China, Japan in fast and furious frigate-building race

China, Japan in fast and furious frigate-building race

Japan and China are upgrading and upsizing their naval fleets with affordable, general-purpose frigates amid territorial disputes, mutual missile threats and historical animosity.

This month, Japan launched its eighth Mogami-class frigate, the JS Yubetsu, marking a significant advance in the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s (JMSDF) capabilities, The Warzone reported.

The Warzone report says that the Mogami-class frigates, built to serve as the JMSDF’s backbone, feature advanced electronic warfare and sensor suites, and are designed for operation by small crews, underscoring a broad structural shift toward more efficient naval operations.

The Warzone notes that the class is set to replace older Asagiri- and Abukuma-class vessels, with a total of 12 ships planned and the last scheduled for completion in 2027.

Mogami-class frigates have a standard displacement of approximately 3,900 tons and a total displacement of about 5,500 tons, with dimensions roughly similar to the Asagiri-class destroyers. They are powered by a Rolls-Royce MT30 gas turbine and two MAN diesel engines capable of exceeding 30 knots.

The Mogami-class also has a BAE Systems’ Mark 45 naval gun, remote weapon systems, Lockheed Martin’s Mk 41 vertical launching system for surface-to-air missiles and Raytheon’s SeaRAM system.

The Warzone says the frigates also feature advanced electronic warfare suites including the NOLQ-3E system, Mitsubishi Electric’s OPY-2 radar, various sonar systems for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and can support a Mitsubishi SH-60L Sea Hawk helicopter and deploy different unmanned vehicles for minesweeping.

Most significantly, The Warzone notes that these ships are designed for operation by a crew of just 90, enabled by high levels of automation and an advanced Combat Information Center (CIC).

The report says that while the first two Mogami-class vessels were relatively cost-effective, Japan is already planning for 12 “new FFM” frigates, with enhanced air defense capabilities and larger dimensions, to be constructed from 2027 to 2036.

The developments underscore Japan’s commitment to maintaining a strong, technologically advanced naval presence in a challenging geopolitical landscape.

Indeed, the Mogami-class may be Japan’s answer to China’s next-generation Type 054B frigate, conceptualized as a general-purpose naval combatant.

A rendering of China’s Type 054B frigate. Image: Twitter

This August, The Warzone reported on the Type 054B frigate, which is larger and more capable than its predecessor, the Type 054A. The Warzone notes that the frigate is equipped with a 32-cell vertical launch system (VLS) at the bow, which might be a universal VLS used in other Chinese warships or a system similar to the one on the Type 054A.

It also features a 100mm main gun, replacing the 76mm gun of the Type 054A, although the exact model of this new gun is yet to be confirmed.

The report said that the Type 054B is armed with two close-in weapons systems (CIWS) for air defense: a H/PJ-11 11-barrel 30mm Gatling gun and an HQ-10 SAM launcher. Although it says that while anti-surface warfare capabilities are not confirmed, there’s speculation about an additional set of VLS cells or slanted anti-ship missile launchers.

It also says that the ship has Type 726 launchers for various defensive and offensive purposes such as flares, chaff, active decoys and anti-submarine rockets.

The WarZone report says that Type 054B is expected to host the Z-20F maritime helicopter, enhancing its ASW capabilities and that the frigate might operate vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) drones in the future.

The Warzone states that the Type 54B’s sensor suite includes a primary radar, a double-sided rotating active electronically scanned array (AESA), a bow sonar and provisions for a variable-depth sonar (VDS) and a towed-array sonar (TAS).

It notes that stealth features have been incorporated into the design, resembling the French Aquitaine-class frigate regarding radar cross-section reduction.

These frigates are set to significantly impact Japan and China’s naval doctrines and fleet composition, as both naval powers are enlarging their fleets in response to rising threat perceptions from one another.

The Mogami class is designed to replace the obsolete Abukuma- and Asagiri-class destroyers, whose age, limited numbers, outdated technology, non-stealth design, and lack of helicopter facilities in the case of the Abukuma-class, may no longer be sufficient to meet Japan’s security needs.

The Mogami-class also marks a move toward greater cost-effectiveness.

In a September 2023 US Naval Institute article, Eric Wertheim notes that the first two ships cost significantly less than US$500 million each, with an estimated price tag of $375 million and $410 million per frigate.

That relatively low cost allows the Mogami class to be built in greater numbers than larger, more capable ships such as the Maya class destroyers, which cost $1.5 billion per ship and cannot be made in large numbers.

Moreover, in line with Japan’s more proactive defense policy, the Mogami class may eventually be offered for export.

In April 2021, Asia Times reported that Indonesia planned to purchase eight Mogami-class frigates, with plans for Japan to deliver four ships starting in 2023 or early 2024 and for the remaining four to be built at state-run PT PAL’s Surabaya shipyard.

A Japanese Mogami-class frigate in a file photo. Image: Facebook

While China already has the advantage of lower labor costs and formidable shipbuilding capability, the Type 054B represents a serious upgrade over the Type 054A with better blue water seakeeping, greater endurance and more upgrade potential.

The ship also has better sensors, networking and combat management suites, enabling it to field more capable munitions.

The Type 054B’s AESA means that active production and forthcoming PLA-N blue-water combatants will come with the technology as standard while its embarked Z-20F helicopter will allow the class to match the minimum ASW capabilities of PLA-N blue-water combatants.

Asia Times reported in February 2023 that the Type 054B was developed to improve the Type 054A’s escort capabilities, as the Type 054A’s diesel propulsion could not match the speed of China’s carrier battlegroups.

The Type 054B aims to address that shortcoming with its enhanced propulsion system. Apart from that, the ship’s primary roles are anticipated to be ASW, with secondary roles in anti-air warfare (AAW) and anti-surface warfare (ASUW).