There is a good deal of interest these days in the growth of the Chinese navy, known officially as the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Most of the discussion tends to focus on the steady and significant increase in the inventory of PLAN ships and submarines, as well as the gradual expansion of the operational reach of these ships. However, the other dimensions of seapower that constitute the real effectiveness of any navy are not always sufficiently considered. In the case of China, an assessment of strategy, operational proficiency, regional and global naval power, and leadership deserve additional emphasis.
The PLAN “order of battle” — the total number of ships, submarines, naval aircraft and supporting infrastructure continue to make gains, which will likely continue in future years. With this as a baseline, the strategic, operational and tactical proficiency of the Chinese navy has also made progress in parallel, with varied results. At the strategic level, the Chinese navy has attempted to strike a balance between regional focus on the western Pacific and adjoining waters, and other, sustained operations in distant waters. While it is accurate that the Chinese navy has expanded the scope of their operations over the past decade, they do not have sustained global presence and reach. Concentrating maritime power in areas such as the East China Sea and South China Sea has certain advantages, although the cumulative impact of years of at-sea time and tough challenges in the world’s oceans is an important barometer of capability. The PLAN will achieve the proficiency associated with extended maritime employment in time, but a strategy which allows both a regional and global deployment posture has yet to be fully realized.
As China’s strategic naval posture is dealt with, operational-level skills associated with complex warfare challenges are a second important standard. Integrated anti-surface, anti-submarine and anti-air operations are fundamental and can only be gained by hard experience. These warfare basics should be viewed in the context of operational-level integrated joint and combined command, control and communications, and a sober assessment of Chinese capability and experience in this area cannot be overemphasized.
At the tactical level, the shipboard structure and quality of leadership in the PLAN also deserves examination. It is worth noting that there are some very capable senior officers in the Chinese navy, but at the same time, their command structure is not optimal. In particular, the shipboard leadership model of a co-equal captain and political commissar (which exists at all levels in the Chinese military) is problematic. Warships in nearly all other navies are commanded by capable men and women, as well as other officers and enlisted personnel with an unambiguous understanding of the chain of command, the importance of teamwork and individual responsibilities. There is no confusion that the ship’s captain is in charge, which has particular value given the rigors associated with arduous afloat operations. In contrast, with two individuals in charge of a warship, there is clear potential for disagreements at the top level, miscommunication with the crew, and delays in critical, split-second decision-making in combat. Having a political commissar as a co-captain may make sense for the Chinese political leadership, but it is not a shipboard construct that would be welcome by a sailor or senior commander of any experience. Moreover, aside from immediate shipboard dynamics, it should be pointed out that the time-honored policy of keeping politics out of the military is a vital principle in democratic nations.
Finally, it is difficult to overstate the importance of the overall balance of naval power in the Pacific and beyond. There is a tendency for those of us in the United States to view these maritime and other security matters as if China and the U.S. are the only actors. The allies that we have in east Asia and beyond are a critical dimension of the maritime balance of power with China. In particular, the navies of Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia, Canada and India, as well as others such as Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam are critical considerations. The ships and aircraft from all these and other countries that come together to participate in the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises every two years reflects the importance attached to at-sea, coalition partnership and readiness.
All of these navies have to be factored into any probable correlation of maritime forces for the western Pacific and Indian Ocean, and for a confrontation of any magnitude, it is highly unlikely that the U.S. would engage China without other maritime partners in the fray. We should never take our maritime allies in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere for granted, and China is fully aware of their standing and strategic impact.
In conclusion, the growing number of ships and submarines in the PLAN is worthy of our attention, and as they say, quantity has a quality all of its own.
Underestimating the steady progress of the Chinese navy would also reflect a serious miscalculation. Nonetheless, the professionalism, consistent at-sea experience, combat readiness, and command and control capabilities of any navy are paramount considerations. While we note the ongoing increase in the size of the Chinese navy, we should also more fully account for their ability to harness these platforms effectively, in comparison to the U.S. and our all-important allies.
Robert B. Murrett is a professor of practice on the faculty of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, and serves as the deputy director of the Institute for Security Policy and Law, a multidisciplinary, university-based center for the study of national and international security. He is also on the adjunct staff of the RAND Corporation, the Institute for Defense Analyses, and chairs the MITRE Intelligence Advisory Board. He is a member of the advisory board for the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at SU, and is responsible for a series of ongoing research projects between the University and the Syracuse Veterans Administration Medical Center.
Previously, Murrett was a career intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy, serving in assignments throughout the Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East through his 34 years of duty, retiring in the grade of vice admiral. His duty stations included service as operational intelligence officer for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, assistant naval attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Oslo, Norway, senior intelligence officer for the NATO Striking Fleet Atlantic and director for intelligence, U.S. Joint Forces Command. For his last 10 years on active duty, he served as vice director for intelligence, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, director of naval intelligence, and director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).
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