China’s Naval Shipbuilding Sets Sail

February 8, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaPLA NavyChinese NavyShipbuildingDefenseTechnology

China’s Naval Shipbuilding Sets Sail

The United States needs to reengineer a naval shipbuilding “sweet spot.”

The volume’s numerous exhibits include maps of Chinese shipyards, and graphics depicting the evolution of Chinese strategy and warship capabilities as well as vessel production, organization, processes and outputs. Additionally, the volume has extensive order of battle charts, including selected force structure comparisons with other major navies.

Key Findings

Both in the volume and the conference on which it is based, contributors reached general consensus concerning the following: China has achieved the most rapid aggregate SBI growth in modern history, with monumental but uneven results. Through a process of “imitative innovation,” the country has leapfrogged key development steps, saving time and resources. By 2020, the PLAN will be unambiguously the world’s second-largest blue-water navy. Moreover, if current trends continue, by 2030 China may assemble a combat fleet that in overall order of battle (hardware only) is quantitatively, and perhaps even qualitatively, in the same league as the USN. In my personal opinion, even the perception that China was on track to achieve such parity would have grave consequences for America’s standing and influence across the Asia-Pacific and around the world.

To be sure, China faces substantial difficulties in fielding the largest, most sophisticated surface combatants and submarines. They all involve complex systems-of-systems, such as propulsion and aspects of aviation, in which China’s preferred second-mover piecemeal integration of foreign and domestic technologies cannot offer a “good enough” result. Such ongoing limitations, as well as a lack of overseas bases, mean that far from its shores China will continue to extend radiating layers of influence and reach but not—anytime soon—control. Even by 2030, the PLAN will remain in the early stages of increasing operational proficiency and ability to engage in high-intensity opposed operations in distant waters. Moreover, in coming years, China also faces mounting costs of maintaining its burgeoning fleet. China also confronts macro uncertainties, most importantly in the form of downside risks to its future economic growth. Meanwhile, it seems destined to confront a rival competitive strategy in the form of a USN buildup under the Trump administration.

But regardless of these challenges, in coordination with China’s other sea forces (including the coast guard and maritime militia) and services, the PLAN is increasingly capable of contesting sea control within widening-range rings surrounding the near seas and their immediate approaches. China’s SBI has already produced a fleet of several hundred (currently in the low 300s; 303 per the Pentagon’s 2016 report) increasingly advanced warships capable of “flooding the zone” along the contested East Asian littoral. When several hundred ships each from China’s coast guard and its most advanced maritime militia units are factored in, Beijing’s numerical preponderance for the “home game” scenarios it cares about most becomes formidable indeed. And that does not even include the land-based “anti-navy” that backstops them. In this regard, while China continues a major ship buildout with tremendous implications, it is already able to pose a formidable military-maritime challenge to the regional interests and security of the United States and its East Asian allies and partners. Despite its ongoing limitations further afield, China has already proven itself capable of precisely the sort of maritime development that rightly concerns them most.

Central to this Chinese counter-intervention challenge is the PLAN’s overmatching of the USN in key aspects of missile loadouts. Left unaddressed, this disparity is likely to worsen as China deploys greater quantities of missiles with greater ranges than those systems potentially employed by the USN against them. By 2020, China is expected to have:

• quantitative parity or better in surface-to-air missiles and antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs)

• parity in missile launch cells

• and quantitative inferiority only in multi-mission land-attack cruise missiles, which are less essential to prevailing worst-case deterrence by denial or “war at sea” scenarios.

As with the platforms on which they are based, these Chinese weapons are concentrated in the near seas, while their American counterparts are dispersed globally. To make matters worse, the next-generation long-range ASCMs on which U.S. naval superiority hinges are still “paper missiles” not yet fielded on USN surface combatants. Moreover, these new ASCMs—the Long-Range Antiship Missile and vertical launch system–compatible Naval Strike Missile variant—may not be effectively targetable under contested counter-intervention conditions.

Ongoing Debates

In accordance with CMSI’s scholarly approach, participants in both the conference and the volume engaged in a robust exchange of competing ideas. Key questions debated included the following:

Can China’s shipbuilding organizations fully and directly support its maritime strategy? China’s sprawling SBI has been charged with comprehensive transformation through restructuring to address overcapacity, underutilization, redundancies, inefficiencies and inadequate interaction. China’s two leading state shipbuilders, China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) and China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC), are currently divided along functional lines and do not compete directly. Reflective of Xi’s broader promotion of supra-organizations and mega-conglomerates to achieve integration in other heavy and/or strategic industries, such as rail, nuclear and aviation, CSIC and CSSC are now slated for a merger, although there has been no official announcement. Meanwhile, major shipyards are being consolidated from several hundred to a few dozen, named on a State Council of the People’s Republic of China “whitelist.”

Will CSIC and CSSC actually merge in substantive fashion? Contributors debated the extent to which these objectives would be accomplished in practice. Skeptics emphasized that the low-hanging fruit had already been harvested. Regardless, the two conglomerates are indeed rationalizing their respective internal operations to eliminate overlap and competition.

Can China’s centralized approach succeed? Certainly this is Xi’s goal, a microcosm of the guiding principles that he and the Chinese Communist Party embrace. As one contributor noted, Chinese specialists seek to emulate American success by concentrating resources, with at least one declaring, “We need our own Lockheed Martins!” China’s actual prospects for reducing organizational barriers such as “stovepiping”—while increasing competition, technological diffusion and absorption, and innovation—remain hotly debated.

Are China’s standards effective, and used fully and reliably? There was some disagreement on this issue, with those more focused on Chinese commercial shipbuilding tending to be more pessimistic. Notably, pushback has emerged within China’s own civilian industry, where some stakeholders decry recent promotion of military-compatible standards as a costly burden.

Is China’s oft-cited civil-military integration (CMI) approach effective? There was widespread skepticism among industry experts about the extent and efficacy of CMI. “Not a good mix operationally—colocation and coproduction are challenging if not counterproductive” was one of the more pointed critiques. Potential civil-military incompatibilities cited include culture, security, standards, design, engineering, propulsion, construction and timescales. Nevertheless, dual-use construction is undeniably emphasized in many authoritative Chinese industry policies and publications, as well as, most recently, in the form of a new central commission for integrated military and civilian development headed by Xi himself. There is certainly some intermingling in practice, with the greatest potential apparently in shipyard infrastructure.

Finally, to what extent can China’s military SBI transcend the limitations hampering its civilian SBI? Some of the abovementioned debates stemmed in part from differences in perspective between contributors more familiar with one or the other of these sectors. In considering their inputs holistically, it emerged that China’s military sector generally enjoys better funding, infrastructure and human capital in the form of advanced personnel, such as engineers with long-term experience as opposed to rapid turnover. Hu Wenming, CSSC’s CEO, deems “military products” to be his enterprise’s “number one priority.” As multiple contributors deeply familiar with Chinese naval capabilities emphasized, the PLAN is “not receiving junk” from China’s shipbuilding industry but rather increasingly sophisticated, capable vessels. Its growing satisfaction with them is indicated in part by longer production runs of fewer series. A more specific question remains: at what cost, and with what remaining limitations on high-end capabilities, is China producing warships?

What is clear already from CMSI’s inductive approach is that China’s naval SBI has laid a formidable foundation. To the extent that China can reduce, or—as it would prefer—overcome, the limitations mentioned in this section, its navy will grow even stronger.

Tyranny of Distance and Time

For all China’s progress and potential, the contributors identified formidable long-range challenges for Chinese sea power development. To begin with, sea power requires tremendous propulsive and electrical generation power. Propulsion determines how fast and far a ship can go; overall power determines what it can do. With water 829 times denser than air, there is a cubic-or-greater power-to-speed relationship: to go three times faster, a ship needs at least twenty-seven times more power. Increasing capabilities require greater payloads, as well as more capable supporting systems with greater processing power and sensor load. These factors expand ship size requirements, which in turn increase both costs and propulsion demands.

The PLAN’s transition to a “Two Ocean” (primarily Western Pacific and Indian Ocean) navy is dispersing its fleet over greater distances, making it more difficult to support and requiring enhanced logistics and facilities access. Contributors anticipated concerted Chinese efforts to progress in:

• long endurance propulsion, especially nuclear power, the ultimate “gold standard”

• area air defenses for surface combatants and emerging carrier groups