Despite the frequent chorus of concern about the pace of Chinese naval modernization, and its well-known efforts to rival or even outmatch America, the U.S. Secretary of Defense says China is a long way from being able to effectively defeat the U.S. Navy.
“I want to make clear that China cannot match the United States when it comes to naval power. Even if we stopped building new ships, it would take the PRC years to close the gap when it comes to our capability on the high seas,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told an audience on September 16 at the RAND Corporation, according to a transcript of the event.
Of course, this is not to say there is not very serious concern among U.S. leaders regarding the pace, scale and growing technical sophistication of the Chinese Navy. However, Esper’s comments raise some interesting questions as to what actually constitutes naval superiority? Pure fleet size? Or weapons, sensors and technologies?
While both are important, Esper was clear to emphasize that, even though the Chinese now have more ships than the United States, that by no means ensures that their warfighting capacity is equivalent.
“Ship numbers are important, but they don’t tell the whole story. They do not address the types of ships and the capabilities of the vessels being counted; the skill of the crews that operate them; the prowess of the officers that lead them; or the ways in which we fight and sustain them…just to name a few,” Esper explained.
So how might a smaller-sized fleet remain superior? There are a lot of ways. While Esper did not elaborate, he did make reference to sailors’ skills and technological sophistication as essential margins of difference. Many of the technical specifics of Chinese maritime platforms and weapons are likely not available, however there are some clear ways in which the U.S. Navy has established potentially unprecedented warfighting systems, technologies and warfare tactics.
There are simply far too many reasons for possible U.S. technological superiority that could be identified, but here are a few. Overall, the country with more accurate, longer-range sensors and weapons, fortified by networking and AI-enabled processing speeds, might be more likely to prevail, regardless of the specific numbers of large platforms any given Navy might have. At the same time, this does not mean large numbers and presence are not also extremely important, as evidenced by the Navy’s forward-deployed operations.
The U.S. Navy has eleven aircraft carriers which routinely practice dual-carrier attack options, a level of coordinated operational flexibility designed to project massive amounts of power. This means increased presence and response time in most key places around the world. This is because well-positioned forward-deployed carrier strike groups are consistently operating in areas where potential conflict could quickly emerge. The United States sustains an unparalleled presence in or near waters in the Pacific, Middle East, Mediterranean, Baltic Sea and Black Sea, making rapid warfare responses possible if needed. The faster an attacking force can strike, coupled with an enormous volume of overwhelming force from Carrier Strike Groups and high sortie rates, naturally favors initial success should war erupt.
Secondly, sensor and weapon ranges, fidelity and precision. A Navy with longer-range, more accurate targeting sensors, communications networks and weapon’s guidance systems would also be well positioned to prevail. New U.S. Navy Flight III DDG 51 destroyers will be armed with long-range, highly sensitive SPY-6 radar systems in position to detect enemy threats from advantageous distances. SPY-6 radar is actually up to thirty-five-times more sensitive than existing radar, offering attacking forces unprecedented levels of detail and precision. As for weapons, there are far too many to cite, but new Maritime Tomahawk missiles can hit moving targets at sea from distances as far as 900 nautical miles. Interceptor missiles such as SM-3s and SM-6s have all been upgraded with improved ranges, guidance systems and explosive capacity. In addition, most surface combatants are receiving new, over-the-horizon missiles, many are being armed with lasers and virtually all ships are now getting advanced, multi-frequency electronic warfare technologies.
However, one thing arguably of greatest significance can be summed up with one word: drones. The U.S. Navy plans to build thousands of surface, undersea and aerial drones, a scenario which may raise the number of attack and surveillance platforms available to commanders by hundreds, or even thousands. The concept of larger mother-ships performing command and control operations while controlling large fleets of dispersed, multi-mission drones is already coming to fruition. Such a reality greatly changes the tactical equation when it comes to disaggregated, yet securely networked surveillance, transport and weapons attack possibilities. Meanwhile, none of this means that the Navy will forsake or short-change construction of new large platforms; the service is already on contract to build ten new Flight III destroyers, many more littoral combat ships, a substantially increased number of attack submarines and scores of new Frigates. What all of this means is that, alongside its surge into the research, development and innovation needed to sustain technical superiority, the Navy will also get much bigger in terms of larger platforms as well. There have been no indications that the Navy is backing off of its plan to reach 355 ships.
At the same time, there are still very serious concerns about emerging Chinese weapons, capabilities and plans to expand Beijing’s massive global power. The pace of Chinese ship-building, in particular, is raising alarms. China is very quickly building new carriers, amphibious assault ships and high-tech, somewhat stealthy destroyers, not to mention increasing numbers of nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines.
Esper clearly cited areas of concern regarding Chinese military expansion. “In addition to developing traditional weapons systems, Beijing is also investing in long-range, autonomous, and unmanned submarines, which it believes can be a cost-effective counter to American naval power,” Esper told RAND.
Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.