Explainer: What China's Naval Modernization Means for the U.S. Navy

March 31, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Asia Pacific Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: U.S. NavyChinaPLA NavyMilitaryNavy

Explainer: What China's Naval Modernization Means for the U.S. Navy

While not a true arms race, Washington and Beijing are now very much in a twenty-first-century great power competition.

Last fall China State Shipbuilding Corporation Limited (CSSC) became the world's largest shipbuilder, with 310,000 employees spread across 137 scientific research institutions, enterprises and listed companies. The conglomerate, which has total assets of 790 billion yuan ($112.41 billion), is the result of a merger of two state-owned ship-building enterprises (SOEs), the China Shipbuilding Industry Company and the China State Shipbuilding Corporation.

This is largely seen as a major concern for the Pentagon, as it will allow China to accelerate its shipbuilding technologies as well as related aircraft development, which will allow Beijing to build an imposing "blue water navy."

According to a new Congressional Research Service report, "China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities – Background and Issues for Congress," Chinese efforts encompass a wide array of platform and weapon acquisition programs including anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), submarines, surface ships, aircraft, unmanned vehicles (UVs), and supporting C4ISR (command and control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) systems.

This is not an entirely new development, however. China has been steadily modernizing its navy for twenty-five years, since the mid-1990s, and it has become a formidable military force within China's near-seas regions. It has been transitioning from a "green-water" navy – a force that is designed to primarily provide coastal defense while beginning to acquire the ability to sustain operations on the open ocean – to a blue-water navy.

The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been upgrading technology and since 1989 has moved from a naval force of obsolete destroyers and fast attack boats to a force that currently possesses one aircraft carrier, three amphibious transports, twenty-five destroyers, forty-two frigates, eight nuclear attack submarines and approximately fifty conventional attack submarines. 

In addition, China's naval modernization efforts have also included improvements in maintenance and logistics, doctrine, personnel quality, education and training and exercises.

While not a true arms race, Washington and Beijing are now very much in a twenty-first-century great power competition.

"The biggest challenge for U.S. national security leaders over the next 30 years is the speed and sustainability of the [People's Republic of China] national effort to deploy a global navy," retired Capt. James Fanell, who previously served as head of intelligence for the Pacific Fleet, told National Defense.

The U.S. Navy has already taken a number of actions in recent years to counter Beijing's naval modernization efforts, and this has included a shift in the number of U.S. Navy warships in the Pacific. The U.S. Navy has assigned its most-capable new ships and aircraft, along with its best personnel, to the region; while it has maintained or increased general presence operations.

The United States Marine Corps has also begun a transformation to become a lighter and faster force that could take a fight across the Pacific Ocean to confront the Chinese.

However, another concern should be that China isn't the only power looking to expand its naval capabilities. Moscow is also modernizing the Russian Navy, so in the future the U.S. Navy could be further pressed to face regional and global threats.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and website. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.

Image: Reuters.