China Builds a Fleet
Don’t want to contend with pirates? Fine and I’m sure they will be glad to hear this, but how does the current navy force structure stand up to the only potential peer adversary out there? Recently leaked on the internet was the Pentagon’s estimate on the size of the Chinese Navy. According to the report the Chinese Fleet is as follows
CHINA’S NAVY TODAY
Diesel attack submarines 53
Nuclear attack submarines 6
Nuclear ballistic missile submarines 3
Amphibious ships 58
Coastal patrol missile boats 80+
No one would rationally argue any Chinese warship is individually as capable for a single American supership, what I call the 5 battleships of carriers, cruisers, destroyers, nuclear submarines, and amphibious ships. However, this composition of forces reveals China understands how to build a Navy from the bottom up, a truly balanced fleet. For instance, she is not above complementing her few nuclear attack boats with conventional subs or large missile ships with low tech coastal combatants to keep ship numbers high.
In contrast, the US Navy is struggling with a “presence deficit” while refusing any compromise on ship quality. Currently the most numerous ship in the fleet is the Arleigh Burke Aegis warship, a $2 billion dollar wonder which is the most powerful class of surface combatants ever devised. To complement this is a “low end” littoral combat ship, except because of the habitual refusal to compromise on requirements, we have seen the cost balloon from $220 million to $700 million for each vessel, underarmed as it is.
Likely within the next decade or two, we will deploy only 240 ships, according to the Navy League. With falling defense budgets because of the National Debt, and the impending mass retirement of Reagan era shipping like the Ticonderoga cruisers, Los Angeles submarines (still the backbone of the undersea fleet), Perry class frigates, plus aging amphibious ships, it is not unthinkable that we end up with a 200 ship Navy in the next 25 years.
The problems are not budgetary. As even Congress admits that with a massive infusion of funds for shipbuilding to $25 billion (now at about $13 billion), you couldn’t reach even the modest goal of 313 ships. Probably this would only stave off further cuts in the DDG-1000 destroyers, the LPD-17 amphibs, and the planned 55 LCS. By all accounts though, each of these are very troubled programs with a dubious future.
The US Navy as currently configured is top heavy with exquisite ships, if you recall the graphic New Wars posted on the subject recently.
The whole thing can be easily toppled by the most minor of asymmetric threats, whether North Korean saber rattling or a pirate hijacking merchant ships. It is mainly good for a single type of conventional combat, despite that we have hardly any peer competitors, or against non-naval powers like Saddam’s Iraq. It’s large “base ships” of carriers and amphibious ships are quite handy for disaster relief as we see in Haiti, howbeit a monstrously expensive answer to this problem. More hospital ships might be better.
Because high end warships are so capable, rationally you could build fewer of them, restoring numbers with low cost alternatives. Large CVN’s can be complemented with light carriers. For every Aegis destroyer, build about 10 1500 ton corvettes or a score of Patrol Craft. For ever one nuclear attack boat, deploy 3-4 conventional powered AIP submarines.
Building smaller, less exquisite vessels in large numbers would return flexibility to the fleet. They are far less costly to operate, in peacetime, as well as less intimidating. They are cheaper to operate since they burn less fuel and require fewer crewmen to deploy. They can react to a multitude of threats, especially in coastal waters which we find off the Gulf of Aden, off Haiti, or even in the Taiwan Straits.
Even without the global commitments of the US Navy, China sees the need for a large fleet of combatants, which can react to many threats. Instead of deploying a Navy geared to a single type of conventional combat we are used to, perhaps we should build many smaller ships, less susceptible to a surprise attack and destruction piecemeal. It would be more threats-based than one in which we only build for the type of conflict we want to fight. When has that ever worked out for the US Military?