Naval Showdown: Is China's Navy Catching Up to America?

May 3, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaNavyMilitaryTechnologyWorldU.S. Navy

Naval Showdown: Is China's Navy Catching Up to America?

In short, the Chinese fleet is growing and modernizing, but America still deploys a heftier and more heavily-armed naval force with much greater aerial firepower.

The Chinese fleet in recent years has grown and improved faster than any rival navy has done. And the U.S. Navy is struggling to respond.

That’s the startling conclusion of a special report that Reuters published on April 30, 2019. While not inaccurate, the report lacks some important context.

“In just over two decades, the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese military, has mustered one of the mightiest navies in the world,” reporters David Lague and Benjamin Kang Lim wrote. “This increased Chinese firepower at sea -- complemented by a missile force that in some areas now outclasses America’s -- has changed the game in the Pacific.”

The expanding naval force is central to [Chinese] president Xi Jinping’s bold bid to make China the preeminent military power in the region. In raw numbers, the PLA navy now has the world’s biggest fleet. It is also growing faster than any other major navy.

“We thought China would be a great pushover for way too long, and so we let them start the naval arms race while we dawdled,” said James Holmes, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and a former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer.

The numbers are impressive. In 1990 the PLA Navy possessed no modern destroyers, frigates or submarines. In 2018 the Chinese fleet had around 25 modern destroyers, more than 40 modern frigates and slightly fewer than 50 modern submarines.

The People's Liberation Army Navy by 2020 will possess between 313 and 342 warships, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence estimated. By comparison, in mid-2018 the U.S. Navy possessed 285 warships.

And the PLAN accounts for only a fraction of China's maritime power, according to Andrew Erickson, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. Beside the navy, Beijing's maritime organizations include the Chinese Coast Guard and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia, or PAFMM.

The coast guard and militia have grown alongside the PLAN, Erickson revealed. "China’s second sea force, the coast guard, is ... the world’s largest, with more hulls than those of all its regional neighbors combined: 225 ships over 500 tons capable of operating offshore and another 1,050-plus confined to closer waters, for a total of 1,275."

The maritime militia likewise has grown and modernized. "Since 2015, starting in Sansha City in the Paracels, China has been developing a full-time militia force: more professional, militarized, well-paid units including military recruits, crewing 84 large vessels built with water cannons and external rails for spraying and ramming," Erickson explained.

The sheer size and increasing sophistication of Chinese maritime forces complicates U.S. foreign policy, Lague and Kang Lim wrote. “America now faces daunting obstacles to any efforts to reinforce heavily outgunned Taiwan in a crisis. Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province and is currently building an amphibious force that could give it the capacity to launch an invasion of the island.”

“Senior Asian defense and security officials say the PLA’s naval advances have introduced a new uncertainty in such scenarios,” the Reuters reporters continued. “If Beijing can sow serious doubt about whether Washington will intervene against China, it would undermine the value of U.S. security guarantees in Asia.”

Lague and Kang Lim aren’t wrong. But it’s worth pointing out that, in certain key regards, the U.S. fleet still vastly outclasses China’s own navy.

For one, American ships on average are much bigger than Chinese ships are, according to U.S. Navy commander Keith Patton, writing for the Center for International Maritime Security. “When tonnage is used as the metric, the picture changes dramatically,” Patton pointed out. The U.S. fleet in total displaces 4.6 million tons of water. The Chinese fleet displaces 1.8 million tons.

Patton also compared the U.S. and Chinese fleets by weaponry, a metric he borrowed from former U.S. deputy defense secretary Bob Work.

Patton only counted offensive “battle-force missiles” such as heavy anti-air missiles, anti-ship missiles and land-attack cruise missiles. The U.S. fleet can carry around 12,000 battle-force missiles. Chinese ships in total can carry 5,200 BFMs.

“The gap is even larger if the contribution of carrierborne aircraft is considered,” Patton wrote. “The U.S. has an almost twentyfold advantage in fixed-wing aircraft operating from ships.”

In short, the Chinese fleet is growing and modernizing, but America still deploys a heftier and more heavily-armed naval force with much greater aerial firepower.

But trends still point toward eventual naval parity between the world’s leading powers. “Between 2015 and 2017, China launched almost 400,000 tons of naval vessels, about twice the output of U.S. shipyards in that period,” Lague and Kang Lim pointed out.

David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels  War FixWar Is Boring and Machete Squad.