The Lhasa, a Type 055 stealth-guided missile destroyer — the largest and most advanced warship in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) — was seen leading three Type 056A corvettes in a three-day military exercise in the Yellow Sea.
State broadcaster CCTV reported on May 15 that the exercise included air-defense, anti-ship, and anti-submarine drills, while there were also some other types of surface warships, submarines, early-warning aircraft, and helicopters that participated in the drill.
Type 055 Destroyer vs Zumwalt
The Lhasa was declared combat-ready in January and it is PLAN’s second Type 055 warship. With a displacement of 12,000 tonnes, the Chinese media called it the second most powerful destroyer in the world after the USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000).
The Zumwalt is the world’s most technologically advanced destroyer, with 15,000 dominant tonnes of displacement. Its unique “Tumblehome” hull and superstructure — where the sides slope inward — and an angular shape significantly reduces cross-section and acoustic output that, can make the ship as stealthy as a fishing boat and quieter than a small submarine.
Meanwhile, the Type 055, in terms of stealth, has an enclosed forward deck, mainmast, and bow, with the latter hiding the anchor and other equipment. However, its hull and superstructure are fairly conventional.
The Zumwalt has 80 Vertical Launch System (VLS) cells that can fire Tomahawk, Evolved Sea Sparrow, and other guided missiles, while Type 055 has 112 VLS cells that can fire HHQ-9 surface-to-air missiles, YJ-18 anti-ship cruise missiles, CJ-10 land-attack cruise missiles, and missile-launched anti-submarine torpedoes.
This is because the US destroyer is more of a land attack ship designed to be deployed close to enemy shores and fire its large 155 mm guns like old battleships.
The Type 055 destroyers, on the other hand, are designed for air defense, anti-submarine missions, and protecting carriers. These mission sets, coupled with their large size, are why the US defense department’s annual China military power report has even classified the Type 055 as a ‘cruiser.’
Type 056A Corvette For Near Seas Defense
Type 056/056A corvettes have been designed and built for patrol and escort operations in the exclusive economic zones of China within 200 nautical miles of the Chinese coastline. The Type 056A is equipped with variable depth sonars for detecting and tracking submarines.
Also, the flight deck of the Type 056A variant allows the operation of a Harbin Z-9 military helicopter, specifically equipped for ASW missions.
China launched eight Type 055 destroyers between 2017 and 2020 and over 70 Type 056 and 056A warships in the past decade.
The CCTV said that the latest three-day drills were aimed at testing joint operation capabilities between different types of warships under a complex electromagnetic environment.
“Joint exercises between the Type 055 and Type 056A could be very complicated and challenging because of the involvement of many new technologies and tactics in modern naval combat,” Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science and technology think tank, explained.
The design and purposes of Type 056 are primarily focused on mid-range green-water missions and littoral duties rather than blue-water or high seas combat operations that Type 055 can undertake.
However, since last year, the PLAN has been sending the smaller ships for high seas drills under the support of a massive supply ship to enhance its ocean combat readiness, noted Macau-based military observer Antony Wong.
“The Type 056 is too small and can’t sail too far because of its limited fuel, but the three Type 056A corvettes have been able to sail over 6,700 nautical miles under the help of a Type 903 supply ship,” Wong said.
According to Lu Li-Shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaoshiung, the use of a huge and advanced warship with relatively inferior and smaller ones for drills might have been aimed at simulating combat scenarios with less powerful navies in the region.
“Interestingly, the training group put the largest destroyer and small corvettes together, and I believe the PLA has some specific purpose [behind it],” said Lu.
“I suspect the PLA is trying to use the Type 056A to train the Type 055 in potential confrontations with other small counterparts in the East and South China seas, including Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, which have small warships similar to the Chinese corvettes.”
The Yellow Sea drills followed the exercise in the Western Pacific by an unusually large PLAN strike group led by China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, amid rising tensions over Taiwan with the US and Japan.
The Japanese Ministry of Defence said fighter jets and helicopters on the Liaoning carried out more than 100 take-offs and landings over six days near Okinawa last week.