Exactly if and when the increasing antagonism between United States and China will boil over into full-on conflict remains anybody’s guess.
But for now, one thing is as clear as the aqua-blue waters that lap up on the shores of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea: Beijing’s naval fleet is larger than that of the U.S. Navy.
Citing the Office of Naval Intelligence, a Congressional Research Service report from March notes that the People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, was slated to have 360 battle force ships by the end of 2020, dwarfing the U.S. fleet of 297 ships.
Such numbers are hard to pinpoint because the PLAN doesn’t release public reports on its future shipbuilding efforts like the U.S. Navy does. But according to the CRS, China is on pace to have 425 battle force ships by 2030. Sheer size and numbers carry a quality all their own, and a numerical advantage would be of benefit in a small battlespace like the Taiwan Strait, some China watchers say.
Still, others note that because the U.S. Navy has been doing this a lot longer than the growing Chinese force and is aided by the naval might of America’s allies in the region, the U.S. retains key advantages that extend beyond any mere hull tally.
The U.S. Navy also has vastly more experience with global maritime operations. China’s Navy has little or no proven capability for things like carrier aviation, blue-water deployments and underway replenishments — all of which would be necessary for the Chinese to project naval power beyond their coastal zones.
A host of scenarios could push China and the United States into some kind of conflict.
Beijing’s fleet size is a cause for concern, but not of panic, according to James Holmes, the J.C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College.
“Let’s bear in mind that the Soviet navy was more numerous than we were, sometimes vastly so,” Holmes told Navy Times in an email. “No one would have said their submarine force was superior to ours. We were stronger on a platform-for-platform basis.”
Holmes said that it’s more useful to measure how forces match up, instead of mere fleet sizes.
“A fraction of our Navy, accompanied by fractions of affiliated joint and perhaps allied forces, now faces off against the combined weight of the PLA Navy backed up by the PLA Air Force and Rocket Force,” Holmes said of any potential future battle for the West Pacific. “Who wins when part of one force goes up against all of a hostile force? That’s the question we may see put to the test. The answer is far from obvious.”
Should conflict erupt, the winner will have massed more combat power at the site of the fight.
“Let’s not fall into the habit of comparing ship for ship or plane for plane and conclude the navy with the best technical specifications wins,” Holmes said. “That is dangerously superficial.”
While a fleet-to-fleet comparison may not tell the whole story, the Congressional Research Service report notes that the PLAN poses “a major challenge to the U.S. Navy’s ability to achieve and maintain wartime control of blue-water ocean areas in the Western Pacific,” a challenge the United States hasn’t faced since the Cold War ended 30 years ago.
China’s naval modernization has been underway for roughly the past 25 years, CRS notes, and includes not just ships, aircraft and missiles, but steady improvements in maintenance, logistics, doctrine, personnel, education, training and exercises.
All the while, China has gotten better at building its fleet.
“China’s naval ships, aircraft and weapons are now much more modern and capable than they were at the start of the 1990s and are now comparable in many respects to those of Western navies,” the CRS report states.
This modernization effort encompasses not only surface ships, but submarines, anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, aircraft, drones and other supporting systems.
“Until recently, China’s naval modernization effort appeared to be focused less on increasing total platform (i.e., ship and aircraft) numbers than on increasing the modernity and capability of Chinese platforms,” the CRS report states. “Some categories of ships, however, are now increasing in number.”
While U.S. military leaders increasingly sound the alarm about China’s naval capabilities and what that means for the U.S.-led order in the West Pacific, Beijing’s precise endgame regarding its fleet size remains unclear.
“The planned ultimate size and composition of China’s navy is not publicly known,” CRS notes. “In contrast to the U.S. Navy, China does not release a navy force-level goal or detailed information about planned ship procurement rates, planned total ship procurement quantities, planned ship retirements and resulting projected force levels.”
Whether this elusiveness is intentional or not remains murky from the outside as well.
“It is possible that the ultimate size and composition of China’s navy is an unsettled and evolving issue even among Chinese military and political leaders,” the CRS report states.
But unlike the globally dispersed U.S. Navy, China’s fleet is largely focused on controlling Beijing’s backyard, a region that includes perennial questions like Taiwan and the South China Sea, among other regional economic interests. There is power in concentration.
Beijing’s battle force is augmented by a sizeable coast guard and a network of fishing ships that provide a maritime militia.
“China relies primarily on its maritime militia and coast guard to assert and defend its maritime claims in its near-seas region, with the navy operating over the horizon as a potential backup force,” CRS notes.
While China’s fleet size, emboldened posture and rapid growth are cited by some U.S. military leaders as key reasons why the U.S. Navy needs to grow and further invest in the Indo-Pacific, the PLAN still lags the United States in certain key areas.
The force’s ability to conduct joint operations with other parts of China’s military remains a work in progress, as does its proficiency in anti-submarine warfare, long-range targeting, at-sea resupply of combatants deployed far from home, largely green crews and little in the way of recent combat experience, according to CRS.
To the bafflement of several former Navy officers who spoke with Navy Times for this story, China’s fleet also employs a two-person ship command structure: one skipper and one Chinese Communist Party apparatchik, an arrangement that could stymie decisive leadership in combat.
“No sailor would be in favor of that,” said Bob Murrett, a retired Navy vice admiral who spent his career in naval intelligence and is now a professor of practice, public administration and international affairs at Syracuse University. “There’s hundreds of years of history of the mariner being a captain who has complete accountability and responsibility for the ship.”
China’s submarine fleet remains inferior to American boats, and CRS notes that it’ll likely be some time before the PLAN has mastered carrier-based aircraft operations “on a substantial scale.”
But carriers are far-flung power projectors, and Beijing wouldn’t need carriers to ferry fighter jets to a conflict with Taiwan or a fight in the South China Sea due to the distance involved.
“Consequently, most observers believe that China is acquiring carriers primarily for their value in other kinds of operations, and to demonstrate China’s status as a leading regional power and major world power,” the CRS report states.
‘Numbers definitely matter’
While some reports and analysts believe the U.S. Navy has better technology, personnel and maritime chops than the PLAN, others question just how superior America remains in 2021.
“The argument that our technology offsets China, or that we retain an advantage, strikes me as unpersuasive,” said Blake Herzinger a civilian Indo-Pacific defense policy specialist and Naval Reserve officer based in Singapore.
“Modern naval warfare is missiles, and China has a lot more platforms capable of shooting and a lot more missiles.”
China has invested heavily in missile technology that could counter large U.S. Navy ships. Last year, China reportedly test fired one of its DF-21 missiles — sometimes called the “carrier killer” — in the South China Sea, which many military analysts believe was a provocative warning to the U.S. fleet operating in the contested waters near China.
Should conflict break out in the West Pacific, the PLAN can get damaged ships back to their shipyards for repair much faster and it would take weeks for West Coast Navy ships to join the fight there.
Damaged U.S. ships would “have to limp to Japan, Australia or all the way home,” Herzinger noted. “And we lack the shipyards.”
And while the U.S. Navy still has better subs, as well as modernized guided-missile destroyers and carriers, Herzinger noted that America’s sea service isn’t battle-hardened at sea either.
“I think we have a well-trained force, and the level of individual quality is likely still superior to that of the PLAN, but I also don’t know how far that comparison takes us,” Herzinger added. “It’s not like we have navy-on-navy combat experience.”
The U.S. Navy has spent this century engaged in missions that couldn’t be further from maritime combat, while mercurial budgets, reduced shipyards and a relentless operations tempo have strained the material readiness of the fleet.
“We’ve got a Navy that we’ve worn out bombing trucks, weddings and huts in Afghanistan for 20 years,” Herzinger said. “Our Navy is ‘better’ in some ways, but it might not necessarily be those ways that make the difference in a peer war with the Chinese. Numbers definitely matter.”
When it comes to fleet size, Murrett notes that China’s fleet largely remains in its backyard, while a good number of the U.S. force is underway around the world, making a number-to-number assessment incomplete.
There’s also a tendency to view any maritime conflict between the United States and China as a two-party affair, which sidelines the significant role America’s allies in the region would likely play, Murrett said.
Japan, Australia and South Korea all sport robust navies in the region, and the United States is increasingly working to bring India into the fold as that country deals with its own Beijing-related rivalries.
“We just take for granted the incredible network of allies we have around the world,” Murrett said. “The view from Beijing in terms of maritime partners is pretty bleak. They don’t have any that are worth mentioning.”
Murrett said he suspects any maritime conflict between China and the United States would likely occur due to some dustup between the PLAN and South Korea, Japan or the Philippines.
Despite the growth of the PLAN, Murrett said he would still bet on the United States, its partners and the collective proficiency of those crews.
“Having said that, a major caveat that I have to stress at every turn is that it is not in the interests of the U.S. or China to have a maritime conflict,” he added. “It’s not good for them or good for us.”