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Why China’s Navy is a Threat

Sceptics downplaying China’s growing maritime strength are making a mistake. South-east Asian policymakers should ignore them.

By James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara for

Civilian academics who study military affairs like to hold forth on tactical matters. But this can lead to misguided advice. Exhibit A: Prof. Bernard Loo of Singapore's Rajaratnam School of International Relations recently maintained that there's 'less than meets the eye' to the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) combat reach in South-east Asia. Now, he insists, 'is not the time to press the panic button.'
 
This upbeat appraisal rests on several flimsy assumptions and claims. If they heed Loo's advice, South-east Asian governments that can ill afford complacency will seriously misjudge the Chinese maritime challenge. They need not panic, but they must cope with China's waxing naval might—starting now.
 
First of all, Loo deprecates 'an alleged aircraft carrier-killing cruise missile,' suggesting a sea-skimming anti-ship missile with a range of a few score miles. But the anti-ship missile that vexes China-watchers is an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), a weapon whose range, speed and hitting power dwarf that of any cruise missile. Estimates vary, but should the PLA perfect its ASBM, Chinese racketeers could pound away at ships underway up to 2,000 miles away.
 
What would this mean? It means that PLA forces could range the entire South China Sea from mobile launchers positioned on Hainan Island or elsewhere along the South China coast. Loo counsels Southeast Asian navies to simply wait out a Chinese Navy that lacks a robust logistics fleet. But if PLA forces can use land-based weaponry to sink ships in port or cruising the South China Sea, then this amounts to a strategy of defeat and destruction.
 
But sea power is anyway about more than the fleet. Even if the PLA Navy proves unable to mount a continuous presence in the South China Sea—an assumption growing more doubtful by the day—systems able to influence events at sea from the land provide continuous virtual presence throughout the spectrum of conflict, from peacetime to wartime. This versatility explains the emphasis Chinese strategists now place on extended-range shore-based weaponry.
 
Next, Loo claims that navies typically follow a three-phase tactical training and deployment cycle. This means one-third of the fleet is deployed at any given time, another third is refitting and unavailable for sea service and the remaining third is working up for deployment. From this Loo concludes that estimates of Chinese naval power wildly overstate the numbers of ships and aircraft available to Beijing at any given time.
 
There are two problems with this. For one, the 3:1 ratio isn't an iron law of naval operations but a rule of thumb derived from standard US Navy practice. But the US Navy, today's only global navy, is encumbered with commitments far more demanding than those confronting any regional fleet. As a result, American warships incur far greater wear-and-tear in the course of their duties. That requires frequent shipyard periods to refit.
 

Navies like China's that mostly operate close to home can expect to have a bigger proportion of their fleet available at any particular moment. The maintenance burden is smaller and the time spent in port greater, allowing for generous overhaul time and crew rest.
 
For another, even if the 3:1 rule did apply to all navies, far more than one-third of the fleet can be combat-ready at any moment. In 2004 the US Navy simultaneously deployed seven of its eleven aircraft-carrier strike groups for 'Operation Summer Pulse,' a massive exercise spanning five theaters across the globe. If the US fleet can overcome the rigors of extended deployments and upkeep, a Chinese Navy with more modest missions could probably do so as well.
 
Bottom line: Prof. Loo takes maritime specialists to task for exaggerating PLAN force totals by a factor of three, but he understates available PLA Navy combat strength by half.
 
Moreover, Loo seems to think the US Pacific Fleet can easily mass overwhelming strength in the South China Sea to beat back a Chinese naval offensive. At first glance this appears reasonable. The navy recently finished realigning its force posture, concentrating some 60 percent of its assets in the Pacific. But at 287 vessels, the US Navy is now smaller in raw numbers than before World War I, and it is dispersed across the globe discharging countless missions.
 
This declining fleet must contend with a PLA Navy that has spent the last 15 years devising capabilities—of which the ASBM represents only one—aimed at exploiting US weaknesses in antisubmarine warfare, mine countermeasures and other niche areas. The result? Chinese mariners can now impose steep costs on the US Pacific Fleet, contesting its ability even to reach a theater of combat like the South China Sea—much less to wage war effectively once there.
 
True, the PLA Navy exhibits weaknesses of its own such as at-sea refueling and rearming. It therefore behooves South-east Asian governments to start exploiting such vulnerabilities. Heaving a sigh of relief at China's supposed maritime weakness represents precisely the wrong approach. Government policymakers should beware of academics who purport to speak with authority on tactical and technical matters—drawing conclusions their experience and expertise does not support.
 
 
  James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara are associate professors of strategy at the US 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.