At a conference last summer, a respected China scholar stated flatly that the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) halted development of its submarine fleet after taking delivery of the last of its Russian-built Kilo-class diesel attack boats in 2006. From such leading indicators he concluded that Beijing can do little more than issue ‘hollow threats’ against US naval operations in Asia. And it’s ‘hyperbole’ to think the Chinese military can contest US Navy access to regional waters.
This autumn, in a similar vein, some maritime specialists in places like Washington and Newport have taken to pointing out that the PLAN has built no new destroyers for its surface fleet for five years. Such reports imply, without quite coming out and saying it, that Beijing's naval project has stalled or been deliberately terminated. If so, other seafaring nations like the United States and Japan can relax their guard, sparing taxpayers the expense and hazards of competing with China on the high seas.
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To be sure, there’s a grain of truth to the speculation. Consider the no-new-submarines claim. The authoritative website GlobalSecurity.org shows that overall PLAN submarine totals remained nearly flat between 2007-2010. The subsurface fleet increased only marginally during this interval, rising from 62 to 63 boats. New construction barely outpaced the retirement of decrepit Cold War-era hulls.
But this is a momentary lull. Once the PLAN finishes shedding old assets, the submarine fleet will resume its upward trajectory. Estimates indicate that the navy will add 10 modern Song- and Yuan-class diesel subs by 2015 and an additional 10 by 2020. If such projections are accurate, the fleet will be 78 boats strong. Moreover, this leaves aside the possibility, fanned by photos now circulating among China-watchers, that the PLAN is preparing to unveil a new class of diesel boats based partly on older craft, partly on Russian designs.
By contrast, the Naval Vessel Register lists 54 US nuclear-powered attack submarines in commission, only 60 percent of which are stationed in the Pacific. This total may shrink given the strains on American acquisition budgets. Boat for boat, the US Navy undersea force remains superior to its emerging rival, but the weight of numbers is shifting increasingly toward China. This will remain true as long as the Chinese Navy remains concentrated in East Asia and the US Navy remains encumbered with worldwide commitments, attenuating the numbers available for deployment to any one trouble spot.
Next, consider surface combatants. A casual glance at Jane's Fighting Ships shows that destroyer construction has indeed ceased for now. Between 2001 and 2005, the PLAN laid down six guided-missile destroyer (DDG) keels, namely two Type 051C Luzhous, two Type 052B Luyang Is, and two Type 052C Luyang IIs. DDGs represent the core of Chinese surface action groups and can screen major platforms — Russian-built Sovremenny destroyers or, eventually, aircraft carriers — against air and submarine attack.