Will China upgrade its destroyers with ‘carrier killer’ missiles?

China’s Type 055 guided-missile destroyers have the potential to be refitted with “aircraft carrier killer” missiles but the weapons would have to be lighter and smaller than existing land-based technology, observers said.

The assessment comes as the military nears the end of another phase in its massive naval expansion programme.

The eighth and final Type 055 was launched in Dalian, Liaoning province, at the end of last month, meaning that its structure is complete and it is in the process of being fitted with equipment.

The first in the series has been commissioned and the others are also being fitted out.

The 12,000-tonne warship is considered the one of the world’s most powerful multi-role surface combat ships, because it can be fitted with various armaments including anti-ship cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles, anti-submarine weapons and land-attack cruise missiles.

But there has been speculation that future destroyers could be upgraded to a new “Type 055A” variant or even an entire new class produced capable of firing “carrier killers”.

According to an analysis by US-based Military Watch Magazine, one possibility is upgrading the power system into an integrated fully electric propulsion system, enabling high-energy weapons like laser or electromagnetic guns.

The People’s Liberation Army already has “carrier killers” in its arsenal but these are part of the heavy land-based Dongfeng (DF) range. Two of these missiles – the DF-21D and DF-26B – were fired by the PLA Rocket Force from the Chinese mainland into the South China Sea last month.

The Rocket Force also has the DF-17, the world’s first hypersonic glide missile in service.

There have been no reports of these land-based missiles being adapted for use by the PLA Navy, although the Pentagon’s 2020 China military power report said that when operational, the Type 055 would carry anti-ship ballistic missiles.

Naval expert Li Jie said it was unlikely that these types of anti-ship ballistic missiles had already been fitted on the Type 055 vessels.

Li said the DF series missiles were too big for ships, but it would be possible to integrate hypersonic anti-ship cruise missiles similar to the Russian Zircons into the Chinese destroyers.

“If the ships were loaded with advanced anti-ship missiles, the PLA’s ability to deny access to an area would be much greater,” he said.

Military analyst Zhou Chenming said the PLA Navy was unlikely to rush into building a new series of ships, opting instead to focus on refining the operations on board the new larger and more modern vessels and fine-tuning their coordination with a bigger fleet.

“I believe that in the next 10 years the pace of the shipbuilding will slow, and there will more likely be changes to existing types,” Zhou said.

“If anything, the research and development on next-generation technologies will continue, but the applications will be less radical.”

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