- A new study projects the Chinese navy could nearly double in tonnage by 2030.
- The study warns that Beijing could increase its ships, including aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines, by nearly 40 percent in just eight years.
- One observer warns of China’s edge in unconventional seapower, including commercial ships taking orders from Beijing.
China’s navy could nearly double in just eight years, resulting in a vastly more capable naval force than the one it fields today. Given the right spending priorities, Beijing could build at least two more aircraft carriers and four more ballistic missile submarines, based on a model of China’s defense budget by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Other outside analysts warn the results are highly contingent on the health of a rapidly cooling Chinese economy.
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CSBA used an online tool it created, “The China Strategic Choices Tool,” to model how the Chinese government might fund its ongoing military expansion until the year 2030. The tool assumes regular defense spending growth of 3 percent and allows users to make certain strategic choices—say, defund the People’s Liberation Army Ground Forces (army) to fund the People’s Liberation Army Navy (navy). From there, a user could prioritize planes over ships, aircraft carriers over other surface combatants, and nuclear over conventional weapons.
CSBA’s analysts concluded that China could afford to increase its carrier fleet from three to a total of five by 2030, and its number of cruisers and destroyers from 36 to 60. It could also increase the number of Type-094 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines from six to ten. Total tonnage, or the total weight of ships of the Chinese Navy, would increase from today’s 1.3 million tons to approximately two million tons.
The U.S. Navy, on the other hand, has six aircraft carriers in the Pacific Fleet, and 50 cruisers and destroyers. It also has eight nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. This total does not include ships serving in the Atlantic Fleet. The U.S. Navy’s total tonnage worldwide is about 4.5 million tons.
Craig Hooper, a principal at the Themistocles Advisory Group, tells Popular Mechanics it’s important to keep China’s fleet in perspective. “The five carriers, if produced, seem to be relatively in line with other assessments of Chinese military growth. Those five CVNs [nuclear aircraft carriers] would—if built—face not only U.S. carriers, but Japanese and South Korean carriers, as well as new French and U.K. carriers too, so, as far as military balance goes, I don’t see it changing a ton.”
Japan is in the process of converting two “helicopter destroyers” to aircraft carriers capable of carrying the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, while Korea has plans to build its first-ever carrier. The U.K. and France, which have a total of three carriers, are expanding their presence in the Pacific and could deploy them to Asia in the event of a conflict with China. None of those countries are particularly friendly with China.
Hooper also points out that more carriers will make the People’s Liberation Army Navy more predictable, bunching up individual ships into carrier task forces and leaving fewer available for lower priority missions. “If we assume China is building a naval force along American military lines, the emergence of Chinese carrier battle groups will reduce the amount of independent Chinese surface combatants available for solo or small group cruises. High-value battle groups are big sponges that absorb lots of escort forces.”
The study, Hooper points out, doesn’t cover the forces that in peacetime are Beijing’s most useful assets: its vast fleet of fishing trawlers and other commercial ships that act as proxies on their government’s behalf. “China’s success at sea has been largely contingent upon China’s irregular sea forces. China uses private vessels, maritime militia, and Coast Guard ships to take and hold territory. They have, to date, been China’s most disruptive element at sea, and a critical enabler of China’s conventional naval forces.”
“Until we start dealing with that and those sorts of irregulars,” Hooper warns, “we’re going to miss the real forces that are shifting the balance of power in Asia and the Pacific.”