USN vs PLAN: Should we worry?

Some recent news articles have reported that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the Chinese naval service, has begun a program to build up its forces. For the United States, this seems to be a very real problem. China keeps the exact numbers and goals of its Navy a close secret, so numbers in this article may be a bit off, but a report from the Congressional Research Service has stated that the Chinese have a force of around 360 battle force ships, compared to the 297 of the United States Navy (USN). However, what is a battle force ship? The Naval Vessel Register states, “Battle force ships are commissioned warships capable of contributing to combat operations, or a ship that contributes directly to Navy warfighting or support missions.” Using this definition, the report to Congress counts everything from an aircraft carrier, to a landing ship, to a small missile boat to be part of that 360 ships of the PLAN. This puts the USN with a power advantage over the PLAN, as America’s 297, as they are written on the list of commissioned ships, are tried and true, high quality warships; carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines manned by the best trained and most experienced crews in the world. The United States has 90 additional ships on order or currently under construction, with a goal of reaching 355 ships. This is not to say that Chinese ships are weak, poorly crewed, or not a threat. The fact remains that China is building many new and powerful warships, and they are catching up to the United States. 

China possesses 2 fleet aircraft carriers, 38 destroyers, 115 small surface combatants, and 79 submarines, among other support or smaller combat craft, including 1 light aircraft carrier. The United States, on the other hand, possesses 11 nuclear powered fleet carriers, 68 destroyers, 21 cruisers, 59 small surface combatants, and 68 submarines, with their own types of the aforementioned ships that China has, including 9 light aircraft carriers which are officially Helicopter Assault Ships. A fleet carrier is what is typically thought of when one thinks of an aircraft carrier. Big, deadly, and carrying lots of planes. A light carrier is somewhat smaller, and carries a less diverse airgroup. Destroyers are the workhorses of the Navy. Coming in at just over 500 feet in length, a destroyer can fulfill a multitude of missions from escort duty of strike groups, to anti-piracy missions in the Middle East. A Cruiser is a slightly larger warship that carries more weapons than a Destroyer. A Cruiser is traditionally meant for heavier weapon support, as well as acting as a scout for a fleet. However, in today’s Navy, the roles of Cruisers and Destroyers are quite similar.

Chinese ships are on average newer than American ones, with an average hull age of 11 years to the US’s 18 years. The most common Chinese destroyer is very similar to American ones, with a slight range advantage. Some of their internal systems may also be more modern, and some Chinese surface ships carry more weapons than US ships. However, American ships have different variants for different mission types, and US equipment and weapons are often of higher quality than their Chinese counterparts. In terms of surface combat ships, the USN and PLAN are evenly matched. 

The US carrier program is much further ahead than the Chinese one. US ships are better, and so are their air crews. Of China’s two carriers, one was an old Soviet model bought from Russia, and the other is almost an exact copy, although it was built by China. Chinese carriers are powered by diesel, which limits their sailing range and power outputs for future technological developments. American carriers are powered by extraordinarily powerful nuclear reactors, giving them an unlimited range and the potential for the addition of new technologies in the near future, such as directed energy weapons. Chinese carriers also use a ski-ramp method to launch their aircraft. This means that a plane starts at the back of the ship, accelerates down the deck, and then launches off the front ramp to get into the air, like an Olympic ski jumper. This launch method limits the amount of fuel and weaponry a Chinese strike fighter can carry. US (and French) carriers use a catapult system to launch aircraft. A plane is hooked onto a launcher in the front of a carrier, and then accelerated up to takeoff speed in just a few seconds. This allows US planes to carry more fuel and more weapons than a Chinese plane, as well as launch faster than their Chinese counterparts. US pilots are also better trained with experience gained from long operated carrier programs, from World War Two to the Cold War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. China, on the other hand, has to make up their training program as they go. This has cost China a lot of money, and the lives of some of their pilots. Based on prevailing methods and technologies in the aircraft carrier sector, China has plans to build new flat top carriers, the Type 003. This carrier will use a catapult system to launch planes, giving them a range and weapons boost. However, the Type 003 will still be conventionally powered, limiting its operational range. At the moment, the US holds the advantage in the Naval Aviation competition. 

In a modern Navy with hypersonic missiles, computerized weapons systems, and stealth aircraft, large surface combatants seem to be losing some of their prevalence though they can never be replaced. The United States is far beyond every other country in the world when it comes to Submarine technology. Even though China has 11 more submarines than the US, some of them are diesel powered, which limits their range as well as their operational and stealth capabilities. By contrast, every single US Submarine carries a powerful nuclear reactor, allowing it to stay submerged nigh indefinitely, if food for the crew was not an issue. Chinese submarines have been described as easy to detect as they “sound like they are pounding a drum or bell.” US Submarines are silent and deadly predators in the oceans. The USS Seawolf, the first of three, can make 25 knots (29 mph) when submerged while completely silent. Most, if not all other submarines cannot make more than 10 knots without making too much noise and giving away their position. The United States is also pouring billions of dollars into programs to design and build new submarines, like the new Ballistic Missile Submarines, the Columbia class. It has been said that the USA is perhaps two or three decades ahead of China and Russia in submarine technology. Submarines are the future of ocean-going navies, and the USA has a clear advantage over everyone.

Chinese ships are newer, and so are their crews. China neglected their Navy for hundreds of years under various ruling dynasties, from the Ming to the early CCP. The United States, on the other hand, has a long maritime tradition. Being surrounded by oceans, the US has had to maintain strong ocean going ships for both trade and for war. From European tall ships to modern steel behemoths, America has always had a large number of people going out on the ocean in ships. This has led to the US having a healthy group of experienced sailors and officers. This is a stark opposition to China, with fewer experienced sailors and traditions. The Chinese Navy has not been continuously sending out ships on patrols across the world like the US has for well over 100 years. US ships routinely operate far from shore, and have experience conducting operations on the high seas, whereas China has to learn these lessons on their own, and create their own programs and procedures. 

Another advantage the United States holds over China is its large number of overseas bases. The US Navy has several bases is foreign countries, and ships regularly make calls in foreign ports from Melbourne to Halifax. China, by contrast, has one foreign base in Djibouti. One base in particular that the Chinese detest is the US 7th Fleet, stationed in Yokosuka, Japan. The 7th fleet, the largest of all US fleets with over 20,000 Sailors and Marines, routinely sends ships into the South China Sea and other bodies of water that China claims it owns. This practice upsets Beijing, and reminds them that the US Navy is still a force to be reckoned with, and is devoted to its mission to “defend freedom, preserve economic prosperity, and keep the seas open and free.”

While the People’s Liberation Army Navy does have more ships that are newer than those in the United States Navy, the USN is very much the world’s premiere naval force. However, China is rapidly building new ships and is catching up with the United States. If the US wants to assure continued dominance and ensure a free and peaceful world it must continue to build up its Navy, and invest in new technologies and relationships, like the recent deal with Australia and the United Kingdom. For the time being, China has the potential to be a large threat, but it has not yet reached that point. Isolationist ideologies, that seem to be gaining popularity in this country, are a threat to the security of the US, Asia, and the world as a whole. Ignoring a problem does not make it go away. A hegemonic power in Asia, like China, will eventually become a problem for the United States, regardless of whether or not we pay attention to it, not unlike Japan in World War Two. One additional point to consider is the use of Artificial Intelligence. Some members of the Department of Defense have said that whoever leads in AI by 2030 will rule the waves. But as 2030 approaches there have yet to be large advances in military AI that are known to the public. The Naval Academy recently added a new building on their campus, Hopper Hall. It is the new Computer Science building, so perhaps this may signal a new cyber based prerogative for the Navy. This is not the time for budget cuts. The United States of America and her allies must continue to be ready, to be vigilant, and to keep a watchful eye on the far corners of the world. 


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