Chinese and US navies: a tale of two “destroyers”

 

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) officially commissioned into service its first Type 055 guided missile destroyer, called Nanchang, with a grand ceremony held in Qingdao, a major naval base in the eastern province of Shandong. Other seven ships are planned to enter service.

One People Liberation Army insider said that naval authorities had deliberately chosen to commission Nanchang a day after Taiwan’s elections to avoid “an undesirable effect on the Taiwan elections. For the same reason the mainland side has scaled down activities such as air patrols near Taiwan over the past few months”. Nonetheless, Taiwan authorities have often accused Beijing of sabre-rattling and have blamed activities such as military drills in the Taiwan Strait for poor relations between the two sides.

The Nanchang had already made an appearance at the Navy’s 70th anniversary parade last year, but its equipment – including radars, communications and weapons systems – had not yet been completed.

Diplomatic skirmishes aside, the Xinhua newsagency described the new warship (equipped with air-defence, anti-missile, anti-ship and anti-submarine weapons) as a “generational leap” in the Chinese navy’s destroyers. It can fire also antiballistic missile interceptors and could in future mount electromagnetic rail guns.

The destroyer has a displacement of 12.000 tonnes and has already undergone sea trials and weapon systems tests in the past eight months. It is seen as one of the world’s most advanced ships of its type – behind only the US Navy’s Zumwalt class – and is Asia’s largest and strongest destroyer. A useful comparison standard not just in characteristics but in programmes.

Starting from the Zumwalt class, the denomination is in both cases, ambiguous: the US ship displaces nearly 16.000 metric tons and the Chinese 12.000. In fact the US Navy has classified the Nanchang as a Guided missile Cruiser (CG) ship; in any case one can arguably interpret the PLAN ship as a “pocket cruiser”.

The ideal association with the pocket battleships of the German Kriegsmarine (officially cruisers) has to do with two parametres: the offensive firepower concentrated in a smaller displacement and the analogous geostrategic situation of the Chinese Navy. When one country is the contestant to the leading sea power, relative miniaturisation offers advantages in terms of cost, speed of construction and combat effect.

In terms of programme management, the Nanchang class has still a couple of problems to be remedied (radar position and vulnerable metals used in the upper deck), but it promises to be a relative success against the ill-fated Zumwalt that started as a land bombardment ship (replacing actual big battleships of the Missouri class), aborted on expensive artillery ammunitions and ended just in three exemplars as an anti-ship attack vessel.

Elenoire Laudieri – Sinologist and Chief Analyst on Chinese Affairs at Nato Defense College Foundation. Foreign affairs writer for international magazines and publications.