Most recently, I have been reading writings from pop3, a good source for PLAN, on the upcoming Type 055 cruiser. At the same, I have also been reading and discussing the issue of India’s purchase of Rafael fighter jet. While reading pop3’s thoughts on PLAN development leading up to Type 055, it made me really reflect on PLAN’s philosophy in its drive to modernization.
When the news of India’s purchase of Rafael came out, I was quite surprised by how much money they are paying for just 36 Rafael. Of course, India’s leaders were eager to point out they had haggled down price from over $13 billion to over $8 billion. That claim would ignore that the original MRCA rfp was to purchase 126 fighter jets for $8 billion. Even so, it was quite shocking that when they finally settled on direct purchase of 36 Rafael, the average total cost came out to be well over $200 million. If they had actually gotten all ToT and local production from Dassault as they had originally wanted, the cost would undoubtedly have been even higher. If we ignore the service, support, missiles and spare cost of this deal, the fly away cost + “India modification work” would still come out to $160 million per aircraft. I think that would be higher than the fly away cost of F-35, J-20 and probably PAK-FA. For an air force that has continually complained about lack of available squadrons, it seems very curious that price was not a bigger factor in its MRCA competition. To be fair, India is not the only country in the world that ends up paying premium for the weapon system that best fit its performance criteria.
I think that most people would agree PLAN has done a really good job of modernization up to this point. They have managed to do so with little access to Western exporters and relatively weak technology base (at least back in the 90s). At the same time, PLAN also had very limited funding for much of 80s and 90s. The question is what I have they done right to get to this point. It certainly helps that they have a productive domestic shipbuilding industry and low cost manufacturing base. South Korea and Japan have also been able to build very powerful ships at reasonable cost by leveraging their competitive shipbuilding industry. However, they both had access to all the major exporters, which China does not have. So what else allows China to modernize so quickly?
I think the first part is to look at the practical nature of its naval acquisitions. I want to focus on Type 054/054A program in this example. I read that France sold data of La Fayette frigate to China at the same time it had sold the ships to Taiwan. That certainly sped up their development of hull of Type 054, but I think it also showed they were very practical. While La Fayette is a modern frigate design with advanced signature reduction technology, it does have drawbacks in the role of ASW escort. It uses CODAD propulsion that is quite underpowered and noisy (compared to something using COGAG propulsion like OHP class) for ASW operations. Type 054 and 054A have the same shortcomings. Even so, PLAN recognized that it had access to all the components (including the diesel engines) needed to serially produce a much better frigate than Jiangwei class. There was no reason to wait on a perfect frigate for its requirements. The interesting part is that only 2 Type 054 class frigates were built before they moved onto Type 054A. Even after they had built Type 054, they built 2 more Jiangwei class frigates. At the time they built Type 054, most of the subsystems for Type 054A was not ready. The development of Type 382 Sea Eagle radar (looks like Top Plate) completed in 2002. The development of Type 366 OTH radar (Chinese version of Mineral-ME) completed in 2004. The AJK-16 weapon system (which fires HQ-16 missiles) only started land based testing in 2004. The actual testing on sea came after that. The Yu-8 rocket assisted torpedo completed testing in 2006. So none of these subsystems were ready when Type 054 was laid down. Instead, Type 054 was fitted with the AJK-02 weapon system (HQ-7) and Type 360 search radar. Looking at the firepower of Type 054 vs the most recent Jiangwei units, I would say Type 054 is only slightly more powerful than those Jiangwei. Type 054 would be close to twice as expensive as Jiangwei, but PLAN decided it was important to build and test out this new hull design before adding the new subsystems. When Type 054A was being designed, Type 701 Institute could focus on just integrating the new weapon system onto the same hull as Type 054. Since that point, Type 054A has become the workhorse of PLAN even as newer technology and weapon system has become available. I think they found it more important to mass-produce a good enough design since their frigates have been modernized cheaply and quickly this way. Each 054A probably costs around $250 million, which is very cheap. They can now wait for available technology to catch up to design requirements of Type 054B, since all of the older Type 053 frigates have already been replaced.
Another interesting element is China’s goal of not utilizing imports for mass production. Back when Type 052 project first started, China simply did have the technology needed to build what PLAN wanted. They ended up importing various parts from various countries, but were dealt a reality check when military embargo was put in place after the June 4th student crackdown. All of that caused delays in the development and production of the 2 Type 052s. I think Type 052 was way ahead of its time in terms of the technology employed, but PLAN simply could not afford to build more Type 052 until their military industrial complex caught up. Once that happened, they were still very cautious in building 2 Type 052B, 2 Type 052C and 2 Type 051C before the mass production of Type 052C happened. They did not want to rely on importing Ukrainian gas turbines, so waited until domestic version of DA-80 was ready for production. They were willing to test out new technology like Type 346 radar and AJK-03 VLS on 2 ships, but were not willing to mass-produce more Type 052Cs until the technology was more mature. Since QC-280 became available, Type 052C and 052D production has been continuous. It does not matter to PLAN if the subsystem is foreign designed or inspired as long as domestic firms can produce them cheaply. Due to cost and lack of import options, PLAN was driven to rely on domestic production for all of the new naval surface combatants. One could say that PLAN modernization has completed now that probably 2/3 of its ships have been replaced with modern designs.