The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)’s most well recognized workhorse over the last decade and a half has been the 054A frigate: a multirole, blue water capable surface combatant displacing just over 4,000 tons at full load. The first 054A was launched in 2006 and entered service in 2008. As of this writing in 2023, 40 054As have been built for the PLAN, with the final hulls to enter service in the immediate future.
When it emerged, the 054A class was one of the PLAN’s first classes of domestic surface combatant with a vertical launch system for missiles, and equipped with a capable sensor, weapons, and combat management suite. It was the first surface combatant with those features that entered mass production in the modern era. However, many of the 054A’s key subsystems were far from cutting edge for the Chinese military industry at the time (let alone globally), with its radar, propulsion, and weapons systems being relatively conservative, and derived from relatively mature and known systems rather than utilizing the most leading-edge technology available. This was reasonable, as the 054A was intended as a cost-effective but capable warship, and the Chinese industry needed time to further advance and consolidate key technologies and mitigate risks.
Rumors of a successor frigate class to the 054A began circulating as far back as the early 2010s; however, it was never fully clear what such a frigate would entail. An increased displacement, and/or more capable sensors and weapons, were all floated as likely upgrades, but the extent of those advancements was unknown. Additionally, during the 2010s there was never a clear statement through the PLA-watching grapevine as to when a successor frigate would be expected. Even the name of such a successor frigate was not clearly known – 054B was suggested, as well as 057.
However in the early 2020s, the grapevine buzzed with more confident rumors that the new successor frigate would be dubbed 054B, and would emerge in the very near future. And thus, during the past year from late 2022 to now, construction progress on the first two 054B hulls at Hudong shipyard and Huangpu shipyard (the two yards that built all prior 054A frigates) has been steadily tracked. Hudong had the distinction of launching the first 054B hull in late August 2023, and Huangpu is expected to launch its first 054B in coming months or weeks as well. Accounting for a fitting out period of 12 months prior to sea trials, and a sea trial period of between 6-12 months, the first 054B may enter service sometime in 2025.
This article will review the known and unknown characteristics of 054B, as well as consider the potential significance of this ship for the PLAN going forwards.
Known and Likely Characteristics
054B production has been confirmed at two shipyards, Hudong and Huangpu shipyards in Shanghai and Guangzhou, respectively. A combination of satellite imagery and post-launch imagery has allowed a reasonable measurement of the 054B’s dimensions, with a length of 147-150 meters and a beam of 18 meters. For comparison, the 4,000-ton 054A is 134 meters long with a beam of 16 meters. The 054B is likely to have a full displacement of approximately 6,000 tons, which is a 50 percent increase from the 054A. Compared to the 054A, the new frigate is likely a clean sheet (or at minimum highly modified) hull design.
The 054B hull features an enclosed bow and a semi-integrated mast and topside structures for radar cross-section reduction purposes. The primary radar for the 054B is a mast mounted twin-sided rotating phased array, which I have previously written about, and has been previously observed on trials aboard test ship number 892. This radar is almost certainly an active phased array (APAR), and the array size appears similar in size to the large-sided array of the Sea Eagle radar equipped on the 054A. Several fixed arrays can be seen atop the mast and the rest of the ship, and a major antennae structure is integrated with the ship’s primary ship exhaust.
Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) sensors include a variable depth sonar, which can be identified from a stern panel, as well as additional smaller ports that would be consistent with a towed linear sonar and a towed acoustic decoy. A bow sonar is likely present on the ship as well, though this is yet to be visually confirmed. The ship’s helipad is lengthened compared to the 054A to optimally support Z-20F ASW helicopter operations, with a single helicopter hangar. Two enclosed davits for rigid hull inflatable boats are also present.
A new primary gun is visible aboard the 054B instead of the 76mm H/PJ-26 on 054A, and is likely to be a highly modified variant of the H/PJ-87 100mm gun based on the French 100mm compact. This gun was installed aboard past PLAN surface combatants including the 052B, 052C, and 051C destroyers, as well as the two 054 frigates; however, it was suggested in the past that the base design of the gun was insufficiently reliable for PLAN needs and thus replaced by alternatives on the successive frigate and destroyer classes. It was rumored in the early 2020s that revisions have enabled the gun to achieve PLAN requirements, and thus it has been equipped for the 054B.
The 054B adopts a similar close in weapons system configuration to the 052D and 055 destroyers, featuring a forward platform for a H/PJ-11 30mm Gatling gun and a HQ-10 surface to air missile (SAM) aboard the rear hangar. Two decoy and countermeasure launchers are also visible above the hangar, and amidships side panels are visible, which appear consistent with PLAN standard 324mm triple torpedo tubes.
The 054B vertical launch system (VLS) has yet to be confirmed due to a lack of high angle imagery; however, it is very likely to have 32 VLS cells in the bow position. Enthusiast computer generated images, which in the past have tracked closely with PLAN ship construction, have tended to depict the VLS as being the H/AJK-16, which is equipped on the 054A (and some older, upgraded destroyers like the 051B and Sovremenny) rather than the larger universal VLS used on the 052D and 055 destroyers.
The H/AJK-16 VLS and the universal VLS both feature their own sets of benefits and drawbacks. The H/AJK-16 is slightly lower in footprint and more importantly is is already equipped aboard over 40 surface combatants in the PLAN, the majority of which are 054A frigates. If the 054B fields the H/AJK-16, existing surface combatants with the H/AJK-16 may potentially reap the benefits of new payloads and capabilities developed for the 054B (sensors and networking contingent), thus prolonging the relevance and capability of those ships as well as offering benefits in standardization. On the other hand, the universal VLS has greater cell cross-sectional size and is able to accommodate larger payloads, and offers standardization with the 052D and 055 destroyers.
If the 054B does utilize the H/AJK-16 VLS, as some rumors and depictions have suggested, it is likely that significant new payloads will be developed to take advantage of the 054B’s significantly more potent sensor suite compared to the 054A. The original HHQ-16 SAMs used with the H/AJK-16 were rather conservative and low technology weapons for the time, with the original missiles stated to have effective ranges of only 40-50 kilometers (with usual missile range caveats being applied). Since that time, newer land launched HQ-16 variants have emerged with progressively longer ranges, with the most recent HQ-16FE variant offered for export in 2022 offering a range of 150 kilometers, offering reference for the developmental path that naval HHQ-16 SAMs have likely taken as well. Given the HQ-16 missile airframe is rather sizeable (a peer to the single stage SM-2 family), it is natural that the proliferation of Chinese propellant, materials and guidance technologies will enable much improved performance in a similar missile footprint.
Another payload that the H/AJK-16 is already known to support is the Yu-8 vertically launched anti-submarine rocket weapon, as seen on 054A frigates in the past. It is an open question whether a multi-pack medium range SAM will be developed for the H/AJK-16, as it is known that a quad-pack medium range SAM already has been developed for the universal VLS for the 052D and 055 and may be in early introduction.
The anti-ship weapons of the 054B are not known. At this stage it is likely to be equipped with slant box anti-ship missiles at the amidships area, with one of the most common depicted loadouts being eight YJ-12 heavy supersonic anti-ship missiles. The possibility of the amidships area being installed with a bank of eight or 16 universal VLS cells has also been suggested, which would enable it to launch the YJ-18 heavy subsonic/supersonic anti-ship missile, but that appears somewhat unlikely at this point. Regardless, the 054B is likely to be respectably equipped for anti-surface warfare duties for its size.
One other significant unknown for the 054B is its propulsion system. The 054B has been rumored for years to feature some form of electric propulsion, either integrated full electric propulsion (utilizing medium voltage direct current), or partial electric propulsion. In either configuration, the prime movers have been suggested to be a combination of diesel and gas turbines.
It will likely be very difficult to confirm the presence of full or partial electric propulsion, and may require official PLAN confirmation in some form (such as a documentary or an information release). That said, identification of the prime movers may be possible through identification of exhausts, which would require high resolution images taken from a high vantage point.
If the 054B is confirmed to have integrated full electric propulsion, it would mark a major milestone for PLAN warship propulsion and likely be a harbinger for its presence on future warships as well. Benefits of full or partial electric propulsion include greater electrical power generation for subsystems, as well as the ability to reduce a vessel’s acoustic signature due to elimination of direct connection between the prime mover and propulsion. However, retention of a combined diesel and diesel propulsion arrangement cannot be excluded at this stage, though such an arrangement would necessitate much more powerful prime movers than featured on the 054A.
Other major unknown characteristics for the 054B include the usual specifications for all PLAN vessels such as actual complement, exact dimensions, full detailed sensor and electronic warfare fit, combat management system, and networking capabilities, although the latter can be anticipated to meet contemporary modern PLAN needs.
The anticipated production run is also unknown, though at this stage even the PLAN likely does not know exactly how many 054Bs will be procured. However, what can be stated with a degree of confidence is that no further 054A frigates appear to be under construction for the PLAN, with production seemingly ending at 40 hulls. Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that the 054B has replaced the 054A for any new frigates that the PLAN orders.
Significance and Future
Discussion of the long-term significance of the new 054B can be separated into the known characteristics, with additional unknown characteristics added on top.
Overall, even at this early stage, it can be surmised that the 054B represents a more modern and larger medium frigate for the PLAN. It should yield much more growth potential, better blue water seakeeping, and more endurance than the 054A, while also fielding a much more capable sensor, networking, and combat management suite, which in turn should enable it to field more capable munitions as well. Notably, the presence of a respectably sized, fast rotating twin face APAR means that active-production blue water PLAN surface combatants (i.e. the 054B, 052D, and 055) will all come with a capable sensor suite as standard. A larger helipad will support the much more capable Z-20F ASW helicopter, to complement a comprehensive organic ASW sensor suite that is likely to at minimum match the suites of existing PLAN blue water combatants.
If the 054B features full or partial electric propulsion, it will also mark a significant technological milestone for PLAN propulsion technology, while also significantly benefiting the 054B as a ship class by providing greater power generation, while reducing acoustic signature. If the 054B also enjoys a large production run that approaches, matches (or exceeds) the impressive build of the preceding 054As, it would also mark the 054B as a credible peer to other modern frigates of a similar displacement category, and a worthy lower end (but still modern) complement to the PLAN’s growing fleet of high end destroyers.