23 December 2019

New Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report: “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background & Issues for Congress”

This latest iteration of new streamlined version includes an updated table and discussion for busy readers seeking the latest on PLAN force structure development, plus some China Coast Guard ship numbers for good measure! 

If you have trouble accessing the website above, please download a cached copy here.

You can also click here to access the report via the new public CRS website.


Note especially the table on p. 21, with associated discussion on pp. 18-20.


p. 18

Numbers of Ships; Comparisons to U.S. Navy

The planned ultimate size and composition of China’s navy is not publicly known. In contrast to the U.S. Navy—which makes public its force-level goal and regularly releases a 30-year shipbuilding plan that shows planned procurements of new ships, planned retirements of existing ships, and resulting projected force levels, as well as a five-year shipbuilding plan that shows, in greater detail, the first five years of the 30-year shipbuilding plan38—China does not release a navy force-level goal or detailed information about planned ship procurement rates, planned total ship procurement quantities, planned ship retirements, and resulting projected force levels. It is possible that the ultimate size and composition of China’s navy is an unsettled issue even among Chinese military and political leaders.

Table 1 shows numbers of certain types of Chinese navy ships from 2005 to the present (and the number of China coast guard ships from 2017 to the present) as presented in DOD’s annual reports on military and security developments involving China. DOD states that China’s navy “is

p. 19

the region’s largest navy, with more than 300 surface combatants, submarines, amphibious ships, patrol craft, and specialized types.”39 DIA states that “Although the overall inventory has remained relatively constant, the PLAN is rapidly retiring older, single-mission warships in favor of larger, multimission ships equipped with advanced antiship, antiair, and antisubmarine weapons and sensors and C2 [command and control] facilities.”40

As can be seen in Table 1, about 65% of the increase since 2005 in the number of Chinese navy ships shown in the table (a net increase of 77 ships out of a total net increase of 119 ships) resulted from increases in missile-armed fast patrol craft starting in 2009 (a net increase of 35 ships) and corvettes starting in 2014 (42 ships). These are the smallest surface combatants shown


39 2019 DOD CMSD, p. 35. A similar statement is in 2019 DIA CMP, p. 63.

40 2019 DIA CMP, p. 69.

p. 20

in the table. The net 35-ship increase in missile-armed fast patrol craft was due to the construction between 2004 and 2009 of 60 new Houbei (Type 022) fast attack craft41 and the retirement of 25 older fast attack craft that were replaced by Type 022 craft. The 42-ship increase in corvettes is due to the Jingdao (Type 056) corvette program discussed earlier.

As can also be seen in the table, most of the remaining increase since 2005 in the number of Chinese navy ships shown in the table is accounted for by increases in destroyers (12 ships), frigates (11 ships), and amphibious ships (17 ships). Most of the increase in frigates occurred in the earlier years of the table; the number of frigates has changed little in the later years of the table.

Table 1 lumps together less-capable older Chinese ships with more-capable modern Chinese ships. Thus, in examining the numbers in the table, it can be helpful to keep in mind that for many of the types of Chinese ships shown in the table, the percentage of the ships accounted for by more-capable modern designs was growing over time, even if the total number of ships for those types was changing little.

For reference, Table 1 also shows the total number of ships in the U.S. Navy (known technically as the total number of battle force ships), and compares it to the total number of Chinese ships shown in the table. The result is an apples-vs.-oranges comparison, because the Chinese figure excludes certain ship types, such as auxiliary and support ships, while the U.S. Navy figure includes auxiliary and support ships but excludes patrol craft.

Relative U.S. and Chinese naval capabilities are sometimes assessed by showing comparative numbers of U.S. and Chinese ships. Although the total number of ships in a navy (or its aggregate tonnage) is relatively easy to calculate, it is a one-dimensional measure that leaves out numerous other factors that bear on a navy’s capabilities and how those capabilities compare to its assigned missions. As a result, as discussed in further detail in Appendix A, comparisons of the total numbers of ships in the PLAN and the U.S. Navy are highly problematic as a means of assessing relative U.S. and Chinese naval capabilities and how those capabilities compare to the missions assigned to those navies. At the same time however, an examination of the trends over time in the relative numbers of ships can shed some light on how the relative balance of U.S. and Chinese naval capabilities might be changing over time.


41 The Type 022 program was discussed in the August 1, 2018, version of this CRS report, and earlier versions.

p. 21


In an international security environment of renewed great power competition, China’s military modernization effort, including its naval modernization effort, has become the top focus of U.S. defense planning and budgeting. China’s navy, which China has been steadily modernizing for roughly 25 years, since the early to mid-1990s, has become a formidable military force within China’s near-seas region, and it is conducting a growing number of operations in more-distant waters, including the broader waters of the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and waters around Europe. China’s navy is viewed as posing a major challenge to the U.S. Navy’s ability to achieve and maintain wartime control of blue-water ocean areas in the Western Pacific—the first such challenge the U.S. Navy has faced since the end of the Cold War—and forms a key element of a Chinese challenge to the long-standing status of the United States as the leading military power in the Western Pacific.

China’s naval modernization effort encompasses a wide array of platform and weapon acquisition programs, including anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), submarines, surface ships, aircraft, unmanned vehicles (UVs), and supporting C4ISR (command and control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) systems. China’s naval modernization effort also includes improvements in maintenance and logistics, doctrine, personnel quality, education and training, and exercises.

China’s military modernization effort, including its naval modernization effort, is assessed as being aimed at developing capabilities for addressing the situation with Taiwan militarily, if need be; for achieving a greater degree of control or domination over China’s near-seas region, particularly the South China Sea; for enforcing China’s view that it has the right to regulate foreign military activities in its 200-mile maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ); for defending China’s commercial sea lines of communication (SLOCs), particularly those linking China to the Persian Gulf; for displacing U.S. influence in the Western Pacific; and for asserting China’s status as the leading regional power and a major world power.

Consistent with these goals, observers believe China wants its navy to be capable of acting as part of a Chinese anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) force—a force that can deter U.S. intervention in a conflict in China’s near-seas region over Taiwan or some other issue, or failing that, delay the arrival or reduce the effectiveness of intervening U.S. forces. Additional missions for China’s navy include conducting maritime security (including antipiracy) operations, evacuating Chinese nationals from foreign countries when necessary, and conducting humanitarian assistance/disaster response (HA/DR) operations.

The U.S. Navy in recent years has taken a number of actions to counter China’s naval modernization effort. Among other things, the U.S. Navy has shifted a greater percentage of its fleet to the Pacific; assigned its most-capable new ships and aircraft and its best personnel to the Pacific; maintained or increased general presence operations, training and developmental exercises, and engagement and cooperation with allied and other navies in the Pacific; increased the planned future size of the Navy; initiated, increased, or accelerated numerous programs for developing new military technologies and acquiring new ships, aircraft, unmanned vehicles, and weapons; begun development of new operational concepts (i.e., new ways to employ Navy and Marine Corps forces) for countering Chinese maritime A2/AD forces; and signaled that the Navy in coming years will shift to a more-distributed fleet architecture that will feature a smaller portion of larger ships, a larger portion of smaller ships, and a substantially greater use of unmanned vehicles. The issue for Congress is whether the U.S. Navy is responding appropriately to China’s naval modernization effort.