Speculation is mounting among China’s military observers that construction is about to start on a bigger and faster frigate, designed to keep up with the PLA Navy’s third aircraft carrier which is nearing completion . An open tender for super high-strength structural steel – the kind used in military hulls – was issued by the Huangpu Wenchong shipyard in Guangzhou, southern China, in March, with a delivery date of May 20. It is unclear how many tonnes of the CCS-B structural steel plate were ordered by the shipyard, a subsidiary of the China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC). Several military commentators have taken to Chinese social media platforms to suggest the order could signal that work is about to begin on a bigger, faster multi-role update of the Type 054A, better suited to combat operations on the high seas. Specifications for the new frigate have not been released but one post on microblogging site Weibo said the Type 054B “is actually a mini Type 055 destroyer”. Other posts suggested the vessel could be up to 6,000 tonnes and powered by an integrated electric propulsion system, as used on the Type 003 aircraft carrier, which some expect to be launched in the autumn. The social media commentary also said the new frigate would be equipped with a mast that affords a greater radar horizon to better detect sea skimming missiles at longer distances. It will also have a bigger deck, to hold at least one ship-borne Z-20 armed helicopter and drones. Other features include anti-ship missiles and some of the new technologies used on the Type 055, the country’s largest destroyer, according to the commentators. China has about 30 active Type 054A frigates. They have been part of the UN peacekeeping operation in Somalia since 2009 and also form part of the aircraft carrier strike groups for the Liaoning and Shandong. About one dozen more have been in sea trials or under construction since 2021, with all expected to be launched this year. While the Type 054A plays a key anti-submarine and air defence role in strike group operations, its limitations make it unsuitable as an escort for China’s newest carrier, according to Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie. With a full displacement of 4,000 tonnes and a maximum speed of 27 knots (50km/h), the existing frigate would have trouble keeping up, he said. “The Type 054A needs to move full-steam ahead when it is accompanying the Liaoning and Shandong strike groups, but it will lag behind the Type 003 carrier, as well as other warships like the Type 055 destroyer.” Li declined to confirm if CSSC was starting work on the Type 054B frigates, but said a faster, bigger vessel able to carry more weapons and supplies was needed. “The PLA Navy is facing more new challenges amid a volatile global landscape since the outbreak of the Ukraine war,” he said. A military source said construction costs for the new frigate were expected to be 2 billion yuan (US$302 million), although the unit price would decrease if the navy ordered more vessels. Shipyard races to hit deadline for China’s new aircraft carrier Lu Li-Shih, a former instructor at the Taiwanese naval academy, said the decision to build the Type 054B indicated the Beijing leadership intended to eventually replace the Type 054A, first commissioned in 2008. “CSSC has accumulated technologies and experience building and developing dozens of Type 054As in past decades. The new round of replacement would also help the shipbuilder expand its overseas warship market,” he said. “Once the Type 054B is put into service in a few years, CSSC can export the inferior Type 054A to potential overseas clients in developing countries, just as the Americans have done.” China delivered its first export version of the Type 054A in November last year to Pakistan’s navy. Islamabad ordered four Type 054AP ships from the Hudong shipyard, another CSSC subsidiary in Shanghai, in 2018 and 2019.