Recently, a new domestically produced stealth frigate made a stunning debut at a PLA Navy shipyard. The vessel incorporates advanced technologies such as full stealth design, integrated radio frequency systems, and stealth cannons, marking a significant leap in the technological capabilities of Chinese surface naval vessels. However, the identity of the buyer for this distinctive frigate, which stands in stark contrast to the existing PLA Navy surface fleet, remains the biggest secret.
The new stealth frigate, hereafter referred to as the “stealth vessel,” is positioned next to a 054A-class frigate undergoing maintenance. Comparing the sizes of the two vessels, the stealth vessel has noticeably less displacement than the 054A, but their freeboard heights are almost identical, with the superstructure of the stealth vessel even slightly higher. From this perspective, the stealth vessel is estimated to have a displacement of around 2000 tons, categorizing it as a light, multi-role frigate primarily designed for nearshore combat missions with some capability for open-sea operations.
The most distinctive feature of the stealth vessel is its full stealth design, seamlessly integrating the hull and superstructure into a smooth and streamlined surface with no vertical or fractured elements. The deck is also concealed, with conventional equipment such as anchors and cables positioned below the deck to control the radar cross-section (RCS) of the vessel. The mast employs a comprehensive mast system, achieving organic unity between electronic devices and superstructure, further reducing the RCS of the vessel.
One remarkable feature is the use of a full stealth turret for the main cannon. The turret has a rhomboid shape, with the gun barrel retracting into the turret when not in use and extending only during firing. This marks the first application of a full stealth turret in Chinese surface naval vessels, signifying a shift towards the era of fully stealthy Chinese surface ships. The size of the turret suggests it may house a 76mm or 57mm caliber naval gun.
The trend of full stealth naval cannons was initiated by the Swedish Navy’s Visby-class stealth patrol vessel, which employed a 57mm fully automatic naval cannon designed by Bofors and featured a fully retractable stealth design. The U.S. Navy’s Zumwalt-class destroyer later adopted a similar concept, designing a fully retractable structure for its two 155mm main guns. Previous displays included various stealth naval cannon systems, such as the URWS-type unmanned stealth remote weapon station, which also featured full stealth design but was smaller in size, using a 35mm machine gun and primarily applied to vessels under 1000 tons. The latest model of the 76mm naval cannon for export, the NG16-1A, has a more compact design than the currently widespread PJ26, but unfortunately, its gun barrel still lacks a stealth retractable design, deviating from the characteristics of the new frigate’s naval cannon.
Behind the main gun of the stealth vessel is a noticeably elevated platform with vertical launch systems, likely accommodating 8 or 16 cells. This design is intended to house larger and deeper vertical launch units to accommodate larger missiles. In conflicts like the Russia-Ukraine confrontation, the Russian Navy frequently used small missile ships of eight to nine hundred tons, launching caliber cruise missiles to attack key targets in Ukraine’s depth. This tactic made a lasting impression.
Cruise missiles, once exclusive to destroyers and even cruisers for deep strikes, are now accessible to vessels under a thousand tons with the decreasing threshold for large vertical launch systems. This provides small naval vessels with a flexible and maneuverable long-range strike capability, making it particularly attractive.
China has previously showcased the HT-1E universal vertical launch system, compatible with various air defense, anti-ship, anti-submarine, and ground attack missiles. The elevated installation height of the vertical launch system on the stealth vessel indicates preparation for launching larger missiles. Theoretically, missiles such as the YJ-18A, Hongqi-16, Haihongqi-9B, and CM-103 could be accommodated, marking a significant breakthrough in the combat capabilities of domestically produced frigates.
The stealth vessel does not feature a close-in missile defense rapid-fire system. Instead, a Red Flag-10 short-range shipborne air defense missile launcher is mounted on the helicopter deck, possibly in an 18-cell configuration. The Red Flag-10 missile provides interception distances of over 10 kilometers against anti-ship missiles, offering strong saturation resistance and forming a dense air defense system along with the medium-range shipborne air defense missiles launched from the vertical launch system. Terminal air defense against missiles can be handled by guided shells launched from the naval gun.
At the stern of the stealth vessel is a relatively large helicopter takeoff and landing deck, indicating the capability to accommodate helicopters of the size of the Z-20. Additionally, the stealth vessel will likely incorporate the use of unmanned combat systems, such as unmanned helicopters and unmanned combat boats.
From an external perspective, the stealth vessel eliminates the traditional upright smokestack. Instead, the high-temperature exhaust gases from the main engines are expelled from exhaust ports near the waterline at the stern of the vessel after cooling. This design effectively reduces the infrared signature of the vessel, enhancing its stealth performance and battlefield survivability. The absence of a smokestack design also saves space on the upper deck and simplifies the superstructure design.
The power system is currently challenging to determine, but the absence of large-sized air intakes rules out gas turbine propulsion. Therefore, possibilities include an all-diesel propulsion or a more radical integrated electric propulsion system.
In conclusion, the stealth vessel falls between the low-cost coastal patrol vessel (Type 056A) and the balanced medium-sized vessel (Type 054A), occupying a tonnage of approximately 2000 tons with high-end configurations. While its combat capabilities may not suffice for high-intensity naval warfare, it exhibits strong survivability in medium to low-intensity naval conflicts, making it suitable for mid-sized navies with both operational requirements and financial means. If the stealth vessel is intended for export, it would represent a new peak in the development of domestically produced naval vessels for foreign markets.
The possibility of the stealth vessel being part of the PLA’s equipment cannot be ruled out entirely. However, it seems ill-suited for the composition of the PLA Navy’s surface fleet due to its small size for open-sea operations, especially when compared to the Type 054A, which aims for a displacement of over 5000 tons. Yet, the stealth vessel could find utility in complex maritime areas like the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea islands, countering the U.S. Navy’s littoral combat ships, proving to be a cost-effective and agile choice compared to larger surface vessels for such regions. Whether it becomes a new pinnacle in the export of naval vessels or an innovative addition to the PLA Navy’s surface fleet, the stealth vessel’s completion and imminent sea trials are eagerly awaited, revealing the true identity of its buyer. (Wang Yanan)