Saturday, September 29, 2012

The white elephants of PLAN

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".

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Liaoning and future Carriers

As I’m sure you all know by now, the formerly known Varyag Aircraft Carrier was commissioned into PLAN as Liaoning and given the Type 001 class AC with pennant number of 16. I haven’t spent as much time looking into this development, but it’s quite clear that there is a lot of excitement on Chinese military forum over Liaoning class. This news has already eclipsed the exciting unveiling of Shenyang AC’s 4th generation fighter jet (I’m using generation by Chinese standard) and the unveiling of the 052D class destroyers. The only news that has caused more stir in the recent years is the unveiling of J-20. On the English forum that I moderate, some of the fellow members have been waiting for 7 to 8 years for this moment. A few years ago, I had all but given up on Liaoning ever becoming a big part of PLAN’s blue water plans. This was even after Liaoning had been painted with PLAN colours in 2006. Now, it appears that Liaoning has a bigger role in PLAN than many people have expected.

For me, I haven’t been as excited about this development. I was quite excited when 054A and 056 came out. I was also excited when we saw that new mysterious large diesel submarine from WuChang shipyard in 2010. I was really excited when 052D came out. I couldn’t stop looking for more photos on it. I suppose I have already spent too much time looking at Liaoning from when it was first dragged to Dalian to when it was first painted to when it got the non-skid layers to when it was taken to dry docks to when work started on Island to when it made its first sea trials. The more exciting moments will still come in the future when we see J-15s take off and land on it. And after that, it will be interesting to see how PLAN intends to use this training carrier. I read a really great article by Andrew Erickson today, where he talked about how Liaoning will not be that useful in the immediate time facing US or Japan, but could be quite useful in South China Sea. When Liu Huaqing first envisioned a carrier in PLAN, he wanted a medium sized carrier that PLAN can use to dominate South China Sea rather than a super carrier to compete against USN. Of course, this was also back in the late 80s when PLAN had those skirmishes with Vietnam where it had no air cover against Vietnam’s Su-22s. Even as PLAN is still learning carrier op in these early years, Liaoning could make quite a difference in any South China Sea scenarios.

When I was going through articles on the commissioning of Liaoning, I think one of the more interesting parts is where someone from PLAN stated that this shows China can build a carrier. While he conceded the hull was built in Russia, he stated strongly that everything inside the ship and on the ship was designed and built in China. I would imagine that whatever the Russians are doing for the INS Vikramaditya is what China had to do for the former Varyag. It certainly explains why they took this many years to finally launch the ship. Thinking about that, it’s interested that China has managed to restore and modernize a larger ship faster than the Russians despite having to learn the entire structure of the ship from scratch. Reading an interviewed piece from the ship, it certainly sounded like the interior of the ship has been completely changed to the modern PLAN standards. It was stated to have a 24 hours cafeteria with two bars (one loud and one quiet). It was has a supermarket, a post office, a gym (probably also basketball court), a laundromart and a garbage treatment station. Sailors can communicate with family at home through computers and can even use their cell phones. I would imagine the condition to be similar to those pictures we’ve seen of the interiors of the No. 88 life style ship and the Type 071 LPD. PLAN has made a serious effort in the recent years to improve the living conditions of these newer ships as they strive to become blue water navy. So far, we’ve already seen the latest of Chinese sensors and close in weapon systems installed on Liaoning. We’ve also seen the living quarters of the sailors revamped and modernized to be similar to other new PLAN ships. I can only imagine that the navigation control, command area and carrier operations control rooms will also be upgraded to the latest and best PLAN could offer. Liaoning should have much more modern weapon systems on board than any previously Russia/Soviet built carriers. It should also be much more powerful than the refitted and modernized Vikramaditya. Once J-15 joins service, it should also theoretically be much more advanced and capable than any previous naval aircraft that operated off a Russia/Soviet built carrier. Now that they have the hardware that the Soviet navy never had, the much longer process of developing the software (training people and pilots for carrier ops) is about to start.

A while ago, I was asked about when I think a Chinese carrier will enter Persian Gulf. And I think this is a good place to put what I thought at that time. Eventually, a China carrier will leave the safety of the South China Sea and then the second chain of islands. It will move past Malacca straits to protect its energy routes from Africa and the Persian Gulf. I have the following thoughts for when that will happen:

First, we have to think about economics and political situation in China. If we have a serious political or economic problem in China, that would slow down all military procurement. So, let's for the sake of argument, assume that this will not be an issue; and the navy will continue to see 10% increase in its budget every year.

Secondly, China doesn't currently have any real oversea base. And I think they would need oversea base close to the Persian Gulf first before they can really enter into Persian Gulf. They already have some supply points or network of places to support their current operations in the Gulf of Aden. Good article to read is here. In order for China to enter the Persian Gulf, I'd imagine it would need an oversea base close to the Persian Gulf. The location talked about so far are Pakistan, Seychelles, Burma, Sri Lanka and any number of African countries friendly to China. This won't happen right away, but I think it will eventually happen by the end of this decade. I think that Gwadar, Pakistan and somewhere in Burma probably make the most sense. In the former case, that base could be protected by Pakistan army and air force. In the latter case, Burma would also be within range of Chinese air force (with refueling).

Third, what would be the carrier entering into the Persian Gulf? I can't imagine it will be Liaoning, which should serve in the role I mentioned up top. Aside from that, Liaoning is still using steam turbines. If we look at all of the recent PLAN deployments, there have been very few long range ones using steam turbines. Even now, none of the Sov destroyers have been to Gulf of Aden. So, that means it would have to be a domestically built carrier. If the first carrier is under construction in JN shipyard right now as I've been led to believe, the earliest it would enter service is toward the end of this decade.

After that, we have to look at the rest of the carrier group. The current generation of AAW and ASW ships (052C/D and 054A) is sufficient to escort something like Liaoning. The first domestic carriers will be expected to make longer deployments, which would require the next generation of escorts. They would also need something like 095, because the current nuclear subs are way too noisy. Even 095 is still expected to be at least one generation behind Virginia class, so they would probably need something that’s a generation better (like a 097 class). They would need larger AAW and ASW ships that have the propulsion to keep up with the carrier. Aside from the 097 class, everything else (including a new generation of AORs) should already be commissioned by the time the first domestic carrier is ready, so escorts will not be a limiting factor.

The part that will slow things down is the development of the air wing and learning of carrier operations. The first generation of air wing will probably achieve IOC by 2015. By then, the J-15 fighter jet, JJ-9 trainer and Z-8 helicopters should have had some experience on takeoff and landing on Liaoning. For PLAN to feel comfortable sending its carrier into the Persian Gulf and keep it there, it will probably want the second generation of naval air wing. It will probably comprise of a naval version of the new SAC fighter jet, Z-8/Z-15 helicopters for ASW/SAR and other missions, different variants of naval flanker playing the role of E/FA-18E/F/G/H, Y-7 AEW and next generation of naval trainer. Now, most of this is already in development, so optimistically speaking they will probably achieve IOC by 2025. And then, PLAN would probably like to operate it a couple of years before giving it an extensive deployment to Persian Gulf. So, I think it would take until the end of the next decade before PLAN can make a meaningful entrance. By then, they would have almost 2 decades of carrier operations and multiple aircraft carriers.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The appearance of a second Chinese 5th gen project

On Saturday afternoon, I saw murky pictures of this new aircraft appearing on Chinese bbs that were supposedly SAC (Shenyang Aircraft Corporation)'s 5th generation fighter jet project. Originally, the picture looked fishy to me and I thought it might be photo shopped from F-35. Since then, we've gotten clearer photos and it does look real.
It's been long speculated that SAC has also been working on a 5th generation design despite loosing the main 5th generation project to CAC (Chengdu Aircraft Corporation). While CAC has been getting all the funding from PLAAF for the J-20 project, SAC's design was more of a self funded project that may or may not have received a PLAAF designation. The Chinese forums have been referring to this project as J-31 after seeing the serial number 31001 on the plane (and 2001/2002 for J-20 project). Regardless, the following of this project has been gathering steam over the past year. The first significant sighting was the unveiling of an export version at the first International UAV Innovation Grand Prix commonly referred to as F-60 as shown below.

A few months ago, we saw this covered up aircraft moved around which many people speculated to be SAC's 5th generation project.

And by Sunday, we've gotten this much clearer photo of the so called "J-31". At this point, there is still plenty of mystery regarding this aircraft. It looks to be much smaller than J-20. If PLA decides to order it at some point, it could form a hi-lo combination with J-20. There has been a lot of speculation that this aircraft will get navalized at some point due to the appearance of twin front landing gear and PLAN's stated desire for a next generation naval fighter jet. It also appears that 2 RD-93s have been fitted for this aircraft initially until the engine designed for this aircraft becomes available (so there won't be the gap with the exhaust).

This aircraft could end up as China's F-35 or it could be a privately funded project that will be competing against something from CAC as the lo part of PLAAF's hi-lo combination or it could be an export project. There is a lot that we certainly don't know yet.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

How a slowdown of Chinese economy may effect PLA

If you have not been following Asia news recently, you may have missed out on the dramatic slow down recently in the Chinese economy. There are many reasons for this slow down. The most obvious of which has been the extreme unbalanced growth model that China has been on in recent year to exports and investments. With Europe, China's biggest export market, in an economic free fall and America also getting into a recession, China's export is unlikely to pick up in the near future. At the same time, we are seeing a collapse in the real estate caused by the bursting of housing bubble. Local governments are saddled with debts from all of the infrastructure projects, so the investment part of Chinese economy is seeing a collapse and this is confirmed by all of the PMI numbers that have come out recently. While Chinese government may push for more stimulus and infrastructure projects to kick start the economy, this is really a great time to start the de-leveraging process and come to a more balanced growth model with increased consumption making up the growth. I'm not sure how long this period will last, but this is all part of the capitalism. You have the boom and bust period. During bust period, the government will hopefully cut back on some programs and reduce the spending. When it comes to PLA, that should point to a lower growth in the defense budget. This happened in 2009 when the defense budget grew at the slowest pace in a long time. And Chinese government has shown in the past that it is willing to divert money from defense to help economic development. The question is how PLA will adjust to smaller increases in its budget. Which programs will it cut? Or which programs should be cut or reduced?

If we look back in the 80s, when PLA saw its budget cut pretty much every year, most of the programs it embarked on were cut or abandoned very early on. When Su-27s were purchased in the early 90s, there were even many who called for abandoning the J-10 program. That's quite amazing considering that J-10 has been described as China's Apollo project by some. At the same time, many naval projects like 052 and nuclear submarines were delayed while the shipyards continue to build low technology ships due to lack of funding, lack of technical expertise and arms embargo. Of course, the PLA build up of the past 20 years were the results of increased funding, technology transfer from Russia and improved civilian industries.

First of all, what should PLA look into slowing down, reducing or cutting if the procurement and RnD budgets are cut by 10 to 20% vs PLA's current projection levels. Suppose the four services of air force, navy, army and second artillery all get cut around that level, I will look at the two areas I'm more familiar with: air force and navy. I will talk about training and personnel cost later.

In the air force, there are programs that must go on like J-20, Y-20, KJ-2000 (or some future variants of it) and Y-8 special missions aircraft. They will receive proper funding for the foreseeable future. There are ongoing programs like J-10 and flankers series that may see cut in funding resulting in early termination of some variants and shelving of some variants. For example, J-10B has been stuck in the test stage for seemingly a long time and looks to finally be ready for induction. If J-20 becomes successful early, PLAAF may choose to shelve future "semi-stealthy" variants of J-10 to save on development cost and continue to produce J-10B while upgrading J-10A with more advanced electronics and weaponry. In the case of the flanker series, PLAAF may terminate J-11B project early due to its bad performances in the recent red flag/blue flag aerial exercises at Dingxin. The J-16 project could also be cut if SAC continues to have problem actually developing new flanker variants to serve PLAAF. And SAC's 5th generation project may loose PLAAF funding if SAC continues to struggle. There are also many UAV and UCAV projects that are under way in China as we've seen in the recent Zhuhai air shows. Many of these projects are privately funded or for export purposes, but we know PLAAF also has requirements of different types of UAVs and UCAVs. PLAAF may delay the purchase of some of the UAVs while going with more mature and less advanced designs. Of course, these are just my personal speculation and the success of many programs depend not only on their performance but also on the political connection of the people involved in the projects. On top of these core PLAAF projects, there are also the less essential ones that may not get chosen or delayed. JF-17 has long been talked about as a project that may provide the lo-end of China's fighter force and I've long advocated PLAAF purchase a variant of it. However, if PLAAF is in a cash crunch and deems JF-17 to be too expensive, it may continue to purchase J-8IIs or cut some of the regiments and restart J-10A production to lower the logistical cost of having another type of fighter jet in service. In the area of advanced jet trainer, PLAAF may completely give up on purchasing the more expensive L-15 project and only purchase the less advanced JJ-9 project. Future variants of JH-7 will probably be left on the drawing board while JH-7A replaces all remaining Q-5 regiments as the workhorse attacking aircraft of PLAAF. Future bomber projects will get pushed back even more while XAC continues to churn out newer variants of the 50s era H-6 bombers. The Y-9 project will probably get enough funding by then to already be in service, but the speculated jet engine powered version of medium transport will probably be abandoned.

In the navy, most of the programs are amazingly efficient due to China's very competitive civilian shipbuilding industry and advancing electronics industry. Off the top my head, I really cannot think of any ship class currently under production that's really badly managed and deserve to get cut. In the beginning part of PLAN's modernization, it was forced to make large leaps in technology and had numerous classes with limited production to eventually get modern warships. You can see that from 052 to 051B to 052B to 052C. In cases where it did make huge leap like from 052/051B to 052B/C, PLAN waited 7 years before the problems are all sorted out and it can start mass production at much lower cost. At this point, it is no longer forced to make as large leaps in technology, so I think cost escalations have not been major issues with PLAN. As seen in recently in new surface ships, PLAN chooses to either create a new ship class with the same hull but new weapon system or the same weapon systems but the same hull. You can see this in the transition from 053H3 (Jiangwei II) class transition to 054 and then from 054 to 054A. If PLAN had jumped directly from 053H3 to 054A, that would have carried a lot of risks in terms of having a entirely new hull and propulsion system on top of a wholly new air defense system. We've also seen this with 052C to 052D to the speculated 055 class. The new major item weapon systems eventually intended for 055 class will get tested out on 052D. So when 055 program starts, the risk of the project lies only with the new hull and propulsion system and not with the weapon system. The air defense suite, VLS, new naval LACM, main gun, and CIWS would already have been tested on 052D. So after complimenting PLAN for this long, what can they do to lower cost. I think one answer would be to reduce the production level of each ship class that's been mass produced. For example, 022 class could've stopped at 64 instead of whatever the total is now. 054A production run could've stopped at 12 instead of the 16 that's been planned. Yuan class submarine could've been stopped at 8 instead of 12 or 16 that's been planned. I would also advocate for the earlier retirement of some ships that have run out of use like most of the Luda class "destroyers" and Jianghu class "frigates". Recently, we've seen many new warships coming into service, but PLAN has shown an utter reluctance to decommission older ships. PLAN needs to retire some of the older ships or else it will have too many personnel to maintain. Above all, I think if PLAN is really facing a cash crunch, it could always delay the production of a carrier and planned escorts to cut costs. Naval air projects could also be delayed to cut down cost. If the choice for funding of blue water navy was between nuclear submarine or a carrier force, I think it's more important for PLAN to continue to fully fund its nuclear submarine research and development rather than aircraft carriers. There is nothing wrong with spending more time training and learning to operate on one domestic aircraft carrier (+ Liaoning, formerly known as Varyag) before speeding up aircraft production.

I think when it comes to training, large scale exercises and oversea missions, PLA should not cut back its funding in these areas at all. China is finally learning to devote more resources into more advanced training method and improving the quality of its sailors and pilots. Both PLAAF and PLAN have received a lot of new toys recently and I have always wondered whether improvement in software can keep up with improvements in hardware. So even if the procurement budget goes down, the training budget should continue at current pace to bridge the back between China and better trained military forces around the world. Finally, I think personnel cost is not going to be an issue. A large part of the recent climb in PLA budget has been to accommodate the increased quality of life around China. Food and fuel cost in additional to cost of goods have all been going up due to the economic boom. At the same time, better living quarters using more expensive construction material and increased wages have to be allotted to recruit more intelligent young people around the country to have a career in the increasingly less attractive profession of serving in the military. In the bust portion of the economic cycle, these costs will all be turned upside down with inflation likely to completely disappear and worker wage increases falling to flat.

So in the face of increasingly gloomy economic situation in China, PLA will be forced to make some choices in cutting back some of its projected increases. I think that both procurement and personnel cost will see reduction from projected levels. I'm sure the conversation within PLA will be no different than some of the conversations going on in the Pentagon right now

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The emergence of 052D

PLAN followers such as myself are always excited to see new class of ship to come out and to speculate on new classes. In a recent blog entry, I wrote about the 052C program and afterwards. I speculated that the destroyers under construction in the docks are are 052D. It turned out that my speculations were correct and one of them was launched this past week. We have been seeing a steady stream of photos coming out as people are getting a closer look at the changes on 052D. The first thing we saw was that 052D has relatively the same hull as 052C, which is understandable, since they are using the same propulsion technology. The question has always been what kind of different weapon systems they will fit on this new class. The first set of photos we saw showed new Phased Array radar panels installed on 052D. It's the same type of radar we recently saw installed on the test ship. From the third picture, you can see that it's quite a bit larger than the ones on 052C. The sides of the bridge (especially the ones holding the radar panels) are slightly to noticeably more sloped for possible signature reduction. A new 130 mm main gun is installed in the front replacing the older 100 mm main gun. The CIWS up front remains as Type 730. We see a FCR installed on the foremast for the main gun. However, the rest of the foremast looks to be quite different than 052C. We no longer see the OTH targeting radar commonly found on 054A and 052B/C ships. Then, we got a set of photos showing over the top view of this ship compared to 052C. The second picture shows 052D holding a new type of VLS structure up at front that's more similar to MK-41 and the HHQ-16 VLS than the circular ones on 052C. This is possibly the multi-missile VLS that was reported to have been under development. Compared to 052C, we are seeing a modified funnel design that buries funnels for signature reduction. The base that holds the Type 517M radar is moved forward compared to 052C. We will have to wait to see what's around that. The hangar was moved from the left side to the center. It seems like Type 730 will not be installed here, since it requires deck penetration and the hangar for 052C had to move off center because They placed the aft VLS installations and Type 730 along center. Rather, the non-deck penetrating version of HQ-10 will probably be installed here. I suppose the targeting radar for HQ-10 will either be installed alongside it or next to the Type 517M. The area that used to hold the YJ-62 launchers and the multipurpose rocket launchers have been replaced with the aft VLS installations. The rocket launchers have been moved to the two sides of the platform on top of the hangar. I'm not sure where the anti-ship missiles will be installed. So, we do see quite dramatic changes to the weapon systems employed on 052D. The hull is similar but appears to have some modifications to fit the weapon systems and have reduction in signature. The beam of the ship appears to greater than 052C from the comparisons, but that's probably just based on the angle of the shot. A more powerful multi-functional radar has been installed, which could only point toward greater AAW potential. The biggest question on most people's mind are the number of VLS cells. From people that have been there, the word is that the front VLS installation and aft VLS installation are both holding 32 VLS cells. That's compared to 36 and 12 on 052C. Another question has been whether these cells can quad pack or dual pack one of the shorter ranged missiles. The other question is whether they can hold LACMs or AShM or ASW missiles. We will find out in the coming months and years, but that's still a mystery at this point. Either way, it's a definite improvement over the combat capabilities of 052C. While holding 64 VLS cells may not satisfy some PLAN fans (compared to 96 MK-41 on Flights II Arleigh Burke class), one has to remember that this ship is most likely around 7000 to 8000 ton in displacement fully loaded. Until the next generation of AAW warship comes out with greater propulsion, there is a limitation to how much 052 series of ships can hold.