The Chinese navy’s surface forces are on the march. Destroyers, frigates, corvettes, fast-attack craft, and, most recently, the newly commissioned aircraft carrier comprise the surface fleet. Over the past two decades, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) has put to sea four Sovremenny-class guided-missile destroyers procured from Russia, along with ten new classes of indigenously built destroyers and frigates. Some of the latter ship types have entered serial production, adding mass to the fleet. This is an impressive feat by any standard.
The PLA Navy’s metamorphosis from a coastal defense force into a modern naval service has riveted the attention of the U.S. defense community. In 2009 the Office of Naval Intelligence — a body not known for hyperbole — described the advances of China’s surface fleet as “remarkable.” Similarly, the Pentagon’s most recent annual report on Chinese military power notes the “robust” buildup of PLA Navy major combatants since 2008.
The Liaoning carrier understandably captures the public imagination. But the true vanguard of the PLA Navy’s prowess will be its surface combatants — the workhorses of any navy — that will make China’s turn to the seas felt in maritime Asia and beyond. In the coming years, these warships will serve as pickets guarding the carrier, project power on their own in surface action groups, maintain a visible presence in disputed waters, defend good order at sea in distant theaters, and conduct naval diplomacy around the world.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Yet debate persists over this metamorphosis. Skeptics doubt the PLA Navy will translate its growing material heft into real combat effectiveness. One sanguine view holds that the U.S. Navy surface fleet is more than a match for any rival in the contest for sea control — the arbiter of any naval war — and will remain so for the foreseeable future. The implication is that while Beijing may be able to exact a price from the U.S. Navy for attempting to use the seas and airspace in China’s environs, the United States will still command the seas when the chips are down.
At the tactical level, this comforting narrative holds that U.S. naval forces remain able to land a devastating blow before opposing warships get close enough to fire their first shot. In a fleet-on-fleet engagement, for example, carrier-based warplanes would unleash missiles at enemy surface combatants from standoff distances, meaning beyond the engagement range of the opponent’s anti-ship arsenal. This scenario conforms to the longstanding American doctrinal preference for shooting the archer before the archer can let fly his arrow.
This tactical and technological margin of superiority will endure and perhaps even widen, so goes this storyline, letting the U.S. Navy retain its dominant position in maritime Asia.
We’re not so sure.