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06/05/2024 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 06/05/2024 13:19

Unpacking China’s Naval Buildup

Unpacking China's Naval Buildup

Photo: VCG/VCG/Getty Images

Commentary by Alexander Palmer, Henry Carroll, andNicholas Velazquez

Published June 5, 2024

China's rapid military buildup has left the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) poised to overtake the U.S. Navy in several measures of maritime might more quickly than sometimes assumed. If China continues to expand its fleet at the current pace and the United States does not revitalize its shipbuilding industry, China will grow increasingly likely to emerge victorious from interstate war, especially a prolonged great power war. The result is a China that will grow more confident projecting power, threatening its less powerful neighbors, and disregarding U.S. efforts to deter such behavior.

The decline of U.S. naval dominance will be difficult to reverse. The process has spanned decades and rests on slow-moving economic and industrial trends. But the United States can still maintain superiority by investing in smaller surface combatants like corvettes, frigates, and unmanned naval systems paired with alternative platforms like aircraft or ground-based missile launchers; deepening its partnerships with Pacific nations like Japan and South Korea; and investing more in its domestic shipbuilding industry-particularly the highly specialized submarine industrial base.

China Has the World's Largest Navy

Remote Visualization

China now possesses the world's largest maritime fighting force, operating 234 warships to the U.S. Navy's 219. This count of China's fighting ships encompasses all of its known, active-duty manned, missile- or torpedo-armed ships or submarines displacing more than 1,000 metric tons, including the 22 missile-armed corvettes recently transferred to the China Coast Guard but not the approximately 80 missile-armed small patrol craft operated by the PLAN. The oft-cited count of about 290 U.S. Navy "battle force ships" includes combat logistics and support vessels, of which the U.S. Navy has 126, including those under the Military Sealift Command, and the PLAN 167, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Such preponderance provides an important wartime advantage: one recent study concluded that larger fleets won 25 out of 28 historical wars. Like those historical combatants, China has the numbers to absorb more losses than the United States and keep fighting. In one recent set of wargames, China lost 52 major surface warships compared to between 7 and 20 U.S. equivalents. Even after such catastrophic losses, China still had more surface warships than the United States and was able to continue the naval battle.

The United States continues to hold an advantage in guided missile cruisers and destroyers. Destroyers in particular serve as the backbone of any modern fleet due to their multi-mission capabilities, speed, and cruising range. The United States' 73 destroyers allow it to exert sea control and project power to a greater extent than do the PLAN's 42 destroyers. But China is closing the gap, having doubled its destroyer fleet from 20 in 2003 to 42 in 2023. The PLAN operates 23 destroyers launched in the past 10 years compared with 11 operational U.S. destroyers. China has also launched eight cruisers since 2017, while the United States has not launched a new cruiser since 2016.

The U.S. preponderance of cruisers and destroyers may also be a distraction from the Chinese advantage in frigates and corvettes. These smaller ships played a key role in World War II, in which they served as convoy escorts, fleet protection vessels, and radar picket ships. In a modern conflict, they might serve similar roles, fight enemy ships in the Indo-Pacific's littoral waters, or perform other missions that naval strategists have not yet foreseen. The U.S. Navy appears to recognize that it might be overinvested in larger cruisers and destroyers: statements by senior U.S. Navy personnel have emphasized the need to rapidly increase frigate production. Both the United States and China are also seeking to develop armed naval surface and underwater systems smaller than China's manned corvettes. Smaller ships may not be as powerful as larger ones, but they can be built faster and in greater numbers.

U.S. partners can help overcome China's numerical advantage. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force operates 4 cruisers, 34 destroyers, 10 frigates, and 4 helicopter carriers, two of which will soon be capable of launching and recovering F-35s. The South Korean navy operates 3 cruisers, 6 destroyers, 16 frigates, and 5 corvettes. If either navy fights alongside the United States, the PLAN will lose its numerical advantage. But effectively integrating U.S. and partner forces is difficult, and whether these nations will fight alongside the United States is beyond the control of U.S. defense planners. Solving the problem therefore depends both on strengthening U.S. partnerships and building a larger U.S. Navy.

China's Ships Are Newer and its Shipyards More Productive

Remote Visualization

China's productive advantage is reflected in the relative ages of active Chinese and U.S. ships. About 70 percent of Chinese warships were launched after 2010, while only about 25 percent of the U.S. Navy's were. China's newer ships are not necessarily superior, although the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence assessed in 2020 that China's ships were increasingly of comparable quality to U.S. ships.

Chinese ship production dwarfs that of the United States. The Office of Naval Intelligence assessment noted that China has "dozens" of commercial shipyards larger and more productive than the largest U.S. shipyards, and an unclassified U.S. Navy briefing slide suggested that China has 230 times the shipbuilding capacity of the United States. China's massive shipbuilding industry would provide a strategic advantage in a war that stretches beyond a few weeks, allowing it to repair damaged vessels or construct replacements much faster than the United States, which continues to face a significant maintenance backlog and would probably be unable to quickly construct many new ships or to repair damaged fighting ships in a great power conflict.

The United States probably faces insurmountable obstacles to meaningful increases in shipbuilding in the coming decade, but it might be able to reduce China's advantage through its relationships with Japan and South Korea. These U.S. partners accounted for 26 and 14 percent of global ship deliveries in 2023, respectively. The U.S. Navy plans to repair ships at international shipyards in 2025 on a trial basis, which could reduce the maintenance backlog, but actually constructing U.S. ships using foreign shipbuilders is unlikely due to U.S. legal restrictions. The only long-term answer is probably an industrial strategy that supports the broader U.S. shipbuilding sector for decades.

This enormous shipbuilding capacity means that PLAN expansion will remain a feature of U.S.-China strategic competition as long as the Chinese economic and personnel systems can support it-and the Chinese Communist Party leadership deems it important. How big the PLAN will grow is unknown: unlike the United States, China does not publish its shipbuilding plans. U.S. defense planners should assume that the PLAN will continue to grow-potentially at an accelerating pace-in number, ship size, and firepower. The challenge faced by the U.S. Navy and the maritime forces of like-minded nations is only beginning.

The PLAN Could Surpass U.S. Navy Firepower by 2027

Remote Visualization

Raw numbers are only one component of combat power, the destructive or disruptive force that a military can bring to bear on the battlefield. Although the U.S. Navy retains many advantages, the PLAN is on track to surpass the U.S. Navy in an important measure of naval power: the total number of vertical launch system (VLS) cells, advanced missile launchers that allow ships to fire projectiles ranging from anti-ship to land-attack to air defense missiles. The U.S. Navy currently has about 9,900 VLS cells spread across its surface combatants and submarines, while the PLAN only has about 4,200. This means that the U.S. Navy can fire more missiles than the PLAN in an average salvo, although the PLAN also operates 152 warships armed only with traditional missile or torpedo launchers (in addition to its roughly 80 missile-armed patrol craft) compared with the U.S. Navy's 81 such ships.

But China is on pace to catch up within the next few years. U.S. ships had 222 times as many launchers in 2004 and now have fewer than three times as many. If the current trend continues, China will have more launchers than the U.S. Navy by 2027. This means that China's navy will be able to fire more of the advanced missiles that allow it to deliver precision strikes against ships or onto land and to defend itself against enemy missiles or aircraft.

Building more VLS-equipped ships is not the only way to deliver firepower at sea. Ground-basedlaunchers, aircraft, and unmannedsystems will all play a role in any war between the United States and China. The United States can therefore increase its firepower by investing further in autonomous systems, increasing its ground-based force structure in key areas, and making its air assets more survivable. Solving the difficult technical problems associated with reloading VLS cells at sea could also go a long way toward maintaining a U.S. firepower advantage by potentially adding the equivalent of 2,016 VLS cells to the fleet, effectively increasing its VLS firepower by 20 percent. Finally, the United States can invest more in high-quality missiles like long-range anti-ship missiles or Maritime Strike Tomahawks and hypersonic technology to seize a qualitative edge and limit the Chinese advantage in magazine depth.

The U.S. Surface Fleet May Depend Too Much on Aircraft Carriers

Remote Visualization

Some analysts argue that China's numerical advantages are literally outweighed by the U.S. Navy's much larger ships. Because bigger ships can move farther and carry more weapons and support systems than smaller ships, the U.S. Navy's advantage in displacement suggests that China still trails the United States in its ability to fight at sea.

The extent of the U.S. advantage depends greatly on the utility of aircraft carriers in a naval conflict. U.S. aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships (some of which can serve as "mini-carriers") account for about 90 percent of the displacement gap. But carriers' utility in a navy-on-navy fight is hotlydebated. If carriers turn out to be of limited value for modern naval warfare, much of the U.S. displacement advantage disappears, and recent rates of expansion suggest that China can probably surpass the United States in aggregate displacement of cruisers, destroyers, and frigates in less than ten years.

The U.S. displacement advantage will translate into a combat advantage as long as carriers and naval airpower remain dominant at sea. Even if naval airpower is supplanted by missile power, the U.S. carrier and amphibious assault fleet will remain useful: U.S. carrier doctrine will likely evolve as lessons are learned from combat, although failure to adapt can be fatal. Carriers and amphibious assault ships will also remain central to projecting power ashore and vital for coercive or deterrent diplomacy. But uncertainty about the role of carriers in modern naval combat and the relative need for power projection ashore suggests that in a conflict with China the U.S. Navy could turn out to be less than the sum of its tons.

U.S. Submarines Still Reign Supreme

Remote Visualization

Submarine capabilities remain an area of unquestioned U.S. dominance. The United States operates 66 nuclear submarines compared with China's 12. Large nuclear submarines are much more capable than diesel-electric submarines, operating with far greater range, stealth, and offensive power. U.S. submarines also have a combined 1,168 VLS cells between them, while PLAN submarines have no confirmed VLS cells, although variousexpertsproject that China will produce submarines with VLS cells in the near future.

China's subsurface fleet is unlikely to quickly catch up to that of the United States because the United States has a massive head start in submarine production, not because the United States has an enduring technological or production advantage. China's submarine technology is rapidly improving, and its submarine production capacity is growing. A 2023 Department of Defense report anticipates China growing its submarine force to 80 units by 2035 while retiring older systems, a remarkable level of production, even if the majority are not nuclear powered. Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) has also been a priority for the PLAN, which is improving its ASW doctrine and assets, although the pace of improvement seems to lag behind that of its surface warfare capability.

Maintaining its subsurface advantage is vital for the United States. Open source wargaming and strategic analysis suggest that U.S. submarines might be called on to play a decisive role in war with China. The United States' two submarine shipyards are straining to produce even the two Virginia-class submarines needed to maintain (and eventually increase) the size of the subsurface fleet. Efforts to increase construction capacity as China begins to catch up to the United States in submarine construction and anti-submarine warfare face significant headwinds, including high materials prices and a lack of workers. It should come as little surprise that the first item on the U.S. Navy's Fiscal Year 2025 Unfunded Priorities List was $403 million for the U.S. submarine industrial base, and the sixth, seventh, and eighth items were all related to submarines or ASW.

The Clock Is Ticking

None of this means that the PLAN will defeat the U.S. Navy in wartime. Wars are too complex for such predictions. The U.S. Navy has vastly more combat experience and time at sea than the PLAN. The United States also has a blue water naval tradition dating back more than two centuries, while the Chinese tradition dates back less than three decades. A war between China and the United States will also be a joint war, meaning that the conflict will engage air, ground, space, and cyber forces. Each country's relative strength in each of these domains will matter, as will strategy, leadership, and luck.

Nor is China guaranteed to overtake the United States as the world's-or even the Pacific's-premiere naval power. Drawing conclusions about longer-term performance from historical data is always uncertain, especially when relying on open source information on an organization as secretive as the PLAN. The United States also has other advantages (and China disadvantages)-like U.S. alliances, economic heft, and soft power-not captured in an analysis of naval hardware.

But the trends are pointing in the wrong direction for the United States. The U.S. Navy faces a growing possibility of defeat at sea for the first time in half a century, and the United States could soon face its first potential contender for maritime dominance since at least the collapse of the Soviet Union. China's naval might is already allowing Beijing to flex its muscles in the Pacific in ways that endanger U.S. allies and undermine stability. If the United States does not halt its relative decline, the world will face a more dangerous and uncertain future.

Alexander Palmer is an associate fellow in the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Henry H. Carroll is a research assistant with the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at CSIS. Nicholas Velazquez is a former research assistant with the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at CSIS.

Special thanks to Lauren Bailey in the CSIS iDeas Lab for visualization support and to Kelsey Hartman for editing and publication support.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2024 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Associate Fellow, Transnational Threats Project
Research Assistant, Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group

Nicholas Velazquez

Former Research Assistant, Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group

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