Is China’s Shipbuilding Capability a Threat to the U.S. Navy?


By James Holmes

The central link in China’s sea-power chain appears stout. By contrast, corrosion has attacked the central link in U.S. sea power and shows little sign of relenting. It will not until the American government, society, and armed forces make the conscious political choice to invest in shipbuilding anew.

At last: I think a zombie has been slain. Zombie in this context means an idea that’s hard to kill. You shoot it down coming from one commentator or institution and ten or a hundred others repeat it anyway. It shambles on despite the headshot. This particular ghoul is the fallacy that a navy’s combined tonnage—the amount of water its hulls displace—is somehow the decisive factor in naval warfare. The number of ships in the inventory somehow doesn’t matter much.

Well, no. You don’t hear this undead talking point much anymore, thankfully, now that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy has surpassed the U.S. Navy by ship count, a margin that will only widen in the coming years, while at the same time narrowing the gap in tonnage. Numbers and tonnage could ultimately be on China’s side. Sobriety may have taken hold regarding the naval balance. Admitting you have a problem represents the first step toward finding a solution.

And we do have a problem. This old, sore subject comes to mind now because of a story over at The War Zone last week spotlighting the disparity between U.S. and Chinese shipbuilding capacity. Joe Trevithick pores over a slide from an Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) presentation about the future of transpacific strategic competition. The slide purports to show that China can manufacture over two hundred times the shipping the United States can, measured by tonnage.

This is significant to say the least. It means China has amassed the capacity to outbuild the United States not just in warships but in merchantmen and by a gaping margin. On the naval side, extrapolating from current trends, the PLA Navy will field well over 400 vessels by the mid-2030s while the U.S. Navy dawdles in the low 300s. Massive shipbuilding capacity, furthermore, means China will find it far easier to repair battle-damaged ships than will the United States, which is struggling to maintain the fleet it has—let alone regenerate combat power in a war.

Advantage: China.

Nor should we overlook China’s ability to mass-produce commercial hulls. As historian Alfred Thayer Mahan depicts it, sea power is a chain connecting production at home with seaports abroad. Naval and merchant shipping together constitute the central, indispensable link in the sea-power chain. Break it and the whole enterprise flies apart. Merchantmen haul cargo in peacetime, carrying on foreign trade that enriches the nation and helps fund their naval protector. In wartime commercial vessels keep up trade while also acting as fleet auxiliaries, moving troops and war matériel around embattled zones.

The central link in China’s sea-power chain appears stout. By contrast, corrosion has attacked the central link in U.S. sea power and shows little sign of relenting. It will not until the American government, society, and armed forces make the conscious political choice to invest in shipbuilding anew.

So as it turns out, tonnage is an important measure of naval power. But that’s because it gives a contender’s leadership the option to manufacture, maintain, and repair lots of hulls, choosing types and sizes to fit its needs. Bigger may or may not be better. Tonnage, then, is more a measure of maritime industrial potential than of the fleet’s combat strength in being. To gauge a ship’s combat power you have to review its technical characteristics in detail. Its tonnage is one important variable. Larger hulls can carry more ammunition, fuel, and stores. Greater volume translates into the ability to stay at sea for longer intervals while dishing out more firepower.

But there are many, many other metrics to judge a warship’s fighting potential. Fleet-tactics sage Captain Wayne Hughes marks scouting, command-and-control, and weapons range as the critical determinants of tactical success or failure. Compared to a heavy combatant, a lighter opponent might feature better sensors, longer-range ordnance, or superior ability to coordinate the use of sensors and weaponry. Or a heavy ship might be armed for the wrong missions. For example, the U.S. Navy has long optimized its surface fleet for air and missile defense, slighting surface-to-surface engagements. The PLA Navy has optimized its fleet (and supporting arms of shore-based firepower) for defeating an enemy surface fleet. Etc.

That tonnage is important is beyond dispute; that it is all-important is the undead talking point, gone and unlamented. People have taken to talking about relative ship counts, and rightly so. How to solve the problem now that critical stakeholders have acknowledged it? Simple, although the simplest thing is difficult in martial affairs: harness all available resources, old and new, while diminishing China’s.

First, the United States needs to rejuvenate its domestic shipbuilding industry, recasting the central link in its sea-power chain. That will demand more taxpayer revenue, no doubt. But while the United States may be spending a large sum on defense in absolute terms, it’s not spending that much relative to its means. The nation is spending less than half of what it did, as a share of GDP, than in 1982—the year it launched its last major naval renaissance. It can afford more.

Declining to afford more would amount to a strategic decision not to outcompete China at sea.

Fortunately, the nation need not start entirely from scratch regenerating its nautical infrastructure. Just up the road, for example, lies the Fore River Naval Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts. The yard produced ships of war for nearly a century before being idled in 1986. It would be worth investigating the pros and cons of putting it back into service. Other infrastructure exists as well. Plus, there are many smaller yards around the country that could manufacture small surface combatants—and navy doctrine calls for deploying swarms of small combatants able to disperse combat power at sea.

Service magnates, the Pentagon, and Congress should act on the strategic ideas to which they pay fealty.

Second, America should buy foreign. China may be the world’s largest shipbuilding country, but the next biggest two shipbuilders are close U.S. allies, namely South Korea and Japan. That’s a resource we should tap. Washington expects allies and partners to purchase U.S.-built weapon systems such as F-35 stealth fighters. It should reciprocate, overriding its Buy American reflexes in order to rebuild its minuscule merchant fleet in particular. Recent moves to refit U.S. Navy ships at Japanese yards only make sense.

We could do much more in the near term by working with foreign governments and yards. And we should.

And third, one hopes U.S. war planners are factoring China’s seafaring industries into their endeavors. One of the thorniest questions before Washington is whether to conduct strikes on Chinese territory during a major conflict. If the answer from the White House is Yes, one imagines Chinese yards should rank high among the target set. Degrading that infrastructure would degrade the PLA Navy’s ability to repair battle damage, helping put the balance of naval power—and resilience—to right.

If both pugilists go to war with the fleets they have and neither can easily make good losses, that sounds like an even—if mutually painful—fight.

A zombie is dead in policy debates, but the hour is late. Let’s make the political decision to restore American sea power—and get started restoring it.

Dr. James Holmes, a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone. 

This article appeared originally at 1945.