Understanding Asia-Pacific Sea Power
Image Credit: US Navy

Understanding Asia-Pacific Sea Power


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.

June 16, 2011 at 23:11

Hi..James Holmes/Yoshihara. It would be interesting to know why Japan has to get herself involved with the US against China. I believe China has no plans for war with Japan over the Senkaku islands. But probably she might in the case of Taiwan but why should Japan get involved? There are no big territorial issues between China/Japan unlike the Kuriles.

Could it be that the US forced a treaty upon Japan to serve US interest after their defeat in WW2 ? Or is it ideology that beckons them ? Or is it something else ?

Wouldn’t China be just as keen as Japan and the US to want to keep the sealanes in East China and South China seas free?

You’re both Associate Professors of Strategy,it would be interesting to hear from you if you would oblige us.

Ivan, Australia

December 27, 2010 at 19:17


Brian Glenn
November 23, 2010 at 11:51

Distiller, I agree with your overall evaluation. however, the “toys amassed in the south Pacific” will lend influence upon the policy and political decisions of China’s neighbors. gaining acquiescence from Tokyo,Jakarta,Hanoi via a show of force by the PLAN could allow battles to be won without any having been fought.

Dan Kemp
November 20, 2010 at 02:57

I’m agreeing with John regarding the issue of an Iowa-class battleship’s survivability. It would not be a duel of 16″ guns versus missiles. Remember, these ships were upgraded in the 1980′s with surface to surface missiles of their own, plus the Phalanx CIWS. Before they put to sea again (and I in my gun-loving heart maintain hopes for Wisconsin and Iowa), those systems would be refitted.

The example also fails to take into account the incredible armor and damage-control capabilities of a full-size capital ship. This is something that few people remember because it has been so long since such a ship was gainfully employed.

Yes, the Chinese can make it unpleasant for foreign navies to enter what it sees as its territorial waters. This was also true of the Japanese Empire, and look how that worked out.

I disagree that US naval upgrades must come at the expense of our land forces. The ability to sustainably place ground forces on disputed territory is the mark of a superpower. Sailing off a hostile coast or bombing an enemy capital is only part of a balanced-force solution.

John Samford
November 15, 2010 at 15:07

“US Pacific Fleet dare not venture within range”

I’m not an expert but I do know what air to air refueling means. It means there is no such thing as out of range. B-2′s bombed Iraq after taking off from the American heartland. They can bomb Peking after taking off from the heartland also.
Another observation is that When Admiral Cunningham was criticiZed for losing so many ships during the evacuation of Crete he responded that a new ship can be built in a year or two. The reputation of the Royal navy took centuries to build and was worth a few ships to maintain.
What would have happened if the ‘Jarvis Bay’ was a PLAN ship? The US Navy has ruled the waves for the last 55 years. For 100 years before that they held their own. That is how you build a tradition of winning.
A Navy IS NOT an Army. So long as the Chi-coms call their navy an “Army Navy” it will be a joke. No matter how large it gets or what sort of wonder weapons they carry.
Last, a Burk Class could NOT sink an Iowa class battleship. Period. You sink battleships by blowing holes in the hull and letting water in. Blowing holes in the deck and letting air in doesn’t do it. Read a little navel history. In WW2 many Battleships were sunk by aircraft. In almost every case it was torpedos that did the trick. The Arizona and an old Greek BB plus some Italian BB’s were put on the bottom of a harbour by bombs. All except the Arizona were raised. The only BB sunk at sea while under way was a captured Italian BB that was undermanned by 95% It was hit by a Nazi ‘smart bomb’ and burned because there wasn’t enough crew on board to put out the fire. Supposedly a Stuka sank a Soviet BB in harbor, but there seems to have been some controversy over that. The Nazi claim it happened, the Soviets claimed it didn’t. Both governments noted for their propaganda.
Plus any war between the USA and China ( god forbid. two nations have never been more natural allies) will be total. It won’t be a map exercise or a bathtub brawl. Chinese S2S sites will be taken out immediately, if not sooner. SSN’s will be sitting off all major ports hoping a PLAN target steams by. CBG’s will be running Alpha strikes on air fields. The USAF is not going to sit and watch. What the authors have done here is worse then comparing apples and oranges. It is comparing apple stems to orange peels.

November 14, 2010 at 09:05

I like the analysis. For this fleet-on-fleet scenerio the criticality is in who launches first. We have the arsenal of Harps, Harms and Tasms to decimate their bigger ships and smaller fast movers if we can take them out before they launch. Still our Aegis defense is nothing to discount should any do. This is a good armchair problem, how to draw their little boats and corvettes and such out to deploy, and then us getting in the first hits out in the open before they can release. This would require a very bold and nimble fleet commander who, while international tensions peer over the brink, can quietly bring his firepower up to bear, and kinda Pearl Harbor-like, get in a good swipe before the stuff hits the fan. If nothing else, the results will be diversion of (China’s) resources to the sea control mission that would be otherwise employed elsewhere.

James Holmes
October 29, 2010 at 05:06

But if the administration is serious about updating its relationships, it will need also to indicate it can respond flexibly to the changing dynamics of the region. For example, the headquarters of US Forces in Japan, along with the air and naval headquarters, are located on the main island of Honshu (and without nearly the controversy of the forces stationed at Futenma). This raises the question of how US policymakers can ease the strains in relations between the two nations and the region. The answer is simple follow the example of the base on Honshu by maintaining the presence without problems and removing the problematic Futenma base. After which the Japanese will begin to play an active role in mediating on behalf of the US. Thus China first and foremost will no longer be a threat to Japan and the US can continue to provide peace and protection for Japan and the surrounding region as a whole.

James Holmes
October 29, 2010 at 04:17

The United States presence in the Asian-Pacific region has been the source of many conflicts in the past. Such as the debate over the Futenma base in Okinawa, (which should be disbanded immediately because it serves absolutely no military purpose.) Contrary to this the US should/will still maintained one-fifth of its military force approximately 250,000 personnel whom are stationed in South Korea as well as around the nation itself in order to protect the Strait of Malacca. Protecting this strait from all pirates, terrorists and rogue nation. The Strait of Malacca is the most strategic waterway in all of Asia with over 60,000 ships transiting annually through its waters, carrying half of the world’s oil supply and 90 percent of the oil imported to China, Japan and South Korea.’ The protection of this waterway is the most important matter in the region.

October 28, 2010 at 18:24

Sorry, but this article is way too shallow to even scrape the issue.

There are two sides to the game:
(1) — China’s desire to keep the USN away from the WestPac and Asian littorals.
(2) — And China’s need to keep open the SLOCs to their Malayan, African, South-West Asian, South American, and maybe European “regions of special interest”, plus protect their interests there.

China is working on (1), and this can be achieved relatively easily. In fact, I’d say that the South China Sea is already a no-go area. And in maybe five years max all the waters inside the barrier island line Japan – Formosa – Philippines will in case of war be a no-go area for surface units. China will rule those waters with FACs, SSKs, anti-ship missiles of all kind, aerial assets of all kind. Not much can be done about that.

But what does that give China? Nothing. Because the real prize is the Chinese ability for power projection and to secure their SLOCs to the above mentioned regions. And here China is still close to nowhere. The key to break out of the above mentioned barrier island chain, outside of which the USN SSNs, CBGs and aerial assets would wait. Not to forget other SEA navies, and India. There are only a very few choke points where a break through would be possible – the spots for “decisive battles”. Now, China of course knows this and they try to get around it by building fleet stations abroad in friendly/vassal countries, like in Burma, Pakistan, other places. Or try to control key deep water choke points thru politcal maneuvers, like off East Timor. But like Japan in the first half of the 20th century, China will look south towards the Malay Archipelago and into the Indian Ocean.

The crucial elements to watch are Chinese SSNs, then integrated Chinese CBGs, Chinese long-range aerial ISR assets, Chinese long-range amphibious and long-range air assault/airlift capability, and Chinese orbital ISR and com-relay capabilities. What toys the Chinese amass in the South China Sea isn’t really interesting.

Juan Caruso
October 24, 2010 at 11:27

Mr. Holmes and Mr. Yoshihara,

Of all our potential enemies, how could we expect the homeland of Sun Tzu to wage naval battles as done historically? Even third-tier countries know better than to stick with an obsolete paradigm.

Since China is the straw man, let us consider a more enlightened strategy for naval supremacy. First, suppose China were to park an aircraft carrier in Mexico’s (Baja) port of Ensenada during a scheduled port visit for multinational wargames wit Mexican forces.

Step two, pirate vessels begin to attack U.S. inbound and outbound maritime vesels in international waters off our west coast (from unflagged motherships of course). While lawyers in Washington debate our legal rights under modern law and the U.N. Security Council meets, and Adm. Roughead is held on a leash, the number of pirate vessels grows geometrically.

Then, we realize we have been thinking in a box? That would seem slightly late, gentlemen. We have a new naval problem to solve. At its heart may be our own lawyers.

October 23, 2010 at 03:42

Sorry, I meant to write “Billion-plus warship” rather than “multi-billion”. I’m using the Arleigh Burke class as a benchmark, but what I meant to suggest was that shore batteries are relatively cheap, and certainly not worth sacrificing any modern line unit to in the interests of gunfire support. In fact, it’s impractical given the cost of a modern warship to even do gunfire support unless you have a significant objective in mind that involves other than line units, such as a beach assault/landing.

October 22, 2010 at 13:45

The United States is right, for now. Projection of seapower is next to impossible without carriers, and every navy knows it – it isn’t only because of their expense that they’re so heavily protected when they go to sea in a task group. Without carrier-based air, a nation’s ability to project seapower beyond the littoral is limited to shelling the beaches – and to do even that you must often risk a multi-billion dollar warship within range of shore batteries.

October 22, 2010 at 12:35

This article is full of details and appears to contains convincing analysis with wide-ranging topics and historical facts comparisions. But,if we were to look at the western Pacific as a place where the people of China and the rest of the Asia Pacific people who just want outsiders to stop meddling in the neighborhood. The US’s business is in the US which is urgently needs to be tended to as these out-of-touch think-tanks(a tank of what?)were trying to look busy. Its time to put all these nonsense to rest and start doing things that will help the daily lives of the people. These dreams and phantom pursues are nothing but a habitual dose of self-deception. It is always safer to walk on real(solid)ground even when it is a bumpy one.

October 22, 2010 at 04:32

Japan would have no need to fear China as a military threat. Not only because of Kadena’s as well as Yokosuka’s military superiority as far as weaponry and technology but furthermore those two bases could protect and defend Japan themselves. All of the bases on Okinawa could disappear and Japans security would still remain. Specifically at the Futenma base which faces the other direction from all of East Asia and would serve absolutely no military value in its present state as a base or during the event of an attack of Japan’s borders.

Stefan Stackhouse
October 21, 2010 at 22:44

It is becomming increasingly clear that policymakers in Washington have grossly, and maybe fatally, underestimated the long-term threat in the Western Pacific, and the level of naval forces that the US needs in the Pacific to counter that long-term threat. They have also overestimated the importance (to real long term US national strategic interests) and extent of the threats on the Eurasian mainland, and have wasted far too many resources playing around in places that don’t really matter. The US urgently needs to disengage from most of its commitments on the Eurasian mainland, downsize its Army, and reallocate what will be increasingly scarce budgetary resources toward building up its Pacific fleet. Failure to do so will lead to a catastrophe.

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