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China Builds a Fleet

January 21, 2010

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) guided missile destroyer Shenzhen (DDG 167).

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


Diesel attack submarines 53

Nuclear attack submarines 6

Nuclear ballistic missile submarines 3

Destroyers 26

Frigates 48

Amphibious ships 58

Coastal patrol missile boats 80+

Total-274 ships
Total USN-280

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?

16 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2015 3:06 pm

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  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 30, 2010 5:25 am

    The problem with a few large platforms, Kristian, they can only be in a single place at once. For adequate sea control this entails numbers, and since it is unlikely we can ever afford enough billion-dollar warships, there must be some compromise. Except, I don’t think it such a sacrifice to capability, since ships of corvette size and less, are about the size of frigates and destroyers were during WW 2, the last time we fought a war for the safety of the sealanes.

    Concerning motherships, I agree it goes with territory that it may be vulnerable, but no more than a supercarrier, missile destroyer, or giant amphib. These latter vessels which have no business in shallow waters teaming with threats and are far more valuable than a support ship, which can be a converted merchantman or an old landing ship. All ships being vulnerable, there is far less risk than placing extremely valuable high end warships in such waters, something the admirals of the war years would never do except preceded by numerous small warships first.

    Another thought, is the cheap, off the shelf warships are more of a match for the cheap off the shelf motherships and converted fishing boats the pirates use. They defeat us in presence, in that, they can be in more places at once, while our very few high end assets are swamped from over-deployments. Again, no matter how large, how capable, how immaculately equipped, no warship can be in more places than once. So, even though you compromise with capability, numbers and presence evens the score. Capability cannot duplicate availability.

  3. Kristian permalink
    April 29, 2010 8:29 pm

    I can’t really buy into the comparison of the PLAN and USN. PLAN is a regionally focused navy that almost never operates far from it’s home waters. I think you can count the numbers of PLAN deployments outside the very far western Pacific using the fingers on one hand. With such a presence, classes of small ships make sense. Also, while I believe the PLAN is looking more at establishing a blue water presence, it’s legacy fleet is certainly a coastal defense force and most of the numbers in this article reflect legacy fleet rather then new built. I don’t think the composition of their fleet represents the PLAN getting it as much as it represents the logical progression from coastal defense force to blue water operations.

    Further, as much as I buy into the idea of buying less complicated and expensive platforms in order to get the adequate numbers of what ever asset into service (from aircraft to ships to tanks, etc), I do have some questions about the viability of the USN putting large numbers of essentially coastal patrol boats into service. We do not need large numbers of coastal patrol boats to patrol our coast. We need large numbers of ships to patrol sea lanes and other countries coasts as well as provide escort duty. All of these missions require range and endurance. More then just range and endurance of the platform but also the ability to some what comfortably get the crew into theater and keep them comfortable enough on station to perform their duties for an adequate period of time before requiring relief. These ships also need to be able to take a beating because if they are going to be in harms way off some far flung nations shores, they better be able to fend for themselves and stay afloat after taking a hit or we will be looking at either mass casualty or mass POW situation.

    Seems that these necessities require bigger ships plain and simple. The idea of mother ships and smaller roll playing vessels dependant on a mother ship seems like something to persue but you are still putting a lot of eggs in one basket this way as the mother ship is now the weak link in the chain. Relying on foreign stations to base our small patrol craft close to the action doesn’t seem like a realistic answer in many cases. In order for that to work, you first have to be able to predict where your forces will be needed in the future and second secure friendly nations hosting and logistical support. As we see in Europe or Central Asia, just because you have secured hosting now, doesnt mean you will have it when you need it or to support all types of operations against all threats. Third, you have to provide forces to secure this base which is not an efficient use of assets.

    My idea for part of a solution? How about we throw a couple of M80s inside a LPD? They are roughly the same size as a LCAC and have essentially no draft. They have their own parasitic RHIBs for boarding parties and such. LPDs such as the San Antonio Class support aviation assets as well and can support a large command and control operation. They have sufficient range and accomodations as well as other useful facilities such as onboard hospitals, etc. And they can defend themselves from many threats and with the addition of an escort destroyer defend themselves from most anything. Instant influence squadron. They are ridiculously priced and have their own issues but to me something such as them seem a more logical answer for the USN then a large number of short ranged boats.

  4. Joe permalink
    January 22, 2010 9:19 am

    Everything is fair in love, war, and Pentagon procurement battles.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 22, 2010 4:44 am

    Good point Jerry. Interesting how it was “accidentally” leaked so close to the upcoming QDR discussion. And apparently the Chinese see 300 ships (or 274) just as a starting point for building her fleet, since she is still mostly a coast-bound navy. Meanwhile, we seemed resigned to this number, despite our global responsibilities.

  6. Jerry Hendrix permalink
    January 21, 2010 10:23 pm

    I find it interesting that a Pentagon estimate of the size of the Chinese Navy, including coastal patrol vessels, to be at 274 vessesl, and then compares it to the United States Navy, which it says is at 280 vessels, a number that does not include coastal patrol or HSV platforms (a 1980 rule does not allow non-self-deploying vessels to count towards our official ship count). So, in the end this is an apples and oranges comparison to frighten the Congress and the public into building more high end platforms to offset Chinese low end platforms. So if we began counting our PCs (and for that matter our Coast Guard cutters and offshore patrol vessels) our numbers would be well above 315+. However, we will attempt to use this number to justify building more LCS’s at 720 million apiece, rather than building more PCs and other “Influence” craft to offset Chinese capabilities.

  7. January 21, 2010 2:54 pm

    “And because people are more important than platforms, more ships give more junior officers command opportunity earlier in their careers creating a greater pool of potential leaders later. Because not all great peace time officers turn into great wartime officers.”

    This is China we are talking about. Junior officers and senior rates being allowed to show initiative? Never happen. They are trying desperately to make it happen but so far no success whatsoever.

  8. January 21, 2010 2:27 pm


    Mike Burleson said:

    “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.”

    The Chinese appear to be doing the exact opposite of what is suggested here.
    They used to have a very large fleet of small defensive coastal surface vessels.
    These are being replaced by a much smaller number of large multirole frigates and destroyers.
    China used to have large numbers of small defensive coastal submarines.
    These are being replaced by much smaller numbers of large,ocean going nuclear powered attack submarines.
    As the Chinese navy transitions from a defensive coastal force to a multirole ocean going fleet,it is becoming very like the western navies which it emulates.
    In the process it is casting off hundreds of smaller vessels.


  9. Heretic permalink
    January 21, 2010 2:09 pm

    Mike B said:
    Instead of deploying a Navy geared to a single type of conventional combat we are used to…

    I would personally amend that statement to the following:

    “Instead of deploying a Navy geared to a single type of conventional combat we have decided in advance is the only type of combat we want to fight and are so frequently disappointed when opponents fail to fight the way we WANT them to…”

  10. Matthew S. permalink
    January 21, 2010 1:12 pm

    Well, actually according to the 80+ estimate is pretty close to what they have listed for 2008. However, there are unknowns listed which may account for a significant amount of vessels. Those type 62c vessels are small coastal boats more akin to small coast guard cutters that naval warships.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 21, 2010 12:24 pm

    Matt-200? Wow, though can’t say I’m surprised.

  12. Graham Strouse permalink
    January 21, 2010 11:20 am

    I sometimes suspect that America’s leading military minds all went to see “Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace” and
    1) collectively failed to realize the movie sucked while
    2) concluding from the movie that pissing away American treasure onb combating our own phantom menaces would be a fine and dandy policy to follow.

    I also suspect that they all have life-sized Jar-Jar Binks blow-up sex dolls. I haven’t been able to prove this one yet but I’m working on it…

  13. Matthew S. permalink
    January 21, 2010 11:02 am

    Impressive fleet they have built. I’m actually surprised they only list 80+ for coastal patrol missile boats. I’m thinking they may have over 200 from other sources Ive seen. Maybe they are held in reserve.

  14. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 21, 2010 10:29 am

    Interesting, despite their less than lofty goals, China still sees the need for a bigger fleet. This doesn’t explain the USN’s smaller structure since in the World Wars both Britain and the Americans deployed small craft in many hundreds. Thousands.

  15. Mrs. Davis permalink
    January 21, 2010 10:20 am

    And because people are more important than platforms, more ships give more junior officers command opportunity earlier in their careers creating a greater pool of potential leaders later. Because not all great peace time officers turn into great wartime officers.

  16. B.Smitty permalink
    January 21, 2010 10:18 am

    The Chinese have completely different goals. They want a coastal and regional navy. They aren’t focused on having a worldwide presence. So they can get by with smaller vessels and DE subs.

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