In my last blog entry, I looked over the future of PLAN surface combatant fleet. Part of the reason I did that is the emergency of the new Type 055 cruiser. For any future PLAN carrier group or expeditionary strike group, Type 052D will be expected as important escorts even with Type 055 in the fold. What roles can Type 052D and how will it be utilized by PLAN?
If we look at Type 052D’s ancestors Type 052C, we have a surface combatant that is clearly designed to provide area air defense. It is the first modern Chinese AAW ship that has advanced multi-functional radar system with Active guided long range SAM along with relative modern combat system. It is also expected by many to have an advanced AEGIS like combat system allowing engagements using inputs from sensors on different ships and aircraft. While it is also equipped with the advanced YJ-62 (also replaceable with LACM) and advanced sonar system (looks to be same Towed Array Sonar as on Type 054A), there is no question that the emphasis of the ship is for area air defense. Type 052C’s ancestor Type 052B can be looked at as a stepping stone from Type 052 to 052C. Its production stopped at 2, because Type 054A is cheaper and provides almost all of the capabilities of 052B (including much stronger ASW). A large PLAN flotilla prior to 052D would surely need both Type 052C and 054A to provide required air defense and anti-submarine defense.
Type 052D provides PLAN with a lot more flexibility. That’s why more Type 052D is expected to be produced than Type 052C. It is equipped with a newer generation of multi-functional radar, new variable depth sonar along with other new sensors. More importantly, it’s the first surface combatant with the universal VLS. Type 052D could also maintain a more balanced profile with 32 cells for long range SAM, 8 cells for quad-packed medium range SAM, 8 cells for anti-ship missiles, 8 cells for LACMs and 8 cells for ASROC like missile. That would provide comparable air defense to 052C while having increased firepower in ASuW and ASW. If 052D is given the task of area air defense, it can utilize all of its VLS for the purpose of air defense. They can use 48 cells for long range SAM and remaining 16 cells for quad-packed medium range SAM or even 56 cells for long range SAM and remaining 8 cells for quad-packed medium range SAM. Both of which would provide solid protection for the ship itself and surrounding fleet once we factor in the 24-cell HQ-10 SAM and 7-barrelled PJ-12 CIWS for point defense. Another possible usage is in BMD, although I'm not sure if the technical characteristics of 052D's radar allows it to do tracking and target discrimination of ballistic missile threats. This role might be left for Type 055 cruisers. In theory, you could put the reported HQ-26 missile (or some other SM-3 like missile) on 052D along with other air defense missiles in the BMD role.
With the addition of PJ-38 artillery gun and VLS launched LACMs, 052D could be PLAN's first ship to have major land attack capabilities. PJ-38 would provide 052D with the ability to support amphibious landings like Sov destroyers. Long range LACMs would finally give PLAN the ability to attack land target from far away. This is a capability that PLAN really never needed when they were a brown or green water navy. Even though YJ-62 launchers were removed, 052D could also be fitted with 16+ anti-ship missiles in an ASuW profile. All of the SAMs should also have secondary anti-ship mode. If they develop PJ-38 into being able to launch over the horizon anti-ship projectiles, 052D could be quite powerful in ASuW missions. Finally, Type 052D can also be PLAN's most effective surface ship in ASW missions. Its universal VLS can hold longer ranged ASROC missiles than Type 054A's VLS. Type 054A is almost limited to the short legged Z-9C helicopter while 052D could also use Ka-28 helicopters (and Z-15/20 in the future). With a more powerful sonar suite than Type 054A, it would be better suited for ASW missions in blue waters.
At the moment, 052D is China's primary surface combatant and expected to provide the most important roles in escorting a fleet. It is likely to be useful in China's navy for a long time because it is using China's first universal VLS and an artillery gun that can launch different type of projectiles. Its close in defense systems could easily be upgraded. New missiles and projectiles could probably be supported on 052D in the future with software updates or relatively small hardware upgrades. PLAN currently has the problem where it often does not replace outdated weapon system because of cost and supply concerns. That's why the recent Type 052 upgrades only changed the CIWS. Type 052D is first ship in PLAN to really benefit from a more plug and play approach that USN has enjoyed for years. Even when Type 055 joins service, Type 052D could still be very useful in land attack or ASuW or ASW roles.