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China’s naval buildup raises eyebrows

by Adrian David

NEW YORK, 28 JUNE – The world is watching closely on China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) which is expanding its fleet at an alarming pace.

In their observation, three analysts from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. noted that China was poised to overtake the United States (US) Navy in several measures of maritime might, more quickly than people at times assumed.

In their joint research, Alexander Palmer, Henry H. Carroll and Nicholas Velazquez warned that if China continued to expand its fleet at the current pace, and the US did not revitalize its shipbuilding industry, the former would grow increasingly likely to emerge victorious from interstate war –  a prolonged great power war.

“The result is a China that will grow more confident projecting power, threatening its less powerful neighbours, and disregarding US efforts to deter such behaviour.

“The decline of US naval dominance will be difficult to reverse.

“The process has spanned decades and rests on slow-moving economic and industrial trends,” they said.

Palmer is CSIS is an associate fellow in the Transnational Threats Project; Carroll is a research assistant with the Defence-Industrial Initiatives Group; and Velazquez is a former research assistant with the Defence-Industrial Initiatives Group.

The three researchers, however, opined that the US could still maintain superiority by investing in smaller surface combatants like corvettes, frigates and unmanned naval systems paired with alternative platforms like aircraft or ground-based missile launchers.

“The US can also deepen its partnerships with Pacific nations like Japan and South Korea; and invest more in its domestic shipbuilding industry, particularly the highly specialised submarine industrial base,” they wrote.

They admitted that China now possessed the world’s largest maritime fighting force, operating 234 warships to the US Navy’s 219.

“This count of China’s fighting ships encompasses all of its known, active-duty manned, missile- or torpedo-armed ships or submarines displacing more than 1,000 metric tonnes, including the 22 missile-armed corvettes recently transferred to the China Coast Guard but not the approximately 80 missile-armed small patrol craft operated by the PLAN. “The oft-cited count of about 290 US Navy ‘battle force ships includes combat logistics and support vessels, of which the U.S. Navy has 126, including those under the Military Sealift Command, and the PLAN 167,” they quoted the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

They reckoned that such preponderance provided an important wartime advantage.

One recent study, they said, concluded that larger fleets won 25 out of 28 historical wars.

“Like those historical combatants, China has the numbers to absorb more losses than the US and keep fighting.

“In one recent set of war-games, China lost 52 major surface warships compared to between 7 and 20 US equivalents.

“Even after such catastrophic losses, China still had more surface warships than the US and was able to continue the naval battle,” they jointly wrote.

The United States continued to hold an advantage in guided missile cruisers and destroyers.

Destroyers in particular served as the backbone of any modern fleet due to their multi-mission capabilities, speed and cruising range.

“The US’ 73 destroyers allow it to exert sea control and project power to a greater extent than do the PLAN’s 42 destroyers.

“But China is closing the gap, having doubled its destroyer fleet from 20 in 2003 to 42 in 2023.

“The PLAN operates 23 destroyers launched in the past 10 years compared with 11 operational US destroyers.

“China has also launched eight cruisers since 2017, while the US has not launched a new cruiser since 2016.

“The US preponderance of cruisers and destroyers may also be a distraction from the Chinese advantage in frigates and corvettes.

“These smaller ships played a key role in World War II, in which they served as convoy escorts, fleet protection vessels and radar picket ships.

“In a modern conflict, they might serve similar roles, fight enemy ships in the Indo-Pacific’s littoral waters, or perform other missions that naval strategists have not yet foreseen,” they observed.

The US Navy, they added, appeared to recognise that it might be overinvested in larger cruisers and destroyers.

They reminisced on tatements by senior US Navy personnel who emphasised the need to rapidly increase frigate production.

“Both the US and China are also seeking to develop armed naval surface and underwater systems smaller than China’s manned corvettes.

“Smaller ships may not be as powerful as larger ones, but they can be built faster and in greater numbers.

“US partners can help overcome China’s numerical advantage,” they explained.

They analysed how the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force operated 4 cruisers, 34 destroyers, 10 frigates and 4 helicopter carriers, two of which will soon be capable of launching and recovering F-35 fighter jets.

The South Korean navy, they noted, operated 3 cruisers, 6 destroyers, 16 frigates and 5 corvettes.

“If either navy fights alongside the US, the PLAN will lose its numerical advantage.

“But effectively integrating US and partner forces is difficult, and whether these nations will fight alongside the US is beyond the control of US defence planners.

“Solving the problem, therefore, depends both on strengthening US partnerships and building a larger US Navy,” they said.

On another note, they found that China’s productive advantage was reflected in the relative ages of active Chinese and US ships.

“About 70 percent of Chinese warships were launched after 2010, while only about 25 percent of the US Navy’s were. “China’s newer ships are not necessarily superior, although the US Office of Naval Intelligence assessed in 2020 that China’s ships were increasingly of comparable quality to US ships.

“Chinese ship production dwarfs that of the US.

“The Office of Naval Intelligence assessment noted that China has dozens of commercial shipyards larger and more productive than the largest US shipyards, and an unclassified US Navy briefing slide suggested that China has 230 times the shipbuilding capacity of the US.

“China’s massive shipbuilding industry will provide a strategic advantage in a war that stretches beyond a few weeks, allowing it to repair damaged vessels or construct replacements much faster than the US, which continues to face a significant maintenance backlog and will probably be unable to quickly construct many new ships or to repair damaged fighting ships in a great power conflict,” they said.

The United States, they agreed, probably faced insurmountable obstacles to meaningful increases in shipbuilding in the coming decade, but it might be able to reduce China’s advantage through its relationships with Japan and South Korea.

They figured that the US partners accounted for 26 and 14 percent of global ship deliveries in 2023, respectively.

“The US Navy plans to repair ships at international shipyards in 2025 on a trial basis, which could reduce the maintenance backlog, but actually constructing US ships using foreign shipbuilders is unlikely due to US legal restrictions.

“The only long-term answer is probably an industrial strategy that supports the broader US shipbuilding sector for decades.

“This enormous shipbuilding capacity means that PLAN’s expansion will remain a feature of US-China strategic competition as long as the Chinese economic and personnel systems can support it- and the Chinese Communist Party leadership deems it important,” they said.

How big the PLAN would grow is unknown: unlike the US.

“China does not publish its shipbuilding plans.

“US defense planners should assume that the PLAN will continue to grow, potentially at an accelerating pace, in numbers, ship size and firepower.

“The challenge faced by the US Navy and the maritime forces of like-minded nations is only beginning,” the analysts discovered.

They further studied how raw numbers were only one component of combat power, the destructive or disruptive force that a military could bring to bear on the battlefield. “Although the US Navy retains many advantages, the PLAN is on track to surpass the US Navy in an important measure of naval power: the total number of vertical launch system (VLS) cells, and the advanced missile launchers that allow ships to fire projectiles ranging from anti-ship to land-attack to air defense missiles,” they said.

The US Navy currently has about 9,900 VLS cells spread across its surface combatants and submarines, while the PLAN only has about 4,200.

This meant that the US Navy could fire more missiles than the PLAN in an average salvo, although the PLAN also operated 152 warships armed only with traditional missile or torpedo launchers (in addition to its roughly 80 missile-armed patrol craft) compared with the US Navy’s 81 such ships.

“But China is on pace to catch up within the next few years. “US ships had 222 times as many launchers in 2004 and now have fewer than three times as many.

“If the current trend continues, China will have more launchers than the US Navy by 2027.

“This means that China’s navy will be able to fire more of the advanced missiles that allow it to deliver precision strikes against ships or onto land and to defend itself against enemy missiles or aircraft.

“Building more VLS-equipped ships is not the only way to deliver firepower at sea.

“Ground-based launchers, aircraft, and unmanned systems will all play a role in any war between the US and China,” they wrote.

The US, they figured, could therefore increase its firepower by investing further in autonomous systems, increasing its ground-based force structure in key areas, and making its air assets more survivable.

“Solving the difficult technical problems associated with reloading VLS cells at sea could also go a long way toward maintaining a US firepower advantage by potentially adding the equivalent of 2,016 VLS cells to the fleet, effectively increasing its VLS firepower by 20 percent. “Finally, the United States can invest more in high-quality missiles like long-range anti-ship missiles or Maritime Strike Tomahawks and hypersonic technology to seize a qualitative edge and limit the Chinese advantage in magazine depth.

The US Surface Fleet May Depend Too Much on Aircraft Carriers,” they said.

They pointed out that some analysts argued that China’s numerical advantages were literally outweighed by the US Navy’s much larger ships.

“Because bigger ships can move farther and carry more weapons and support systems than smaller ships, the US Navy’s advantage in displacement suggests that China still trails the US in its ability to fight at sea.

“The extent of the US advantage depends greatly on the utility of aircraft carriers in a naval conflict.

“US aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships (some of which can serve as “mini-carriers”) account for about 90 percent of the displacement gap.

“But carriers’ utility in a navy-on-navy fight is hotly debated. “If carriers turn out to be of limited value for modern naval warfare, much of the US displacement advantage disappears, and recent rates of expansion suggest that China can probably surpass the US in aggregate displacement of cruisers, destroyers, and frigates in less than ten years,” they wrote.

The US displacement advantage, they added, would translate into a combat advantage as long as carriers and naval airpower remained dominant at sea.

They felt that even if naval airpower was supplanted by missile power, the US carrier and amphibious assault fleet would remain useful.

“US carrier doctrine will likely evolve as lessons are learned from combat, although failure to adapt can be fatal.

“Carriers and amphibious assault ships will also remain central to projecting power ashore and vital for coercive or deterrent diplomacy.

“But uncertainty about the role of carriers in modern naval combat and the relative need for power projection ashore suggests that in a conflict with China the US Navy could turn out to be less than the sum of its tons,” they shared.

Further discussing, the analysts agreed that submarine capabilities remained an area of unquestioned US dominance. The US operated 66 nuclear submarines compared with China’s 12.

“Large nuclear submarines are much more capable than diesel-electric submarines, operating with far greater range, stealth and offensive power.

“US submarines also have a combined 1,168 VLS cells between them, while PLAN submarines have no confirmed VLS cells, although various experts project that China will produce submarines with VLS cells in the near future.

“China’s subsurface fleet is unlikely to quickly catch up to that of the US because the US has a massive head start in submarine production, not because it has an enduring technological or production advantage.

“China’s submarine technology is rapidly improving, and its submarine production capacity is growing,” they said.

They recalled a 2023 US Department of Defence report that anticipated China growing its submarine force to 80 units by 2035 while retiring older systems, a remarkable level of production, even if the majority were not nuclear powered. “Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) has also been a priority for the PLAN, which is improving its ASW doctrine and assets, although the pace of improvement seems to lag behind that of its surface warfare capability.

“Maintaining its subsurface advantage is vital for the US.

“Open source war-gaming and strategic analysis suggest that US submarines might be called on to play a decisive role in war with China.

“The US’ two submarine shipyards are straining to produce even the two Virginia-class submarines needed to maintain (and eventually increase) the size of the subsurface fleet. “Efforts to increase construction capacity as China begins to catch up to the US in submarine construction and anti-submarine warfare face significant headwinds, including high material prices and a lack of workers.

“It should come as little surprise that the first item on the US Navy’s Fiscal Year 2025 Unfunded Priorities List was US$403 million for the US submarine industrial base, and the sixth, seventh and eighth items were all related to submarines or ASW,” they wrote.

In winding up, they saw that none of this meant that the PLAN would defeat the US Navy in wartime.

“Wars are too complex for such predictions. The US Navy has vastly more combat experience and time at sea than the PLAN.

“The US also has a blue water naval tradition dating back more than two centuries, while the Chinese tradition dates back less than three decades. A war between China and the US will also be a joint war, meaning that the conflict will engage air, ground, space and cyber forces.

“Each country’s relative strength in each of these domains will matter, as will strategy, leadership and luck.

“Nor is China guaranteed to overtake the US as the world’s – or even the Pacific’s – premiere naval power,” they said.

They reminded that drawing conclusions about longer-term performance from historical data was always uncertain, especially when relying on open-source information on an organisation as secretive as the PLAN.

“The US also has other advantages (and China disadvantages) – like US alliances, economic heft, and soft power – not captured in an analysis of naval hardware.

“But the trends are pointing in the wrong direction for the US. “The US Navy faces a growing possibility of defeat at sea for the first time in half a century, and the US can soon face its first potential contender for maritime dominance since at least the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“China’s naval might is already allowing Beijing to flex its muscles in the Pacific in ways that endanger US allies and undermine stability.

“If the US does not halt its relative decline, the world will face a more dangerous and uncertain future,” they concluded.

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