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Chinese Power Projection; A Role for Arsenal Ships?

First considered by the US in the 1990s, China is reported to be evaluating potential arsenal ship concepts. An arsenal ship is a large-capacity missile-armed vessel intended to provide a significantly greater volume of fire than more traditional surface combatants. The Arsenal Ship concept developed by the US in the 1990s, for example, was to be equipped with more than 500 missile cells, equivalent to more than five Arleigh Burke-class destroyers (96 cells per ship). Although the Arsenal Ship was not proceeded with, the US did introduce a similar capability in four converted Ohio-class nuclear-powered submarines, whilst in 2013, a concept for a ballistic missile defence ship was revealed by a leading US shipbuilder.

Chinese interest in an arsenal ship is unsurprising. The development of a robust precision strike capability is of central importance to China’s military development efforts, 1 whilst President Xi Jinping has called for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to become a ‘world-class naval force’.2 Toward this end, China is engaged in the comprehensive development of its navy and wider maritime strike capabilities, including building an aircraft carrier force potentially second only to that of the US. Moreover, Rear Admiral Ma Weiming, responsible for leading Chinese efforts to develop electromagnetic and integrated full electric propulsion technologies, has described what he terms the ‘all-round ship’, an advanced surface combatant, and potentially relevant to the discussion of a potential Chinese arsenal ship.

The Arsenal Ship

The development of the MK 41 Vertical Launch System (VLS) and systems such as the AEGIS radar and the Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC),3 combined with the increased focus on maritime power projection and interest in pursuing ‘transformative’ naval technologies, underpinned the US Navy’s interest in the mid-1990s in the Arsenal Ship concept.4 The Arsenal Ship was envisioned as:

A missile-laden, forward-deployed, highly automated, optimally-manned ship that possesses a high-degree of built-in protection and uses the most advanced communication networks available. The missions expected for the Arsenal Ship are: Halting Invasions. The Arsenal Ship provides massive numbers of advanced missiles, equipped with precision-guided munitions, to stop attacking armored forces. Long-Range Strike. Tomahawk cruise missiles from the Arsenal Ship will be used to attack the enemy’s center of gravity – destroying strategic targets, air defense sites and military infrastructure. Littoral warfare. Using the ATACM [Army Tactical Missile] and an advanced naval gun system, the Arsenal Ship provides naval fire support to forces ashore, countering enemy artillery systems and suppressing second echelon forces and air defense sites. Conventional Deterrence. The forward-deployed Arsenal Ship provides conventional deterrence against regional aggression in areas vital to U.S. national interests.5

In short, the Arsenal Ship would be a one-ship surface action group capable of providing a substantial land attack capability and contributing to the Anti-Air Warfare (AAW) and ballistic missile defence (BMD) roles;6 this would be achieved via the ship being equipped with a 512-cell VLS.7 Moreover, the Arsenal Ship was intended to rely on ‘off-board targeting, command, and control in a “remote missile magazine”, minimal crew size (no more than 50), passive survivability, and flexible and robust data links and overall information architecture’.8 The reliance on off-board targeting systems and minimal crewing was also intended to minimise costs (and with regard to the use of off-board targeting, increase survivability); the projected unit cost for a five-strong class of Arsenal Ships being between $450-550 million.9 The use of off-board targeting systems and data links would however make the concept vulnerable to enemy actions to disrupt and destroy those supporting assets. The Arsenal Ship concept was not proceeded with for a number of reasons, but notably as Leonard et. al. discuss, a major factor was the perceived potential threat to existing force structures, in particular carrier-based forces and land-based air force strike assets:

If the Arsenal Ship succeeded in its mission, a change in the calculus for determining the size of U.S. forces required to fight and win two major theater wars almost certainly would occur. The number of aircraft-carrier groups deemed necessary to support the national defense  strategy might be significantly reduced; the number of long-range bombers, tactical fighter wings, and associated support forces thought necessary in the Air Force might likewise be reduced. 10

The Arsenal Ship concept was also arguably too narrowly focused on the power projection role, a point emphasised by Rear Admiral Richard Cobbold:

This unproven but newsworthy concept could undertake the TLAM [Tomahawk Land Attack Missile] functions of the SSN [nuclear-powered attack submarine], some of the ground attack missions of the JSF [joint strike fighter – now the F-35], parts of the NGS [naval gunfire support] tasks and provide limited AAW missile defence for ships in company and within range. But deploying them forward for reconnaissance, dispersing for low level tasks, contributing to ASW [anti-submarine warfare] defence, providing tactical information to ground forces ashore, supplementing amphibious decks, and contributing meaningfully to crisis management, are at best problematic. An arsenal ship, whatever it might turn out to be, would be a useful supplement to a force centred on a future carrier but could not, reasonably, be its core, nor supplant the carrier. Its fundamental drawback is a lack of flexibility…11

The US did however acquire a capability not dissimilar to that provided by an arsenal ship. In the early 2000s, four Ohio-class submarines, previously armed with 24 Trident nuclear submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles were re-equipped for the conventional strike mission. This entailed the conversion of 22 of the Trident launch tubes to each fire seven Tomahawk cruise missiles (for a total of 154 Tomahawks) and the use of the forward two Trident tubes for Special Forces support purposes.12 The large capacity of the former ballistic missile submarine provides a significant conventional strike capability – equivalent to the Tomahawk load-out of an entire US carrier group. 13 The USS Florida, one of the four converted submarines, undertook the first combat operations by the type during Operation Odyssey Dawn against Libya in 2011. 14 It warrants mention that the Ohio-class, although resembling the Arsenal Ship in concept and execution, does provide a multi-role capability and due to its stealth characteristics, is especially valuable to intelligence, surveillance and Special Forces support missions.

In 2013, Huntington Ingalls Industries revealed what it termed the Ballistic Missile Defense Ship.15 Derived from the San Antonio-class landing platform dock (LPD) in service with the US Navy and built by Huntington Ingalls Industries, the BMD Ship, resembling an arsenal ship in concept, would be equipped with 288 VLS cells for BMD interceptors (or any missile capable of launch from the VLS), plus an electromagnetic railgun, and exploiting the size of the original LPD design, a significantly larger radar than that fitted to the US Navy’s current BMD-assigned Arleigh Burke-class destroyer and Ticonderoga-class cruisers. The BMD Ship was not acquired: although offering much capability, it would likely have been highly expensive, perhaps as much as $4 billion per ship.16

A Chinese Arsenal Ship?

China has reportedly been evaluating since 2011 two concepts for an arsenal ship, one of which would be semi or partially submergible, the other capable of fully submerging, in order to enhance stealth and survivability.17 Moreover, between 2008 and 2011, research on a ‘submersible high-speed single hydrofoil wave-piercing composite ship type and its hydrodynamic performance’ was undertaken by a leading Chinese naval engineer, Dong Wencai, for the People’s Liberation Army Naval Engineering University.18 Designated the ‘High Speed ​​Wave Piercing Vehicle with Wings’, the vessel is intended to operate in submerged, semi-submerged and surface modes at high speed,19 and corresponds to one of the arsenal ship concepts under evaluation. This vessel would incorporate a functional superstructure equipped with defensive systems and sensors; the other design would be more akin to a submarine and incorporate two coning towers.20 Both designs would displace around 20,000 tons and it is believed that a full-scale proof-of-concept demonstrator may be under construction at the Bohai Shipbuilding Heavy Industrial Corporation.21 Either design would be capable of accommodating a substantial number of missiles in a VLS (the 12,000 ton Type 055 destroyer, for example, is equipped with a 112-cell VLS), including surface-to-air, BMD, anti-ship, land-attack and anti-submarine weapons. Moreover, China is believed to be developing naval anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM), potentially equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle.22 China is also actively developing integrated full electric propulsion, electromagnetic railgun and missile launcher technologies (alongside electromagnetic aircraft launch systems for aircraft carriers) and directed energy systems, which could equip a notional arsenal ship.

The ‘All-round Ship’

Rear Admiral Ma Weiming has described what he terms the ‘all-round ship’. This is an advanced surface combatant incorporating all-electric technology to power directed energy weapons, electromagnetic railguns and missile launch systems, enabling the ship to provide area air and missile defence, anti-submarine, and long-range strike (using ballistic and cruise missiles) capabilities at ranges of up to 1,000 km.23 Long-range air defence would be provided by missile interceptors launched via ‘a universal electromagnetic launcher that can be re-automatically loaded to achieve point-to-point defense’, with an electromagnetic railgun providing defence at ranges between 10 and 200 km; terminal defence would be provide by a laser.24 The universal electromagnetic launcher would also launch ballistic and cruise missiles for land attack and anti-ship operations at ranges of up to 1,000 km; ‘electromagnetic rockets’25 for operations between 200 and 600 km; and the electromagnetic railgun would prosecute land and sea targets within a range of 200 km.26 The ‘all-round ship’ concept is intended to reduce the cost of acquiring and maintaining advanced warships and weapon systems and enable a single ship to provide air defence, anti-submarine and precision strike capabilities more effectively than current platforms.27

Although not officially linked, the ‘all-round ship’ could provide an arsenal ship-like capability, whilst addressing some of the limitations of the latter as identified by Cobbold. In this respect, the ‘all-round ship’ concept would offer superior area air and missile defence, anti-submarine warfare, land attack and naval gunfire support capabilities; a key aspect of this improved capability being due to the incorporation of an electromagnetic railgun(s).28 In addition, the two configurations reportedly under evaluation for an arsenal ship may be capable of contributing to the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) roles, in particular if able to operate in semi or fully submerged modes. A major criticism of the original Arsenal Ship concept centred on its lack of operational flexibility due to its focus on the power projection role. Neither Ma nor the reports on Chinese arsenal ship concepts mention the integration of unmanned vehicles but given Chinese efforts across the spectrum of unmanned vehicle development, it would be unsurprising if unmanned systems were incorporated into an ‘all-round’ or arsenal ship. Unmanned surface vehicles (USVs),29 unmanned helicopters (such as the T33330) and unmanned underwater vehicles could, for example, contribute to anti-submarine operations or ISR tasks; targeting data could also be provided for long-range strikes from unmanned air systems such as the Xianglong or Divine Eagle,31 or stratospheric airships.32  

Potential Roles in Chinese Maritime Strategy

As previously noted, President Xi Jinping has called for the PLAN to become a world-class navy, this reflects a wider shift in Chinese maritime strategy, first elucidated in the 2015 Defence White Paper China’s Military Strategy.33 The White Paper states:

It is necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military force structure commensurate with its national security and development interests, safeguard its national sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, protect the security of strategic SLOCs [Sea Lines of Communication] and overseas interests, and participate in international maritime cooperation, so as to provide strategic support for building itself into a maritime power.

The White Paper also announced a shift in operational focus from ‘offshore waters defense’ to ‘open seas protection’, and the development of a ‘combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure’. Central to this evolving strategy are China’s new and forthcoming aircraft carriers and the Type 055 destroyer (the US classifies the ship as a cruiser34). How would an arsenal ship fit into China’s evolving maritime strategy? Such a vessel, equipped with a VLS, could undertake a wide range of roles; for example, air and missile defence, land attack, or anti-surface warfare. The ship’s role would also be contingent on the sensor systems fitted: the original US Arsenal Ship concept would have featured a minimal equipment fit and relied on off-board sensors to minimise cost and increase survivability. Of the two Chinese arsenal ship concepts, one includes provision for radar, whilst the other does not, suggesting a reliance on off-board targeting. In terms of operating concept, two principal options would be available. First, the arsenal ship could operate, as Lin and Singer suggest, as part of a carrier battlegroup, relying on the battlegroup to provide air defence cover with the arsenal ship providing additional missile capacity.35 Alternatively, an arsenal ship could operate as a detached unit, potentially operating forward (such as in the Philippines Sea or western Pacific within 1,000 km of Guam perhaps), as part of China’s wider maritime strike network (relying on off-board ISR assets). The latter option would bevparticularly suited to an ‘all-round ship’. In either context, an arsenal ship could significantly enhance China’s ability to conduct long-range strikes. Conversely, if principally equipped with surface-to-air missiles, an arsenal ship could provide an area air and missile defence capability for a naval task group or forces operating in the littoral.


China’s interest in the arsenal ship concept and innovative maritime capabilities such as the ‘all-round ship’ illustrate Beijing’s desire to develop sea power for a ‘post Mahan era’.36 It also reflects the wider ambition to chart an independent naval development path:

For a long time, the Navy of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had followed the pace of the US Navy in terms of equipment development. However, with the constant improvement of its technological capacity, China now can basically build any naval ship it needs. In this context, the Chinese Navy has been committed to blazing a new path for its independent development, marking a huge leap forward on the road of its modernization. In addition, in terms of ship design, the Chinese Navy has transitioned from “the realm of necessity” to “the realm of freedom”, namely, from a period when it could only use what it could build to an era in which it is able to build anything it wants.37

The above quotation is from an article discussing a concept unveiled by the No. 719 Research Institute of the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation for a nuclear-powered comprehensive supply ship to support a future ‘naval fleet comprised of various types of nuclear-powered ships, ranging from nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, large nuclear-powered destroyers, and nuclear-powered submarines to nuclear-powered supply ships’. The reference to ‘large nuclear-powered destroyers’ is noteworthy. China will commission the first of its new Type 055 ‘destroyer’ in 2019, a conventionally-powered 12,000 ton surface combatant providing anti-air, anti-surface, anti-submarine and land-attack capabilities (the Type 055 is expected to receive an electromagnetic railgun in the 2020s). Does China intend to develop a larger, nuclear-powered surface combatant to supplement the Type 055? Are arsenal ship studies or the ‘all-round ship’ concept related? Is China pursuing a wider system of systems approach to its surface combatant force development akin to the US SC-21 studies of the 1990s?38 It warrants mention that, as in the US, existing force structures and bureaucracies could cause friction and derail an arsenal ship acquisition. How, for example, would the PLA Rocket Force, responsible for China’s land-based ballistic and cruise missile forces, view the development of arsenal ships by the PLAN? Similarly, within certain quarters of the PLAN, would arsenal ships be seen as a potential threat to the nascent carrier force?

Given China’s potential interest in developing an arsenal ship capability, should the concept be re-examined more widely? The notion of a minimally-manned, networked vessel equipped with a large number of missiles appears attractive, in particular in light of the evolving geopolitical environment and return of great power rivalry. However, as Cobbold highlighted, such a vessel lacks flexibility: it would in essence be a niche capability, albeit a potent one, but for the majority of potential operators, probably not worth the opportunity cost. In addition, the supporting ISR and network infrastructure that would be required would not be a low-cost investment. Technology, especially unmanned systems and electromagnetic railguns may enhance the flexibility of an arsenal ship, but increase cost, as the Ballistic Defense Ship illustrated. The Chinese approach, including the potential use of a novel hull form, onboard sensors and defensive weapons, suggests a greater focus on capability rather than affordability, perhaps unsurprising given China’s economic resources. In this respect, Ma’s concept of an ‘all-round ship’, although not new in terms of seeking to deliver a multi-role surface combatant, is interesting in its innovative approach to providing the capability desired and at lower cost.

It remains to be seen whether China will in fact acquire an arsenal ship: what is clear are Beijing’s ambitions to chart a distinct path of naval development as it seeks to build a world-class navy for a ‘post Mahan era’.

Dr James Bosbotinis

Dr James Bosbotinis is a UK-based specialist in defence and international affairs, and Co-CEO of JB Associates, a geopolitical risk advisory. He has particular expertise in the study of contemporary maritime strategy, assessing naval and air force developments, geopolitical analysis, and generating understanding of the connections between maritime strategy and national policy.  Dr Bosbotinis has written widely on British defence issues, Russian strategy and military modernisation, China’s evolving strategy, and regional security in Europe, the Former Soviet Union and Asia-Pacific.


  1. James Bosbotinis, ‘China’s Evolving Long-Range Strike Capability and its Implications’, The Central Blue, 15 October 2018, http://centralblue.williamsfoundation.org.au/chinas-evolving-long-range-strike-capability-and-its-implications-james-bosbotinis/.
  2. ‘President Xi Calls For Establishment Of World-Class Naval Force’, CGTN, 12 April 2018, https://news.cgtn.com/news/7845444d346b7a6333566d54/share_p.html.
  3. CEC provides a ‘real-time sensor netting system that enables high quality situational awareness and integrated fire control capability. CEC is designed to enhance the Anti-Air Warfare (AAW) capability of ships and aircraft by the netting of battle force sensors to provide a single, distributed AAW defense capability.’ ‘CEC – Cooperative Engagement Capability’, United States Navy Fact File, http://www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=2100&tid=325&ct=2.
  4. For an overview of the Arsenal Ship programme, see Lieutenant Greg W. Baumann, USN, et. al. ‘An Arsenal Ship Design: Affordable, Advanced Warfighting Capabilities’, Naval Engineers Journal, Vol. 109, No. 6 (November 1997), pp. 85-94; and Robert S. Leonard, et. al. The Arsenal Ship Acquisition Process Experience: Contrasting and Common Impressions from the Contractor Teams and Joint Program Office, (RAND, 1999).
  5. Lieutenant Greg W. Baumann, USN, et. al. ‘An Arsenal Ship Design: Affordable, Advanced Warfighting [sic] Capabilities’, Naval Engineers Journal, Vol. 109, No. 6 (November 1997), p. 86.
  6. Ibid., p. 90.
  7. Robert S. Leonard, et. al. The Arsenal Ship Acquisition Process Experience: Contrasting and Common Impressions from the Contractor Teams and Joint Program Office (RAND, 1999), p. 62.
  8. Ibid., p. 2.
  9. Ibid., pp. 9-10.
  10. Ibid., p. 85.
  11. Rear Admiral Richard Cobbold, ‘A Joint Maritime-Based Expeditionary Capability’, RUSI Journal, Vol.142, No.4 (August 1997), pp. 23-30, quotation, p.28.
  12. Lee Willett, ‘Astute, Trident and SSGN: Land Attack for the Royal Navy Submarine Service’, RUSI Defence Systems, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Summer 2005), pp. 103-107.
  13. Ibid., p. 106.
  14. Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class (SW) James Kimber (Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay Public Affairs), ‘Florida Returns from Historic Submarine Deployment’, 29 April 2011, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=60079.
  15. Daniel Katz, ‘Introducing the Ballistic Missile Defense Ship’, ARES, 11 April 2014, http://aviationweek.com/blog/introducing-ballistic-missile-defense-ship.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Jeffrey Lin and P. W. Singer, ‘China is Developing a Warship of Naval Theorists’ Dreams’, Eastern Arsenal, 1 June 2017, https://www.popsci.com/futuristic-chinese-warship-concept-is-making-waves.
  18. See Ibid.; Henri Kenhmann, ‘Has China Revived the Arsenal Ship, but Semi-Submersible?’, East Pendulum, 29 May 2017, https://www.eastpendulum.com/la-chine-fait-renaitre-arsenal-ship-semi-submersible
  19. National Natural Science Foundation of China, ‘Research on Submersible High-speed Monomer Hydrofoil Wave-through Composite Ship and Its Hydrodynamic Performance’.
  20. Lin and Singer, ‘China is Developing a Warship of Naval Theorists’ Dreams’.
  21. ibid.
  22. Office of the Secretary of Defense, ‘Annual Report To Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018’, 16 August 2018, p. 66; and Richard D. Fisher, ‘The PLA Navy’s Plan For Dominance: Subs, Shipborne ASBMs, And Carrier Aviation’, Center for International Maritime Security, 24 October 2017, http://cimsec.org/pla-navys-plan-dominance-subs-shipborne-asbms-carrier-aviation/34497.
  23. Ting Tang, ‘Ma Weiming: “All-round Ship” Will Subvert the Existing Maritime Combat Style’, ScienceNet.cn, 27 April 2017, [via translate.google.co.uk – https://translate.google.com/translate?depth=1&hl=en&ie=UTF8&prev=_t&rurl=translate.google.com&sl=auto&sp=nmt4&tl=en&u=http://news.sciencenet.cn/htmlnews/2017/4/374846.shtm&xid=17259,15700022,15700043,15700124,15700149,15700186,15700190,15700201].
  24. Ibid.
  25. ‘Electromagnetic Rocket Developed by China’, Army Recognition, 6 August 2018, https://www.armyrecognition.com/august_2018_global_defense_security_army_news_industry/electromagnetic_rocket_developed_by_china.html.
  26. Tang, ‘Ma Weiming: “All-round Ship” Will Subvert the Existing Maritime Combat Style’.
  27. Ibid.
  28. For an overview of electromagnetic railgun technologies and applications, see http://www.ga.com/missile-defense-systems.
  29. For an example of Chinese USV developments, see Kelvin Wong, ‘China’s Yunzhou Tech Performs Swarming USV Demonstration’, Jane’s 360, 5 June 2018, https://www.janes.com/article/80646/china-s-yunzhou-tech-performs-swarming-usv-demonstration.
  30. ‘Airshow [sic] China: ZHZ introduces T333 Coaxial Dual-rotor UAV’, Air Recognition, 4 November 2016, http://www.airrecognition.com/index.php/archive-world-worldwide-news-air-force-aviation-aerospace-air-military-defence-industry/defense-security-exhibitions-news/air-show-2016/airshow-china-2016/3052-airshow-china-zhz-introduces-t333-coaxial-dual-rotor-uav.html.
  31. For an overview of Chinese naval unmanned air systems, see Andreas Rupprecht, Modern Chinese Warplanes: Chinese Naval Aviation – Aircraft and Units (Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2018), pp. 34-36.
  32. Fisher, ‘The PLA Navy’s Plan For Dominance: Subs, Shipborne ASBMs, And Carrier Aviation’; ‘Scientists Developing Multipurpose Stratospheric Airships’, Chinese Academy of Sciences, 7 September 2016, http://english.cas.cn/newsroom/news/201609/t20160907_167479.shtml
  33. Ministry of National Defense, the People’s Republic of China, China’s Military Strategy (The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing, May 2015), http://eng.mod.gov.cn/Press/2015-05/26/content_4586805.htm.
  34. Office of the Secretary of Defense, ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018’, p. 66.
  35. Lin and Singer, ‘China is Developing a Warship of Naval Theorists’ Dreams’.
  36. This is a term the author encountered at the inaugural Peking University Ocean Forum, held on 25 May 2018, and cited within the title of a new book by a leading Chinese scholar of maritime strategy – Hu Bo, China’s Sea Power in the Post Mahan Era (Beijing: Ocean Press, 2018); ‘[Book Launch] China’s Sea Power in the Post Mahan Era’, Peking University Institute of Ocean Research, 21 July 2018, https://ocean.pku.edu.cn/info/1165/3054.htm.
  37. ‘Will China’s Next-Generation Supply Ship Be Nuclear-Powered?’, China Military Online, 10 September 2018, http://eng.chinamil.com.cn/view/2018-09/10/content_9277212.htm. China Military Online is the official English-language website for the PLA.  
  38. ‘SC-21 – 21st Century Surface Combatant’, Global Security, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/ship/sc-21.htm.

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