The Chinese navy, the People’s Liberation Army Navy or PLAN, is planning to have 351 ships in active service by 2020. If these numbers are true then the PLAN will outnumber the US Navy. At the moment the US Navy lists 288 ships as deployable, however this number is not correct as it does not include ships under construction or maintenance.
The correct number of US Navy ships in service is open to debate. As a result of budget cuts the US Navy found new ways to count the amount of ships it has in order to preserve it funding. The total US Navy strengths is somewhere around the lower half of 300 ships, depending on what sources and calculation a person takes.
Regardless of the exact number of ships the US Navy has in its inventory, it is indeed in trouble of being outnumbered by the PLAN. The PLAN budget keeps rising every year while that of the US Navy has been decreasing over the past years. China also builds more ships every year then the US Navy can. Stating that the PLAN will outnumber the US Navy by 2020 is becoming more a certainty then a possibility. But even with the US Navy outnumbered the question remains if the US Navy will be out powered by 2020.
Although the PLAN might have a quantitative superiority over the US Navy in 2020 it will not yet have a qualitative superiority. The PLAN still lags behind in the technological gap that exists between both navies. This gap however might be closed faster than anticipated. China has been taking big steps forward in technology these past years, albeit aided by stealing technology from the United States by cyberattacks. Still, as Chinese weapons and systems become more advanced its navy will start posing a bigger threat.
One must also take in account the major imbalance between the PLAN and the US Navy. The US Navy is a blue water navy for combat on the open ocean and is centered around aircraft carriers, cruisers and nuclear submarines. The PLAN is a green water navy designed to operate between the Chinese mainland and the First Island Chain. The PLAN mainly employs frigate sized warships and diesel-electric submarines. These ships pack a lesser punch in terms of amount of weapons compared to their US Navy counterparts. Although China is trying to build larger destroyers and even cruiser sized warships in an attempt to create a blue water navy task force.
As part of being a blue water navy the US Navy prefers to use carrier aviation to fight its naval battles. With 11 aircraft carriers in service the US Navy vastly out powers the PLAN in this field. The PLAN only has one aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, that can carry only half the amount of aircraft of a US Navy Nimitz class aircraft carrier. More dramatic is the fact that the carrier wing of the Liaoning will only be fully ready for service in 2016. China plans to build 3 more aircraft carriers and it remains unsure if these new aircraft carriers will be of the same design as the Liaoning or if China makes the transition to a nuclear powered aircraft carrier with catapults.
|PLAN task forces: frigates are the main units in the PLAN compared to destroyers in the US Navy|
The PLAN is however working to close this gap in capabilities. The PLAN currently focus heavily on building air defence frigates and destroyers. The new 052D type destroyer is currently the most advanced air defence destroyer in the PLAN. It is not even sure if the PLAN wishes to develop the same capabilities as the US Navy. The PLAN has always put a great emphasize on missile technology then on carrier aviation. It is possible that the PLAN wishes to use an asymmetric naval warfare in which it overwhelms US Navy ships with massive missile attacks and that carriers will only serve to give local air protection for PLAN warships.
The biggest imbalance in technology and numbers are found in submarines. The PLAN has more submarines then the US Navy has. Unlike the US Navy nuclear submarines, the PLAN uses diesel-electric submarines. These submarines are more quite then their US counterparts and harder to detect. They lack however range and speed to patrol large areas, even with air independent propulsion. Still, the PLAN knows how to build modern submarines and with luck and skillful positioning these submarines can be deployed in ambushes against US Navy task forces. In the past PLAN submarines already succeeded in surfacing inside a US carrier task force and simulate an attack.
The PLAN is working to modernize its nuclear submarine forces. New submarine designs are being made but no real construction has begun. Even these new nuclear submarine types will still be outdated compared to the modern US Navy nuclear submarines but they will still be a vast improvement over the PLANs current nuclear submarines.
Even with the US outnumbered against China, the US Navy still has allies that can fill in the missing numbers. Both South-Korea, Japan and Australia have modern navies and are working close with the US Navy. China on the other hand can only count on allies like North Korea and Russia. The former being an unreliable partner with a small and outdated navy, the later lacking any significant numbers at the moment.
The PLAN is planning to outnumber the US Navy by 2020. Given its higher budget increases and faster ship building capability this news doesn’t come as a surprise. Even outnumbers the US Navy can still contain the PLAN as it is a technological more advanced navy. The PLAN is however working hard in closing the technological gap, sometimes even aided by technology theft through cyberattacks.
The PLAN is also a green water navy, operating smaller ships with lesser weapon systems on them as compared to the US Navy which is a blue water navy operating larger warships. China will counter this by developing a missile centric approach instead of a focus on carrier aviation, a field in which China will continue to lag behind the US Navy for the next decades.
Chinese submarines are less advanced then the US nuclear submarines but they are modern, hard to detect and capable of suppressing US task forces. China will continue to develop its submarines, even its outdated nuclear submarine forces in an effort to close the technologic gap.
Even outnumbered the US Navy can still count on several allies with modern navies whom are capable to contain the PLAN within the first island chain. China however lacks such allies.