With the induction of Liaoning into PLAN this past week, PLAN has reached a milestone in its drive to modernize and becoming blue water navy. We can see now that China has gone through deliberate process of going from a fleet of Luda and Jianghu surface ships to one that will have a carrier escorted by 052D and 054A/B. It has mostly been a step by step process where they often had small production runs and incremental changes. While this has been a fairly successful strategy, it has also left some white elephants in the fleet. I want to look at why these ship were ordered and why they are “white elephants”.
I regard the Sovremenny class destroyer, the 051C destroyers and the Kilo class submarine. You may have noticed that these represent two of the three mentioned here are high profile import from Russia while the third one largely depended on the import of Rif-M air defence system from Russia. This is not a coincidence.
Focusing most of my attention on the Sovremenny class, it was by far the most powerful and modern battleships in PLAN when the first two were imported 12 years ago. Sovremenny class are equipped with medium ranged SAM, supersonic anti-ship missiles, 2 powerful AK-130 main gun, Ka-28 helicopters and advanced sensors. Compared to the most advanced PLAN ship at that time, 051B, it was stronger in AAW, ASW, ASuW and ground support. The two improved Sovremenny class that were ordered in 2002 came with upgraded versions of the same systems in addition to the Kashtan CIWS. If we just compare the weapon systems on Sovremenny class with that of 052B, it may appear that these ships are very comparable. Even now, some derivatives of subsystem from Sovremenny class can be found in many new PLAN surface combatants.
So, why would I consider 052B to still be an important part of PLAN, whereas I look at Sovremenny class as “white elephants”? The main reason is that PLAN has developed its own data link standard, combat and control system and communication system. Now, Sovremenny class is still powerful compared to most PLAN destroyers by themselves, but they have a hard time communicating with the newer PLAN surface combatants. Whenever one of the Sovremenny ships is used to be the command ship of a flotilla, it will have to install a lot of domestic communication and control systems to be able to give directions to other ships. Even using that and PLAN’s data link systems, there is only so much information that Sovremenny ships can take in and process at the moment. Compare them to the new 054A class ships that joined ESF in the past couple years, the additional firepower is outweighed by the modern combat systems and electronics. In PLAN exercises, 054A was used to lead a flotilla of 3 Sovremenny ships against threats of sea-skimming target drones. 054A’s combat system was able to develop a combat plan for its missile, gun and ECM systems using data processed from data link network to destroy all the targets. That’s just one of the problems with Sovremenny class right now. They can’t be used to lead a fleet, their steam boilers are not suitable for blue water deployments, their combat systems are too old, their firing rates is too slow and their air defense systems don’t react fast enough to counter multiple sea-skimming threats. PLAN has improved so much in the past decade, that their decision in 2002 to purchase 2 additional Sovremenny class now look like a panic decision to counter Taiwan’s purchase of Kidd class destroyers. It would be hard for PLAN to refit Sovremenny ships using domestic systems without some Russian help. If China can’t put modern combat and communication systems on Sovremenny ships, these ships will simply have more and more diminished roles in the future.
Although 051C class was built in China, it suffers through some of the same issues that Sovremenny class faces. Now, the two 051C class ships were built as insurance for the 052C program. Since 051C was making use of the existing 051B hull with a mature long ranged SAM (Rif-M), it was considered safer than 052C. As it turns out, 051C actually joined service after 052C did. The decision to basically shove Rif-M air defence system on the 051B hull compromised the hull design of 051C. As a result, 051C does not have a hangar and still uses steam turbines propulsion. Also, Russians have publicly stated that 051C carries a version of Rif that cannot engage anti-ship missiles. Due to the design of the Rif system, each 051C would only be able to engage targets from one direction. While 051C still has area defence capabilities due to the long range of S-300 missiles, their utility is pretty much restricted to provide air cover to the North Sea Fleet. It would be hard to imagine them as escorts to an aircraft carrier, because they provide marginal ASW capabilities and cannot provide the same level of air defense as 052C/D class. If you place two 052Ds together, they not only have those powerful MFR panels, but can also share radar data with each other and also with other ships and aerial assets. If two 051Cs were to provide area defence, they would have to be facing each other just to provide 360 degree air defense coverage and would still need 054As to provide fleet defence. On top of that, they don’t have the same level of data sharing and sensor tracking capabilities as 052C/D ships. As with Sovremenny class, 051C ships are also victims of the rapid advancement of domestic naval weapon systems.
Finally, the kilo class is still quite useful for PLAN. The problem is that their capabilities were over hyped by the Western media. As a follower of PLAN, I see photos of different conventional submarines serving in different bases. The problem is that while I see photos of Song and Yuan submarines out in the sea and at the bases, the only pictures of Kilo class show them either at the bases or at the shipyards under repairs. It seems like China is constantly making changes to these ships to put their own subsystems on there. For the longest time after China first received the newer kilo submarines, it could not complete successful firing of the much hyped Club missiles. Only after some modifications, were they able to finally use these missiles. The problem now is that Kilo submarines are still spending way too much time at the bases instead of making deployments. It’s not entirely clear to me why PLAN has so much trouble utilizing Kilo class, but their importance is diminishing by the day as newer diesel submarines are joining service.
Now, all of the above may sound like I’m overly critical toward China’s purchase of Russian systems. In the case of 2002 purchase of Sov and kilo, they seemed to be panic moves by China toward the Bush's effort to sell more advanced weapons to Taiwan. The earlier purchases of Sov and kilo were very necessary in strengthen PLAN at the time and bringing the technologies that China needed to assist in the building of its own fleet. The building of 051C also made sense, although I think the political influence of Dalian Shipyard also had much to do with it. There are also domestic ships like 051B and 052A which used to be capital ships in PLAN, but have become outdated with the induction of the new wave of warships. They are still relative young and more advanced than Luda and Jianghu class ships, so they will be kept around for a while in diminished role. However, they were not as costly or over-hyped as the Russian import, so it's hard to think of them as "white elephants".