Can America Keep Up With China and Build a Bigger Navy?
The Pentagon’s Battle Force Plan 2045 calls for a massive expansion in size and scope for the U.S. Navy and the weapons systems and drone platforms it will operate, in large measure due to a single overwhelming threat factor: China.
Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, when explaining the extensive assessments, research and studies which went into developing the plan, specifically indicated that some of the Pentagon’s findings were based on war gaming against the Chinese Navy.
“First, the team examined our current naval forces. Second, they assessed China’s future naval construct. Next, they explored three force options in order to evaluate a variety of platforms for the future flight – fight. They modeled and war gamed these options, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of each combination of ships against different future mission sets,” Esper said to reporters, according to a Pentagon transcript.
Having already grown to more than 350 ships, the Chinese Navy is the largest in the world and expanding at a staggering speed with the regular addition of new amphibs, destroyers and carriers.
By the end of this decade, China is expected to operate as many as 360 to 400 ships, according to the Pentagon’s annual China report which, among other things, catalogues the pace and extent of China’s ambitious military modernization.
Multiple Pentagon reports, including the Pentagon’s annual China report, explained that China is the largest ship-producing nation in the world by tonnage.
China plans to add as many as forty new destroyers in coming years, build a fleet of up to four or five aircraft carriers and exponentially increase its submarine attack potential. A May 2020 Congressional Research Service Report called “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities,” says the PLA Navy may have as many as 400 ships and four aircraft carriers by 2025. The Chinese are already building a third aircraft carrier which appears to be modeled after the U.S. Ford class without a “ski-jump” type of runway.
China’s emerging Type 055 destroyer is also attracting attention from U.S. planners. Interestingly, the ship represents an apparent Chinese effort to build a stealthy destroyer.
The ship does not have large protruding deck masts or many external deck-mounted weapons and appears to have a blended body-bow with a smooth exterior. In some respects, the ship does appear to resemble some elements of the U.S. Navy’s stealthy USS Zumwalt destroyer.
China’s internal ship building apparatus is, according to the Pentagon report, concerning. The text of the document cites the merging of China’s State Shipbuilding Corporation and the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, creating the world’s largest shipbuilder.
“China domestically produces its naval gas turbine and diesel engines, as well as almost all shipboard weapons and electronic systems, making it nearly self-sufficient for all shipbuilding needs,” the Pentagon China report states.
All of these realities, which informed the extensive U.S.-China wargaming initiative, contributed to the Pentagon’s wish to build a 500 ship Navy.
However, the Chinese do not in any way appear to be slowing down any time soon, meaning it may not be possible for the U.S. to catch the Chinese in terms of sheer Naval size. When it comes to power projection, sensor platforms and weapons, nonetheless, the U.S. expects or at least hopes to retain a measure of decisive superiority. Not only will the United States operate eleven or twelve aircraft carriers, but its newer SPY-6 highly sensitive long range radar systems, upgraded Flight III DDG 51 Destroyers and arriving fifth-generation naval aircraft, are expected to help America sustain a maritime edge.
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.