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SOURCE: THE WEEK

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy is carrying on with its frenzied march to naval supremacy in Asia. Two months after its indigenously built aircraft carrier commenced maiden sea trials, barely an year after its launch, China launched two Type-055 class destroyers at a shipyard in Dalian, Liaoning province, on Tuesday.

The launch of the two ships, like most events of ‘unveiling’ of recent Chinese weapon systems, was first reported on social media before being picked up by state-run news agencies and global publications. The Type-055 class is regarded as the most advanced surface warship built in China and will be among the largest surface combatants in Asia, not counting aircraft carriers and amphibious assaults ships.

The only surface combatants that will be larger than the Type-055 will be the US Navy’s Zumwalt class destroyers, of which only three will be inducted following massive cost overruns and technical issues.

The Type-055 class vessels have been projected to have a full-load displacement of up to 13,000 tonnes and length of around 180 metres. These ships are equipped with vertical-launch systems in their hulls that are theoretically able to carry at least 100 missiles for anti-air, anti-ship and land-attack purposes.

The Type-055 class has a massive phased array radar system, which gives it the capability to detect enemy aircraft and missiles at distances of several hundred kilometres.

A capability that the Type-055 is projected to have in the next decade is the ability to deploy a ‘railgun’.

Railguns use electromagnetic forces to fire projectiles at very high velocities. Such projectiles don’t need propellants to be fired and have minimal requirement for a warhead given their high kinetic energy. Railguns have been proposed for anti-ship and land-attack purposes as well as missile defence roles.

Despite research by the US Navy for decades, railguns have proven difficult to develop given their high electric power requirements. The Type-055 was touted as a possible platform for a Chinese railgun after reports emerged of Chinese advances in railgun technology. A recent US intelligence review warned China could deploy an operational railgun on warships by 2025.

The two ships that were launched on Tuesday are the third and fourth ships of the Type-055 class; the first one was launched in June 2017 and is reportedly expected to be delivered to the PLAN by the end of this year. According to Chinese state media, the PLAN may induct at least 10 Type-055 class ships.

The Type-055 dwarfs India’s upcoming Visakhapatnam class destroyers, which weigh around 8,000 tonnes. However, the Indian Navy’s Israeli-built MF-STAR phased array radar system, along with the Barak-8 missile, is at least as advanced, if not more, as the systems on the Type-055 and other Chinese ships. But India’s Kolkata and Visakhapatnam class ships do have a significant limitation—their basic design.

The Kolkata and Visakhapatnam class destroyers, which carry the MF-STAR radar, are both derivatives of the Delhi class destroyers, which are a 1980s design. As a result, their ‘beam’ (width of the ships) length of 17 metres is considerably less than most modern surface ships, leave alone the Type-055, which has a beam of around 20 metres. The beam length limits the number of vertical-launch systems that can be installed on a ship and its overall suitability for further modernisation.