Can China’s Navy Match the U.S. Fleet?

China’s Navy investment and missile capabilities are reshaping how the US Navy operates in the Asia-Pacific region.

 USS Ronald Reagan leads a formation of Carrier Strike Group 5.

USS Ronald Reagan leads a formation of Carrier Strike Group 5.

In the past few weeks the world has been rocked by a number of scandals and news items that are poised to subtly or radically alter the power dynamics of the world. The alleged assassination of journalist Jamal Kashoggi has put the Kingdom of Saud off balance, an ascendant politician in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has welcomed a return to dictatorship in Brazil, and the US itself seems determined to pull out of a treaty limiting nuclear missiles. And that’s not to mention the Earth is heating up quickly and the World doesn’t have a plan to deal with the consequences.

But before these stories appeared on the front page of your new outlet of choice another story was making headlines.

Late this summer, a report from the New York Times accurately reported that the Chinese Navy, known as People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), has amassed a larger fleet than the U.S. Navy when sheer numbers are the metric being used.

So that has us asking the question, has China’s ability to produce more ships made it more capable of going toe-to-toe with the US Navy?

Two Fleets Compared

As of a 2017, the top line numbers for PLAN warships totaled 317. The US Navy fell well short of that tally floating only 283 craft in all. But a closer inspection of this number tells a more complex tale about which country has the more capable navy based on capital warships within their fleet.

Beginning with the top line of the chart, it becomes quite obvious that the US Navy’s supremacy in capital ship deployment is leviathan. Not only are US carriers larger than their PLAN counterparts, they’re often newer, developed domestically, powered by nuclear reactors and have a greater number of fifth-generation aircraft available per ship.

The PLAN's first aircraft carrier, the Lianing CV-16. The ship can carry 40 aircraft.

The PLAN’s first aircraft carrier, the Lianing CV-16. The ship can carry 40 aircraft.

The PLAN aircraft carrier fleet consists of two carriers, one of which has a hull that was laid down by Soviet engineers in the 1980s, and the second of which has been built domestically and is undergoing sea trials. Neither aircraft carrier is nuclear powered, drastically limiting their force projection range.

When carrier ships are compared, “blue water” supremacy falls squarely in the US Navy’s court, and that doesn’t even take into account the fact that the US can operate an air force from its carrier fleet that is second in the world only to the country’s primary air wing, the USAF.

When it comes to the development of destroyers, frigates and corvettes, the PLAN has a clear advantage in numbers. However, for both the US Navy and the PLAN, deployment of any of these type of ships won’t of much consequence against one another unless they can be brought within cruise missile range of a material target. That being said, the US Navy could likely deploy frigates and destroyers from allied ports in Japan and the Philippines to strike PLAN radar installations and other high value targets close to the Chinese mainland. Conversely, the PLAN may wish to use its own proximity fleet to destabilize the US Navy’s operational outposts within the Asia-Pacific region, making the prospect of a full naval invasion difficult to achieve due to communication system degradation.

An F-35C Lightning II lands aboard the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier. The Nimitz can carry up to 60 aircraft. It's replacement, the Gerald Ford Class Carrier, can carry 75 or more aircraft.

An F-35C Lightning II lands aboard the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier. The Nimitz can carry up to 60 aircraft. It’s replacement, the Gerald Ford Class Carrier, can carry 75 or more aircraft.

Finally, while the PLAN does employ a large cadre of submarines, the vast majority of these are powered by loud, banging diesel-electric engines that make it possible for US hunter-killer subs to locate them easily and strike them from afar. What’s more, the opposite is true of the US Navy, whose fleet is entirely powered by nuclear reactors, giving them not only nearly unlimited range, but also the chance to operate nearly undetected in hostile waters.  

With the numbers tallied, it appears that going toe-to-toe with the US Navy would be an unwise proposition for the PLAN; however, there are other factors to consider when assessing who stacks up better in a naval conflict.

China’s Missile Defense

Though China still lags behind the US when it comes to the quality of its fleet, the country has wisely chosen to adopt a strategy that’s been labeled “A2/AD” (anti-access/area denial) by US military analysts. 

One of the most critical components of this strategy has been the development of intermediate range ballistic missiles, often called “carrier-killers” by the media. Currently, China has two such missiles: the Dong-Feng 21D (DF 21D) and the improved Dong-Feng 26 (DF-26).

A Chinese DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missile. The PLA's rocket currently command controls 18 of these systems

A Chinese DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missile. The PLA’s rocket currently command controls 18 of these systems

According to experts, the DF-26 has a range of 3,000-4,000 km and can carry a up to 1,800 kg of nuclear or conventional payload. With its projected reach, the DF-26 would be capable striking targets as far away as Gaum, located squarely in the Pacific Ocean.

For US Naval experts, the DF-26’s range represents a threat to the backbone of its power-projection operations which are centered around aircraft carriers being able to control the seas with impunity. More importantly, the DF-26 gives the PLAN an extended protection network thwarting any US Navy thoughts of steaming straight into the South China Sea.  

But there are a few caveats that might halt US admirals from completely rethinking how a potential blockade or close-in naval struggle with the PLAN can be put into action.

First, the US Navy has not remained static in its development of anti-ship ballistic missile countermeasures. With new laser weapons soon to come online, and kinetic weapons that can project power well over the horizon, the US fleet is attempting to nullify the abilities of the PLAN’s admittedly fearsome missiles.

Another caveat that US officials might point to is squarely aimed China’s nascent ability to coordinate radar, satellite and cyber capabilities to make the DF-26 accurate enough to become truly threatening carrier-killer.

Cyber and Space Command, Their Effects on the Sea

Of all the aspects that one must consider when assessing a military conflict between two nations’ communications is one of the most important, yet most difficult to assess. That being said, according to a 2016 US’s Congressional Research Service report “The Chinese Military: Overview and Issues for Congress”, “Chinese military analysts assess that it is not yet capable of carrying out complex operations overseas or fighting and winning a ‘local war under informationized conditions,’ their term for the type of conflict that they perceive China is most likely to face.”

To that end, the PLAN planning committee must be wary of its ability to link complex communication systems in a way that would make warfighting, targeting and tracking information actionable, accurate and granular enough to wage an information-based campaign.

However, it’s absolutely true that technology, and its weaponization, are growing more potent every year, and countries are finding ways to meddle with one another in cyberspace and across communication networks in more imperceptible ways. For the PLAN, an extensive cyber-attack could cripple critical US Naval communications on the ground and in space. What’s more, Chinese military has demonstrated their ability to kinetically destroy a satellite in orbit, making the US military’s constellation of communication hardware vulnerable to attack. Though the US military has been hushed about what it can do in space, it routinely flies top-secret missions with its mini shuttle out into space, making it quite obvious that it too is miliatarizing the void.

Finally, Neither the US or China is Going to War Anytime Soon

In the end, both the US Navy and the PLAN stack up well against one another when it comes to counteracting the others strength. While the US Navy certainly has the greater operational capacity and technology, China is redefining the playing field of where the US can operate with its advanced missile technology.

And that parity seems to be the way this situation will balance for the near term.

Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomes President Obama to a ceremony in the Great Hall of the People in 2014.

Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomes President Obama to a ceremony in the Great Hall of the People in 2014.

Realistically, neither the US nor China want to get into an extended conflict (even if both are being provocative on China’s home turf) because both countries rely on one other in very meaningful ways at global economic scales. Any conflict would be disastrous for both nations and possibly for global markets as a whole.

So, it might behoove the world to keep the PLAN vs. US Navy tug-of-war in the back of our minds, but there are more critical issues facing global politics at the moment.