China’s Naval Shipbuilding Sets Sail
The United States needs to reengineer a naval shipbuilding “sweet spot.”
China has parlayed the world’s second-largest economy and second-largest defense budget into the world’s largest ongoing comprehensive naval buildup, which has already yielded the world’s second-largest navy. All that is only part of an extraordinary maritime transformation—modern history’s sole example of a land power becoming a hybrid land-sea power on a sustained basis. Underwriting this transition are a vast network of ports, shipping lines and financial systems, and increasingly advanced ships. It also raises the rare prospect of a top-tier non-Western sea power in peacetime, one of the few instances to occur since the Ming Dynasty developed cutting-edge nautical technologies and briefly projected unrivaled power across the Indian Ocean six centuries ago. These factors raise a critical question for our age: Where is China headed at sea, and to what end?
Ships are the physical embodiment of naval strategy and an essential element through which a nation achieves the ends of maritime strategy. China has three major sea forces: the navy, coast guard and maritime militia. Of them, the navy is China’s primary force beyond the near seas (such as the Yellow, East China and South China Seas) as well as the critical measure of its sophistication in shipbuilding. Yet, unlike every other major shipbuilding power, China does not reveal how many warships of each class it intends to build.
The strategic goals and guidance of the party, state and People’s Liberation Army determine Chinese naval shipbuilding choices. To rationalize ship and weapons-system design with naval strategy, two main research organizations perform analysis: the strategically focused Naval Research Institute and the technically focused Naval Armament Research Institute. This is part of a larger Weapons and Armament Development Strategy drafted by the General Armament Department and approved by the Central Military Commission. It helps inform China’s more than twenty-six thousand national standards and more than eleven thousand military standards, with the naval subset compiled in a two-thousand-plus-page volume titled “General Specifications for Naval Ships.”
For now at least, open sources do not deeply illuminate the specifics of this planning process, thereby constraining the potential for deductive analysis. Fortunately, extensive production by China’s shipbuilding industry (SBI) already offers a bonanza for inductive analysis, particularly through the interdisciplinary approach pioneered by the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. As the editor for the sixth volume in CMSI’s conference book series, “Studies in Chinese Maritime Development,” I assembled a diverse group of some of the world’s leading specialists and had them address the following questions:
1. What are China’s prospects for success in key areas of naval shipbuilding?
2. What are the likely results for China’s navy?
3. What are the larger implications, particularly for the U.S. Navy (USN)?
The resulting book, Chinese Naval Shipbuilding, is divided into five sections. Following an introduction, it first surveys the foundation and resources available. Christopher Carlson and Jack Bianchi begin by tracing how evolving ways of war and consequent missions have shaped the design, development, outfitting and deployment of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships. Morgan Clemens and Ian Easton next consider the role and requirements assigned China’s SBI by its civilian and military masters, and offer a case study on amphibious vessel construction. Gabe Collins and Eric Anderson round out the section by documenting the growing amount and diversity of financial resources for China’s military SBI, including the channels through which China’s military shipbuilders are tapping into domestic and international capital markets. Given today’s commercial ship market doldrums and weak demand for new vessels, Chinese shipbuilders have mounting incentives to seek government contracts to furnish vessels for China’s three sea forces, which promise larger profit margins in a captive home market. Thus motivated, Chinese shipbuilders may well wrap themselves in the flag and lobby decisionmakers to increase spending on force structure.
The next three sections cover specialized SBI subsets: infrastructure, design and remaining shortcomings. In the second section, on shipyard infrastructure, Sue Hall and Audrye Wong track the evolution and output of Chinese vessel construction facilities. They explain key commercial SBI dynamics, metrics and global production trends, including the cyclical waves characterizing the past decade’s boom and recent retrenchment. Alex Pape and Tate Nurkin offer a detailed inventory of China’s naval fleet from the early 2000s projected through 2030, with in-depth coverage of funding, all major classes of warships and auxiliaries, shipyard-specific construction forecasts suggesting wholesale fleet modernization and renewal, and the resulting order of battle. Sean O’Connor and Jordan Wilson expertly analyze satellite imagery of key yards. They focus on three leading facilities: Jiangnan, Dalian and Huludao—China’s exclusive production site for nuclear-powered vessels. Daniel Alderman and Rush Doshi conclude the section with a nuanced explanation of China’s hybrid CMI diffusion and absorption approach.
The third section addresses naval architecture and design. It reportedly takes one hundred thousand to two hundred thousand man-hours of work for a Chinese company to design a ship for the first time. In doing so, it draws on established standards. These can be quite numerous: one Chinese source states that modern destroyers contain six hundred thousand to seven hundred thousand components. To probe such processes, Mark Metcalf examines four major categories of standards: national, military, industry and those issued by the China Classification Society. Roughly equivalent to U.S. military standards, they offer key insights into factors influencing the development and production of PLAN vessels. Kevin Pollpeter and Mark Stokes subsequently survey China’s seven-stage research, development and acquisition process for warships—the life cycle by which it conceives, obtains, uses and disposes of them. As part of “integrated innovation” that relies heavily on the incorporation of foreign technology, China emphasizes a hybrid approach involving integration, digestion, absorption and re-innovation. Julian Snelder next draws on personal investment experience and extensive interviews to illuminate the civilian industrial underpinnings of Chinese shipbuilding, including a detailed evaluation of ship values. State-owned enterprises are poised to continue leading China’s commercial and military production efforts, as part of a larger “doubling down” by Xi Jinping’s China: striving simultaneously to strengthen centralized oversight and enhance market-oriented performance.
The fourth section weighs remaining challenges for China’s SBI, of which several stand out. Leigh Ann Ragland-Luce and John Costello probe shipboard electronics. Their case study of the Type 054A Jiangkai II frigate’s electronics suite suggests that interdependent Chinese efforts at advanced “informatization” (the incorporation and networking of information technology) suffer from limited innovation and integration. Jonathan Ray, Robert Forte and I then survey the state of power and propulsion for Chinese conventional and nuclear vessels. Particularly in the nuclear realm, PLAN vessels remain underpowered, and lacking in power density and acoustic quieting. Developing, acquiring and mastering the relevant technology (e.g., aspects of precision manufacturing) will likely prove difficult, expensive and protracted—although Russian assistance could accelerate progress significantly. Finally, Andrew Scobell, Michael McMahon, Cortez Cooper and Arthur Chan examine aircraft carrier development—another area with wide-ranging implications in which Chinese progress will likely remain incremental.
The final section considers alternative futures and offers conclusions and takeaways. Charged with envisioning maximal outcomes for China’s navy by 2030, James Fanell and Scott Cheney-Peters project the realization of a “China Dream” at sea involving a much larger, more capable navy with a far greater mission set, including a credible undersea deterrent, multiple carrier strike groups and a continuous network of warships operating in distant waters. In a companion chapter, Michael McDevitt considers a medium trajectory for China’s navy. Even under conservative assumptions, China will field the world’s second-largest blue-water navy by 2020—the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence projects a total fleet of 313–342 hulls. The PLAN’s long-range power projection force subset will increasingly resemble a smaller version of the PLAN’s only comprehensive superior, the USN.
Paul Scharre and Tyler Jost next consider technologies with the potential to transform the development and operation of warships. Based on the core trends of increasing transparency, connectivity and machine intelligence, they identify four “wild card” competitions whose outcomes portend major disruption: hiding versus finding, understanding versus confusion, network resilience versus degradation, and hitting versus intercepting. China’s SBI will impact all four competitions. One technology of interest is 3-D printing, which the PLAN has already used to produce a replacement engine bearing for a warship operating in the Gulf of Aden. The extent to which a given technology will prove truly revolutionary, or simply evolutionary, hinges in part on the extent to which it is married with operational concepts governing its use to achieve transformational approaches. Predicting the character of naval warfare decades hence may seem hopeless, but when a navy builds a new ship, it is doing just that with a multimillion—or multibillion-dollar—bet, particularly in terms of four essential factors: size, weight, power and cooling, all driving costs directly yet difficult to modify later. Thus, it makes sense to hedge one’s bets with open architecture emphasizing software over payloads over platforms.
Ronald O’Rourke concludes with specific implications and policy recommendations. For over a decade, China’s military-maritime modernization has affected requirements for USN capabilities, particularly by renewing focus on high-end warfare far from shore against adversaries that can substantially challenge American sea control. Ongoing U.S. naval debates center on strategy, force architecture and budgets to meet this and other contingencies.