service. The U.S. Navy kept spending more money on development in a futile effort to get the Zumwalt to work and the effort was canceled, with only three Zumwalts built and only at the end of 2020 were all of fully operational.
The Type 55 is also similar to the American Ticonderoga class cruisers, which are 10,000-ton ships based on 1970s and 80s technology that paved the way for the Burkes. From 1980 to 1994 twenty-seven Ticonderogas were built and 22 are still in service. The Ticonderogas, like the Burkes, were based on the successful Spruance class destroyers. The success of the 31 Spruances, built between 1972 and 1983, led to Burke class, which has been in production since 1988 with 67 in service, five under construction and orders for at least ten more planned. The latest version of the Burke is nearly as large as the Ticonderogas and in many ways more capable. This is apparently what the Chinese are trying to do with the Type 55. Despite using proven (by the Americans) technologies the Chinese had some problems getting the Type 55s into service. That is not unusual and has become an accepted part of how the Chinese develop new warship designs.
The first Type 055 destroyer was launched in June 2017. This was not unexpected because evidence of such a ship (Internet photos of ship mockups for training and chatter about that) began showing up in early 2015. Back then it appeared that this new (Type 055) 12,000-ton cruiser class ship would have as many as 128 VLS (vertical launch system) tubes and much else besides. China claimed this ship would be the equivalent of a Burke class destroyer. The Type 055 would be, and now is, the largest surface combat ship China has ever built. The Type 55 turned out to have 112 American type VLS cells as well as an Aegis type radar system and four locally built gas-turbine engines. These engines provide 150,000 horsepower and a top speed of 55 kilometers an hour. There are also six generators producing 30 megawatts of power for future weapons like rail guns and lasers. Also carried are hangers for two helicopters.
Before 2015 the then new Type 52 destroyers were described as similar to the Burkes but in reality, the Type 052s were “Burke Lite” while the Type 55 is much closer to the Burkes in capabilities and, at least on paper, surpasses the American ships in some ways. It was believed that the first Type 055 would enter service in early 2018 and the sea trials would be closely watched by foreign navies. This is usually very revealing about what works and what doesn’t. The Chinese have, so far, been quite persistent in fixing flaws discovered during sea trials and regular operations and that makes the new Chinese ship designs rather more frightening. It is not unusual for new Chinese ships to go through years, rather than weeks or months of sea trials and keep looking for and fixing problems until the ship is ready. Sometimes it isn’t and, in those cases, you see only one or two of those ships built as the designers start again. This approach can take a long time but it has worked for the Chinese.
In fact the development program for the Type 55 began in the 1980s as China obtained, by purchase or espionage, sufficient modern technologies to build a Western type destroyer. The initial model was the American Spruance and the first two Type 52s were mainly for testing those new technologies. Two Type 52s appeared in the 1990s and only two of these 4,800-ton ships were built because these were for technology development. There followed two 6,100-ton Type 52Bs in 2004. At the same time six 6,500-ton Type 52C also began entering service and these turned out to have the right combination of successful technologies. That led, in 2014 to the 7,500-ton Type 52D and at least 20 of these are under construction or in service.
By 2013 the first of the Chinese Type 52D destroyers was seen on sea trials in the East China Sea. This design appeared very similar to the American Aegis equipped destroyers (especially the Burke Class). Three versions of the Type 052 destroyer had, since 2001, advanced Chinese destroyer design considerably and China now has ships similar in capabilities to the Burke class destroyers. The first Burke entered service in 1991 and that ship became the new target for Chinese destroyer developers.
Burke design is the culmination of over half a century of World War II and Cold War destroyer experience. Even after the Burke was designed, in the 1980s the design evolved. The first Burkes were 8,300-ton ships, while the latest ones, laden with more gear and smaller crews, are 10,000-ton ships. This is what heavy cruisers weighed in World War II. With a top speed of nearly 50 kilometers an hour, Burkes have a main armament of 90 VLS tubes flush with the deck that can contain anti-aircraft, anti-ship, anti-missile, or cruise missiles. There is also a 127mm (5 inch) gun, two 20mm anti-missile autocannon, 6 torpedo tubes, and two helicopters. The Burkes were well thought out, sturdy, and they got the job done. They became irreplaceable, and thus this class of warships will last more than half a century. China likes the sound of that and is trying to match the Burkes and proceeding in that direction one destroyer design at a time.
Since 2003 Type 052B, 052C and 52D destroyers have entered service. These ships were a deliberate effort to develop something similar to the U.S. Burkes. The Type 52D was considered a success and that made it possible to move forward with the more ambitious Type 55. You can see the similarities. The Type 52D is armed with 64 American style (hot launch) VLS tubes for anti-aircraft (HQ-9), cruise, or anti-ship missiles. The Type 55 is a larger version of the Type 52D but with more advanced versions of the weapons and electronics carried by the 52D. The 52D was also the first Chinese destroyer to use Chinese made gas-turbine engines. Over the last three decades China had acquired much of this gas-turbine tech from American designs and from Ukrainian gas-turbine manufacturers. Many Chinese destroyers still use Ukrainian gas-turbine power plants.
The older Type 052B destroyers were general purpose ships with anti-ship/submarine/aircraft capabilities. Type 052C were the first to use cold launch VLS (Vertical Launch System) tubes.
Around the same time two 7,100-ton Type 051C destroyers appeared. About the same size and displacement as the 052Cs but did not use the Western VLS system. The 051Cs were the first ships with an Aegis type radar.
All these new destroyer designs were leading to something that could match the Burkes, which also underwent many changes as new batches were ordered and older Burkes were usually upgraded with newer equipment found in later ones. China will copy foreign ideas and technology and keep building new versions until they get it right. They are relentless and often ultimately successful. That is more impressive than just building a lot of warships.
China has expanded shipyard facilities to create facilities for mass producing major ships like carriers, destroyers and large amphibious vessels. One new yard appeared to be devoted to building aircraft carriers. Extensive infrastructure was erected around the new drydock and nearby kilometer long fitting out pier. This is something of a mass production operation with components of an aircraft carrier hull and pre-fabricated sections of the hull interior stored nearby to be lifted into place and attached to the hull and other sections. This is a technique widely used in commercial shipbuilding and for other Chinese warships, including the 12,000-ton Type 55 destroyers and 40,000 ton Type 075 LPH amphibious ship. The new carrier yard could be used for building smaller ships but it could also be used for turning out carriers quickly. Recently built Chinese carriers take less than two years to finish and launch. After that, it moves to the fitting out pier where another two or three years of work is needed before the carrier is ready for sea trials. The trials, including trips back to port or the shipyard for fixes and adjustments, can take a year or so. All this is more than twice as fast American yards.
China is not just building a lot of new ships quickly it is also sending them on unprecedented long voyages. This has been going on for a decade. For example, in late 2015 the Chinese Navy visited Finland for the first time. A Chinese destroyer, frigate and supply ship arrived as part of a six-month world cruise for these three ships and making official visits to countries along the way including seven stops in the Baltic Sea. This is all part of a new policy that has warships spending a lot more time at sea and sending some of them to a lot of places Chinese warships have never been before. As a result, since 2010 Chinese warships have been achieving a lot of firsts. For example, in 2013 Chinese warships were, for the first time, seen moving through the La Perouse Straits, which separates the Russian island of Sakhalin and the Japanese northernmost home island of Hokkaido. Chinese warships later, for the first time moved completely around the Japanese islands. In early 2014 Chinese warships were seen moving through the Sunda Strait (between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra) for the first time. Later in 2014, for the first time, a Chinese submarine passed through the Strait of Malacca and entered the Indian Ocean. That has happened several times since then, and one of the subs was nuclear powered. The Chinese subs showed up in Sri Lanka and as far west as the Persian Gulf. Apparently Chinese subs are going to visit the Indian Ocean on a regular basis from now on.
In 2013 Chinese warships visiting Chile and Argentina passed through the Strait of Magellan for the first time in history. At the same time a Chinese amphibious ship (a 19,000-ton LPD) with marines on board visited Syria. This was the first time a Chinese amphibious ship had visited the Mediterranean. China has three of these LPDs and another was recently launched. These LPDs have also been serving as part of the international anti-piracy task force off Somalia. Chinese warships were briefly seen off the African coast centuries ago, but in the last decade they have been their regularly operating off the Somali coast with the international anti-piracy patrol. That’s the first time Chinese warships have participated in this kind of long-term international effort.
There are so many naval firsts now because for most of China’s history there was an attitude that there was really nothing useful beyond Chinese borders. Some ships were built for trade, but not on a large scale and never with a powerful navy to protect them. Then China began liberalizing and modernizing its economy in the 1980s and that led to lots of exports and even more imports of raw materials and items that China did not make. That justified a larger, sea going, navy. China’s economic interests are now, for the first time, worldwide and so is its navy. As any naval historian can tell you, a navy becomes a serious force by keeping its ships at sea a lot. That’s how Britain won global naval dominance from the 18th through the early 20th century. That was how the United States took over that role by the mid-20th century and that is what may happen with China sometime in the 21st century.