There is evidence that China is in the early stages of building a positively enormous missile cruiser—one that could be bigger and potentially more powerful than any equivalent American or Japanese vessel.
On April 6, China Defense Blog—an Internet forum for close observers of Chinese military developments—republished a series of photographs that recently circulated on China’s firewalled national Internet.
The photos, reportedly snapped at the Wuhan Technical College of Communication, depict what appears to be a mock-up of a large surface warship—the kind of mock-up used for testing radars and other sensors. China Defense Blog described Wuhan as a military “facility for crew training and electromagnetic interference testing.”
China and other warship-building countries habitually experiment with land-based mock-ups before manufacturing actual seaworthy prototype vessels. As China renovated its former Soviet aircraft carrier Liaoning a few years ago, it built a mock-up at Wuhan. That massive shape is visible in at least one of the photos of the apparent new cruiser.
China Defense Blog contributor “Totoro” analyzed the photos and estimated the cruiser’s dimensions. Totoro concluded that the vessel is up to 614 feet from bow to stern. That exceeds the U.S. Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyers by 109 feet, America’s Ticonderoga-class cruisers by 47 feet, Japan’s Kongo-class destroyers by 18 feet and the U.S. Zumwalt-class ships by 14 feet.
At nearly 15,000 tons displacement, the still-under-construction Zumwalts are almost the biggest surface combatants in the world, outweighed only by Russia’s single huge Kirov-class nuclear cruiser. If it’s as big as it looks—and actually enters service—the new Chinese warship could become the world’s second-largest fighting vessel.
China Defense Blog also spotted a new radar that could be associated with the cruiser. That sensor and the ship’s size could indicate that it’s an air-defense vessel, meant to protect aircraft carriers, amphibious ships and other vulnerable ships from enemy warplanes and missiles.
If so, the apparent cruiser could pack a greater long-range missile armament than any other vessel. “It would appear that there’s more than enough space for 64 fore and 64 aft [missile] cells,” Totoro asserted. That’s six more cells than on the Ticonderogas, currently the most heavily-armed long-range missile shooters in naval service anywhere.
To be clear, a few grainy photos are not definitive proof of anything. But if the snapshots do indeed depict a new cruiser in development, it would make sense in light of China’s military needs.
Beijing has struggled to build warships capable of defending against the overwhelming air and missile power of Japan and the United States. It wasn’t until March this year that the Chinese navy commissioned its first warship in the same class as America’s 85 Burkes and Ticonderogas and Japan’s four Kongos and two related destroyers.
The Zumwalts have yet to join the U.S. fleet.
But the Type 052D destroyer that entered Chinese service in March displaces just 7,500 tons and packs 64 missile cells, making it a third smaller than Japanese and American vessels—and with a third fewer missiles.
A big new cruiser could begin to give China some of the same at-sea air-defense capacity that America and Japan have enjoyed for decades.