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Chinese Naval Shipbuilding: Measuring the Waves

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Asia Defense

Chinese Naval Shipbuilding: Measuring the Waves

An interview with Andrew S. Erickson

Chinese Naval Shipbuilding: Measuring the Waves
Credit: U.S. Navy photo

After a six-century hiatus, sea power development may once again find its center of gravity in the Asia-Pacific. While the Trump Administration plans a naval buildup, China is already well into a buildup of its own. A new book from Naval Institute Press explains why Beijing is making such waves, how big they are, and how great they might become. To learn more, The Diplomat’s Editor-in-Chief Shannon Tiezzi interviewed Naval War College professor Andrew S. Erickson, the editor of Chinese Naval Shipbuilding.

Tell me about your book. I understand that it’s the sixth volume in the joint China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI)-Naval Institute Press (USNI) series, “Studies in Chinese Maritime Development.”

That’s right! It’s the product of two great historic centers of American thinking on seapower: Newport and Annapolis.

Here’s why we collaborated on this book: China’s maritime transformation is already making major waves. It’s not just one of this century’s most significant events, but part of an even greater sea change: for the first time in 600 years, sea power development may be flowing away from the Euro-Atlantic shipyards of the West. For the first time in nearly two millennia, it may be flowing toward a longtime land power that’s going seaward to stay. As Chinese mandarins and mariners chart their country’s new course, specificity is often scarce — yet ships are no abstraction. For all these reasons, it’s never been more important to assess what ships China can supply its navy and other sea forces with, today and tomorrow. From a Newport-based perspective, in particular, this raises three pressing questions: What are China’s prospects for success in key areas of naval shipbuilding? What are the likely results for China’s navy? What does this mean for the U.S. Navy (USN)?

To answer these questions, we assembled some of the world’s leading experts and linguistic analysts. Our contributors include sailors, scholars, and industry experts. They’ve commanded ships at sea, led naval programs ashore, seasoned intelligence analysts, toured Chinese vessels, invested in Chinese shipyards, and briefed leaders facing urgent national security decisions. China continues to lack transparency in important respects, but much has been revealed through such interdisciplinary analysis — a hallmark of CMSI efforts.

Accordingly, our contributors assess the impact of Beijing’s substantial economic resources, growing maritime focus, and uneven but improving defense industrial base on its prospects for success in key areas of naval shipbuilding; the likely results for China’s sea forces, particularly its navy; and the implications for the USN.

We do so in five thematic parts:

  • The first section surveys the foundation and resources for China’s naval shipbuilding, providing an overall framework.
  • The next three sections examine specialized subsets of China’s shipbuilding program: infrastructure, architecture and design, and impediments.
    • Section two, on shipyard infrastructure, surveys China’s vessel construction facilities and their production and evolution.
    • The third section covers Chinese naval architecture and design, from standards to production processes to civil-military disparities, and Beijing’s prospects for narrowing them through its preferred centralized approach.
    • Section four addresses remaining shipbuilding challenges for China.
  • The final section returns to the strategic level by offering alternative futures, conclusions, and takeaways.

How close is China’s navy to challenging America’s as the world’s largest (in numbers) and strongest (in capabilities)?

China’s shipbuilding industry is poised to make the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) the world’s second largest navy by 2020, and — if current trends continue — a combat fleet that in overall order of battle (i.e., hardware-specific terms) is quantitatively and even perhaps qualitatively on a par with that of the USN by 2030.

By imbibing lessons learned and underwritten by others, Beijing benefits from a second-mover advantage. Purchasing foreign naval systems, pushing licensed production well past contractual limits, and even engaging in cyber theft has allowed China to focus less on research, and more on development. It has “leap frogged” some naval development, engineering, and production steps to achieve tremendous cost and time savings by leveraging work done by the United States and other countries. We explore this process of “imitative innovation” in depth. At the same time, the PLAN’s growing fleet will incur a rising maintenance bill as the new ship classes mature, following the time-worn naval adage that “you buy a boat three times” as the costs of vessel ownership and upkeep surpass the outlays for the initial purchase.

China’s evolutionary approach — one of the benefits of building multiple kinds of ships rapidly — offers its architects and engineers broad exposure. It typically takes about 10 repeats in construction of a given type of ship to maximize production efficiency, however. China’s now engaged in longer production runs of fewer classes, which could reflect a change in its development process, and that it’s learning certain efficiencies.

Workforce quality – of paramount importance – remains a challenge; but for China in many respects it’s easier to attract workers than in the United States — particularly amid the current global commercial shipbuilding bust. An evolutionary approach to ship design also preserves flexibility amid uncertainty concerning what one’s potential adversaries will develop next. There are ways to offset uncertainties by employing common systems and subcomponents.

Most importantly, China’s sea forces have some significantly different missions than their American counterparts. In the words of Princeton professor Thomas Christensen, they are “posing problems” even without fully “catching up.” Quantity has a quality all its own in this regard. Across many realms, including industry, China is being disruptive: if not always by being good, then at least simply by being big. Presence matters considerably, and China can displace others through sheer numbers. Qualitative comparisons of naval systems will only matter in the case of an actual fight, which no one wants. Up to that point on the escalation ladder, China’s colossal bulk gives it dominance and initiative. We can see some of this in practice already in Beijing’s peacetime advances in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Chinese ship-design and -building progress is increasing the PLAN’s ability to contest sea control in a widening arc of the Western Pacific. And Chinese analysts continually probe for weaknesses to exploit; they regard satellite infrastructure as a particular vulnerability for an overseas navy such as the USN.

To what extent is the PLAN a global navy, rather than a regional one focused on regional issues (including in the South China Sea)? 

China’s core maritime focus remains on upholding its security interests and furthering its claims in the Near Seas. As the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence’s unclassified 2015 report and other authoritative analyses indicate, however, Beijing seeks to retain this focus while also adding an outer layer of far-seas operations. How much can be devoted to this outer layer is a question that merits continued attention. Since China clearly wants some degree of blue-water capabilities, nuclear propulsion will be increasingly desirable; although it remains a work in progress.

For a country that has played such a dramatic role in threatening aircraft carriers through its development of counter-intervention capabilities, it’s somewhat ironic how much China wants to develop its own aircraft carriers. These apex predators of the sea are also the most modularized naval system, one of the few ships that are relatively easy to upgrade over a considerable lifespan. China’s already shown it can build decent carrier hulls. But deck aviation platforms are primarily a conveyance for aircraft-delivered payloads. Payload delivery is essential to a fleet’s performance; so too is having infrastructure sufficient to support and sustain it. Challenges remain in such areas as electronics, maritime monitoring, and C4ISR. All are often underappreciated due to their subtlety and ubiquity of employment, but are nonetheless essential. They may be less amenable to China’s preferred approach of copying and emulation than are simpler structural systems. Chinese personnel are improving markedly in their training, but need to become still more proficient in using their equipment, including shipboard electronics. International sustainment system infrastructure is a necessary precondition for long-range sea power; Beijing is dipping its toe into these waters with its first overseas naval supply facility, in Djibouti.

Even amid China’s remaining challenges, however, it’s not too early for the USN to think more comprehensively about prospects for contested sea control. As China’s navy develops, in how many other regions of the world might America and allied forces find their naval presence undermined or even contested?

What is the relationship among Chinese naval, paranaval, and commercial shipbuilding?

Modern history has never before witnessed such rapid shipbuilding industry growth as China’s. From 2002-12, commercial shipbuilding output surged thirteen-fold. Beijing has largely met its goal of becoming the world’s largest shipbuilder by 2015. Yet progress is uneven, with military shipbuilding leading overall but with significant weakness in propulsion and electronics for both military and civilian applications. China’s commercial shipyards have achieved a massive (over)capacity in low-end ships, but remain limited in their ability to produce quality high-end, or high-value, merchant ships. Naval shipbuilding, by contrast, receives the best people, infrastructure, and resources; and needn’t compete on price for international buyers.

In some cases, at least, China’s preferred focus on commercial specifications may offer a “good enough” basis for military specifications, saving considerable effort. Some USN experts, in fact, now wish to minimize uniquely-military specifications, and instead create effective commercial specs that can serve military purposes. Which will be the more difficult challenge in practice: upgrading commercial specs to military level requirements; or the reverse? This remains a fascinating question.

In any case, in the “post-Peak-ship” era, China’s commercial shipbuilding industry has tremendous slack capacity. As Gabe Collins and Eric Anderson explain, the state is in part seeking to fill the void with naval, Coast Guard, and Maritime Militia shipbuilding. This allows for lucrative, stable government contracts; and in many ways, is easier than attempting to compete with South Korean and Japanese commercial shipyards to build offshore oil and gas platforms, LNG tankers, and other complex ship projects. Over the next 5-10 years, China’s non-commercial shipbuilding sector is likely to enjoy both quantitative and qualitative expansion. Although naval ships will require far greater technical sophistication and effort, China’s already cranking out scores of relatively simple Coast Guard and Maritime Militia hulls. Concerning examples include China’s construction of: (1) very large, partly-armed “mega-cutters”; and (2) dozens of Maritime Militia vessels of 500-tons and above with reinforced hulls, powerful water cannons — as well as, reportedly, built-in armaments stores in some cases. Both types of paranaval vessels exploit all China’s advantages in shipyard capacity and “mixed economy” gray zone capabilities. Neighboring countries will be hard-pressed to cope with such advances if they don’t work closely with the United States and Japan.

What are the key challenges facing China’s shipbuilding industry today?

Shipbuilding occurs in a larger strategic, macroeconomic, and social policy environment. International and national priorities interact. Within Beijing’s strategic decision-making context over time, evolving ways of war and missions have shaped the design, development, outfitting, and deployment of PLAN ships. And — as Chris Carlson and Jack Bianchi emphasize — ships are the literal embodiment of Beijing’s naval strategy.

Specific Chinese shipbuilding plans and military standards looking out two-to-three decades are derived from the Weapons and Armament Development Strategy, a highly-classified document drafted by the General Armament Department and approved by the Central Military Commission. This integrative planning guidance includes sections assessing the international security environment, military equipment requirements, analysis of the strengths and weakness of Chinese armaments in relation to naval objectives, and assessments of scientific and technical development. In coordination with this overall guidance, esoteric but vital national, military, and industrial technical standards inform each Chinese warship’s course from conception to delivery.

For all these processes and specifications, China’s organizational efficiency and innovation capacity was one of the greatest areas of debate among our contributors. Skeptics stress that Chinese defense conglomerates remain “stove-piped” monopolies. Positioned atop key sectors, they don’t compete significantly despite periodic efforts at decentralization. This sclerosis hampers innovation. Chinese planners are trying to address such problems by applying Western examples (modeled on world-leading titans like Lockheed Martin and Boeing — as Julian Snelder explains). Yet the institutional culture arguably remains shaped by values, norms, and incentives lingering from the past.

Nevertheless, some Chinese shipbuilding programs are clearly achieving effective systems integration. The key appears to be having a strong program management office and manager. In China’s space industry, as Kevin Pollpeter and Mark Stokes relate, China’s top leadership engaged with such bureaucrats to ensure that the implementing organizations actually followed assigned standards. To better understand a given program’s prospects, one may examine the director, deputies, chief engineers, and key institutions involved (including the relevant ship institute). For China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, for instance, the key program management figures likely reside in the Seventh Academy and the military products division.

Finally, China can’t field a world-class blue water navy without improving its long-endurance propulsion systems. Particularly in the nuclear realm, its preferred approach of grafting foreign technologies piece-by-piece onto an increasingly domestically-manufactured base may hinder major progress. China’s currently struggling to achieve improvements in quietness, sensors, and other aspects of its SSNs and SSBNs. Lofty financial and technological hurdles would have to be surmounted for rapid improvement. To its credit, China has strong political will and determination in this area. There’s also potential for nuclear reactor technology transfer from Russia, particularly in the form of efforts to teach China to design and manufacture quieter pumps. But many of a submarine’s noise sources are generated in the secondary loops — where the steam is transformed into propulsion power and electricity. Improvements there have been a Chinese priority over the last decade, but open sources don’t clarify the current status. Beijing nonetheless has a vast wealth of national resources to commit to this, and the single most important variable that could bring China these capabilities is a Russian willingness to share such expertise.

Is it fair to say that there is a naval “arms race” in the Asia-Pacific right now, with China’s neighbors scrambling to catch up to its rapid shipbuilding? 

For over a decade, China’s military-maritime modernization has influenced programmatic priorities in the Pentagon and across the Asia-Pacific. Following a two-decade hiatus in great sea power competition, USN planning is focusing anew on high-end warfare in mid-ocean waters against challenges to American sea control. As Ronald O’Rourke of the Congressional Research Service documents in his chapter, related new U.S. requirements include procuring attack submarines capable of penetrating contested waters; improving networked ASW capabilities; acquiring longer-range carrier-based platforms (manned and unmanned) and weapons; improving magazine depth and cost per shot for air and missile defense operations; enhancing electromagnetic warfare capabilities; and breaking kill chains by non-kinetic and kinetic means.

At the platform level, many of these developments particularly affect the USN surface force (e.g., ongoing restructuring of the LCS/new frigate program) and its concepts of operations (e.g., distributed lethality and arming warships more heavily with anti-surface weapons).

Elsewhere in the region, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force and Coast Guard have enjoyed modest budgetary increases. Both Washington and Tokyo are helping to strengthen the capacity of regional coast guards.

What other uncertainties confront American planners?

Beyond the challenges I’ve just discussed, it’s possible that emerging technologies might change naval warfare — and related Chinese thinking — dramatically. Disruptive changes since 1945 have included nuclear weapons, nuclear-powered submarines, night optics, satellite navigation (GPS) and precision-guided munitions, and persistent aerial surveillance. Typically, however, the initial adopter didn’t maintain a monopoly on the technology for long.

As Paul Scharre and Tyler Jost contend in their chapter, future outcomes may be affected by four key “wild card” competitions susceptible to disruptive technology advances — Hiding vs. Finding, Understanding vs. Confusion, Network Resilience vs. Degradation, and Hitting vs. Intercepting. Related questions include: Are there ways for these technologies to be married with operational concepts in their use to achieve truly disruptive approaches? (China’s “salami-slicing” off increments of disputed sovereignty claims with its Coast Guard and Maritime Militia is already a potent low-end example.) Will the results be truly revolutionary, or more incremental in practice? In any case, advances in China’s technology base, shipbuilding, and design would impact all four areas.

On your next trip to Washington, what will you recommend to U.S. policy-makers?

In publishing this book, we’ve sought to increase understanding of China, its shipbuilding, its navy, and what it all means. I’m pleased to report that it’s already found a place in key government offices. Busy officials and other interested readers should flip to the introduction, which summarizes our findings over the next 13 pages. Here are two key takeaways:

First, for blue water navies, numbers, capability, and presence all matter — there are no shortcuts that preserve sea power on the cheap. To keep the economically-vital, geopolitically pivotal portion of the global commons running through maritime East Asia peaceful and open, the USN must maintain a high level of ship-days there. Only with sufficient numbers of capable ships in the fleet will this be possible long-term.

Second, to help counter China’s salami-slicing tactics in the Near Seas, the United States should work to build allied and partner capacity and increase the frequency of its own patrols. Japan is a particularly important ally in these efforts. As O’Rourke observes in his chapter, non-lethal weapons such as water cannons, acoustic projectors, and active denial systems may be considered to afford USN surface combatants a more nuanced array of tactical options in “gray zone” contingencies—for instance, those involving the shadowing and harassment of U.S. special mission ships in international waters by Chinese Maritime Militia “fishing boats.”

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is professor of Strategy in the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, and an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. He is series editor of the Naval Institute Press book series “Studies in Chinese Maritime Development,” of which Chinese Naval Shipbuilding is the sixth volume. The views expressed here are his alone.