Shining a spotlight on China’s Type 054A guided missile frigate CNS Sanya

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The Chinese Navy frigate CNS Sanya arrived at the V&A Waterfront harbour in Cape Town on 24 July for a three-day visit as part of the Chinese Navy’s 43rd Escort Task Force.

The workhorse of any navy is undoubtedly that of the frigate. The majority of navies around the world have frigates as their greatest number of assets, within their combined fleets. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) of China is no different, and frigates have played, and continue to play, a major role in their force projection activities around the world.

As the twenty first century got underway, China made the decision to transition from being a coastal, and regional, naval force, into that of a truly bluewater force, able to present itself in any part of the globe that it chose. To do so meant increasing their frigate force to enable any PLAN Flotilla to have escorts capable of dealing with any situation that they might have to encounter, and to produce the requisite amount of muscle flexing, should it be required.

The outcome of this was that in 2008, the first of what is known as a Type 054 class of frigate was commissioned in to the PLAN. Based on the French Navy ‘La Fayette’ class of frigate, the Type 054 frigate has the NATO reporting designation of the ‘Jiangkai I’ class, with the enhanced Type 054A frigate being considered as a ‘Jiangkai II’ class.

The enhancement of the Type 054A was based on her improved air defence armament, and gun armament. The class is critical to the operational needs of the PLAN, and provides the backbone to the PLAN, with a substantial fleet of 50 being ordered, and by the beginning of 2023 more than 30 of them have entered service.

They have been used by the PLAN as the major constant of the warship constituent to their Escort Task Force (ETF) flotillas that have been operating in the Gulf of Aden since 2008. There have been some ETF flotillas consisting of two Type 054A frigates, instead of one Type 052DL destroyer and one Type 054A frigate. The 7th ETF is one such example.

It was a Type 054A frigate, the Chinese Naval Ship (CNS) ‘Xuzhou’ (FFG530), as a part of the 7th ETF, that was the first ever PLAN vessel to enter the Mediterranean Sea in 2011, when the Chinese government detached it from ETF duties to assist with the evacuation of Chinese nationals from Libya. The 7th ETF also called into Durban, in April 2011, en route back to China, at the conclusion of ETF duties.

On 24 July, the 43rd ETF arrived off Cape Town, under the command of a Rear Admiral, and consisting of the Type 062DL guided missile destroyer CNS ‘Nanning’ (DDG16), the Type 054A guided missile frigate CNS ‘Sanya’ (FFG574), and the Type 903 Replenishment Vessel CNS ‘Weishanhu’ (AOE887). All three vessels entered Cape Town harbour, with all proceeding into the Victoria Basin, and going alongside Jetty 2 at the V&A Waterfront. Space limitations on the Jetty meant that CNS ‘Sanya’ (FFG574) had to double bank against CNS ‘Weishanhu’ (AOE887).

Built at the Hudong-Zhonghua shipyard at Shanghai in China, CNS ‘Sanya’ (FFG574) was launched in November 2012, and commissioned into the PLAN in December 2013. It is estimated that she cost $348 million (R6.22 billion) to build. On completion she was assigned to the South Seas Fleet, based at Zhanjiang in the southern Guangdong Province. All of the PLAN vessels of the 43rd ETF are elements taken from the South Seas Fleet.

With a length of 134 metres, ‘CNS ‘Sanya’ 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.

The Shaanxi engines of CNS ‘Sanya’ are Chinese versions, built under license, of the French, 16 cylinder, SEMT-Pielstick engines, with their builder, the Shaanxi Diesel Engine Heavy Industry Co. Ltd., being a subsidiary of the State owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC). The licensed Shaanxi, and SEMT-Pielstick, engines are produced only for PLAN warships.

Her armament, for a frigate, is quite impressive. Her main armament is a PJ26 76mm Dual Purpose Gun, and she has two Type 730, 7 barrelled, 30mm close in weapons systems (CIWS). She also has two, triple tube, launchers for the 324mm Yu-7 torpedo, and two Type 87, 6 barrelled, 240mm 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 a Harbin Z-9C helicopter, which is a Chinese, licensed built, version of the French Eurocopter AS565 ‘Panther’ helicopter.

This is not the first ETF operation that CNS ‘Sanya’ has been deployed on. Her first ETF outing was with the 21st ETF in August 2015, which departed from her namesake naval port city of Sanya, in China’s southern Hainan Province. On conclusion of the 21st ETF, CNS ‘Sanya’, and her sistership of 21st ETF, CNS ‘Liuzhou’ (FFG573), both proceeded to the Indian Naval port of Visakhapatnam, where they took part in the 2016 Indian Navy International Fleet Review. The Fleet Review attracted warships from 48 nations, including South Africa.

Although the PLAN undertook their first ETF to the Gulf of Aden in 2008, and currently the 44th ETF are conducting anti-piracy patrols in the region, there is some disquiet as to why the PLAN are continuing with the ETF programme. Seen against a backdrop of actual pirate activity in the Gulf of Aden, the Somali piracy threat has consistently faded over the last ten years, and it is thought that China’s EFT mission has run its course in deterring piracy in the region.

However, the PLAN has kept the anti-piracy effort, and full naval presence in the region, in high gear, and with no let up. This prolonged presence in the region has allowed the PLAN to conduct a wide variety of other naval operations that are not linked to anti-piracy requirements. The EFT has evolved well beyond the initial deterrent posture it was meant to project. It has now been nuanced into a full display of a bluewater naval power, which is what the PLAN have wanted to project for a long time.

These auxiliary shows of strength have included undertaking joint naval drills in the region with nations considered friendly to China, such as Russian and Iran. Making friendship port calls with virtually every nation in both the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf region. They have been able to sharpen their naval skills by involving themselves in interoperability exercises with western Navies conducting anti-piracy patrols, such as the NATO standing force, the EU Atalanta force, and the US Navy CTF-51 force.

The ETF missions have also allowed the PLAN to embark on ambitious ‘fly the flag’ visits, on conclusion of the missions, with ETF Flotillas being dispatched to provide ‘friendship’ visits to nations in the Mediterranean Sea, and by circumnavigating Africa, as with the current 43rd ETF. According to a PLAN spokesmen, China has sent a total of 131 warships, manned with over 30,000 persons, on 42 completed ETF missions.

One other reason for this extended presence in the region is that it allows for a bluewater force to remain within the Indian Ocean, and very close to the west coast of India, much to the chagrin of the Indian Naval authorities, and especially as the PLAN is also increasing its presence in the eastern Indian Ocean, using her new control of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka.

Similarly, in 2017 China made a huge leap forward in her maritime projection when they opened up a large, military logistics, support base in nearby Djibouti. It is said that the base currently accommodates up to 2,000 Chinese Marines, and support staff. Whilst the PLAN spokesmen stated that the growth of the PLAN is ‘not based on hegemony, nor expansion of power’ it is quite clear that it is exactly what the PLAN presence in the region is all about.

As with her 43rd ETF consorts, CNS ‘Sanya’ concluded her three day stay in Cape Town on 27 July, and all three vessels of the flotilla sailed out of the Mother City, heading back home to their naval base at Zhenjiang, in Southern China, after a voyage of over six months.

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