• A Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) reconnaissance photo of a Peoples Liberation Army-Navy Luyang-class guided missile destroyer that transited the Arafura Sea. (Defence)
    A Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) reconnaissance photo of a Peoples Liberation Army-Navy Luyang-class guided missile destroyer that transited the Arafura Sea. (Defence)

The reported illuminating with a laser of a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Boeing P-8A Poseidon multi-mission aircraft by a Chinese warship over the Arafura Sea on the 18th of February, after six days of operations in those waters, is the latest reminder that China’s increasingly capable People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLAN) is ranging further afield not just in the Western Pacific, but also in waters closer to Australia. 

Defence issued a follow up on Tuesday to its initial media release over the weekend, stating that the P-8A was 7.7 km away from the Chinese ships and flying at 457 metres (1,500 feet) when it was hit by the laser.

It added that the aircraft did not get closer than 4 km to the PLAN task group. China’s defence ministry concurred on that last point in its Monday press conference, although it nevertheless called the P-8A’s operations “malicious and dangerous”.  

Type 052D

The PLAN task group encountered by the ADF was comprised of two ships. The first of these was a Type 052D guided missile destroyer carrying the hull number 174, which would make it the Hefei of China’s South Sea Fleet. 

The Type 052D is the end result of PLAN’s experimenting with small numbers of slightly different destroyer designs since the turn of the century, gradually improving and refining the designs and requirements with the Type 051B, 051C, 052, 052B, and 052C classes before settling on the Type 052D.

The acquisition of four Russian Type 956E/EM (Sovermenny-class) destroyers has also helped with pointers on warship design, and China has since gone all in with the Type 052D. The first ship was commissioned in 2014 and as of today 24 are in service with all three fleets of the PLAN.

Another hull is believed to be on the verge of commissioning, and after a short pause likely to do with an intensive effort to get more of the new and larger Type 055 cruisers in the water, more are reportedly being built at shipyards in Shanghai and Dalian.

Assigned the codename Luyang III-class by the U.S. DoD, the Type 052D is a 157m (515 foot), 7,500-ton surface combatant roughly analogous to the U.S. Navy’s Arleigh Burke design. Its primary weapons are the 64 vertical launch system (VLS) cells that can launch the HHQ-9 surface to air, YJ-18 anti-ship/land attack and CY-5 anti-submarine missiles, while a 24-cell HQ-10 short-range surface to air missile (similar to the U.S. SEARAM system) 130mm main gun and close-in weapon systems (CIWS) are also available for other kinetic roles.

The main sensor of the Type 052D is the Type 346 multi-function, dual-band (S and C-band) naval active phased array radar. This is the default radar fitted on China’s naval combatants, being also found on the earlier Type 052C destroyer, the Type 055 cruiser that is entering service and the Type 001 and 002 carriers. In addition, a Type 518 air surveillance radar is also carried, along with towed array and variable depth sonars for anti-submarine work.

The Type 052D also has helicopter facilities, with hangar space and a flight deck for a Harbin Z-9 or Kamov Ka-28 helicopter. The last 12 ships are of a slightly modified design incorporating a longer flight deck, increasing the overall length of the ship to 161m (528 ft) and it is believed that these will be able to accommodate a navalised Harbin Z-20 helicopter, which is very similar in appearance to Sikorsky’s S-70 Blackhawk.

Type 071

The second PLAN ship encountered in the Arafura Sea was the Jinggangshan (999), a Type 071 Landing Platform Dock (LPD) that is also assigned to the South Sea Fleet.

The Type 071 represented a substantial leap in the PLAN’s rudimentary amphibious capabilities when the first ship made its debut in 2007. With a capacity of 600-800 troops, four Type 726 air-cushioned landing craft, two helicopter landing spots and stowage for four, the 25,000-ton 071s are the first truly modern amphibious assault ship for the PLAN.

The design is known as the Yuzhao-class in western nomenclature, and the PLAN has eight such vessels in service today while a Type 071E export variant is being built for Thailand at the same location.

The sensor and weapons fit of the Type 071 is basic like many equivalent designs, these being limited to air and surface-search radars while armament comprises of a 76mm gun and four AK-630 30mm CIWS. Like many modern LPDs, the Type 071 is a multi-mission vessel and has been engaged in tasks ranging from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden.

Indeed, as the Jinggangshan sailed through the Arafura Sea, a second PLAN Type 071 was docked at Tonga delivering relief supplies with a Chinese stores supply ship. The South Pacific island had been badly hit by a tsunami in early February following an underwater volcanic eruption.

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