China Unveils Bigger, Better & Most Advance Type 054B Frigate That Could Become The Next PLA-Navy Workhorse: Analysis

The internet has been flooded with images of an all-new Chinese frigate, Type 054B, which, according to some journalists and military watchers, was launched at the Hudong-Zhonghua shipyard in Shanghai.

EurAsian Times has followed the development since it was first reported on social media over the weekend. However, the new and more explicit pictures posted by PLA watchers and Navy experts have provided us with the best view of this new Chinese warship so far.

While the nomenclature attributed to this vessel suggests that it may closely be related to the already-operational Type 054A type, the new ship has been hailed for a very new design. Some analysts suggest that Type 054B is the larger and more advanced version of Type 054A, which currently forms the backbone of the PLAN and is the most extensively used workhorse.

The images doing the rounds on social media showed red-colored flags (the Chinese flag) arranged along the vessel’s length, giving an impression that the frigate was complete and ready for a launch. According to some reports, it was launched overnight on August 26, but since it is not known when the photos were shot, that can’t be verified.

The development is significant as it comes at a time when PLAN is not only looking at churning out new combat capabilities in the wake of rising tension in the region but also carrying out far-sea voyages. Some analysts predict that this new Type 054B vessel will eventually become part of carrier strike groups now venturing into the Pacific and beyond the “first island chain,” as Beijing likes to call it.

The vessel reportedly has a displacement of 6,000 tons, an extra 2,000 tonnage compared to the Type 054A. It is believed that the new warship will replace the Type 054A in the future, and the latter’s production has either ceased or is about to end shortly.

Some of the most distinctive features of the Type 054B include a new rotating active electronically scanned array (AESA)-radar, sonar equipment, new weaponry, and air defense, as well as an electric propulsion system — a stark departure from the Type 054A.

EurAsian Times dives deep into the features of this brand-new, cutting-edge PLAN vessel.

What Do We Know About The Future PLAN Workhorse?

Unlike Type 054A, the Type 054B is powered by a fully electric propulsion system. This system increases the ship’s ability to convert power efficiently, consumes less energy, and, as a result, performs better in navigation and has more combat power. The Type 054B is now supposedly among the few frigates in the world using an electric propulsion system.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported that the 054B will likely be propelled by an integrated electric propulsion (IEP) system created by a team under the direction of Rear Admiral Ma Weiming, the senior naval power engineer for the PLA. The ship would test more cutting-edge ship-borne armament weapons.

EurAsian Times reached out to PLA watcher Rick Joe for comments. Joe said, “The notion that the Type 054B is powered by IEPS (or partial electric) is based on rumors. If true, the benefit of it would be its ability to turn propellers with quieter electric motors and generate more electricity for other utilities for the ship.”

Another military watcher who took a keen interest in the PLA and did not want to be named said that the most significant utility of the IEP would be to equip the vessel with more powerful weaponry than what is currently present on the Type 054A. He did not elaborate on what kind of weaponry would the PLAN experiment with.

Journalists and military experts note that the Type 054B is significantly larger than the Type 054A. The precise size of the frigate calculated using pixels of photographs obtained has estimated Type 054 B’s length as roughly 150 meters, compared to the 134 meters of Type 054A.

The increase in size has been attributed to the PLAN’s willingness to use a frigate of this class that could host attack helicopters like the Z-20, which has similarities with the US Black Hawk choppers. Since the use of drones has seen an uptick in combat, analysts predict that the ship will also host UCAVs that could take off from the surface of the Type 054B.

When asked whether the vessel’s length has been increased compared to its predecessor so that it could host attack helicopters and combat drones, Joe said that it was speculative but not unlikely.

Harbin Z-20 - Wikipedia
Z-20 – Wikipedia

“054B has a slightly larger helipad and hangar to be better optimized for the Z-20F ASW helicopter, and yes, it may feature helicopter drones (like the MQ-8C pattern, of which we know they have at least one major naval helicopter drone in advanced development/testing), but the increase of 054Bs size relative to 054A is not primarily driven by that,” Joe said.

On being further probed about the larger size of the vessel, Joe said, “It is to operate like any same way any modern medium-sized naval combatant would be relevant.”

Another very distinctive feature of the Type 054B, as highlighted by experts, is the vertical launch missile system (VLS) on the bow. Writing for Naval News, journalist Alex Luck, who closely follows the PLA, said, “As expected, Type 054B will carry a 32 cell-vertical launch missile system (VLS) on the bow.”

“The type of VLS, however, remains unclear, with one candidate being the same system fitted to Type 054A, capable of launching the HQ-16 medium-range SAM and Yu-8 anti-submarine-missiles. Also, possibly remains the “Universal VLS” used on Type 055 and Type 052D, capable of launching SAM, Anti-ship missiles (AShM), and likely further types in the future,” Luck explained.

In contrast to the Type 054A, which is mounted with a 76mm gun, earlier images of the Type 054B showed it was equipped with a 100mm main gun. Although the new gun has been revealed, there is still uncertainty about it.

Rick Joe told EurAsian Times, “We don’t know VLS type yet, need pictures for that. The 100mm gun in the past was unreliable. There were rumors they’ve modified and upgraded it so it is more reliable. The 76mm gun is okay for 1500-ton corvettes and 4000-ton frigates, but for a 6000-ton ship they may want a larger gun.”

Some military watchers pointed out that the Chinese likely replaced the 76mm gun because it was too small for big targets and too big for minor ones.

A naval analyst, H.I. Sutton, made an intriguing observation on platform X (previously Twitter) by saying, “Interesting that they switch from Russian origin 76mm gun back to French origin 100mm gun albeit in new stealth casing. China previously used French 100mm but seemed to have gone out of favor. Now back.”

As for the new gun, there are some visual similarities to the currently used H/PJ-87, which is itself a licensed development of the Creusot-Loire 100mm Compact and was installed on the only two Type 054 frigates as well as several older destroyers.

A closer look at the vessel suggests an HQ-10 SAM launcher is situated on the solitary hangar, while a H/PJ-11 11-barrel 30mm Gatling gun is visible in front of the bridge. Moreover, experts predict that the destruction of airborne targets at closer ranges would be handled by two distinct close-in weapons systems (CIWS), with SAMs launched from the VLS handling longer-range air defense.

A few reports doing the round suggest that the Type 054B would eventually escort the Type 075 amphibious warship and helicopter dock. When probed on that, Rick Joe said: “For amphibious ships as part of amphibious groups, generally they would not be escorted by a large destroyer/cruiser type ship usually, but of course, it depends on the mission and what other task groups there are.”

He further explained, “If it was an amphibious ready group (like, say, 1x 075, 2x 071s), they might have a surface escort of a couple of frigates and a medium destroyer (like two 054As or 054Bs, and one 052D). But of course, he noted, “It is all mission dependent.”

Type 075 landing helicopter dock - Wikipedia
Type 075 landing helicopter dock – Wikipedia

The ship has also been integrated with another competent piece of equipment. A dual-face active phased array radar system is installed to improve the ship’s awareness of its surroundings. An informed source told EurAsian Times that the radar equipment would be on a level with top-tier European destroyers.

In addition, an integrated mast contains additional electronic support measures (ESM) in front of the smokestack.

Going beyond the anti-surface warfare capabilities, the vessel will likely be assigned anti-submarine warfare duties as it carries the expected sonar equipment for ASW duties, including a towed array (TAS) and variable depth-sonar (VDS).

The onboard sonars, weapons, an enormous hangar for helicopters, and the ability to network with friendly ships and aircraft would allow it to carry out anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare duties.

However, analysts believe that anti-submarine warfare would be a secondary role entrusted to the vessel.

“It’s a multirole frigate oriented to ASW, AAW, and ASuW. All modern warships by nature are multirole, including 054A, 054B, 052D, 055, etc., or any that one can list off by other nations,” Joe told EurAsian Times.

Type 055 destroyer: Symbol of Chinese Navy's development - CGTN
Type 055 destroyer- CGTN

When asked whether the Type 054B would bridge the gap between the capabilities of the Type 054A and the Type 055 vessels, Joe explained, “The responsibilities of 055 versus the likes of 052D, 054B or 054A are not categorical. Their roles should all be seen on a spectrum. The 052D is closer to 055 than 054B is, let’s put it that way, and it’s due to their respective sizes, armament, sensor fit, etc.”

Since Type 054B is eventually expected to replace Type 054A, Joe said, “054A has limited growth potential and seakeeping and endurance and capabilities overall aren’t able to meet long-term 21st-century requirements.”

When asked whether the Type 054B has been designed for combat in the Taiwan Strait, he said, “All new PLA capability is Taiwan relevant.”