With the advent of the Type 041 Yuan-class diesel sub and Type 056 corvette, China now has two platforms for which it is already capable of series production and for which the unit costs are likely to drop significantly in coming years. The export version of Russia’s Steregushiy-class corvette, called Tigr, currently stands at around U.S. $150 million per vessel. As China’s Type 056 production run continues to expand, it would not be a surprise to eventually see the PLAN’s unit cost end up in the U.S. $110-120 million per vessel cost range, which would make the Type 056 a serious export competitor to the Tigr and other smaller Russian warships.
China’s naval shipbuilding industry has advanced to the point that it can series produce modern diesel submarines, landing platform docks (LPDs), destroyers, frigates, corvettes, and fast attack craft, albeit with some imported components for a number of key systems. The ongoing series production of Type 041 SSKs, Type 071 LPDs, Type 052 destroyers, and Type 056 corvettes strongly suggests that China’s military shipbuilders have rapidly assimilated commercial innovations such as modular construction.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Chinese naval shipbuilding faces several challenges moving forward. Most notably, six major questions remain:
1. Does Beijing have the political will to continue devoting substantial and growing resources to naval modernization?
2. Can China achieve requisite technical advances in weapons systems, propulsion, and military electronics?
3. Can China master the technologies needed to build nuclear submarines capable of surviving in a conflict with U.S. and Russian boats?
4. Can it build an aircraft carrier with catapults that would allow it to maximize the strike and air combat capabilities of the J-15 fighter it is likely to carry?
5. Will the Chinese leadership be willing to invest political and financial capital in establishing intensive and realistic training for the PLAN and provide diplomatic support for establishment of sustained access to facilities in key areas such as the Indian Ocean region?
6. Will continued weakness in the global ship market prompt Beijing to capitalize on the availability of shipyard space to further increase the pace of military shipbuilding?
China’s military shipbuilders are showing that they can meet Beijing’s current call for warships and could produce more if given the mandate and the resources. The U.S. strategic rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific will need more than rhetoric if it is to remain credible in the face of China’s potential to rapidly produce modern warships.
The Pentagon should consider adjusting the U.S. Navy’s ship acquisition programs in response. As Chinese warships become better, the numbers ratio between the PLAN and U.S. Navy combatants will become increasingly important. Given that shipbuilding is an industry where lead times can be many years, now is the time for Washington to begin responding to China’s warship production improvements and prepare strategically for further naval advances that Beijing is likely to unveil over the next 2-3 years.