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.
We beg to differ.
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.
The PLAN touts the Luyang II as the equal of the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, the US Navy's premier Aegis surface combatant (though whether it will live up to this billing is another matter.) The last of these DDGs joined the surface fleet in early 2007.
But there’s more to fleet development than destroyers. Ship construction has not stopped altogether; it has merely shifted around. China continues to lay down hulls for Type 054A Jiangkai II-class guided-missile frigates (FFGs), the most advanced ships of their type in the PLAN inventory. These FFGs are now entering service. GlobalSecurity.org projects that 12 Jiangkais will be in service by this year, 22 by 2015. The surface fleet clearly is not stagnating despite the halt in production of top-end combatants.
As with the submarine fleet, isolated statistics deceive.
Moreover, China has been pouring resources into refurbishing the decommissioned Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag, most likely as a training platform for naval aviators. The Varyag was reportedly completed without a propulsion plant and certainly suffered from years of neglect. Correcting such deficiencies consumes time, effort, and resources that might otherwise have gone into additional surface warships.
And this leaves aside the new-construction flattops Beijing has more or less admitted it’s pursuing. Competing demands on finite resources begin to explain China's on-and-off procurement process. Carrier construction is an enormous undertaking, and one that Chinese shipwrights have never before attempted. It is not at all surprising that the pace of manufacturing certain ship types would slacken to make way for high-profile projects like aircraft carriers.
Furthermore, the pause in destroyer construction would conform to the PLAN's history of ‘fleet experimentation.’ That is, the dearth of serious threats to maritime security affords the Chinese Navy the leisure to build small batches of ships of different configurations, take them to sea, evaluate their performance, and incorporate the lessons-learned into future classes. Shipbuilders thereby improve on strengths and compensate for past shortcomings.
That the PLAN simultaneously built two apiece of three classes of DDGs, then, is noteworthy. The Luyang II class in particular may be undergoing evaluation and redesign in keeping with longstanding practice. The likely result: a new, improved DDG.
This would fit another pattern in Chinese naval development: the trend toward larger-displacement warships. The PLAN has derived successively heavier and more sophisticated ships from the same basic hull design, much as the US Navy used the same hull for Spruance-class destroyers, Kidd-class guided-missile destroyers, and Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruisers from the 1970s through the 1990s. And indeed, judging from photos now making the rounds, it appears the PLAN may be pursuing combatants exceeding 10,000 tons' displacement.
These would be the biggest such vessels ever to slide down the ways in China. But such a bombshell would be nothing new. The PLAN sprang the Yuan submarine, the Type 022 Houbei fast patrol boat (a stealthy missile-armed catamaran), and the Luyang II itself on unsuspecting Western intelligence services. The only surprise would be if no further surprises lie in store. Serial production of heavy, long-range escorts is a logical step for Beijing as it lays the groundwork for aircraft-carrier task forces.
And the cautious, methodical approach to fleet development allows the Chinese naval leadership to hedge against premature investment in poor designs and systems. The reputation of the Chinese military-industrial complex for manufacturing substandard equipment confirms the wisdom of the go-slow approach. For example, China's Xia-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine has never conducted a single deterrent patrol since its debut in the 1980s. The Xia has been plagued by shoddy engineering and will likely be retired without ever performing its primary mission. Prudence inclines Chinese officials to guard against similar debacles.
In other words, the PLAN has been exploring a wide array of ship classes, combat systems, and weaponry, picking and choosing those best suited to Beijing's operational and strategic needs. The evident pause in construction is probably a gestation period while the naval establishment debates the pros and cons of certain technologies. It’s far too soon for the United States and its Asian allies and friends to heave a sigh of relief. The safest assumption for Western strategists is that Beijing's naval quest is simply entering another phase.
James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara are associate professors of strategy at the Naval War College and co-authors of Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to US Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are theirs alone.