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While most of the world is watching the struggle between Ukraine and Russia, the eyes of U.S. Navy leaders remain fixed on China, which already has the largest navy in the world, and one that could dwarf the American fleet by the end of the decade.

China plans to increase the size of its People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) from about 355 to 460 ships by 2030, according to the Defense Department’s latest report on Chinese military power.  By comparison, the U.S. Navy would shrink from 298 to 280 ships by fiscal 2027 under its current budget proposal — unless Congress forces the Navy to buy more ships than it wants.

By any metric, China’s navy is a powerful force that continues to grow and improve.  Yet the issue of just how dangerous China’s ships, submarines, and naval aircraft are to the U.S. Navy is open to interpretation.

A war with China would mean that both the Navy and Marine Corps would have to face their most technologically advanced adversary since World War II. China’s navy and air force combined comprise the third largest air force in the world. The country’s navy also has nine nuclear attack submarines along with 56 diesel boats. Perhaps most importantly, China has a large arsenal of ground and surface-based missiles that would pose a serious threat to U.S. ships and service members.

A Great Wall 236 submarine of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy, billed by Chinese state media as a new type of conventional submarine, participates in a naval parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of China’s PLA Navy in the sea near Qingdao in eastern China’s Shandong province, Tuesday, April 23, 2019. (Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press)

“The PRC [People’s Republic of China] is also projecting power further out from its periphery, positioning the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] to command an increasingly global presence,” Ely Ratner, assistant defense secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs, told Congress in March. “The PLA is rapidly improving many of its capabilities, including strike, air, missile-defense, and anti-submarine warfare, as it focuses on integrating information, cyber, and space operations.” 

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For years, the ships in China’s navy were no match for U.S. naval forces, but the newest surface ships that China is building are “incredibly capable ships,” said Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), who is the ranking member on the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee and co-chair of Congressional Shipbuilding Caucus.

As China builds more ships with better weapons and radar systems, the Chinese navy poses an increasing threat to U.S. naval forces, Wittman told Task & Purpose. He also noted that as China builds more ships, it will get better at producing advanced combat systems.

AT SEA, OCTOBER 19: China’s type 055 guided-missile destroyer Nanchang sails during the naval exercise Joint Sea-2021 on October 19, 2021 in the Western part of the Pacific Ocean. (Sun Zifa/China News Service via Getty Images)

“When you look at what the Chinese are able to do, they are developing weapons platforms that can hold at risk U.S. assets at a longer distance,” Wittman told Task & Purpose. “A ship’s capability is about several things. It’s not only about weapons systems. It’s also about sensors. It’s things like radars: Can radars see further out. When they’re more capable, that ship has a bigger footprint of what it can do. When you have that capability with sensors and you combine it now with weapons systems that can reach out longer distances, all of a sudden, those platforms have pretty significantly increased capability.”

As of 2020, China’s navy had launched 25 Luyang III class destroyers, each of which has 64 multipurpose vertical launching system cells, which can fire cruise missiles, surface-to-air-missiles, and anti-submarine missiles, according to the Defense Department’s report on Chinese military power. China also commissioned the first Renhai class cruiser in 2020. Those ships will have 112 VLS cells and will likely be outfitted with anti-ballistic missiles when they become operational.

This photo taken on April 24, 2018 shows a J15 fighter jet landing on the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning during a drill at sea. (AFP via Getty Images)

China also commissioned its first domestically built aircraft carrier in 2019 and it is building a second carrier that is expected to enter service by 2024, the report says.

“They are very intent on replicating the effectiveness of the U.S. aircraft carrier — and, I would argue, the same with other ship classes,” Wittman said. “Although they’re still well behind in submarines, they are doing everything they can to try to build that capability. Their diesel boats, while indeed being diesel boats — you can’t underestimate them. Of course, they are building nuclear submarines also.”

While modern Chinese ships feature state-of-the-art missiles and good radar, the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s primary missions are not to take the U.S. Navy head on, said Timothy Heath, a senior international defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

Instead, the Chinese navy is focused on responding to contingencies against neighboring countries such as Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and India, Heath told Task & Purpose. The People’s Liberation Army Navy does enjoy major advantages over those naval forces, but China’s fleet is not an equal to the U.S. Navy, he said.

SAINT-PETERSBURG, RUSSIA – JULY 27: China’s frigate Yuncheng (L) and missile destroyer Hefei (R) arrives at St Petersburg to take part in a ship parade marking Russian Navy Day in St. Petersburg, Russia, 27 July 2017. (Sergey Mihailicenko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

“Against the U.S. Navy in most plausible scenarios, the Chinese navy is actually not that big a threat,” Heath told Task & Purpose. “Their surface ships in general are pretty vulnerable, especially to long-range missiles. The U.S. has superior carrier aviation. We have excellent submarine capability. So, we could get at the Chinese navy fairly easily.”

China’s aircraft carrier force is still in its nascent development phase and the Chinese navy lacks defenses against U.S. attack submarines, Heath said.

In fact, if China invaded Taiwan, the greatest threats to the U.S. Navy would come from China’s land-based missiles and aircraft, not the People’s Liberation Army Navy, he said.

The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force’s arsenal includes anti-ship ballistic missiles that have a range greater than 1,500 kilometers, allowing China to conduct precision long-range strikes on ships, including aircraft carriers, according to the Defense Department’s 2021 report on the Chinese military. China also has intermediate-range ballistic missiles with a range of about 4,000 kilometers that can hit ships as well as U.S. military bases on Guam.

ZHOUSHAN, April 28, 2020 — Special operation soldiers of the Chinese naval fleet for escort mission wave farewell on the deck at a port in Zhoushan, east China’s Zhejiang Province, April 28, 2020. (Xinhua/Jiang Shan via Getty Images)

Should China invade Taiwan, it is expected to rely heavily on missiles such as these to keep the U.S. military at arm’s length as they put troops ashore, Heath said. The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s main task would be to fight Taiwanese ships and aircraft and to protect ambitious landings. Chinese surface ships and submarines would likely attack only those U.S. Navy ships that came close to Taiwan.

Overall, the Chinese navy constitutes somewhat of a threat to the U.S. Navy so long as it operates within the envelope of China’s land-based missiles and aircraft, he said.

“But, if you’re talking about a straight-up fight in the middle of the Indian Ocean, I think the U.S. Navy would pretty easily defeat almost anything the Chinese navy has,” Heath said.

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