A nuclear-powered submarine of the People's Liberation Army Navy's North Sea Fleet. Photo: AFP
A nuclear-powered submarine of the People's Liberation Army Navy's North Sea Fleet. Photo: AFP

In the near future, could the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Navy out-number and outgun the US Navy? According to informed sources, it is not only possible, it is likely within 15 years.

An essay written by Boston College Political Science Professor Robert Ross, an expert on Chinese defense and security policy, appeared in the influential Lawfare blog on November 18. Entitled “The End of US Naval Dominance in Asia,” it warns that at current rates of spending, the days of the US Navy’s position as the world’s dominant sea force are numbered.

PLA set to take the lead

“The rapid rise of the Chinese Navy has challenged US maritime dominance throughout East Asian waters,” Ross writes. “The US, though, has not been able to fund a robust shipbuilding plan that could maintain the regional security order and compete effectively with China’s naval build-up.

“The resulting transformation of the balance of power has led to fundamental changes in US acquisitions and defense strategy. Nonetheless, the US has yet to come to terms with its diminished influence in East Asia.”

Ross provides ample evidence that China is well on its way to deploying a naval fleet that will not only be larger than that of the US, but increasingly more modern. From 2017 to 2018, for example, as China’s Navy grew from 328 to 350 ships, more than 70% were of the latest designs – up from 50% in 2010, based on a RAND Corp study.

“China is the largest ship-producing country in the world and at current production rates could soon operate 400 (naval) ships. It commissions nearly three submarines each year, and in two years will have more than 70 in its fleet. The Chinese Navy also operates growing numbers of cruisers, destroyers, frigates and corvettes, all equipped with long-range anti-ship cruise missiles.

“Between 2013 and 2016, China commissioned more than 30 modern corvettes. At current rates, China could have 430 surface ships and 100 submarines within the next 15 years,” Ross writes.

Ross asserts that while the US Navy now retains maritime superiority throughout East Asia, “the trend is what matters and the trend is less rosy.” The numbers are stark: In 12 years, the active US naval fleet will decline to 237 ships and in six years, the US submarine fleet will decline to 48 boats, according to Ross’ data.

“Both the navy and the White House have pushed to grow the US fleet, but budgets have not kept pace with their plans,” Ross writes. “In 2015, the navy planned to increase the fleet to 308 ships by 2022, and the Trump administration plans a 355-ship navy. To reach 308 ships, the navy will have to spend 36% more than the average shipbuilding budget over the past 30 years, requiring a one-third increase in its current budget.”

If funding continues at the same average maintained for the last three decades, the US Navy will likely purchase 75 fewer ships than planned over the next three decades. To reach a fleet of 355 ships, the navy will need a budget 80% higher than the average shipbuilding budget over the past 30 years, and approximately 50% more than the average budget of the past six years, Ross found.

“Reallocation of the federal budget to support ship construction is not likely,” he writes.

Asian allies start to wobble

Ross addresses the consequences of the US Navy’s increasing reluctance or inability to address the situation it faces, noting that a strain on relationships with traditional allies in East and Southeast Asia is becoming more apparent.

“Developments in the maritime balance have weakened the confidence of East Asian countries in the ability of the United States to fulfill its security commitments and they are improving security cooperation with China,” says Ross.

“South Korea recently reached an agreement with China to limit missile-defense cooperation with the US and security cooperation with the US-Japan alliance.”

Seoul’s steps were taken in an effort to calm Beijing’s fury over the deployment of a Theater High-Altitude Terminal Air Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea.

South Korea has also “moved ahead with cooperation with North Korea, with Chinese support and despite US opposition,” Ross writes.

In the last month, it has become clear that while Seoul wants Washington to accelerate its pace of engagement with Pyongyang, Washington wants Seoul to slow down.

Elsewhere, there have been signs of growing insecurity among America’s ASEAN partners.

“The Philippines has reduced the scale of its defense cooperation with the United States and improved security ties with China. Beijing now constrains Vietnamese defense cooperation with the US, as well. And China and Malaysia have begun joint military exercises and Malaysia has not supported US policy on Chinese claims in the South China Sea,” writes Ross.

“Most recently, China and ASEAN have conducted their first joint naval exercise. The US enjoys continued robust defense cooperation with all of these countries. But, as is the case with the maritime balance, it is the trend that matters and the trend is not good for US security.”

In November 2018, “the [US] Navy carried out its largest-ever exercise with Japan,” Ross says, and goes on to add a cautionary note: “But increased up-tempo US naval presence in East Asia without the requisite underlying naval capabilities to contend with China’s rise will neither constrain China’s naval activism nor reassure US Allies.”

Meanwhile, construction of China’s third aircraft carrier is underway, and unmanned radar and optical monitoring stations are beginning to appear at China-controlled sites in the South China Sea.

China’s top-tier naval assets

Amid opacity about PLA Naval assets and capabilities, concerned players are keeping an eye on using increasingly sophisticated platforms.

For example, Catherine Dill of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, was recently interviewed by Defense One. In the interview, she noted the remarkably “high cadence” of Planet Labs satellite imagery, which provided her team with “244 days of exploitable imagery to monitor from July 2017 to November 2018” alone.

Her comments surfaced as a broader debate gets underway concerning not only the actual number of Chinese nuclear submarines – both under development and operational – but the extent to which China now possesses “a credible sea-based deterrent.”

Defense One concluded that only two – or half of – China’s fleet of four nuclear-armed SSBNs (Ship, Submersible, Ballistic, Nuclear) appear to be operational. This places Defense One and other like-minded organizations at odds with both the Defense Department’s 2018 China Military Report and CSIS’s China Power group, which stated that China had all four nuclear-armed submarines in operation.

These disagreements are indicative of the lack of clarity over the capabilities of the Chinese Navy. Ross has combined what is now known about the PLA Navy with the challenges the US Navy will face in the near future. For advocates and dependents of US dominance over the world’s oceans, it may make for grim reading.

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