Written by Brian Kalman from SouthFront Team. Brian Kalman is a management professional in the marine transportation industry. He was an officer in the US Navy for eleven years.
A number of reports have appeared in both U.S. and foreign media in recent weeks pointing to the apparent eclipse of U.S. naval supremacy by an ascendant China. While these reports are largely overblown and sensationalized to pique the interest of the audience, the long-term trend is clear. China is on pace to achieve regional naval supremacy by the year 2025. This has been a long-term goal of the Chinese national and military leadership, the foundations of which were laid out in the early 1990s. Regional naval supremacy is a requirement to achieve China’s stated goal of creating the One Belt-One Road economic trade system.
Chinese naval supremacy, and the absolute necessity of it on at least a regional basis, is tied not only to the development and security of the maritime segment of One Belt-One Road, but also access to China’s growing presence on the African continent. The modernization and expansion of the Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been conducted in parallel with the fortification of islands in the South China Sea and the establishment of military bases in and around the strategic Horn of Africa and the Strait of Hormuz. After centuries of isolationism, internal strife, a devastating cultural revolution and later an economic boom, China is now on the cusp of global expansion. This will not just be a limited or one-dimensional expansion, but one of economic, military and even cultural dimensions.
In contrast to the U.S. leadership of recent decades, the national and military leadership of the Chinese Communist Party has been diligent and focused on implementing long term programs. While both the military industrial complex of the U.S. and the authoritarian communist systems of government of these respective nations both breed rampant corruption, social and economic inequality, and a multitude of dysfunctionalities, the Chinese system is inherently more singular in focus, as all authoritarian regimes are. While one could reflect on U.S. foreign policy over the past forty years and determine that it has been quite haphazard, disjointed and even schizophrenic in nature, the opposite must be said of China. This fact becomes readily apparent when contrasting the development and expansion of the PLAN and that of the U.S. Navy.
A U.S. Navy in Disarray
It can rightly be asserted that the U.S. Navy is a force struggling to define its core mission and strategic focus as the year 2020 begins. Since the dissolving of the Soviet Union, the U.S. military industrial complex has encouraged a wasteful bureaucracy, an inept and overly confident civilian and military leadership, to invest vast sums of money in a growing wish list of high-tech weapons aimed at achieving full spectrum dominance over every possible adversary. Little thought was apparently given to the opportunity cost of investing in such programs, and how they would be employed in a broader national defense strategy. The U.S. Navy stands out as the worst example of these failures and is poised at a crossroads today.
After the Soviet Union disappeared as its chief adversary on the high seas, the U.S. Navy maintained its age old obsession with the aircraft carrier, and utilized its many aircraft carrier strike groups (ASG) to great effect in attacking any disobedient nation that lacked a robust navy or air defense system. The U.S. Navy has not engaged in a naval engagement of any significance with a viable naval adversary since World War II. One sided “engagements” with small vessels of the navies of Libya, Iran and Iraq in the 1980s and 1990s cannot seriously be considered as meaningful measures of U.S. Navy capabilities. While the modern ASG proved effective at power projection against weaker adversaries, its viability in a modern maritime environment heavily contested by a peer adversary has yet to be established. The U.S. Navy has decided to ignore this obvious fact and has continued to embrace the ASG as the cornerstone of naval strategic planning well into the future.
The U.S. Navy has maintained ten ASGs and launched the latest generation of aircraft carriers in the form of the Gerald R. Ford CVN-78 in 2013. Although commissioned in 2017, the carrier has yet to reach operational readiness and has been plagued by many technical problems with its most essential combat systems. The CVN-78 is the most expensive warship ever constructed, with current unit cost approaching $14 billion USD. A second carrier in class, the John F. Kennedy CVN-79, is currently under construction.
Perhaps paradoxically, while the U.S. has invested vast sums of money, energy and focus in developing a massive new class of aircraft carrier, replete with expensive, yet unproven new technologies, it has done very little to improve the one asset most crucial to the carrier, the carrier airwing that it carries into battle. Instead of committing to develop aircraft tailored to specific functions, the Navy chose to embrace the one-size-fits-all concept of the F-18 Super Hornet. In addition, the service also committed to this concept to a much larger degree, in throwing its support behind the F- 35 Joint Strike Fighter. Regardless of the fact that the U.S. Navy has allowed its F-18 fleets to devolve to an abysmal state of readiness, with 70% of airframes unfit for operations at any given time, and the fact that the F-35 has only been declared operational in small numbers with the airwings of the USMC, neither aircraft rectifies the combat range deficiency now inherent in the aircraft carrier airwing. In short, an ASG will become a target of both land-based anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) and even land-based Chinese aircraft equipped with anti-ship guided missiles, long before the ASG can achieve striking distance with its carrier borne aircraft. This problem becomes even more glaring when one considers the scenario which includes a Chinese battle group forward deployed to interdict an ASG, yet operating within range of its own land-based Anti-Air Warfare assets.
What has the U.S. Navy done to modernize and improve its surface warfare vessels while it dumped massive amounts of money, time and energy into the Gerald R. Ford class CVN and the F-35 JSF, both of which have been plagued by cost overruns and numerous major problems and shortcomings? Not surprisingly, the service embraced new ship designs that were long on high-tech promise, yet did not fit into a specific, traditional and vital function within the broader strategic framework of the service. The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program and Zumwalt DDG-1000 programs were ill-conceived at the outset and resulted in two classes of vessels (actually three) that consumed vast amounts of funding, time and energy that could have been used to improve upon traditional, proven warship designs. At an approximate unit cost of $350 million USD per LCS and $8 billion per DDG-1000, both vessels have proven long on cost and short on capability. Perhaps acknowledging, albeit begrudgingly, that both programs are unmitigated failures, the total number of LCSs planned for delivery has been reduced to 35 from a planned 52, while only 3 of an original order on 32 DDG-1000s will be delivered.
To put the costs of the above programs in perspective, the U.S. Navy could have constructed no less than twelve Arleigh Burke Flight IIA DDGs for the same cost as the three failed DDG-1000s, seven such ships for the cost of CVN-78, and six such ships for the cost of the 35 planned LCS vessels. The Arleigh Burke class DDG is arguably the backbone of the U.S. Navy and is a highly effective and proven warship. Sadly, the latest upgrade to the design, the Flight III, will not begin production until sometime between 2023 and 2029. A multi-purpose frigate vessel program known as the FFG(X), meant to pick up where the LCS failed, has yet to reach an advanced design phase. There are currently five contenders for the new FFG(X) proposal. Two designs are of foreign manufacture and two are modifications of current LCS designs, leaving only one wholly original indigenous design.
At the same time, there is no replacement at all planned for the aging Ticonderoga CG-47 class cruiser. The Ticonderoga class CGs perform a vital AAW and surface warfare function in the established U.S. Navy carrier strike group structure. The only other navy in the world fielding a similar warship is China’s, with the introduction of the first Type 055 class in 2018.
A Chinese Navy in Ascent
While the United States Navy struggles to identify its purpose and maintain its preeminence in the 21st century, the PLAN has embarked on a robust program of modernization and expansion based on sound strategic principles and proven technology. Much of this technology has been either overtly or covertly obtained from other nations, chiefly the United States and the Russian Federation. Largely beginning with the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China developed the widespread practice of acquiring foreign technologies and practices that were effective, through a multitude of means, and adapting and improving upon them. Chinese covert intelligence gathering efforts made great gains during the Clinton presidency, and have continued unabated.
China has produced a long list of modern, capable classes of warships in recent years. Although the completion and refitting of the Ukrainian once derelict Varyag aircraft carrier into the Liaoning, the first operational aircraft carrier ever to be fielded by the PLAN has gained a great deal of attention, this development is overshadowed by the total transformation of the service into a truly modern navy. Not only has the PLAN designed, constructed and put a new generation of warships into operational service in the past two decades, it has engaged in an ambitious ship building program that has seen these vessels fielded at an unprecedented rate. Standardized designs for corvette, guided missile frigate (FFG), guided missile destroyer (DDG), large guided missile destroyer/cruiser (CG), landing platform dock (LPD), landing helicopter dock (LHD), and logistical support vessels of multiple classes have all been adopted and fielded in significant numbers in the past 20 years. Running in parallel to this, the PLAN has also developed a fledgling aircraft carrier program, including the 100% indigenous Type 001A Shandong. Such a feat is unparalleled in modern naval history.
The question must immediately be asked; why would a nation engage in such an ambitious program to transform and expand its naval warfighting capabilities in such totality? The answer is obvious. It intends to use this capability. But in what fashion and to what end?
Although I conducted a detailed analysis of China’s maritime strategic realignment in June of 2017, it is easy to summarize Chinese aims in this regard. In order for the Chinese nation to complete and secure the ambitious Old Belt-One Road economic trade corridor and to ensure the economic prosperity of the country into the next century, a sizeable navy of unparalleled capability will be required. Such a naval force is currently in an advanced state of completion, yet a further 5 years are likely required before the PLAN will be in a position to fight and win against a determined U.S. naval effort to confront it through force of arms. Current Chinese strategic planning and the pace of warship development and acquisition would support such an assertion.
If current production levels are maintained, and planned orders are not increased or decreased, the PLAN will field an impressive force of major surface warfare, amphibious warfare and aircraft carriers by 2025. By this time, major surface warfare combatants will include 50 x Type 056 Corvettes of all variants, 30 x Type 054A Frigates, at least 18 x Type 052D Destroyers, and 8 or more Type 055 Destroyer/Cruisers. The amphibious warfare fleet will be comprised of approximately 38 x LSTs (Type 071, 072 and 072A), 8 x Type 071 LPDs, and at least 2 x Type 075 LHDs. The Type 001 Liaoning and Type 001A Shandong will both be operational, while the first of the much more capable Type 002 CATOBAR carriers will likely have reached operational status as well. These warships will be supported by no less than eleven logistics support and underway replenishment vessels and four garrison support vessels of modern design.
The PLAN submarine fleet has been growing in number and capabilities in recent years as well. The likelihood of an increase in this pace will surely be influenced by the completion of the largest submarine construction facility in the world, the Bohai Shipbuilding Heavy Industry Company (BSHIC) submarine manufacturing facility located in Huludao, in the province of Liaoning. Completed in 2017, the facility can internally house the complete manufacture of four submarines at any given time, all out of view of prying eyes and satellite surveillance.
A major strategic advantage that China has achieved over the United States is that it has built the most robust and productive shipbuilding industry in the world over the past three decades. China has been ranked as the world’s top shipbuilder for 5 years now, though South Korea is still a very close second. The United States by contrast, ranks tenth. The gross tonnage of vessels of all types produced in Chinese shipyards; however, is 77 times greater than the total produced by U.S. shipyards. For example, in 2014 Chinese shipyards produced 22.68 million gross tons, while U.S. shipbuilders manufactured just 293,000 gross tons over that same year. The United States only has four or five shipyards that possess the capability of producing large warships, and only one that can construct a Gerald R. Ford class aircraft carrier.
The Greater Strategic Picture
It is important to view the development of both navies within the larger context of the respective geopolitical strategic positions of both countries. China undoubtably enjoys a stronger position today than it did a decade ago, while the opposite must be said for the United States. Not only has China gained greater political and economic influence on a global scale, but it has moved to secure military supremacy in all areas along its national borders, and increasingly within its expanding maritime territory. By contrast, the United States has lost both political and economic influence in many regions of the world, largely through its own failed policies. It’s political, economic and military influence in the Middle East has undoubtably decreased, with Russia and Iran taking a more active role in the region. China has taken advantage of this new dynamic, by strengthening ties with both Russia and Iran. The same can be argued for its position in the Asia Pacific region, with China emerging as the most influential player.
China has managed to develop greater economic ties with nations that have decided to participate in the One Belt-One Road project, which has also afforded them a greater political influence over these nations. China has negotiated the establishment of military bases, mostly logistical support facilities for its growing navy, but also affording them the ability to forward deploy the rapid reaction forces required to respond to any serious security threats to its interests at any point along the growing trade corridor. China continues to solidify its presence on the Africa continent, mostly through economic and political means. The military base established in Djibouti, and fleet support agreements established in Gwadar, Pakistan and the African nation of Tanzania provide the resources needed to be able to exert military force if required to back up Chinese economic and political efforts on the continent.
Although the U.S. maintains numerous military bases and facilities in Africa to secure its own strategic interests in the region, it lacks the same political and economic influence that China has established. The U.S. military has been aiding a number of nations in Africa to battle Islamic extremist insurgents, but has made little investment in those nations in a broader sense, and thus exerts far less influence.
Although outside of the maritime sphere of influence of China, the nations of Europe have increasingly responded favorably to the promised benefits of the One Belt-One Road trade project. On a political and military level, China has largely remained out of European affairs. The same cannot be said for the United States.
While the Obama administration began the disastrous, multifaceted war against the Russian Federation, the Trump administration has only expanded it, while antagonizing its most traditional European allies in the process. Whether through miscalculation, arrogance or imperial hubris, the Trump administration has doubled down on the failed Ukraine policies of its predecessor, increased U.S. military presence on the European continent, and has leveled trade tariffs on key allies. By propping up the phony Russian threat narrative with increased military deployments, the United States is squandering vast sums of money and diverting large contingents of front-line fighting forces to confront an enemy it knows to be a threat conceived through its own propaganda alone.
China has responded to the U.S. led effort to internationally isolate Russia, by leveraging its position to provide an alternate market for Russian goods, chiefly in the energy sector and high-tech military hardware acquisitions. It has supplied political support for Russia on the world stage and has increased military cooperation with Russia in key regions where both nations share an interest and are forced to confront the United States. Both nations have increased bilateral cooperation in developing the northern arctic shipping route, and have conducted joint naval exercises in the maritime regions of Europe, Asia and the Indian Ocean. Iran most recently joined the two in joint exercises in the Indian Ocean.
Can the PLAN Win?
A scenario where the PLAN and U.S. Navy engage in open conflict is improbable at present, yet not impossible. Although China has strengthened its position to such a degree in the South China Sea that no other nation, including the United States can change the strategic realities that exist there today, increasing interaction between PLAN and U.S. warships may lead to a tragic encounter. U.S. freedom of navigation patrols are largely symbolic in nature and do not present any real threat to Chinese interests in the region, yet they do require a response. The more robust the assertion by the U.S., the more robust the response by China. Such a situation could lead to a situation where an accident occurs, or an overzealous vessel commander makes a decision that leads to a military engagement which could escalate in a very short window of time.
It is most probable that China will do everything possible to avoid such a situation at present. This may not be the case after 2025, when the PLAN enjoys a much stronger position relative to the U.S. Navy and its allies in the Asia Pacific. China will occupy the central position, enjoy regional guided ballistic missile supremacy and be able to take advantage of land-based air assets in support of its naval assets. Surveillance and early warning facilities established on various artificial island and atolls will by then be fully operational. South Korea, Japan and Australia would most likely not be willing to assume the sacrifice required in military and economic terms that would result from overtly aiding the U.S. in a military confrontation.
If fire was exchanged between a U.S. warship and PLAN warship in the South China Sea, and the incident was not immediately deescalated, the U.S. vessel would inevitably be destroyed. The PLAN would suffer significant casualties in the exchange without doubt. China would immediately move to deny all access to the region through its already robust Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities. The United States would then have to decide what level of sacrifice would be acceptable to the state and the American public in rapidly deciding upon its level of military response. The authoritarian Chinese state would find this decision much easier to make, regardless of the nature of any U.S. administration that may head the executive branch at the time.
The U.S. seventh fleet would be hard pressed to mount any immediate military response, beyond mounting a retaliatory attack via attack submarines forward deployed in the region. Any large effort mounted to attack Chinese island garrisons in either the Spratly or Paracel islands would be met with overwhelming force by a combination of anti-ship guided ballistic missiles, submarine, surface and air attack. The PLAN would have a very large amphibious warfare component to respond quickly to reinforce or reclaim any island territories threatened. It is hard to see any such scenario taking place, without the confrontation elevating to a full-spectrum war of global proportions. Most regional allies of the United States would calculate that such an outcome would render overwhelmingly negative results and would not outweigh the tragic loss of one or two U.S. warships and their crews.
Assuming that a hot war could be avoided, a new cold war would inevitable result between an ascendant China and a U.S. in decline. If current military, economic and political trends continue from the present through 2025, China will only strengthen its strategic position both regionally and globally, while the opposite will likely be the case for the United States. It is important to note that the leadership of both nations see such a conflict as undesirable and not inevitable, yet miscalculations, mistakes and poor judgement can scuttle any grand plans. History is unequivocal in this regard and must be analyzed and understood to avoid repeating disaster. We ignore the lessons of history at our peril, yet a current period bereft of insightful, measured and reasonable leadership in Washington, does not bode well for avoiding what may prove to be an unavoidable conflict between two global superpowers.