Can an increasingly high tech, heavily armed and networked Navy achieve technical and tactical superiority over larger sized near-peer rivals? Specifically, could the U.S. Navy retain a significant measure of advantage over a potentially larger Chinese Navy?
This may be the thinking among some U.S. war planners now analyzing future Naval Force Structure questions. Essentially, could a slightly smaller, yet still very large U.S. Navy employ large numbers of drone and heavily armed warships enabled by a new generation of long-range sensors, precision weaponry and multi-domain air-surface-undersea connectivity?
These kinds of strategic concepts may be informing current thinking, given the staggering pace at which China is adding new warships. However, they may not in any way be comparable to U.S. ships. The U.S. Navy appears to be on course to retain its desired “aim point” of 500 ships, including a mix of manned or unmanned vessels designed to be far more technically advanced and capable than rival nation Navy warships.
This is at least an apparent goal, yet it may also be that a 500-ship strong fleet may, in coming years, still be somewhat smaller than the actual numerical fleet size of China’s Navy. The People’s Liberation Army Navy, already larger than the U.S. Navy with more than 300 ships, is adding carriers, amphibious assault ships and destroyers at an alarming pace. Many of the new ships, particularly the new, slightly stealthy Type 055 Destroyers, may bring new levels of technological sophistication and weaponry. China may in fact double its number of destroyers in coming years, and the PLA Navy is already building its third new Type 075 amphibious assault ship, not to mention ongoing work on a third aircraft carrier.
Having already launched its second carrier, the Shangdong, the Chinese are already starting work on a third aircraft carrier, according to a May 2020 Congressional Research Service Report, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities.” The report says the PLA Navy may have as many as 400 ships and four aircraft carriers by 2025.
Clearly, it may serve the best interest of the Pentagon and the Navy to operate a force that is both very large and also technologically superior. Perhaps networked, disaggregated, yet heavily armed warships aligned with the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations strategy can achieve overmatch if even slightly smaller in numbers? The point being, should the U.S. Navy succeed in reaching its 500-ship goal in coming years, it still may at that point be smaller in pure size than the Chinese force. However, that does not mean it will be any less capable or superior when it comes to retaining superiority over a rival Chinese force? The plan is, hopefully not, given advances in artificial intelligence, networking and large numbers of interconnected drones.
Kris Osborn is the 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.