05 September 2020

Latest from CRS!—“China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities”—Ron O’Rourke Adds New Numbers + Info from 2020 Pentagon Report

Ronald O’RourkeChina Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for CongressRL33153 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 1 September 2020).

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

In addition to his continuous incremental improvements, Ronald O’Rourke has revised this latest edition of his report on Chinese naval modernization to incorporate new numbers from the Pentagon’s 2020 China Military Power Report.

Given the authoritative analysis supporting these revelations, and the rarity with which they are made publicly available in this manner, they are all worth reading carefully in full!

But bottom line up front: here’s the key table:

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Sources and Terminology This report is based on unclassified open-source information, such as the annual Department of Defense (DOD) report to Congress on military and security developments involving China,3 a 2019 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report on China’s military power,4 a 2015 Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) report on China’s navy,5 published reference sources such as IHS Jane’s Fighting Ships,6 and press reports.


3 Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020, generated on August 21, 2020, released on September 1, 2020, 173 pp. Hereinafter 2020 DOD CMSD.

4 Defense Intelligence Agency, China Military Power, Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win, 2019, 125 pp. Hereinafter 2019 DIA CMP.

5 Office of Naval Intelligence, The PLA Navy, New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century, undated but released in April 2015, 47 pp.

6 IHS Jane’s Fighting Ships 2018-2019, and previous editions. Other sources of information on these shipbuilding programs may disagree regarding projected ship commissioning dates or other details, but sources present similar overall pictures regarding PLA Navy shipbuilding.

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In addition to modernizing its navy, China in recent years has substantially increased the size of its coast guard.18


18 For additional details, see 2020 DOD CMSD, p. 71, and 2019 DIA CMP, p. 78.

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Anti-Ship Missiles

Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles

(ASBMs) China reportedly is fielding two types of land-based ballistic missiles with a capability of hitting ships at sea—the DF-21D (Figure 1), a road-mobile anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) with a range of more than 1,500 kilometers (i.e., more than 910 nautical miles), and the DF-26 (Figure 2), a road-mobile, multi-role intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) with a maximum range of about 4,000 kilometers (i.e., about 2,160 nautical miles) that DOD says “is capable of conducting both conventional and nuclear precision strikes against ground targets as well as conventional strikes against naval targets.”20 China reportedly is also developing hypersonic glide vehicles that, if incorporated into Chinese ASBMs, could make Chinese ASBMs more difficult to intercept.21

Observers have expressed strong concerns about China’s ASBMs, because such missiles, in combination with broad-area maritime surveillance and targeting systems, would permit China to attack aircraft carriers, other U.S. Navy ships, or ships of allied or partner navies operating in the


20 2020 DOD CMSD, p. 55.

21 See, for example, Christian Davenport, “Why the Pentagon Fears the U.S. Is Losing the Hypersonic Arms Race with Russia and China,” Washington Post, June 8, 2018; Keith Button, “Hypersonic Weapons Race,” Aerospace America, June 2018.

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Western Pacific. The U.S. Navy has not previously faced a threat from highly accurate ballistic missiles capable of hitting moving ships at sea. For this reason, some observers have referred to ASBMs as a “game-changing” weapon.

Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCMs)

China’s extensive inventory of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) (see Figure 3, Figure 4, and Figure 5 for examples of reported images) includes both Russian- and Chinese-made designs, including some advanced and highly capable ones, such as the Chinese-made YJ-18.22 Although China’s ASCMs do not always receive as much press attention as China’s ASBMs (perhaps because ASBMs are a more-recent development), observers are nevertheless concerned about them. As discussed later in this report, the relatively long ranges of certain Chinese ASCMs have led to concerns among some observers that the U.S. Navy is not moving quickly enough to arm U.S. Navy surface ships with similarly ranged ASCMs.


22 2020 DOD CMSD, p. 59.

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China has been steadily modernizing its submarine force, and most of its submarines are now built to relatively modern Chinese and Russian designs. Qualitatively, China’s newest submarines might not be as capable as Russia’s newest submarines,23 but compared to China’s earlier submarines, which were built to antiquated designs, its newer submarines are much more capable. Types and Numbers Most of China’s submarines are non-nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSs). China also operates a small number of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) and a small number of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). The number of SSNs and SSBNs may grow in coming years, but the force will likely continue to consist mostly of SSs. DOD states that “The PLAN will likely maintain between 65 and 70 submarines through the 2020s, replacing older units with more capable units on a near one-to-one basis.”24


24 2020 DOD CMSD, p. 45.

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DOD states that since the mid-1990s, “China’s shipyards have delivered 13 Song class SS units (Type 039) and 17 Yuan class diesel-electric air-independent-powered attack submarine (SSP) (Type 039A/B). The PRC is expected to produce a total of 25 or more Yuan class submarines by 2025.” 27 DOD states further:

Over the past 15 years, the PLAN has constructed twelve nuclear submarines—two Shang I class SSNs (Type 093), four Shang II class SSNs (Type 093A), and six Jin class SSBNs (Type 094), two of which were awaiting entry into service in late 2019. Equipped with the


27 2020 DOD CMSD, p. 45.

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CSS-N-14 (JL-2) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the PLAN’s four operational Jin class SSBNs represent the PRC’s first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent. Each Jin class SSBN can carry up to 12 JL-2 SLBMs.…China’s next-generation Type 096 SSBN, which will likely begin construction in the early-2020s, will reportedly carry a new type of SLBM. The PLAN is expected to operate the Type 094 and Type 096 SSBNs concurrently and could have up to eight SSBNs by 2030…. By the mid-2020s, China will likely build the Type 093B guided-missile nuclear attack submarine. This new Shang class variant will enhance the PLAN’s anti-surface warfare capability and could provide a clandestine land-attack option if equipped with land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs).”28

Submarine Weapons

China’s submarines are armed with one or more of the following: ASCMs, wire-guided and wake-homing torpedoes, and mines. Wake-homing torpedoes can be very difficult for surface ships to decoy. Each Jin-class SSBN is armed with 12 JL-2 nuclear-armed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).29


28 2020 DOD CMSD, p. 45

29 DOD estimates the range of the JL-2 at 7,200 km (2020 DOD CMSD, p. 58). Such a range could permit Jin-class SSBNs to attack targets in Alaska (except the Alaskan panhandle) from protected bastions close to China, targets in Hawaii (as well as targets in Alaska, except the Alaskan panhandle) from locations south of Japan, targets in the western half of the 48 contiguous states (as well as Hawaii and Alaska) from mid-ocean locations west of Hawaii, or targets in all 50 states from mid-ocean locations east of Hawaii.

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These new classes of surface combatants demonstrate a significant modernization of PLA Navy surface combatant technology. DOD states that China’s navy “remains engaged in a robust shipbuilding program for surface combatants, producing new guided-missile cruisers (CGs), guided-missile destroyers (DDGs) and corvettes (FFLs). These assets will significantly upgrade the PLAN’s air defense, anti-ship, and anti-submarine capabilities and will be critical as the PLAN expands its operations beyond the range of the PLA’s shore-based air defense systems.”46


46 2020 DOD CMSD, pp. 45-46.

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Type 056 Corvette China is also building a new type of corvette (i.e., a light frigate, or FFL) called the Jiangdao class or Type 056 (Figure 17), which displaces about 1,500 tons. Type 056 ships are being built at a high annual rate in four shipsyards. The first was commissioned in 2013. DOD states that “by the end of 2019, more than 42 Jiangdao class FFLs had entered service out of an expected production run of at least 70 ships”57


57 2020 DOD CMSD, p. 46.

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Operations Away from Home Waters

Although China’s navy operates primarily in China’s home waters, Chinese navy ships are conducting increasing numbers of operations away from China’s home waters, including the broader waters of the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and the waters surrounding Europe, including the Mediterranean Sea and the Baltic Sea. A November 23, 2019, DOD news report quoted Admiral Philip Davidson, the commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, as stating that China’s navy had conducted more global naval deployments in the past 30 months than it had in the previous 30 years.71 While many of China’s long-distance naval deployments have been for making diplomatic port calls, some of them have been for other purposes, including conducting training exercises and carrying out antipiracy operations in waters off Somalia. China has been conducting antipiracy operations in waters off Somalia since December 2008 via a succession of more than 30 rotationally deployed naval escort task forces. China’s distant naval operations are supported in part by China’s military base in Djibouti, which China officially opened in August 2017 as its first overseas military base.72

Numbers of Ships; Comparisons to U.S. Navy

The planned ultimate size and composition of China’s navy is not publicly known. The U.S. Navy 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 plan.73 In contrast, China does not release a navy force-level goal or detailed information about planned ship procurement rates, planned total ship


71 David Vergun, “Freedom of Navigation in South China Sea Critical to Prosperity, Says Indo-Pacific Commander,” DOD News, November 23, 2019.

72 For a brief discussion of Djibouti and other potential Chinese military bases outside China, see 2020 DOD CMSD, pp. x, 48, 80, and 128-130. For a recent press report about China’s military base in Djibouti, see H. I. Sutton, “Satellite Images Show That Chinese Navy Is Expanding Overseas Base,” Forbes, May 10, 2020; Peter Suciu, “China’s Naval Base in Africa Is Getting Bigger. Is a Network of Bases Next?” National Interest, May 11, 2020; Staff writer, “Chinese Navy Expanding Base in Africa, Satellite Images Confirm,” War Is Boring, May 11, 2020; Jean-Pierre Cabestan, “China’s Djibouti Naval Base Increasing Its Power,” East Asia Forum, May 16, 2020; Dave Makichuk, “China Builds a Mega-Fortress on the Horn of Africa,” Asia Times, May 18, 2020; Michael Evans, “Beijing’s African Port Ready for Aircraft Carriers,” Times (UK), May 19, 2020.

73 For more information on the U.S. Navy’s force-level goal, 30-year shipbuilding plan, and five-year shipbuilding plan, see CRS Report RL32665, Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress, by Ronald O’Rourke.

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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 and evolving 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 “has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants. In comparison, the U.S. Navy’s battle force is approximately 293 ships as of early 2020.”74 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.”75

As can be seen in Table 1, about 72% of the increase since 2005 in the number of Chinese navy ships shown in the table (a net increase of 84 ships out of a total net increase of 117 ships) resulted from increases in missile-armed fast patrol craft starting in 2009 (a net increase of 35 ships) and corvettes starting in 2014 (49 ships). These are the smallest surface combatants shown 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 craft76 and the retirement of 25 older fast attack craft that were replaced by Type 022 craft. The 49-ship increase in corvettes is due to the Jingdao (Type 056) corvette program discussed earlier. ONI states that “a significant portion of China’s Battle Force consists of the large number of new corvettes and guided-missile frigates recently built for the PLAN.”77

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 cruisers and destroyers (12 ships), frigates (6 ships), and amphibious ships (15 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 the types of Chinese ships that are shown in the table. The result is an apples-vs.-oranges comparison, because the Chinese figures exclude certain ship types, such as auxiliary and support ships, while the U.S. Navy figure includes auxiliary and support ships but excludes patrol craft. Changes over time in this apples-vs.-oranges comparison, however, can be of value in understanding trends in the comparative sizes of the U.S. and Chinese navies.


74 2020 DOD CMSD, p. ii. See also p. 44, and 2019 DIA CMP, p. 63.

75 2019 DIA CMP, p. 69.

76 The Type 022 program was discussed in the August 1, 2018, version of this CRS report, and earlier versions. 77 Source: Unclassified ONI information paper prepared for Senate Armed Services Committee, subject “UPDATED China: Naval Construction Trends vis-à-vis U.S. Navy Shipbuilding Plans, 2020-2030,” February 2020, p. 4. Provided by Senate Armed Services Committee to CRS and CBO on March 4, 2020, and used in this CRS report with the committee’s permission.

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Table 1. Numbers of Certain Types of Ships Since 2005 (Figures include both less-capable older units and more-capable newer units)

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Source: Table prepared by CRS based on 2005-2019 editions of annual DOD report to Congress on military and security developments involving China (known for 2009 and prior editions as the report on China military power), and (for U.S. Navy ships) U.S. Navy data as presented in CRS Report RL32665, Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress, by Ronald O’Rourke.

Notes: n/a means data not available in report. LST means tank landing ship; LPD means transport dock ship; LSM means medium landing ship. The DOD report generally covers events of the prior calendar year. Thus, the 2019 edition covers events during 2018, and so on for earlier years. Similarly, for the U.S. Navy figures, the 2019 column shows the figure for the end of FY2018, and so on for earlier years.

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Table 2 shows comparative numbers of Chinese and U.S. battle force ships. Battle force ship are the types of ships that count toward the quoted size of the Navy. For China, the battle force ships total excludes the missile-armed coastal patrol craft shown in Table 1, but includes auxiliary and support ships that are not shown in Table 1. Compared to the comparison shown in Table 1, the comparison Table 2 is closer to being an apples-to-apples comparison of the two navies’ numbers of ships. Even so, it is important to keep in mind the differences in composition between the two navies. The U.S. Navy, for example, has many more aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines, and cruisers and destroyers, while China’s navy has many more diesel attack submarines, frigates, and corvettes.

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.

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Appendix A. Comparing U.S. and Chinese Naval Capabilities

This appendix presents some additional discussion of factors involved in comparing U.S. and Chinese naval capabilities. U.S. and Chinese naval capabilities are sometimes compared 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. One-dimensional comparisons of the total numbers of ships in China’s navy 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, for the following reasons:

  • A fleet’s total number of ships (or its aggregate tonnage) is only a partial metric of its capability. Many factors other than ship numbers (or aggregate tonnage) contribute to naval capability, including types of ships, types and numbers of aircraft, the sophistication of sensors, weapons, C4ISR systems, and networking capabilities, supporting maintenance and logistics capabilities, doctrine and tactics, the quality, education, and training of personnel, and the realism and complexity of exercises. In light of this, navies with similar numbers of ships or similar aggregate tonnages can have significantly different capabilities, and navy-to-navy comparisons of numbers of ships or aggregate tonnages can provide a highly inaccurate sense of their relative capabilities. In recent years, the warfighting capabilities of navies have derived increasingly from the sophistication of their internal electronics and software. This factor can vary greatly from one navy to the next, and often cannot be easily assessed by outside observation. As the importance of internal electronics and software has grown, the idea of comparing the warfighting capabilities of navies principally on the basis of easily observed factors such as ship numbers and tonnages has become increasingly less reliable, and today is highly problematic.
  • Total numbers of ships of a given type (such as submarines or surface combatants) can obscure potentially significant differences in the capabilities of those ships, both between navies and within one country’s navy. Differences in capabilities of ships of a given type can arise from a number of other factors, including sensors, weapons, C4ISR systems, networking capabilities, stealth features, damage-control features, cruising range, maximum speed, and reliability and maintainability (which can affect the amount of time the ship is available for operation).
  • A focus on total ship numbers reinforces the notion that changes in total numbers necessarily translate into corresponding or proportional changes in aggregate capability. For a Navy like China’s, which is modernizing by replacing older, obsolescent ships with more modern and more capable ships, this is not necessarily the case. As shown in Table 1 and Table 2, for example, China’s attack submarine force today has only a slightly larger number of boats than it had in 2000 or 2005, but it has considerably more aggregate capability than it did in 2000 or 2005, because the force today includes a much larger percentage of relatively modern designs.

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Comparisons of total numbers of ships (or aggregate tonnages) do not take into account the differing global responsibilities and homeporting locations of each fleet. The U.S. Navy has substantial worldwide responsibilities, and a substantial fraction of the U.S. fleet is homeported in the Atlantic. As a consequence, only a certain portion of the U.S. Navy might be available for a crisis or conflict scenario in China’s near-seas region, or could reach that area within a certain amount of time. In contrast, China’s navy has more-limited responsibilities outside China’s near-seas region, and its ships are all homeported along China’s coast at locations that face directly onto China’s near-seas region. In a U.S.-China conflict inside the first island chain, U.S. naval and other forces would be operating at the end of generally long supply lines, while Chinese naval and other forces would be operating at the end of generally short supply lines.

Comparisons of numbers of ships (or aggregate tonnages) do not take into account maritime-relevant military capabilities that countries might have outside their navies, such as land-based anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), land-based anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), and land-based Air Force aircraft armed with ASCMs or other weapons. Given the significant maritime-relevant non-navy forces present in both the U.S. and Chinese militaries, this is a particularly important consideration in comparing U.S. and Chinese military capabilities for influencing events in the Western Pacific. Although a U.S.-China incident at sea might involve only navy units on both sides, a broader U.S.-China military conflict would more likely be a force-on-force engagement involving multiple branches of each country’s military.

The missions to be performed by one country’s navy can differ greatly from the missions to be performed by another country’s navy. Consequently, navies are better measured against their respective missions than against one another. Although Navy A might have less capability than Navy B, Navy A might nevertheless be better able to perform Navy A’s intended missions than Navy B is to perform Navy B’s intended missions. This is another significant consideration in assessing U.S. and Chinese naval capabilities, because the missions of the two navies are quite different.

A 2015 RAND report attempts to take factors like those discussed above more fully into account with the aim of producing a more comprehensive assessment of relative U.S. and Chinese military capabilities for potential conflict scenarios involving Taiwan and the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The report states the following:

Over the past two decades, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has transformed itself from a large but antiquated force into a capable, modern military. In most areas, its technology and skill levels lag behind those of the United States, but it has narrowed the gap. Moreover, it enjoys the advantage of proximity in most plausible scenarios and has developed capabilities that capitalize on that advantage….

… four broad trends emerge:

  • Since 1996, the PLA has made tremendous strides, and, despite improvements to the U.S. military, the net change in capabilities is moving in favor of China. Some aspects of Chinese military modernization, such as improvements to PLA ballistic missiles, fighter aircraft, and attack submarines, have come extraordinarily quickly by any reasonable historical standard.
  • The trends vary by mission area, and relative Chinese gains have not been uniform across all areas. In some areas, U.S. improvements have given the United States new options, or

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at least mitigated the speed at which Chinese military modernization has shifted the relative balance.

  • Distances, even relatively short distances, have a major impact on the two sides’ ability to achieve critical objectives. Chinese power projection capabilities are improving, but present limitations mean that the PLA’s ability to influence events and win battles diminishes rapidly beyond the unrefueled range of jet fighters and diesel submarines. This is likely to change in the years beyond those considered in this report, though operating at greater distances from China will always work, on balance, against China.
  • The PLA is not close to catching up to the U.S. military in terms of aggregate capabilities, but it does not need to catch up to the United States to dominate its immediate periphery. The advantages conferred by proximity severely complicate U.S. military tasks while providing major advantages to the PLA. This is the central finding of this study and highlights the value of campaign analysis, rather than more abstract assessments of capabilities.

Over the next five to 15 years, if U.S. and PLA forces remain on roughly current trajectories, Asia will witness a progressively receding frontier of U.S. dominance. The United States would probably still prevail in a protracted war centered in virtually any area, and Beijing should not infer from the above generalization that it stands to gain from conflict. U.S. and Chinese forces would likely face losses on a scale that neither has suffered in recent decades. But PLA forces will become more capable of establishing temporary local air and naval superiority at the outset of a conflict. In certain regional contingencies, this temporal or local superiority might enable the PLA to achieve limited objectives without “defeating” U.S. forces. Perhaps even more worrisome from a military-political perspective, the ability to contest dominance might lead Chinese leaders to believe that they could deter U.S. intervention in a conflict between it and one or more of its neighbors. This, in turn, would undermine U.S. deterrence and could, in a crisis, tip the balance of debate in Beijing as to the advisability of using force….

Although trends in the military balance are running against the United States, there are many actions that the United States could take to reinforce deterrence and continue to serve as the ultimate force for stability in the Western Pacific.92

As mentioned earlier, while 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, 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.


92 Eric Heginbotham, The U.S.-China Military Scorecard, Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996-2017, Santa Monica (CA), RAND Corporation, 2015 (RAND report RR-392), pp. xix, xxx-xxxii.


In an era 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 more than 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. Some U.S. observers are expressing concern or alarm regarding the pace of China’s naval shipbuilding effort, particularly for building larger surface ships, and resulting trend lines regarding the relative sizes China’s navy and the U.S. Navy.

China’s naval modernization effort encompasses a wide array of ship, aircraft, and weapon acquisition programs, as well as improvements in maintenance and logistics, doctrine, personnel quality, education and training, and exercises. China’s navy has currently has certain limitations and weaknesses, and is working to overcome them.

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 Indo-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.