In a revealing possible reversal of practice, the United States may be looking to China’s Type 055 cruiser for design inspiration for its upcoming New Generation Destroyer (DDG-X).
This month, the US unveiled its New Generation Destroyer (DDG-X) design, which aims to replace its 22 Ticonderoga class cruisers and older versions of its Arleigh Burke destroyers. The stealthy design will employ integrated electric propulsion (IEP), previously used on the Zumwalt class.
The technology reduces detectable noise and vibration, increases time on station and provides more power for weapons systems. It will be equipped with enlarged variants of the AN/SPY-6 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar mounted on the latest Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, with the hull designed for future sensor upgrades.
The DDG-X will be initially armed with a 32-cell block of the Mk 41 Vertical Launch System (VLS), or a 12-cell block of larger launchers for hypersonic missiles. The class is also envisioned to be equipped with laser weapons.
In comparison, China’s Type 055 cruiser is the largest surface combatant currently built and is 25% larger than the US Ticonderoga class cruiser. It has a stealth profile like the US’ proposed DDG-X and is powered by a gas turbine and gas-powered (COGAG) propulsion system.
The Type 055 is equipped with the Type-346B AESA radar, which is analogous to the AN/SPY-6 on Flight III Arleigh Burke destroyers. It features an integrated mast and sleek superstructure for reduced radar and infrared signatures.
The class is heavily armed, with up to 128 VLS cells arranged in two silos of 64 each, a H/PJ-38 130 mm main gun, H/PJ-11 30 mm close-in weapons system (CIWS), Yu-8 anti-submarine rockets and Yu-7 lightweight torpedoes launched from two triple torpedo tubes.
The striking physical similarity between the US DDG-X concept and China’s Type 055 cruiser has led some analysts to remark that the US is actually copying China’s warship. The US Navy has yet to comment on the speculation.
If so, it would mark a significant reversal of China’s long-standing practice of copying US and other foreign weapon designs and potentially put the US on the back foot in weapons innovation. China’s cribbing from foreign designs has been driven by several factors.
First, China’s authoritarian and centralized political system means that research must be conducted under the watchful eye of the state, a practice that could potentially stifle innovation. China’s communist system also dictates that there may be little incentive for independent, private research.
Second, poor protection of intellectual property rights in China means that foreign firms wishing to do business in the country must often share trade secrets and critical technologies with the Chinese government, which critics claim has often led to intellectual property rights and patent violations.
Third, it may be far more economical and practical for China to surreptitiously acquire foreign designs of the latest weaponry and improve upon them, rather than spend massive amounts for research and development to reinvent the wheel.
China is known to have sought to acquire sensitive military technology through espionage and legal investments in companies working in sectors it deems as strategic.
As a result, several of China’s high-tech weapons have striking similarities to their US and foreign counterparts, such as the J-20 and F-22, FC-31 and F-35 stealth fighters, CH-4/CH-5 and MQ-9 Reaper drones, Y-20 and C-17 Globemaster III transports and Su-27 and J-11 fighter jets.
Despite this extensive reverse engineering, China’s cloned weapons are often deemed to be poor man copies of the original foreign versions. For instance, Chinese fighter jet engines are deemed to be inferior to their Russian originals, which makes China dependent on Russia for jet engines to power its most potent fighters. Jordan has sold off its China-made CH-4 drones, indicating dissatisfaction with the type’s performance.
However, the similarity between China’s Type 055 cruiser and the US’ planned DDG-X may have been borne out of similar capability requirements, which in turn brings about similar designs.
China and the US’ capability requirements for fleet air defense, surface warfare, and command and control at sea may have been the basis of their respective design requirements for a heavily armed, large surface combatant capable of functioning in a flagship role.
But in certain cases, the US may not be above China in surreptitiously co-opting foreign technology and design into its own weapons. For instance, the F-35B vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) jet incorporates technology from the Soviet-era Yak-38 and Yak-141 carrier-launched fighters, which have the same capability.
In Soviet service, the Yak-38 and Yak-141 had too many technical issues, as their VTOL technology was not yet mature. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 effectively deprived Russia of funds to further develop these then-experimental jets, driving their manufacturer Yakovlev into bankruptcy.
However, Yakovlev and Lockheed Martin signed a deal in 1991 to continue funding for the Yak-141 prototype in exchange for limited design data and flight testing. The deal was not revealed until 1995.
While Lockheed Martin had no interest in further developing the Yak-141, the aircraft’s swiveling nozzle engine design and flight-testing data were instrumental in developing the F-35B fighter jet. That said, the success of the F-35B in US service may have prompted Russia to consider resurrecting and modernizing the Yak-141 design for its contemporary carrier operations.