China's 'Increasing Naval Threat' Overstated

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China's Navy -- officially the Peoples Liberation Army's Navy -- held an impressive naval review in the historic port city of Qingdao on 23 April, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PLA Navy. By any criteria, the event was a great success. Beyond a Chinese contingent of 2 nuclear and 2 diesel-electric submarines, 5 missile destroyers, and 6 frigates, there were 21 ships representing 14 other nations at the review. The U.S. Navy's contribution to the anniversary celebration was the Aegis missile destroyer Fitzgerald (DDG 62).

By the criteria of many American newspapers and, of course, bloggers, the event revealed the increasing "threat" to Western interests from China's Navy. Indeed, a Time magazine blog showed an Associated Press (AP) photo of a Chinese warship with the caption, "A Chinese navy soldier guards on a battleship at Quingdao port..." The photo, however, shows what is probably a frigate. China does not have any battleships; nor does any other nation.

Other articles -- some citing official Chinese statements indicating that aircraft carriers will be constructed "in the future" -- tell how the Chinese Navy is about to overtake the U.S. Navy, although by which measures is usually ignored. Indeed, one AP article declares that Chinese nuclear-propelled submarines "are considered just a notch below cutting-edge U.S. and Russian craft."

Reality is quite different. First, simplistic numerical comparisons are too often misleading. But quantity does provide a quality. For example:

  • Nuclear aircraft carriers (CVN)U.S. = 11 China = 0
  • VSTOL/helicopter carriers (LHA/LHD)U.S. = 11 China = 0
  • Guided missile cruisers (CG)U.S. = 22 China = 0
  • Destroyers (DDG/DD)U.S. = 60 China = 27
  • Frigates (FF/FFG)U.S. = 30 China = 48
  • Ballistic missile submarines (nuclear)(SSBN)U.S. = 14 China = 3
  • Attack/cruiser missile submarines (nuclear)(SSN/SSGN)U.S. = 57 China = 6
  • Attack submarine (non-nuclear) (SS/SSK)U.S. = 0 China = 55

Second, numbers alone to not convey an adequate comparison. For example, each U.S. CVN-type carrier can operate 60 or more high-performance aircraft. All U.S. cruisers and destroyers have the Aegis advanced radar/fire control system; only a few Chinese ships have the equivalent. Similarly, all U.S. cruisers and destroyers have vertical-launch systems for firing long-range Tomahawk strike (land-attack) missiles as well as surface-to-air missiles. The Chinese have no ship-launched strike weapons and their surface-to-air missiles are inferior.

Further, there is no public evidence that the Chinese SSBNs have an operational missile, and none is known to have undertaken a long-range patrol. No long-range patrols have been reported of nuclear torpedo-attack submarines (SSN), and relatively few are made by diesel-electric undersea craft.

The one category in which the Chinese Navy does pose a potential threat to the U.S. Navy -- in this writer's opinion -- is in non-nuclear submarines. The Chinese Navy has modern, Russian-built Kilo (Project 877EKM) submarines as well indigenous-built diesel-electric submarines. An Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) submarine program is underway.

The U.S. Navy's ability to detect these craft, especially in littoral areas is limited. This was demonstrated for two years when the U.S. Navy operated against a Swedish AIP submarine, the Gotland, "loaned" for anti-submarine exercises. According to the Swedish officers, the U.S. carrier battle groups operating against the Gotland off the southern California coast invariably failed to locate the craft.

Less is publicly known about the results/lessons of several South American diesel-electric submarines that periodically exercise with the U.S. Navy.

The Chinese Navy, supported by a large, land-based air arm and land-based anti-ship missiles, could most likely deny U.S. surface and air operations off of the lengthy Chinese coast, and in the Taiwan Strait. At this time U.S. (nuclear) submarine operations in those areas appear to be feasible. Those submarines, armed with torpedoes, mobile mines, and Tomahawk missiles provide a considerable war-fighting capability.

But the most likely scenarios for a U.S.-Chinese conflict appear to be in Third World, resource-rich areas, such as Africa and South America. And today, and for the foreseeable future, the Chinese Navy cannot project meaningful political or military power to those distances. To develop such a capability would take at least a decade, and most likely longer.

-- Norman Polmar

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