It's no secret that the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been expanding at an amazing pace, but its rapid qualitative growth has become equally impressive in recent years. With its first carrier battle group operational and its shipbuilding apparatus pumping out hulls as if it were on a war footing, the PLAN's capabilities have gone from a major concern to an outright threat to America and allied naval power in the region.
A recently published video, seen below, highlights the state of China's naval might like nothing before. Part of it was shot during a massive naval parade in the South China Sea last April that was attended by a fatigue-clad President Xi Jinping and other high-ranking officials.
The chart below gives at least a basic idea of just how much the Chinese Navy's surface combatant fleet has expanded in just a decade's time:
When it comes to gross tonnage, China has challenged the output of every navy around the globe, including the U.S. Navy. The chart posted below, which is part of a particularly insightful write-up by the think tank IISS, depicts how China's shipbuilding continues to accelerate, with a massive shift in output seen over the last decade.
The huge increase for 2015-2017 is a bit skewed by the launch of China's first indigenous carrier, while the 2014 timeframe is also skewed for the U.S. because of the launch of the 100,000-ton displacement supercarrier USS Gerald R. Ford.
China's naval vessels are also increasing dramatically in size and complexity, making the 'tonnage' they are outputting far more potent than in the past.
Below the surface, the threat that the Chinese Navy poses is also becoming more palpable. China's submarine force has expanded drastically in recent years. Today, the U.S. Navy has 63 submarines and China has 78, roughly speaking. While the U.S. Navy fields and all nuclear submarine force, which The War Zone
believes is a terrible choice, China has a mix of nuclear submarines and smaller diesel-electric types.
Diesel-electric submarines are far cheaper to build than nuclear counterparts and considering China has a focus on implementing an anti-access/area-denial strategy based around regional defense, these boats, which excel in littoral warfare, are very well suited to the task. Additionally, newer diesel-electric submarines with air-independent propulsion technology (AIP) can be quieter than nuclear submarines and are capable of diving for weeks at a time. In essence, they are a near ideal for which to implement China's strategy and to be mass produced so that they can counter-balance America and its allies' submarine capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region.
The fact that China has been able to realize such a massive expansion of its naval forces, both in terms of quality and quantity, prompts the big question: what will the PLAN look like in another decade?
This haunting concern is one of the largest driving factors behind the U.S. Navy's 355 ship fleet ambitions, which are going to be a major challenge to realize without a dramatic restructuring of its procurement priorities, existing fleet sustainment practices, and facilities management.
With the Pentagon's shift to 'great power competition' under Secretary Mattis, and with China now America's top technological peer competitor, its ever-strengthening Navy is sure to cast a long shadow on the DoD's list of priorities. But if things continue to go as they are, and with a catapult equipped Chinese aircraft carrier, and possibly a nuclear one as well, on the horizon, the days of America's outright supremacy on and below the high-seas may be coming to an end.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com