PLAN Procurement of Sovremenny-Class Destroyers: Developments and Repercussions

Official American concern over the Peoples Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) expansion seems to have broken out into the public realm, if current press reports are to be believed. The New York Times recently published a story titled ‘Chinese Navy Buildup Gives Pentagon New Worries’, which detailed growing Pentagon unease concerning the expansion of Chinese naval abilities tailored especially to counter American naval flexibility in a hypothetical Taiwanese Straits engagement.[1] The Washington Post quickly followed, portraying a quickly modernizing blue water force that poses an increasingly strident danger to the United States and Taiwan, at least in the eyes of several senior American leaders, such as CIA director Porter Goss.[2] In a lengthy study penned by noted author Robert Kaplan in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly, the United States Pacific Command is profiled as a military command which actively promotes scenarios dealing with, unofficially, Chinese naval extension into the Pacific.[3] 

With American concern growing over the ability of the PLAN to challenge US naval assets in the Pacific a widely recognized fact, it would be a worthwhile endeavour to analyze one of the essential building blocks of the PLAN development effort. A fundamental cornerstone of the growing Chinese naval power is the recent acquisition of two Sovremenny-class destroyers. In addition to these two ships, the PLAN has reportedly agreed to buy an additional two to four units from Russia by 2010. While the Sovremenny destroyers are certainly a considerable increase in Chinese surface warfare capability, it remains unclear what their inclusion to the overall PLAN order of battle means for theoretical rivals in the Western Pacific theatre. 

In September 1996, the PLAN purchased two unfinished Sovremenny-class hulls from the Russian navy. The Soviet era design, first pioneered in the 1970s, represented a response to American development of AEGIS equipped Ticonderoga-class cruisers. The specific warships, originally designated Yekaterinbugr and Alexandr Nevsky, were both laid down in the mid-1980s, but suffered long production delays as a result of chronic funding shortages. Renamed Hangzhou and Fuzhou, the two finished platforms were delivered to the PLAN in 1999 and 2000 respectively. They now serve as the backbone of the Chinese East Sea Fleet, based at the Zhoushan naval installation. The additional ships are currently being constructed in St. Petersburg based shipyards, and are scheduled to be in Chinese hands within two years. These two new constructs, designated 138 and 139, are advanced Sovremenny designs known as Project 956EM, wielding advanced electronics and sensor packages. The Sovremenny platforms are a dramatic improvement over earlier Chinese designs, such as the Luda- and Luhu-class destroyers, especially in terms of mission endurance and displacement. Their procurement points to a delay in domestic Chinese naval development, a trend unlikely to reverse itself considering indications of long term Chinese interest in future Sovremenny purchases.

The destroyers’ weapons package represents an even further advance in current PLAN capability. Primary armament of the four Sovremenny destroyers comes in the form of 3M-80E Moskit anti-ship missiles, known by its NATO designation ‘Sunburn’. Russian-made, the Sunburn system, deployed in two four-cell launchers, represents the latest development in Russian supersonic cruise missile development. With a range of 120km and a cruising speed of Mach 2.5, the Sunburns are a definite improvement over earlier domestic Chinese designs, such as the YJ-8 series. Sunburn procurement has also advanced overall Chinese understanding of anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) technology, allowing them to equip other ships with various sophisticated domestic designs. The PLAN reportedly intends to acquire Sovremenny based SS-N-26 Yakhont ASCMs, a potent threat against even the most advanced AEGIS defence systems.[4] AAW weapons wielded by Sovremenny-class destroyers include 9M38 medium range anti-air missiles, known by NATO designation ‘Grizzly’. The missiles are launched from two aft based launchers with a range of 25km, and are guided to their targets by radar guidance systems. Sovremenny-class warships are notably lacking in ASW armament, possessing only rudimentary self-defence weaponry such as two dual barrelled 533cm torpedo tubes along with two six barrelled RBU-100 anti-submarine rocket launchers. Without a towed sonar array, the destroyers rely on two fixed sonar systems along with a small ASW mining ability. Bolstering the meagre ship borne ASW capability is the ability to deploy one Ka-27 anti-submarine helicopter, capable of utilizing a full suite of airborne anti-submarine weaponry.

Similar to other Soviet era designs, Sovremenny destroyers deploy a wide array of external sensors. This assortment includes the Top Plate 3D air search radar, with a 230km threat detection range. For fire control responsibilities, the destroyers rely on six Front Dome arrays, along with the Band Stand system designated for Sunburn targeting and control.[5]

The Sovremenny weapons systems pose the greatest threat to the PRC’s most intractable rival, Taiwan. Simmering tension between the two nations frequently garners international attention to one of the world’s most dangerous hot spots. Taiwan’s (ROC) navy, while significantly smaller than the fleet wielded by its mainland rival, is sufficiently advanced technically to represent a credible counterweight to PLAN expansion. However, with a growing number of Sovremenny-class destroyers available to the PRC, the ability of ROC naval forces to provide a sufficient defence against a PRC blockade effort is called into question.

To directly oppose the Sovremenny-class destroyers, the ROC navy will, by the end of this year, deploy four Kidd-class destroyers. The island’s military had originally requested Arleigh Burke-class destroyers equipped with AEGIS, ostensibly to counter the Sovremenny purchases, but the United States declined to make the sale, offering the Kidd destroyers as a substitute. Constructed in the late 1970s (concurrent with Sovremenny development), the four Kidd-class destroyers represent an attempt to balance anti-submarine warfare (ASW), anti-air warfare (AAW) and surface warfare capabilities in a single platform. The experiment succeeded rather well, as the Kidd-class destroyer is a durable and effective warship. Most notable is the destroyer’s AAW capability, bolstered recently by a New Threat Upgrade of its AN/SPS-48E air threat radar which supports two Mk 26 launchers deploying the SM-2 (MR) missile system, able to engage targets over forty nautical miles away. For ASW contingencies, the Kidd-class possesses one of the more advanced sonar systems available today, the SQS-53 Sonar, which co-ordinates the use of six Mk-32 tubes (a notable advantage over inferior Sovremenny ASW capacities). In any surface engagement with PLAN ships, the Kidd-class destroyers would utilize the venerable Harpoon anti-ship missiles, launched from two quad barrelled Mk-141 launchers and guided by the AN/SPS-55 surface targeting system.[6]

In recent ROC navy war games, the Kidd-class destroyers performed admirably against PRC air assaults, demonstrating their usefulness in at least mitigating large scale attacks.[7] While the Kidd-class destroyers are capable individual platforms, they were originally designed to serve as a compliment to AEGIS equipped cruisers in a massive AAW/surface warfare scenario, not as independent surface units. Without this central co-ordinating authority, the destroyer’s ability to defend itself against multiple advanced ASCM launches is questionable at best. A likely scenario involving large numbers of PRC aircraft bolstered by Sovremenny launched ASCM ordinance would pose a dangerous test for the Kidd-class destroyer’s limited radar/targeting capabilities. Only with the acquisition of an AEGIS equipped ship, such as an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, could the ROC naval forces effectively seek to stymie a PLAN effort to cut off the island from outside shipping.

Sovremenny-class destroyers also present a challenge to the force designated as the ROC insurance policy against effective PRC blockade, the US Navy. Chief among its leaders concerns is the Sunburn missile system, which they see as a threat specifically designed to engage carrier battle groups.[8] Given the ability of American AEGIS cruisers and other long range radar assets to identify incoming threats, however, it remains unclear how the Chinese would effectively deploy them against a carrier battle group with a fully operational air wing. Furthermore, one of the weaknesses of the Sovremenny model is its limited ASW capacity, a dangerous Achilles heel considering American propensity for submarine warfare, represented prominently by the estimated twenty eight nuclear attack submarines assigned to the US Navy in the Pacific Ocean.[9]

Chinese procurement of four to six Sovremenny destroyers does indeed symbolize a distinct improvement of Chinese surface warfare capability. Once the PLAN wields that number of operational destroyers, they will hold a dominant tactical advantage over ROC forces at sea. As described before, however, they do not signal a dynamic shift in the balance of naval forces in the Pacific, were the US Seventh Fleet to be involved in a force on force confrontation with the PLAN. Chinese surface assets still rely primarily on mainland based air support to ensure mobility and security. With such air units overhead, Sovremenny centred surface warfare groups pose a serious danger as interdiction units, denying sea lanes to both civilian shipping as well as regional naval units. With the deployment of several American carrier battle groups and air wings, the utility of Chinese surface fleets decreases markedly. The Sovremenny destroyers do serve a non-military purpose, however, as an incarnation of increasing Chinese ‘soft-power’ throughout the region, participating in highly visible military exercises off Dongshan Island in 2004.[10]

Analysts of the PLAN would be better served concentrating on its more asymmetrical ability, especially en lieu of the recent acceleration in PRC submarine construction and procurement. This build-up has included the recent acquisition of eight top of the line Russian Kilo-class submarines.[11] PLAN affinity for the use of submarines against a superior force is evident in the words of their own officers. ‘The prospect for using submarines is good, because of their covertness and power…submarines are menaces existing anywhere at any time’, wrote three Chinese naval officers.[12] Their ability to deter active deployment of carrier battle groups is also a highly valued capability, according to another Chinese military analyst: ‘Submarines are the maritime weapons posing the greatest threat to an aircraft carrier formation. Submarines are also our Navy's core force’.[13]

In summation, the PLAN’s fielding of multiple Sovremenny-class destroyers does indicate the continuation of the PRC’s plan to develop a blue water fleet capable of long-range power projection. Their attainment, however, does not represent a revolutionary overthrow of the prevailing naval balance in the Pacific, nor will it throughout the foreseeable future.



Patrick Devenny

Henry M. Jackson National Security Fellow, Center for Security Policy, Washington D.C.

[1] Jim Yardley and Thom Shanker, ‘Chinese begin to worry U.S. militarily; Beijing said to size up American forces in event of Taiwan crisis’, The New York Times, 8 April 2005.

[2] Edward Cody, ‘China Builds a Smaller, Stronger Military; Modernization Could Alter Regional Balance of Power, Raising Stakes for U.S.The Washington Post, 12 April 2005.

[3] Robert Kaplan, ‘How we would fight China’, The Atlantic Monthly, June 2005, Volume 295, pp.49-64.

[4] Geoffrey Lum, ‘China’s Cruise Missile Program’, Army Review, 1 January 2004, Volume 1.

[5] All information concerning Sovremenny design and history come from the following sources, unless otherwise noted; Chinese Defense Today,;,

[6] FAS Military Analysis Network,

[7] Jimmy Chuang, ‘Kidd-class destroyers do well in war games: MND’, Taipei Times, 27 April 2005, p.2.

[8] The Economist, ‘The Dragon Next Door,’ 15 January 2005.

[9] ‘Submarine Force, US Pacific Fleet’

[10] Edward Cody, ‘China, Taiwan and U.S. Display Military Might; Exercises a Reminder of Potential for Conflict Over Island’, The Washington Post, 27 July 2004.

[11] Lyle Goldstein and William Murray, ‘Assessing China’s Submarine Threat’, International Security, Spring 2004, p.161.

[12] Capt. Shen Zhongchang, Lt. Comdr. Zhang Haiyin, and Lt. Zhou Xinsheng, ‘The Military Revolution in Naval Warfare’, in Michael Pillsbury, ed., Chinese Views of Future Warfare (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1997), pp.277-278.

[13]Wang Jiasuo, ‘Aircraft Carriers: Suggest You Keep Out of the Taiwan Strait’, Junshi Wenzhai [Military Digest], 1 April 2001

Explore our related content