The US Navy Shipbuilding Dilemma

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The threat represented by a growing Chinese navy fleet of warships cannot be overstated. This threat presents a huge dilemma for the U.S. Navy. The old saw “Quantity has a quality all its own,” often misattributed to Joseph Stalin, who threw an overwhelming number of cheap tanks at the far superior German tanks, nonetheless applies at some point. Similarly, what the leadership of U.S. sea service faces relies on superior technology and innovation to overcome what is becoming the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) quantity of combat ships.

U.S. Navy Shipbuilding Dilemma

The accompanying graphic illustrates the problem and is not meant to be a dispositive mathematical analysis. As time goes on, at some point, the superior technology advantage the U.S. has will erode in comparison with the ever-increasing number of PLAN vessels. The graphic uses the concept of “relative capability,” which is the notional ratio of numbers of combat ships and the level of technology incorporated in those ships. The number of vessels cited comes from a Benjamin Mainardi article in The Diplomat. To be accurate, Mainardi argues that sheer numbers are less important than types of vessels in each of the nation’s fleets, as the “PLAN inflate its surface warship fleet by including either small coastal patrol ships or its amphibious transports and landing ships.”

Furthermore, Mainardi explains that comparisons between the size of the two navies do not consider that America will call on allies in the region to face China as a combined force. For example, the Japanese “Maritime Self-Defense Force maintains one of the largest surface fleets in the world containing 51 major surface combatants.” Additionally, South Korea’s “naval forces total 23 major warships.” However, as impressive as these allied forces might be in a combined defense against China, it is not clear that all would be motivated by the same overt hostile action from Beijing as would the U.S. – like invading Taiwan. Furthermore, these arguments address the status quo and not the dynamic circumstance of a growing PLAN.

A Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report starts to chip away at the notion that there is a comfortable technology advantage for the U.S. In the CSIS analysis entitled “China’s Third Aircraft Carrier Takes Shape,” the authors describe a new larger carrier designated Type 003 as employing many of the same technologies that the latest American carriers boast. The U.S. Navy’s new aircraft carrier, the Gerald R. Ford class, uses an electromagnetic aircraft launching system (EMALS) allowing for faster launches, “reduced maintenance, and increased energy efficiency.” As the researchers explain:

“Rumors suggest that China intends to leapfrog past steam catapults by outfitting the Type 003 with an EMALS-style system…The increased size of the Type 003 paired with an improved launch system opens the door to a larger and more diverse carrier airwing. While it will be a couple of years before aircraft find their home on the Type 003, the airwing may include airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, such as the KJ-600.  Should this materialize, it would significantly enhance the PLAN’s situational awareness and warfighting capabilities.”

In his commentary in Naval News, H.I. Sutton underscores the increase in capability of the new Chinese aircraft carrier, saying, “the Chinese Navy is radically modernizing its capabilities. Chief among these is a fleet of aircraft carriers.” Sutton goes on to point out the “new aircraft carrier being built in Shanghai is significantly larger than the two currently in service with the Chinese Navy.” The point is that with time, the “relative capability” between America’s naval capability and the PLAN with its technological advances and growing quantity will start to converge.

Combine the threat of a Beijing advantage in numbers of warfighting vessels and the problems the Navy has to get their shipbuilding program – superior technology or not – approved through Congress, and the dilemma faced by Navy leadership is daunting. According to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service’s (CRS) June 21, 2021, report, there seems to be a disconnect between the goal of a 355-ship objective by 2025 and the course the Navy is on as indicated by its FY 2022 budget submission. The CRS report said:

“Another issue for Congress concerns the adequacy of the Navy’s FY2022 shipbuilding request relative to the Navy’s emerging force-level goal. As noted earlier, the total of eight new ships requested for FY2022 is one more than the total of seven new ships that were projected for FY2022 under the Navy’s FY2021 budget submission, about two less than steady-state replacement rate for a 355-ship Navy (which is about 10 ships per year), and four less than the 12 new ships shown in the Trump Administration’s December 9, 2020, shipbuilding document.”

Representative Elaine Luria (D-VA), the vice-chair of the House Armed Services Committee, expressed what many in Congress are thinking when she told the U.S. Naval Institute:

“And I can envision the day when we wake up, and people are looking around saying, where’s the aircraft carrier, where are our ships and aircraft, because China has potentially just invaded Taiwan or taken other aggressive action against us or our allies–and it would be too late at that point, these are investments we need to make today.”

Very few would make the case today that the U.S. Navy, with its 296 ships, is not the most powerful and capable in the world. The true test will be when the Chinese Communist Party believes that it can do what it likes in the Indo-Pacific region. To ensure it is less likely China acts on the belief, the U.S. Navy must keep the balance between the number of battle-ready vessels and technology advantage keeping the intersection of the two lines on the graphic moving to the right.  America’s technological superiority must be maintained while the U.S. Navy fleet size grows, albeit modestly.

The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.

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Read more from Dave Patterson.





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