Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 3

By Richard D. Fisher, Jr.

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) signed the new year in with a January 3 contract for two Russian Project 956EM Sovremenny class destroyers to be delivered by 2006. The purchase highlights the continued growth in the PLA’s combat potential, a gathering capability to put military pressure on Taiwan and the continued troubles the PLA faces in producing its own advanced warships.

Monitoring the growth of the PLAN for the political and military options it gives Beijing is important. Increasingly apparent: The “center” of the PLA’s counter-Taiwan strategy will be its space-missile-air power combine. This might include support from Airborne troops, which can decide a conflict in a short period. The PLA Navy, and especially its growing submarine forces, would be critical in a combined forces effort to stop the U.S. Navy from helping Taiwan. But if Beijing were to try subduing Taiwan by a naval blockade, then ships like the Sovremenny would assume greater importance.


The PLAN’s 1996 purchase of its first two Russian Type 956E Sovremenny class destroyers generated a media sensation reminiscent of the final voyage of the German battleship Bismarck. While not as important as the new attack submarines, the two Sovremenny’s carry the PLAN’s most effective antiship and anti-aircraft missiles as well as its most effective antisubmarine helicopter. Concern about these ships in both Taipei and Washington is justified by the fact that Taiwan and perhaps even the U.S. Navy lacks an effective defense against the ship’s SS-N-22 Sunburn (3M-80E Moskit) supersonic antiship missile. Both PLAN Sovremennys are now assigned to the PLAN’s East Sea Fleet which faces Taiwan and Japan.


The PLA’s first two Project 956E destroyers–the Hangzhou and the Fuzhou–were ordered in 1996 and delivered quickly (because the Russians had two incomplete hulls to build on). As such, the PLAN received two “stock” Sovremennys. Displacing about 8,000 tons, the Project 956E is designed for distant antiship missions. Its main armament are eight of the 160km range SS-N-22 Sunburn antiship missiles. This missile travels at about three times the speed of sound and can perform violent maneuvers that can defeat most defenses designed to ward off subsonic antiship missiles. It also carries the 25km range SA-N-7 anti-aircraft missile and one Ka-28 antisubmarine helicopter. The Ka-28 carries rocket-propelled antisubmarine torpedoes and can provide over-the-horizon targeting for the SS-N-22 missile. Anti-aircraft and antisubmarine warfare, however, are secondary missions for the Sovremenny.

These warships were conceived in the late 1970s to support a strategy designed to secure areas contiguous to the Soviet Union, or “bastions,” for the deployment of nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBN). For the Soviet Navy, attack submarines and land-based attack aircraft were more important than surface warships. The Sovremennys were intended to operate with dedicated long-range antisubmarine ships, nuclear attack submarines, and land-based bombers like the Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfire, to repel U.S. carrier battle groups that might try to invade Soviet SSBN bastions to intercept these submarines.

For this mission the Sovremenny needed to survive long enough only to launch its missiles at the enemy. These ships were thus not designed withstand great battle damage and would likely be hard-pressed to undertake long missions. They also pre-date current ships design trends dominated by radar-avoiding stealth shaping. Furthermore, they were designed with a First-Strike strategy in mind: use missiles or lose them. And, to ensure their success, the early Russian SS-N-22 missiles were fitted with nuclear warheads.


According to early January reports out of Russia, the latest Chinese Sovremenny contract is for a new ship, the Project 956EM, which are expected to incorporate recent Russian advances in warship design and weapons. These may use stealth shaping similar to the Project 17 frigates that Russia is building for India. The 956EM are also expected to be armed with a new smaller cruise missile, such as the Mach 3 speed and 300km range NPO Machinostroyenia Yakhont, or the subsonic speed 220km range Novator Club-N. At least one report indicates that the 956EM could carry up to twelve Yakhonts, marketed as having a land-attack capability as well.

Russian reports also indicate that the 956EM could carry a new longer-range anti-aircraft missile. It has been Russian practice to equip its ships with naval versions of land-based anti-aircraft missiles like the 120km range S-300PMU or the 25km range BUK-M1. But the PLAN could opt for the latest versions of these missiles–the 250 mile range S-400, for example. These missiles would also be guided by more advanced phased array radar that are more difficult to detect and jam.

In contrast to the older design, the new 956EM would offer the prospect for longer survivability in combat, by virtue of its greater ability to avoid detection, launch attacks from greater ranges and defeat attacking aircraft at farther distances. Russia could also address other deficiencies of the original Sovremenny design, such as its low ability to survive combat damage. And while this projection is suspect, Russian reports indicate that the new ships may be ready in 2006 or soon after, perhaps in time to be used against Taiwan.


The 1996 PLAN purchase of the Sovremennys was driven by the need to respond to the humiliation of not being able to counter the two U.S. Navy aircraft carrier battle groups sent to counter to the PLA’s intimidating exercises near Taiwan in March that year. This incident focused PLA attention on the need to defeat the U.S. Navy. If it could be prevented long enough from “rescuing” Taiwan, then other elements of the PLA’s forces would have sufficient time to force a military solution to Beijing’s quest for “unification.”

To counter U.S. carrier battle groups, the Sovremennys will be coordinated with land-based ballistic missiles, Su-30MKK and JH-7 fighter bombers, new diesel-electric submarines like the Russian Kilo and the Chinese Song classes, and future new nuclear powered attack submarines. Aircraft and submarines will be armed with new long-range antiship cruise missiles. And very soon, both platforms and missile strikes will be coordinated by new reconnaissance satellites and both unmanned reconnaissance and AWACS aircraft, and guided by planned navigation satellites.

In such a battle it is likely that the Sovremennys would be used following strikes by land-based missiles, aircraft and submarines. The new 956EMs, however, might be better able to join this battle sooner, provided they survive expected U.S. defensive measures. While a multiple of U.S. carrier battle groups would be able to defend themselves against such PLA attacks, it is less likely that Taiwan’s Navy could do so.

For general operations against Taiwan, the PLA’s goal would be to first strike Taiwan’s Navy in its ports with missiles, aircraft and Special Forces units. Surviving warships would then face a superior number of PLAN submarines, strike aircraft, combat ships and numerous naval mines. The Sovremennys, with their 130mm naval guns, could either provide fire support for amphibious invasion forces or the leading edge of a blockade operation.


The PLA’s decision to return to Russia for its advanced warships also highlights the slow pace of the PLA’s ability to build modern warships. Its latest Luhai class destroyer is a barely modern design and it relies on Ukrainian turbine engines. The PLAN is reportedly working on a new class of destroyer that will be built in two versions that emphasize anti-aircraft and antisubmarine capabilities. Together with the Sovremennys, these can be expected to form the combat support for the PLAN’s first large aircraft carrier, which may be built in the next decade. But until the first carrier that allows for distant operations is built, the PLAN will continue to build its surface, submarine and air forces for naval operations near Taiwan or in the South China Sea. But armed with land-attack capable missiles like the Yakhont, the PLA will be able to use its Sovremennys for distant political intimidation missions. Another mission of growing importance will be to defend new PLAN ballistic missile submarines, which could require a secure “bastion” in the Yellow Sea.

For Taipei and Washington, the PLA’s acquisition of even more capable models of the Russian Sovremenny serves to validate recent decisions, and to prompt additional measures to sustain Taiwan’s ability to deter PLA attack. The new PLA purchases validate the Bush administration’s decision last year to sell Taiwan the U.S. Kidd class destroyers and eight new conventional submarines. There is an even greater requirement for the submarines to counter the PLAN’s new Sovremennys. Taiwan also requires the greater air defense and antisubmarine capabilities of the Kidd class destroyers, and as well the U.S. Aegis class destroyers, which have an even greater anti-aircraft and a potential antimissile capability.

The PLAN’s new purchase also validates the September 2001 Quadrennial Review decision to increase the number of U.S. aircraft carriers in the “Western Pacific.” The current single U.S. carrier battle group stationed in Japan will soon not be enough to deter the PLA. Washington also needs to develop longer-range tactical missiles to defeat the PLA’s longer-range naval and land-based Russian anti-aircraft missiles. Finally, to sustain deterrence on the Taiwan Strait, Washington. should seriously consider selling Taiwan these long-range attack missiles so it can better deter the PLA’s gathering missile, air and naval forces.

Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the Jamestown Foundation and the managing editor of China Brief.

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