China’s President Hu Jintao recently gave a speech stating that, “The navy force should be strengthened and modernized... to serve the country and its people more effectively.” This doesn’t quite have the symbolic or real world impact of “a fleet second to none” or “a place in the sun” but it also isn’t something we can blithely ignore. Even though China will not be able to challenge the US and Japan on the seas for some time, they are preparing for that day. They are building modern ships, submarines, and power projection capabilities at a decent rate. This buildup will soon place China third in the world in modern and semi-modern vessels (2005: China-25 ships/19 subs, US-123/52, Japan-44/16, Russia-27/36 poorly maintained, UK-27/9, France-18/6, and India-17/13). This naval expansion is nothing new or evil. The Franco-English and Anglo-German naval races of years past were very similar in many respects. The players have changed but the game is the same. A new great power arises and discovers that a first-class great power requires a powerful fleet to protect its security. This powerful fleet invariably threatens the security of already existing great powers. At this point one of 4 things happen (example naval race from history, my guesstimate of it happening today):
1) Current great power accepts the hit to its security and gives up (Anglo-US, possible but not likely I would think/hope),
2) New great power does the same and gives up (US-USSR, not happening),
3) New great power doesn’t want to wait the 30 or so years it takes to build a powerful fleet, so they develop “risk theories” that they think allows them to mount an early challenge the current great power with the superior fleet (Anglo-German & US-Japan, most likely given China's actions and moves).
4) New great power does wait 30 years while it builds up its fleet (Anglo-Dutch, China's best choice, depends on if Beijing can hold off on Taiwan for the next 20 years, given that and the fact that this is somewhat rare historically I don't think it's too likely but we'll see).
It is very easy to dismiss China’s naval growth, as the Chinese would like us to, because it pales in comparison to the strength of the mighty US Navy. Also, there is the excellent Japanese navy to consider. However, China’s naval buildup should be closely observed and if need be countered for two reasons. Firstly China doesn’t need to match the American and Japanese navies ship for ship and crew for crew. China, like von Tirpitz’s Germany, understands that all they need to do is raise the risk of confronting China to an unacceptable level for us and Japan. This only requires close approximation and not full parity or superiority between the Chinese navy and the US Pacific Fleet and Japanese navy. The second reason follows from the fact that it will be the US Pacific Fleet and not the US Navy as China’s opponent. What this means is that while China’s entire navy will be used in a conflict, we will only be able to send a portion of ours due to global commitments and distance from our main ports. Unless we increase the size of our fleet we will have to steadily weaken ourselves elsewhere to provide the margin we need against China. Unfortunately, with the exception of India in the Indian Ocean, there are not many good nations to take our place in their region if we withdraw. Britain was forced to withdraw from the Americas and East Asia to deal with Germany in 1914. She at least was able to hand power over to like-minded countries. Although even with like-minded countries this would turn out badly for Britain since Japan turned violent with the Royal Navy absent.
The overall growth of the Chinese surface fleet does not at first glance look impressive. Its total strength is expected to grow from 19 destroyers and 40 frigates in 2000 to 28 destroyers and 42 frigates in 2015. However, all but one of the ships in 2000 was obsolescent and most would have been little more than target hulks for the US Navy in the event of a conflict. By 2005 China’s count of modern ships had grown to 6 destroyers and 2 frigates. This is expected to grow to 14 destroyers and 8 frigates by 2015. At the same time China is adding semi-modern vessels that could still pack a punch when paired with modern ships. This intermediate category will likely grow from 2 destroyers and 6 frigates to 3 destroyers and 14 frigates in 2015. At some point, globalsecurity.org says 2010 but others say after 2020, the Chinese fleet will receive its first aircraft carrier. It’s expected to be about half the size of a US carrier at around 48,000 tons displacement and 24 fighters. These estimates are from before Hintao’s speech calling for more navy funding so the real figures will likely be higher.
More critical to China’s ability to simply damage the US Navy severely enough that we won’t challenge them are submarines. In 2000, China actually possessed more attack subs than the US, though again most were obsolete (Chinese copies of Soviet copies of German WWII designs). Of China’s 64 attack subs in 2000, 5 were semi-modern nuclear attack subs (the Han-class) and 5 were modern conventional attack subs (Kilo-class and a Song-class). In 2005 China had 1 modern and 5 semi-modern nuclear attack subs, and 13 modern conventional attack subs. According to older estimates these numbers should be 6 modern and 5 semi-modern nuclear attack subs, and 29 modern conventional attack subs in 2015. The growth of the modern conventional attack sub force is perhaps the most worrisome aspect for the US Navy. Modern conventional attack subs are extraordinarily difficult to find and track. Japanese, Australian, and Swedish conventional subs regularly manage to get within strike distance of a US carrier in wargames without being discovered. Any thoughts that this was a feat that only well trained crews in the most advanced subs could perform were dispelled a few months ago when a Chinese sub trailed a US carrier from 5 miles away without being noticed. The fact that this incident took place near Okinawa further shows the greater ranges at which the Chinese sub force is capable of operating.
The Chinese are not focusing on glamorous new ships and subs while neglecting the more mundane aspects of naval power projection. Their amphibious fleet has undergone a radical improvement in its capabilities. Prior to 2000 most of China’s amphibious vessels were WWII American designs. The 26 large amphibious ships they had in 2000 could carry a max load of 15,600 soldiers (although they would carry less than that depending on the supplies they would need to take with them). In 2005 this has expanded to 33 ships with a 21,600 soldier capacity and will be at least 52 ships and 31,200 soldier capacity by 2015. No fleet can operate far from home without underway replenishment vessels accompanying them. This area of the Chinese navy will see its 2000 total of 3 ships and 34,200 tons of cargo capacity grow to 5 ships with a cargo capacity of 57,000 tons in the near future. There don’t appear to be any further plans for expansion beyond that, but again these are only estimates and something like a cargo vessel could be ordered up fairly quickly. Officially, this side of the navy modernization is chalked up to Taiwan. The ships are only needed to move soldiers and supplies for operations against the Taiwanese “separatists”. It shouldn’t take much mental power to realize that those ships will be just as capable of moving soldiers and supplies to other places.
Barring any disruptions from the Democrats gaining control of Congress, the US Navy is projected to grow from 123 ships and 52 subs to 161 ships and 50 subs. Due to our other global commitments it’ll be difficult to send more than half of our fleet to the western Pacific unless we wished to invite more trouble by reducing those commitments. Adding in the Japanese Navy, this would yield a force of approximately 100 ships and 40 subs today and 110 ships and 40 subs in 2015. Impressively larger that may be, but the ratio of ships will decline from 4:1 to 2.75:1 and of subs from 2:1 to 1:1. It has to be noted though that 22 of these new US ships are the smaller and less capable Littoral Combat Ships. Since the final design of the LCS hasn’t been determined yet, it’s difficult at this time to say if they would have much use against China. At the moment it would seem that they wouldn’t since they are mainly for operations in shallow waters against less capable countries like Iran or North Korea; but who knows until the design and procurement schedules are finalized. The effect of the US Navy’s 12 aircraft carriers is also somewhat difficult to gauge. On the one hand each has more theoretical firepower than just about any navy on the planet. On the other their anti-submarine capabilities are not proportional to their greater firepower and their prohibitive cost would likely cause them to see more limited usage than is normal (especially in light of the sub part). Exactly how much this would limit their tremendous firepower can only be known when the war happens.
Not to sound like a broken record, but the Chinese fleet is not going to be a force that can clear the oceans of US Navy ships anytime soon. The trouble is that it could still pose a major threat to the US Navy and the Pax Americana even in a smaller state. The problem is that the Chinese are not preparing for a stand up fight, and we would likely shirk from one anyways (their preferred result). Unlike Germany in their naval race, the Chinese understand that their sub force is their major threat. Admittedly, it will be much more difficult in war-time for a Chinese sub to get within 5 miles of a US carrier than it was last October. However, in less than a decade China will have at least 40 subs trying to do just that, not just one. The US Navy has been trying to develop new tactics to counter the new super-quiet conventional subs, but we of course don’t know if the Navy is having any success (a potentially hostile sub being able to shadow a carrier until the sub chose to reveal itself doesn't exactly inspire confidence).
These Chinese subs would be looking for one of the 4-8 carriers we send to the western Pacific. The more carriers we send does increase the odds of Chinese subs being found, but it would likely increase the odds of a carrier being sunk even more. With only a couple dozen each of subs and ships free the US Navy will be hard pressed to search the sea lanes across the breadth of the Pacific for them. Like the dreadnaughts of WWI, modern supercarriers are so prohibitively expensive and imbued with so much national pride that the loss of one would be a tremendous blow to America. Losing 2 or 3 would simply have unthinkable consequences to America’s position in the world.
The Chinese surface fleet would have its opportunities to do damage as well. While America’s carriers, along with around 30-50 escort ships, are desperately trying to avoid Chinese subs hundreds and maybe thousands of miles east of Taiwan, the surface ships of the Chinese navy would be well positioned for rapid sorties against smaller American/Japanese task forces. In this way they would play a role similar to Germany's Battlecruiser Squadron during WWI. The goal would be to sink enough American ships that we give up, regardless of how many ships and subs China loses. China also has various “assassins’ mace” weapons that they hope will be able to exploit weaknesses in the US Navy’s capabilities. These include weapons like lasers, anti-satellite devices, ballistic missiles capable of hitting a moving target, and so forth. What impact they would have is unknown. At the very least they would add to the US Navy’s worries and force the carriers to operate in an even more limited capacity. Most importantly is if the Chinese think these weapons will be tremendously effective. That’s all the more reason for them to create a situation where they could be.
However, this is not the scenario the Chinese wish to occur. Rather it is the scenario they hope America so fears that she won’t even dare to challenge them. Germany wagered in 1914 that Britain would rather keep her dreadnaughts and thus her empire than risk both to stop Germany’s goals in Europe, they were wrong. China is wagering that America would rather keep her supercarriers and maintain her position in the rest of the world than stop China’s moves in East Asia, I wish I could say they are wrong. However, the buckling of American resolve in Iraq under 3,000 dead in almost 4 years does not offer hope. How quickly will Americans be demanding and end to conflict and the return of cheap toys and kitchen appliances when 3,000 sailors go down with a carrier? America and Japan cannot rest easy even if the Chinese are not megalomaniacally willing to risk their small fleet by starting a war whose success depends on weak American resolve. Longer-term this initial fleet is providing China with industrial and military know-how that is necessary to build and operate a large fleet along with the experience they will require to actually fight the far more experienced US Navy. With their growing economy, ship building industry, and cadre of trained sailors, it would not be difficult for China to launch into a sudden massive shipbuilding program in the near future.
Either way, this is a development that should be closely watched and replied to by both the United States and Japan. Chinese protestations aside, it is not their declared intentions but their capabilities and our interests on which we must base our own policies. Aircraft carriers, underway replenishment ships, and vast numbers of modern conventional attack subs are not needed to conquer Taiwan, they are needed to fight the US and Japanese navies. At the least, they are preparing the capability to fight us, we must make sure we maintain and if need be expand ours.
Note: I consider a modern warship to be one with a) anti-aircraft capabilities beyond 10 miles, b) a close in weapons system to defend against missiles, c) either less than 20 years old or extensively upgraded in the last 20 years, d) capability in more than 2 areas (anti-air, anti-surface, anti-sub, and land attack). A semi-modern ship would be one that has at least 2 of the above. Subs are a little more difficult, but aside from the Chinese Han-class I consider the rest modern. The Han-class isn’t only because it’s a very noisy sub even by nuclear standards. The conventional subs show a clear break between older and modern designs in capability (as witnessed by the aforementioned Chinese Song-class exploit) so they are either counted or not.