It's a sobering thought that even analysts steeped in naval affairs disagree about how to tally up who exactly has the strongest fleet. Writing in the Washington Post last month, Robert Kaplan declared in passing that China had constructed ‘the world's second-largest naval service, after only the United States.’
In contrast, though, other reputable commentators maintain that the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in fact now boasts the world's largest fleet. For example, in August, The Economist published a story titled ‘Naval Gazing’, noting that the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies said China now has more warships than the United States. And sure enough, accompanying the story was a graphic showing that the PLAN has edged ahead of the US Navy in terms of ‘major combatants.’
Surely seasoned defence officials have a reliable formula for comparing navies? Not necessarily. Speaking in front of the Navy Leaguein May, US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates questioned the need to keep investing in a mammoth fleet and rattled off statistics intended to convey the US Navy's overwhelming size and strength.
For example, he noted that the US Navy ‘operates 11 large carriers…In terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship.’ It ‘has 57 nuclear-powered attack and cruise missile submarine—again, more than the rest of the world combined.’ And ‘the displacement of the US battle fleet—a proxy for overall fleet capabilities—exceeds, by one recent estimate, at least the next 13 navies combined.’
According to US Chief of Naval Operations Gary Roughead, who spoke in Canberra recently, it will take years for the PLAN to master tactics and procedures for handling aircraft-carrier task forces at sea, even after a Chinese carrier does eventually take to the water. If carrier operations represent the gold standard for naval power, naval mastery remains a long way off for Beijing.
Top US defence officials are clearly trying to send foreign and domestic audiences a message: that the United States’ overwhelming material superiority, coupled with China's technological backwardness, will keep the peace in Asian waters. By implication, the United States and its allies can rest easy.
But faulty assumptions can in turn lead to faulty strategy.