Small Wars Journal

China’s navy is more than its ships and subs

The Congressional Research Service’s (CRS) periodic report on China’s naval modernization is now circulating. Authored by Ronald O’Rourke and dated November 30, 2011, CRS’s latest update on the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) includes current analysis of PLAN shipbuilding and weapons developments; Chinese maritime capabilities from and air and land-based systems; a discussion of the U.S. Air-Sea Battle Concept; and other U.S. responses to Chinese naval developments.

As usual, O’Rourke’s report presents various tables which display PLAN shipbuilding trends by ship class, and projections of China’s fleet in 2015 and 2020. According to the report, China plans little growth in ship numbers during this decade although that will mask the retirement of obsolete vessels and their replacement with modern designs. China’s attack submarine inventory will be a notable exception; this force should grow to 70+ boats by 2020. This compares to the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) projection of about 50 U.S. attack submarines in 2020, a number which the CBO forecasts will decline to 40 by 2030. Even if China’s submarine readiness rate is lower that the U.S. Navy’s, by 2020 available Chinese submarines are likely to substantially outnumber U.S. subs on station in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and on both sides of the Strait of Malacca.

The traditional naval net assessment is a comparison of ship types, numbers, displacement, readiness, crew training, etc. with ship inventories themselves the focus of attention. That made the most sense when naval munitions where shells and dumb bombs.

Today however, the real stars of the show are Chain's precision anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, most of the them with over-the horizon ranges, supersonic speeds, and delivered by platforms ranging from patrol craft, submarines, and surface ships to a variety of land-based aircraft. A report on China’s shipbuilding risks minimizing the most important aspect of Chinese naval modernization, namely the PLA’s focus on missiles, which it has fitted to every imaginable naval, land, and air platform. O’Rourke does include a discussion of China’s missiles in his report, including a detailed section on the DF-21D medium range anti-ship ballistic missile. But with missiles now the stars and the ships more like supporting actors, China’s missiles developments deserve a much fuller treatment, such as found in Vitaliy Pradun’s research published by the Naval War College Review.

Another area of China naval development that needs greater exposition is China’s naval target acquisition, battle command and control, weapons coordination and cuing. O’Rourke and other naval analysts would do well to explain Chinese operating concepts and systems related to acquiring and tracking U.S. and allied ships underway and how Chinese missile forces would then be coordinated. Such a description would undoubtedly reveal implications for U.S. space doctrine and U.S. capabilities (or lack thereof) for deep strikes against heavily defended continental targets.

O’Rourke’s latest report on the Chinese navy is a valuable description of its modernization. He covers, if briefly in some cases, a full range of issues that U.S. policymakers should consider. China’s ships and submarines, now just the middle of the “kill chain,” get most of the attention. It is the beginning and end of the kill chain, China’s ocean surveillance on one end and its high-performance missiles on the other, that need a fuller treatment.