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.
So, how should we evaluate naval power? The number of platforms clearly matters, and yet calculating a fleet's strength is about more than crunching the numbers. By our count (taken from GlobalSecurity.org), the PLAN boasts 1,045 vessels of all types—more than double the number available to the United States. According to the Naval Vessel Register, the US Navy is currently comprised of 287 ships, of which 257 are in full commission and ready for service. Add in the 163 civilian-crewed non-combatant vessels of the Military Sealift Command (51 of which are laid up in reduced operating status) and the grand total is 450 ships at US policymakers' disposal.
But using such figures to rate the PLAN as twice the strength of the US Navy is clearly nonsensical. And indeed, the figure of 1000+ Chinese vessels includes surveillance vessels, oceanographic survey ships and tugboats (not to mention creaky old scows that would contribute little in a fleet-on-fleet engagement).
So what about Secretary Gates’ use of tonnage as a reliable indicator of overall capability? Well, if it were, Danish shipping firm Maersk Line would boast a fleet far more imposing than the US Navy. Emma Maersk, the biggest freighter in a 500-ship fleet, tips the scales at 156,907 tons—over half again the displacement of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, which comes in at a petite 98,235 tons. Indeed, some super-sized crude carriers displace a remarkable 550,000 tons. Yet clearly, no one would mistake such behemoths for warships.
Displacement is a crude measuring stick even among combatants. The Spanish Armada far outweighed the English Navy and yet Medina-Sidonia's ponderous men-of-war found themselves outranged, outgunned and outmanoeuvred when they attempted to invade the British Isles in 1588.
Historian Peter Padfield estimates that Howard and Drake's fleet commanded a decisive two-to-one advantage in long guns over the Armada.Though smaller than their adversaries, English men-of-war boasted a far superior ratio of firepower to tonnage. In a hypothetical fight between a (now-retired) Iowa-class battleship, the premier surface combatant of its day, and today's DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers, bet on the Burke every time. Speedy long-range antiship missiles would trump the Iowa's enormous weight of shot unless the battleship managed to close in to gun range. Displacement: 58,000 tons for the dreadnought, 9,494 tons for the latest DDG-51s.
None of this is lost on Beijing. In fact, Chinese commanders count on employing packs of small, nimble, hard-hitting fast attack boats to contest an adversary's attempts to impose sea control along the mainland seaboard. Stealthy Type 022 Houbei catamarans displacing about 220 tons are designed specifically to use hit-and-run tactics against larger warships. Armed with long-range anti-ship cruise missiles, they punch well above their weight. US naval forces operating close to Chinese shores disregard craft like the Houbeis at their peril.
Size matters, then, but it isn't everything. Manpower is another related statistic that can again be misleading when taken in isolation. The US Navy's authorized manpower comes to 329,000 men and women, the US Marine Corps another 202,000. This is around double the total end-strength for the Chinese sea services. It takes more sailors to man a heavier fleet, and the Marines pack a hefty punch of their own. But again, much depends on operational circumstances. Unless a fleet encounter involves ground operations, for example Marines embarked in amphibious transports, it contributes little to the outcome. (Marine pilots embarked in carrier air wings are another matter).
So the most we can say for tonnage and manpower as yardsticks is this: if two fleets are built for the same purposes and missions and one displaces more than the other, then the heavier fleet is probably the stronger. Bigger ships generally carry more munitions, more fuel and more protection, which translates into the ability to fight for longer across greater distances and absorb more damage. That's probably what Gates meant to convey. But this is no ironclad rule, as the example of the Armada shows. Shipbuilding and weapons-development philosophies make an enormous difference.
But all this speculation over a navy’s fighting power could be redundant depending on another critical factor—where a fight takes place. One navy doesn’t necessarily need to match another one on paper. Seldom, if ever, will an entire navy battle another (especially in a place where it can’t augment its strength with land-based air, sea and missile assets). So to prevail, a fleet only needs to be stronger at one particular point on the map.
If that point lies in home waters, so much the better for the defender. In the 1890s, sea-power theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan implored the United States to construct a navy powerful enough to dominate the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico and to defeat the largest hostile fleet (probably British or German) likely to attempt mischief in US waters. If the United States wanted to safeguard shipping lanes connecting US East Coast seaports with the Far East, proclaimed Mahan, it needed a navy able to ‘fight, with reasonable chances of success, the largest force likely to be brought against it’ in the Caribbean or the Gulf. To ‘maximize the power of offensive action,’ which was ‘the great end of a war fleet,’ he said the United States needed a modest force of ‘capital ships’ capable of ‘taking and giving hard knocks’ in a toe-to-toe fight.
Mahan, then, was unconcerned about outbuilding the entire British Royal Navy or German High Seas Fleet. As a regional fleet, the US Navy merely needed enough armoured warships to win the battle most likely to take place in the sea lanes leading to the Central American canal then under construction. Similar logic guides Chinese naval strategy today. The PLAN only needs sufficient strength to prevail against the largest naval contingent likely to challenge it in sea areas Beijing deems important, most notably the Yellow, East China and South China seas. China need not win—or even run—a ship-for-ship arms race with the United States and US allies such as Japan to achieve its goals.
As long as the PLAN contents itself with fighting within range of shore-based aircraft, small surface and subsurface combatants and antiship missiles, that weaponry must be factored into the fleet's overall strength. As Gates pointed out, the all-nuclear US submarine force can fight at great distances. But the PLAN has amassed an even larger undersea fleet optimal for lurking in nearby waters—the waters that will count in any future Sino-American clash. Nor do all the aircraft carriers and missile-toting destroyers in the world mean much if the US Pacific Fleet dare not venture within range of Chinese anti-ship ballistic missilesand so can’t bring its offensive firepower to bear.
So, who has the strongest navy? The perhaps unsatisfying answer is that it really does depend. It matters little whether the United States or China owns the largest fleet on paper—what matters is which nation can mass superior combat power in critical waters in conjunction with allied forces.
By charting the total inventory of major combatants on either side, the IISS study probably comes closest to an accurate assessment because it at least tries to gauge combat potential, counting the ships best positioned to determine the outcome of a fleet engagement. Even so, there’s no substitute for aggregating all relevant data on fleet composition, taking into account the political, strategic and geographic context unique to maritime Asia. Each navy commands considerable advantages; neither holds an obvious decisive edge.
Kaplan, the Economist, Gates and Roughead have started a debate that teaches a valuable lesson about evaluating Chinese and other nations’ sea power. Analysts must take care not to rely on (or cherry pick) indicators that either inflate or underestimate the progress of Chinese naval modernization. The complexity and dynamism of the PLAN defies easy description or prognosis. PLAN-watchers and the statesmen they advise around Asia and the rest of the world must strive for a nuanced, multidimensional, geographically informed understanding of naval power, lest they base their strategies on faulty assumptions.
James 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 expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the Naval War College or the US government.