PLAN Type 054A frigate visiting Cape Town

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On 16 May a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warship, the Type 054A Frigate Chinese Navy Ship (CNS) CNS Xuchang (FFG536), arrived in Cape Town unannounced and with little public coverage, and none of the usual fanfare.

On 16th May, at 10:00 in the morning, just as the offshore morning fog was lifting in Cape Town, AIS was showing two of the Transnet harbour tugs slowly moving from the outer breakwater, and into the Duncan Dock, heading for L berth, but with AIS not showing anything sitting in between the two tugs. If the past was anything to go by, the deliberate lack of use of AIS is a thing that the Russian Navy, Iranian Navy, and Chinese Navy operate to. As the fog lifted further, the reason for the AIS anomaly could be seen alongside at L berth.

The arrival of CNS Xuchang in Cape Town was a slightly strange one, because according to the Chinese Navy communications output, she was part of the 46th Naval Escort Task Force that was currently protecting shipping in the Gulf of Oman, along with her task force members the Type 052D destroyer CNS Jiaozuo (DDG163), and the Type 903A Fleet Auxiliary CNS Honghu (AOE906). So why was she over 4 000 nautical miles outside of her operational area?

The 46th Naval Escort Task Force had sailed from the naval port of Zhanjiang, in the southern province of Guangzhou, on 21st February, to relieve the 45th Naval Escort Task Force operating in the Gulf of Aden, and off the coast of Somalia. The had arrived in their new operational area in early March, and by 4 March had been handed over the responsibilities of the security mission by the 45th Naval Escort Task Force.

In a similar scenario to last year, and which connected South Africa, the 45th Naval Escort Task Force then sailed directly for the Iranian Naval port of Chabahar. There, they met up with two vessels from the Russian Far East Fleet, who had sailed from Vladivostok, and units of the Iranian Navy. The reason for this was so that these three navies, could play war games with the fifth running of the ‘Marine Security Belt’ naval exercise between the three navies.

The exercise ran for five days between 12 and 16 March. This year, 2024, was to be the first year that foreign observers were invited to join the exercise, with the South African Navy sending an observer team. The only other observers were Oman (backyard for them), Pakistan (backyard for them), Kazakhstan (landlocked, no deepwater navy, and ex Soviet), and Azerbaijan (no deepwater navy, and ex Soviet). No other Gulf States, or Western Navy sent a delegation, or they were simply not invited.

Admiral Mostafa Tajaddini, of the Iranian Navy, emphasized that the exercise aimed to bolster the security of international maritime trade, counter piracy, and combat maritime terrorism. Additionally, the exercise served as an opportunity for the navies to refine their skills in naval rescue, and relief operations, and to share valuable operational and tactical experience. Besides, improving trade relations amongst the participants, the aims have been to confront piracy and terrorism, support humanitarian activities, and exchange information in the field of rescue. One exercise included live fire against aerial targets, simulating unmanned air vehicles.

The highlight of the exercise was a hostage rescue drill, with two Iranian Navy warships playing the roles of hijacked merchant vessels, in a scenario designed to test, and enhance, the capabilities of the participating navies in dealing with maritime threats.

The Russian Ministry of Defence highlighted the exercise’s focus on protecting maritime economic activities, underscoring the strategic importance of the Gulf of Oman—a vital corridor for global commerce.

A senior Chinese military spokesperson clarified that the PLAN escort missions are independent of the regional tensions, such as Houthi attacks on shipping or major power rivalries. Which indicates they have no intention of shooting down Houthi missiles, or escorting vessels in the Red Sea. In November 2023, the 45th Naval Escort Task Force warships ignored distress calls from a non-Chinese merchant vessel, that had come under missile fire from Houthi rebels in the Gulf of Aden, at the start of the shipping crisis near the southern Red Sea.

By the end of 2023, the PLAN stated that they had completed over 1 600 escort missions in the Gulf of Aden, and off the coast of Somalia, safeguarding more than 7 200 vessels, with over half being foreign ships, since the first Escort Task Force arrived in the Gulf of Oman in 2008.

On completion of this exercise, the 45th Naval Escort Task Force then headed south along the East Coast of Africa to Tanzania, making a five-day call at Dar es Salaam from 23 March, and then onwards to Mozambique, where they called in at Maputo on 1 April for a further five-day visit. They then headed to Toamasina, in Madagascar, for another five-day visit, arriving on 10 April, before heading north to Victoria, in the Seychelles, arriving for a further five-day visit on 18 April, before sailing east to their naval home port of Qingdao, in the northern Shandong Province.

The 46th Naval Escort Task Force continued with their escort duties with the PLAN communication bureau announcing that, on 9 March, four days after beginning their tour of duty, that CNS Xuchang had escorted the COSCO Chinese general cargo ship ‘Kaituo’ through the Gulf of Oman, which was the 1 632nd such escort, since 2008.

As for CNS Xuchang, she is the 24th unit of the 054A Frigate class enter PLAN service, out of a class of 35, and with more to come. She was built by the Huangpu Shipyard at Shanghai, being launched in May 2016, and commissioned in June 2017.

With a length of 134 metres, CNS Xuchang has a displacement tonnage of 4 053 tons. Her propulsion is that of Combined Diesel and Diesel (CODAD) with four Shaanxi 16 PA6 STC main engines producing 7 600 bhp (5 700 kW) each, with a combined output of 30 400 bhp (22 800 kW), and driving two fixed pitch propellers for a maximum service speed of 27 knots.

Her main armament is a PJ26 76 mm Dual Purpose Gun, and she has two Type 730, seven barrelled, 30mm close in weapons systems (CIWS). She also has two, triple tube, launchers for the 324 mm Yu-7 torpedo, and two Type 87, six barrelled, 240 mm YU-8 anti-submarine rocket (ASROC) launchers.

Her missile armament includes one 32 cell vertical launch system for the HQ-16 surface to air (SAM) missile, and two 4 cell box launchers for the C-803 surface to surface (SSM) anti-ship missile. She has two 18 tube, Type 726, decoy launchers. Her sonar capability is with a MGK-335 bow mounted passive/active sonar, and she has a H/5JG-206 towed sonar array.

She carries a Type 382 air defence radar, a Type 344 SSM fire control radar, four Type 345 SAM fire control radars, a Type 347G gun fire control radar, a Type MR-36A search radar, and two RACAL RM-1290 navigation radars. She has a helicopter deck, and a hangar, capable of operating either a Russian Kamov KA-28 ‘Helix’ anti-submarine helicopter, or more usually with a Harbin Z-9C helicopter, which is a Chinese, licensed built, version of the French Eurocopter AS565 ‘Panther’ helicopter.

With a crew complement of 165 officers and ratings, CNS Xuchang has an estimated range of 8 025 nautical miles, which is more than enough to get her from the Gulf of Oman to South Africa, without the need of an accompanying fleet auxiliary oiler. As such, she is quite likely to have to uplift bunkers in Cape Town, in order to make the return voyage back to her operational area, and rejoin the other two vessels of the 46th Naval Escort Task Force.

The question remains, as to why she has made this long trip by herself, when the 45th Naval Escort Task Force could have easily diverted their Class 054A frigate CNS Linyi (FFG547) when they were running down East Africa as far as Mozambique one month ago, if it was merely for purposes of ‘flying the flag.’

So secretive appears to be this mission, that not only had CNS Xuchang arrived with no operational AIS, but that not one local single press outlet reported it beforehand, or even after she had arrived, and nor was it mentioned in any South African government, or military, press outlet.

On the assumption that CNS Xuchang carries out the standard PLAN five-day port visit, she will be in Cape Town until 21 May, which also assumes that she will then make a direct run back to the Gulf of Oman. However, if she departs well before that date, it merely deepens the suspicion of why she turned up unannounced in Cape Town.

Written by Jay gates and republished with permission from Africa Ports & Ships. The original article can be found here.