21 October 2010

Understanding Asia-Pacific Sea Power

James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, Understanding Asia-Pacific Sea Power,” The Diplomat, 21 October 2010.

It’s a sobering thought that even analysts steeped in naval affairs disagree about how to tally up who exactly has the strongest fleet. Writing in the Washington Post last month, Robert Kaplan declared in passing that China had constructed ‘the world’s second-largest naval service, after only the United States.’

In contrast, though, other reputable commentators maintain that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in fact now boasts the world’s largest fleet. For example, in August, The Economist published a story titled ‘Naval Gazing’, noting that the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies said China now has more warships than the United States. And sure enough, accompanying the story was a graphic showing that the PLAN has edged ahead of the US Navy in terms of ‘major combatants.’

Surely seasoned defence officials have a reliable formula for comparing navies? Not necessarily. …

As long as the PLAN contents itself with fighting within range of shore-based aircraft, small surface and subsurface combatants and antiship missiles, that weaponry must be factored into the fleet’s overall strength. As Gates pointed out, the all-nuclear US submarine force can fight at great distances. But the PLAN has amassed an even larger undersea fleet optimal for lurking in nearby waters—the waters that will count in any future Sino-American clash. Nor do all the aircraft carriers and missile-toting destroyers in the world mean much if the US Pacific Fleet dare not venture within range of Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles and so can’t bring its offensive firepower to bear. …