Keeping Up with China's PLAN

The ship's crew stand during a commissioning ceremony on the deck of U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush

Now that it possesses a large and modern navy, Beijing is determined to advance China’s security in East Asia, necessarily challenging U.S. alliances and security interests.

May-June 2018

As the size of China’s fleet has increased, its navy has decommissioned its older ships. In 2010, fewer than 50 percent of Chinese ships were “modern”; in 2017, over 70 percent of the fleet is modern. China’s diesel submarines are increasingly quiet, and challenge U.S. antisubmarine capabilities in the South China Sea. Similarly, China’s ship-launched and air-launched cruise missiles possess significant range and stealth, and rely on increasingly sophisticated targeting technologies.

Complimenting China’s naval capabilities are its conventional medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles that target maritime facilities throughout East Asia. U.S. strategic facilities in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and Guam are now vulnerable to Chinese ballistic missiles. U.S. missile-defense systems cannot defend against the large quantity of ballistic missiles that China can target and significantly degrade U.S. naval facilities throughout the region.

AS CHINA has increased the size and quality of its navy, the United States has not stood still. On the contrary, in many respects it has been going backwards.

The current size of the active U.S. fleet is approximately 282 ships. The number of its attack submarines has declined since 2010, to fifty-one ships in 2017. The current Navy budget calls for the steady expansion of the fleet. Nonetheless, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that if the Navy continues its average annual budget over the prior thirty years, and maintains its construction schedules for aircraft carriers and ballistic-missile submarines, in twelve years the size of the active naval fleet will decline to 237 ships. In six years, when the Chinese navy will possess over seventy attack submarines, the U.S. submarine fleet will decline to forty-eight ships. In eleven years the number of U.S. attack submarines will decline to forty-one ships. Current Navy plans call for an increase to sixty-six submarines in thirty years.

The U.S. Navy is acutely aware that China’s naval shipbuilding and modernization challenge U.S. maritime superiority and operational capabilities in East Asia. In 2015, it developed a plan to increase the size of the active fleet to 308 ships by 2022. In 2017, the Trump administration advocated for a 355-ship navy. These goals are neither realistic nor adequate to meet the challenge of the Chinese navy.

To reach 308 ships, the Navy would have to spend 36 percent more than its average shipbuilding budget over the past thirty years, and receive a one-third increase to its current budget. If funding continued at the past thirty years’ average, then in another thirty years the Navy could purchase seventy-five ships fewer than it plans. To reach 355 ships, the Navy would need a budget 60 percent greater than the average budget over the past thirty years and a two-thirds increase in its present budget. It is not clear where the United States will find the funds to support a 308-ship navy, much less a 355-ship navy.

Given current budget and political constraints, in November Thomas Dee, the acting under secretary of the Navy, observed that the Navy could eventually reach 355 ships—but at best in the 2050s, and only with a significant infusion of funds. He ruefully observed that “you can’t always get what you want.”

Reallocation of the federal budget to support ship construction is not likely. Mandatory spending constitutes 60 percent of overall federal spending, but Congress has shown no interest in reducing mandatory funding for social programs. On the contrary, in recent years Congress has increased spending on Medicare, Medicaid, transportation and veterans’ benefits, and it will not consider reduced funding for Social Security benefits. On the other hand, the Pentagon already receives over 55 percent of the discretionary budget, and the remainder of discretionary spending is spread over eleven sectors, including education, additional funding for veterans, Medicare and health benefits, and infrastructure.

The federal government could raise income taxes, corporate taxes and/or capital-gains taxes to raise additional funding for the Navy. But this, too, is implausible. In 2018 the federal government reduced taxes.

The United States could print more money and significantly increase the federal deficit to increase naval spending. In the short term, this might contribute to increased naval shipbuilding. But over the long term, the harm to the U.S. economy would more than offset any benefits that a larger navy might contribute to U.S. security in East Asia.

The United States could reallocate funding within the Department of Defense budget. Currently, the Navy, the Army and the Air Force receive approximately equal shares of the annual defense budget. This allocation does not reflect prioritization of the challenges to U.S. security, but rather the politics of defense spending. Reduced spending for the Army, which contributes little to U.S. maritime security in East Asia, would allow for a significant increase in Navy shipbuilding. Nonetheless, there is little resolve in either the Department of Defense or in Congress to reallocate funding within the military.

IN THE absence of a robust shipbuilding budget, the United States has relied on technology to offset China’s numerical advantage. U.S. development of advanced-technology weapons is impressive, including research on laser weapons, the rail gun, carrier-based attack and reconnaissance UAVs, underwater antisubmarine drones, and long-range antiship cruise missiles to contend with China’s ship-based antiship cruise missiles.