Dr. Lee Willett – Like any navy seeking global presence, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will use its surface forces to project influence. A primary platform in building this forward presence is the Jiangkai II frigate.
For major navies seeking to generate global presence and to operate across the task spectrum from lower-end outputs like securing sea lines of communication (SLOCs) to high-end outputs including anti-submarine warfare (ASW), the frigate is playing an increasingly prominent role. Perhaps more affordable than a multi-role destroyer but offering flexibility in outputs due to a current emphasis on broadening its operational role, today’s frigate is present across the world’s oceans and across the spectrum of operations. The frigate has moved from a Cold War focus on acting principally as an ASW picket to bringing a greater range of capabilities and outputs. Indeed, frigates are often referred to as ‘the workhorses of a fleet’.
China’s current maritime strategy is driven largely by desire to secure waters close to home in the face of a range of challenges from various actors, and by the desire to secure SLOCs at distance to deliver resources for its people and markets for their products. For China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), its Type 054A Jiangkai II-class frigates offer two primary benefits here.
First, these frigates are demonstrating the range of capabilities available today in supporting a multiple tasks.
Second, the PLAN is now expanding its global presence. In November 2018, UK Royal Navy (RN) First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Sir Philip Jones told the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) that the PLAN has expanded over recent time from a coastal to regional to global naval force. In his mission statement A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority (published in January 2016), the US Navy’s (USN’s) Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson referred to China (and Russia) as having advanced their military capabilities “to act as global powers”. A frigate’s capability and flexibility, along with speed enable navies like the PLAN to generate the forward presence that goes hand-in-hand with building and sustaining global influence.
As of early 2019, 28 Type 054A Jiangkai II-class frigates are operational, with two more reported to be in build. Two older Type 054 Jiangkai I frigates are also in service. According to Sino Defence, the Type 054A “represents a significant improvement over the previous Type 054, [also] exceeding some older destroyer classes in firepower and capability”.
There have been reports that the Jiangkai IIs will be followed by a larger variant known as the Type 054B Jiangkai III.
The first-in-class Type 054A Jiangkai II frigate Zhoushan was commissioned into service in January 2008. The most recent Jiangkai frigate to enter service was Xianning, in August 2018. Underlining the relatively rapid rate that China is building ships ashore and building capability at sea, a class of almost 30 frigates has arrived in a decade.
The 4,000-tonne, 134-metre Jiangkai IIs have a multi-mission role focused primarily on anti-air warfare (AAW) but also equipped to support anti-surface warfare (ASuW) and ASW tasks. Such an operational set-up highlights the way in which frigate outputs have shifted towards more multi-purpose effect. The ships are also reported to have a stealthy design, with a sloped, reduced superstructure to minimise radar cross-section. The combined diesel and diesel (CODAD) propulsion arrangement generates a top speed of 27 knots (50km/h) and an unsupported operational range of over 8,000 nautical miles (14,816km).
The 32-cell vertical launching system (VLS) typifies the modern frigate’s in-built flexibility. A VLS is designed to carry a range of systems to meet a range of roles. It is reported that the Jiangkai II’s VLS carries the HHQ-16 medium-range surface-air-missile (SAM) for air defence as well as ASW missiles.
The spread of ASuW capabilities is fitted separately. The 250km range YJ-83 (C-802) anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) is carried in two quad launchers mounted amidships. The ASuW fit also includes a 76mm main gun, and two 30mm close-in weapons systems (CIWS), the latter firing up to 5,800 rounds per minute at a maximum range of 3,000m.
The ships carry further ASW capability, with the Yu-8 ASW torpedo launcher and two six-tube 240mm ASW rocket launchers. The ASW role also is demonstrated by the presence of a towed array sonar, as well as a large number of the newer Type 054As carrying a variable depth sonar. Prosecuting a submerged target is also supported by the ability to embark a medium helicopter, such as a Harbin Z-9C or Kamov Ka-28 ‘Helix’.
The ship’s size has clear operational and capability benefits. Writing in the Military Balance Blog in 2018, Nick Childs (senior research fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the IISS) noted that, alongside the increasing numbers of ships being procured for the PLAN, the fact that newer PLAN vessels “are much bigger compared to older classes of ships … enables them to accommodate modern weapon systems and sensors, and more of them, and also means they have better seakeeping and endurance for undertaking more distant operations, more often.”
The Jiangkai frigates began entering service just as state-based naval rivalry returned as a strategic issue, first in the Asia-Pacific region and more recently in the Euro-Atlantic theatre. During their short time in operational service to date, the frigates certainly have been active both close to home and at distance. Spread fairly evenly across the PLAN’s three fleets (East Sea, North Sea, and South Sea Fleets) and the consequent areas of interest, the fact that the Jiangkai IIs have been active in various locations, conducting various tasks, and supporting various operations demonstrates not only (at a strategic level) the ship’s role in building the PLAN’s global presence, but also (at an operational and tactical level) the PLAN’s own confidence in the frigate’s design, system capability, and operational output.
A key component of China’s growing maritime presence will be the development of a robust blue-water navy. The increasing international emphasis on naval power will give China the chance to learn from Western naval peers about how to sustain deployments at distance. Central to its learning strategy to date has been its presence since 2008-09 off the Horn of Africa in support of the international counter-piracy campaign, through a national contribution China refers to as its naval escort task force.
The Jiangkai IIs only began entering service in 2008; however, set against China’s wider desire to seem capable and credible on the world stage, the PLAN’s confidence in the Jiangkai IIs’ prospective contribution to meeting national interests was underlined when third-in-class Huangshan became the first Jiangkai II to deploy to Somalia in only the second task force rotation, which deployed in April 2009.
A total of 31 rotations have been conducted since, with Jiangkai II frigate Xuchang present in the latest task force. China’s Ministry of National Defence reported that the ship has been involved in escorting commercial ships in the Gulf of Aden and dispersing suspected pirate groups.
With the counter-piracy presence providing a platform from which the PLAN can project power into different regions, several highlights of the frigates’ operational outputs are worth noting. In 2011, second-in-class Xuzhou diverted from operations off Somalia to evacuate Chinese nationals caught up in the Libya crisis. This was the first time a PLAN ship had deployed to the Mediterranean, and (as noted by Andrew Erickson and Austin Strange in their book Six Years at Sea … and Counting: Gulf of Aden Counter-piracy and China’s Maritime Commons Presence) Xuzhou had already completed a previous counter-piracy rotation by this point.
In 2014, Yancheng deployed to the Mediterranean to conduct escort tasks as the international community worked together to transfer chemical weapons from Syria.
In 2015, Linyi and Weifang broke off from counter-piracy operations to evacuate Chinese nationals from Yemen during the emerging civil war there and, once finished off Somalia, sailed into the Mediterranean to join Russian Federation Navy forces for Exercise Joint Seas 2015 – the first time Chinese and Russian naval forces had exercised together in the region.
The same year also saw the PLAN deploy a task group to Northern Europe for the first time, with the group including the Jiangkai II frigate Yiyang. The ships conducted several port calls in the North Sea and Baltic region.
In 2017, the Yuncheng was present in the Baltic as part of a task force participating in Exercise Joint Seas 2017, the first Sino-Russian exercise in the region and occurring just after NATO’s annual ‘BALTOPS’ exercise. Around the same time, a separate task force – including the Jiangkai II frigate Jingzhou – deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean.
Closer to home, Jiangkai presence has also been prominent. Yantai participated in the inaugural Joint Seas event with Russia, off Qingdao in 2012. In 2016, when the PLAN’s aircraft carrier Liaoning sailed for the first time beyond what is known as the first island chain in December 2016, Linyi was part of the escort group. Liaoning’s carrier strike group (CSG), which achieved initial operational capability (IOC) in early 2018, often includes a Jiangkai II frigate.
Another key indicator of China’s growing maritime presence will be the strategic and operational output of its emerging carrier capability. While Liaoning has operated close to home, major navies all see carrier-based power projection as central to their global presence. While the PLAN may still be learning how to construct a CSG and how to conduct CSG operations, and may also still developing its understanding of where a carrier capability fits into its overall strategic plan, the Jiangkai II frigates are playing a central role in the conceptual development of this capability. According to a recent report in The Diplomat, the Jiangkai IIs are “designed for fleet defence”: the report noted particularly the improved sonar capability of later ships of the class.
The Jiangkai II “is clearly one of the central components of the PLAN’s development of balanced surface task groups, capable of defensive and offensive operations against a range of threats,” James Goldrick, a retired Royal Australian Navy rear admiral and currently a fellow at the Lowy Institute, told Armada International. The frigate “both complements and supplements the larger air warfare-oriented destroyers and is clearly intended to have an ASW focus but retain general-purpose capabilities”.
In terms of both carrier defence and broader global presence, the PLAN’s Type 052D Luyang III-class and forthcoming Type 055 Renhai-class guided-missile destroyers (DDGs) may be platforms that bring more robust presence around the world and greater levels of capability. In capability terms, destroyers bring significant ASuW and AAW punch, as well as ASW output.
Comparing current global presence between the PLAN and the US Navy (USN), the USN’s DDG 51 Arleigh Burke-class DDGs provide a benchmark for the PLAN going forward, with similar ubiquity as the Jiangkai IIs in seas around the world but bringing greater capability.
For the USN, its Arleigh Burkes – its own ‘workhorses of the fleet’ – “provide multi-mission offensive and defensive capabilities … [and] can operate independently or as part of CSGs, surface action groups, and expeditionary strike groups,” according to the navy. Perhaps the key difference here for an Arleigh Burke, compared to a Jiangkai, is the DDG’s demonstrated ability to operate independently. In capability terms, the DDG’s multi-role outputs are brought together by the Aegis weapons system. According to the USN, across its four DDG 51 ‘flights (FlightI, Flight II etc), 66 ships have been delivered to the fleet, with 10 more in build and a further 12 on contract. The Flight III ships – the latest ‘flight’ – will be significantly enhanced with the addition of the SPY-6(V)1 air and missile defence radar (AMDR) system that enables the simultaneous performance of AAW and ballistic missile defence (BMD) roles, meeting the growing requirement for integrated air and missile defence (IAMD).
HOME AND AWAY
Arguably, the Jiangkai frigate has an evolving geographic presence and operational focus that is a function of its arrival on stage just as state-based rivalry returned, but reflects also other new capabilities arriving for the PLAN.
Dr Sidharth Kaushal, research fellow in sea power at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told Armada the Jiangkai II’s major value for the PLAN “is as an AAW and ASuW platform that extends the reach of the PLAN beyond its immediate shorelines”. In terms of layered defence at home, its YJ-83 ASCM capability can complement shore-based, ballistic missile-equipped rocket forces and the capabilities of the Type 053 Jiangwei frigates and sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM)-capable Yuan-class diesel-electric submarines to provide layers of threats to opponents operating inside the first and second island chains and, effectively, to extend China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) ‘bubble’, Kaushal explained.
Beyond home waters, Kaushal reinforced the argument that the Type 055 and Type 052D DDGs, both of which are fitted with VLS systems understood to be capable of carrying the HHQ-9 and HHQ-10 SAM, will mirror the position of the USN’s Arleigh Burke-class DDGs in the “all-purpose, out-of-area role”. By contrast, said Kaushal, the Jiangkai IIs may have a greater role closer to home, both in terms of providing presence in peacetime and operating as “part of a network of relatively cheap AAW and ASuW platforms that the PLAN has prioritised over the last decade … to provide a maritime component to its ‘Near Seas’ [Yellow, East China, and South China Seas] network of sensors and shooters”.
Kaushal noted the Jiangkai II’s improving ASW capability will still support a fleet escort role, adding that “it is one of the few ASW-capable ships in the PLAN” although, he continued, newer DDGs are also being fitted for the ASW role. Thus, while other platforms may emerge as the PLAN’s principal ASW platforms, the Jiangkais still have the capability to “augment an expeditionary force as an ASW escort, or play this role for convoys”. The Jiangkai frigate “has the range to play [such a] role and some of the vessels are clearly being retrofitted for this purpose,” Kaushal said.
Others see at-distance presence as a main role for the Jiangkai IIs. “The Type 054A is clearly intended for long-range, oceanic operations, whatever its utility in the ‘Near Seas’,” said Goldrick, adding the frigates are “likely to be the ‘workhorse of the PLAN’ in future years, providing escorts for the carrier and amphibious groups as well as being of a size and capability … to show the flag for China in many ports without being seen to overwhelm local capabilities”.