This article originally published on our March 2012 Home Page.
Perhaps yes… perhaps no.
those of you reading this article should understand a couple
of basic things about the previous statement. First, the
plays a prominent role in it. That is, there is a big
difference between a country making itself feel better
psychologically and one doing so by beating another to a
pulp on the high seas. And second, redressing past foreign
transgressions does not mean a sea war with the U.S.
Especially since the U.S. was not a past foreign
transgressor in the case of China. With these simple points
in mind, one can easily see that it is highly unlikely that
there will be an upcoming hot naval engagement between the
U.S. and China.
It ain’t going to happen folks.
There are dozens of reasons that one
could cite for this stance, one of which is that among all
the nations that China holds a grudge against for past
imperialist activities the U.S. is not one of them. In fact,
the Chinese are quick to tell any visitor that while they
will always feel wronged by France, Germany, Italy, the
U.K., Spain, Russia and especially Japan, for having taken
Chinese territory and set up their own special trading
enclaves (e.g. Hong Kong, the Shanghai Bund, Canton [today’s
Guangzhou], Qingdao, Tianjin, et al.) the U.S. is not on
regards the U.S. during the 17th & 18th century period of European
imperialism, what the Chinese people will tell you is that
what they are taught in school is that when the U.S. was
prompted by France, England and Germany to take Chinese
territory for its own use, America pointedly declined, and
even chastised the European powers for doing so themselves.
Because of this, plus the help given to China in its fight
against Japan during WWII, most Chinese today place the U.S.
on the list of countries that have consistently been
to China, not its enemy… save of course with respect to
The complexity of parsing how the
Chinese decide who were the imperialist bad guys and who
were the good guys aside, the most simple proof of the fact
that a naval battle between China and the U.S. is a near
impossibility is that without
the ability for China to sell
their junk into our markets today, their gross domestic
product would decrease by greater than 10%. Considering that
it stands at $7.3 trillion, one can quickly see that armed
conflict between the U.S. and China would have a devastating
impact on China’s economy, especially on the 780 million
person labor force in China that depends on exports to
America to earn the money they need to feed themselves. A
broken economy, a 10% downturn in its GDP, the U.S. walking
away from the $1.2 trillion it owes in debt to China, and
global isolation for its actions all suggest that there is
little to be gained by China in taking on the U.S. Navy.
From our perspective, it’s a near
impossibility. Again, if we may stick with our slang, it
ain’t going to happen.
But what might
happen is that China and
Russia may start tossing
elbows at each other. And if they do, more likely than not
it will be in the waters of the oceans and seas that border
their two countries. As for the reason they may find
themselves tossing elbows, it's because they are already
sparring along their boundary over who should control the
oil fields that border their two countries, including the
areas out to sea off of their mutual coast. Face it, China
is a big and growing country, and it has an absolutely
enormous appetite for oil.
you read through the following however, bear in mind that as
armchair Signal Corps strategists our interest in this
subject revolves around our country’s stated objective of
reducing the size of the Army, supposedly because the president is claiming that the next
wars to come will be at sea and not on land.
The question then is, is this fear of
an upcoming naval war a viable
reason to reduce the size of the Army and cut its budget? Is
a sea battle really on the horizon? Do our country's leaders know something
we don’t, or are they actually and stone-facedly deceiving the
American citizenry simply to further their own goals? I guess everyone expects a bit of
prevarication from the civilian side of our government, but at this
level? Using the threat of naval war as justification for
budget cuts. Is that possible in the 21st century?
the folly of this ‘let’s cut the Army to help the Navy'
thinking, one must understand exactly where sea
confrontations might take place in the Pacific, and see
therein that in none of these locations is there a need to
either increase the size of the U.S. Navy, nor decrease the
size of the U.S. Army. In fact, even the U.S. Navy itself is
asking the question "Why do we have such a big Navy when we
hardly ever use it?"
As background for what follows, currently the U.S. Navy
inventory includes some 280 combatant, logistics and support vessels, plus
3,700 aircraft. As important, there are over 340,000 active-duty Navy
personnel, 68,000 reservists, 175,000 active-duty Marines, 39,600 Marine
reservists, and over 185,000 Navy Department civilians. So, let’s get this
right then, there are over 807,600 good natured swabbies in the Navy, the
Navy itself is asking why it’s as big as it is, and the president is telling
America that it needs to get bigger at the Army’s expense?
And just in case some may think that we are picking on
the Navy here, let’s stop for a moment and be clear: in this article at least, we
see no problem with either the U.S. Navy, its size, nor how it goes about
addressing its mission. From our perspective, they’re doing a stellar job,
and obviously know their trade and craft well. One can see an example of
this in how they are going about ballasting their power and authority in the
waters of East Asia by building closer ties with the Vietnamese Navy… one
presumes as a hedge against expanding Chinese naval power. The U.S. Navy
knows what it is doing, and doesn’t need any advice from the Army. As
regards how well the Navy is doing in pursuing its objectives, on a scale of
1 – 10, we would give them a 15. And yes, we will even concede that it is
possible that the Navy needs a few better assets along the way, with which to do its job.
However, whether it does or not is no excuse for someone
to think that they can be bought with money taken from the Army, after the
size of the Army is reduced. Especially if the reason being
given is that the next century will see sea wars in Asia.
- - -
Assuming then that the U.S. Navy is doing just fine as it is,
just how real is the need on China’s part to expand its navy? Why do they
need to do this, and where exactly is all the concern coming from with
respect to China’s expansion of its blue water fleet?
The answer is that, unfortunately, China a) has a real
need to expand its navy, as the one it has isn't really a navy as such, but
more a riparian and littoral coastal defense force and b) those who see its need to
expand its navy as threatening simply do not understand either China or its
history. China, its culture, its history of dealing with foreign countries,
and its naval capabilities all meld together into a complex sense of
reasoning that gives explanation to what it is doing with its navy. And this
is good, because it allows us to understand what is happening and therein
determine whether there is any threat or risk to the U.S. or not. However,
what is bad is that those who are not China watchers will have a hard time
separating these four factors so that they can be seen to stand on their
own, with merit, as well as reinforce each other as they relate to
justifying an expansion of China’s navy.
Trying to simplify China’s reasoning for expanding its
navy is difficult. It’s easier instead to explain why people feel threatened
by it. In this latter case, feeling threatened stems from a bit of old style
thinking about Taiwan, as well as a failure to understand China’s goals with
respect to navigation rights in the waters that border its territory.
Digging a little deeper, a China watcher would tell you
that during the Cold War-era the People’s Liberation Army and Navy ("PLAN")
was responsible for a) running factories to earn money to underwrite their
own costs of operation, b) operating farms to generate food with which to
feed themselves, c) carrying out in-country construction and development
projects, and d) providing defense along China’s coast against possible
amphibious landings by either the U.S. or the Soviet Union.
With its opening to the U.S. in 1972, the threat of item
“d’ happening disappeared. Without a real military nemesis then, from 1972
onwards China’s PLAN was relegated to performing items “a” through “c,” all
of which were clearly non-military tasks. In effect then, except for the
need to maintain soldiers to keep domestic problems under check (think: the
Tian An Men square massacre of 1989), China’s
was left to fumble around claiming to be a military, when in reality it was
more like America’s old Civilian Conservation Corp of 1934. While it may
have been calling itself a military… or an
army… or a navy... it wasn’t one.
If China wanted to have a real armed forces, it was going to have to set
about getting its military out of the lines of commercial business that it
was in, as well as the farming and public works projects, and move into
those areas that military services rightly belong in.
Continuing to make this case that until recently China
didn't have a navy to speak of; the fact that the only respect that was
given to China’s military in the middle parts of this century had to do with
their ability to fight on land shows that prior to 1972 China was regarded
as primarily a land power, with very limited naval capabilities. This then
helps explain the thinking today on the part of Chinas' leaders that it's
about time the country acquire a navy worthy of the name. As this all
relates to the talk in the press of China "ramping up its navy," remember:
China is going from essentially no navy, to a
navy… not from a 20th century navy to one equivalent to the U.S.’ 21st
Since the late 1980s China has been working diligently
to do this… to inculcate more capabilities into its Army and Air Force, and
more importantly, to build an ocean going force capable of operating in the
regions beyond its littoral waters.
Let us now look at the specific goals China has for
building up this navy, and what it will be used for.
- - -
Modernization of the PLAN over the past two decades has
been driven by two factors, a) the possibility of a military conflict with
Taiwan over any declaration of independence that the island might make, and
more recently b) growing needs to protect China’s sea lines of
communications (SLOC) in order to secure the country’s global network of
energy resources and trading activities.
If one looks carefully at what is going on in Taiwan,
one can see that just as the need to protect against an amphibious landing
by the U.S. disappeared in 1972 when Nixon went to China, the need to invade
Taiwan as a means to reunite the country has, for all practical purposes,
disappeared too. This latter item resulted from two factors. The first
was the excellent job U.S. diplomats have done over the past 30+ years in
encouraging Taiwan's leaders to seek peaceful reconciliation with mainland
China, rather than declaring independence. The second was the economic and
societal coming together that Taiwan and the PRC have experienced over the
past 7 years.
On this latter item, most Taiwan corporations today
operate their factories in China, not in Taiwan. Additionally, both
Taiwan and China now allow, and in fact encourage, travel between the people
of these two countries. This coming together has helped China move past the
feeling that it might need to invade Taiwan in order to bring it back into
the fold. More specifically, if China wanted to force Taiwan back into its
realm, rather than invading Taiwan and risking war with the U.S., today all
it would have to do to take over the island would be to shut down the
thousands of Taiwan owned factories operating in China. Doing so, in one
fell swoop, would cripple Taiwan’s economy beyond repair and probably cause
Taiwan’s industrialists to scream for its government to agree to anything
and everything China wanted, as long as their precious factories were
reopened. Being honest about the make up of the mainland Chinese as well as
the island Taiwanese, in the end, both of them are nothing if not pragmatic
capitalists clothed in a semi-socialist skin.
That leaves only reason “b” above, growing needs to
protect China’s sea lines of communication, as a cause for China to expand
its Navy. Is this a valid excuse for China to develop an effective blue
To understand the answer, we should first look at what
kind of Navy China has today.
- - -
The 225,000-man PLAN is organized into three fleets:
North Sea, East Sea, and South Sea Fleets. Each fleet is composed of surface
forces, submarine forces, naval aviation, and coastal defense forces. The
South Sea Fleet also has two marine brigades, totaling some 10,000 men. In
time of crisis, the PLAN can be supported by China’s merchant and fishing
ship fleets. Main naval bases are based in 10 locations; Lushun, Huludao,
Qingdao, Shanghai, Zhoushan, Wenzhou, Xiamen, Guangzhou, Zhanjiang, and
Among Asian countries, China clearly operates the
largest submarine force of all. Consisting of 8–10 nuclear-powered
submarines and 50–60 diesel-electric submarines. They are a formidable
fleet, even if they are not up to the capabilities of those the U.S. Navy
has. However, the problem is not the numbers of subs China has, but the
capabilities of its second-generation Type 093 (Shang Class) nuclear-powered
attack submarine and the Type 094 (Jin Class) nuclear-powered missile
submarine. In both cases, these ships have already entered service, and they
are worthy competitors for the U.S. Navy.
On the other hand, these beauties are supplemented by a
group of rather useless old style submarines. They serve little purpose
other than to provide the U.S. Navy with excellent training opportunities
and sonar practice for its operators. They are the older Type 033 (Romeo
Class) and Type 035 (Ming Class) diesel-electric submarines. Based on old
1950s-era Soviet technology, these subs are gradually being replaced by the
newer indigenous Type 039 (Song Class) and Russian-built Kilo Class. And to
confuse this a little bit more, there is an even newer Yuan Class underway,
that has entered “batch” production.
water, since 1990 the Chinese Navy has received a total of 13 destroyers in
six classes. The Chinese Army, during the same period, has enjoyed an
increase of 20 brigades, in four classes.
Most of the Chinese-built wet surface combatants are
equipped with the Chinese indigenous YJ-83 anti-ship cruise-missile (ASCM).
Early vessels were armed with the HHQ-7 short-range air-defense missile
system, while later variants are fitted with more capable medium- to
long-range air-defense missile systems and vertical-launch system (VLS)
modules. To complement these vessels, the PLAN is introducing the modernized
Type 022 (Houbei Class) low-visibility missile boat to replace the ageing
Houku Class. Additionally, China is building at least one, and probably two
or more aircraft carriers to increase its long-range power projection
On a more prosaic level, the amphibious warfare fleet of
the PLAN has been expanding slowly too since the early 1990s. This area has
seen the introduction of 19 Type 072-II and Type 072-III (Yuting-I and
Yuting-II Class) tank landing ships, as well as a Type 071 landing platform
dock (LPD). The dock is designed to provide a large helicopter flight deck
docking area for up to four aircraft cushion landing crafts. It is thought
that the amphibious fleet being launched is capable of transporting an army
division, including its personnel and heavy equipment, to cross a littoral
sea area such as that of the Taiwan Strait. However, additional transport
capacities can be achieved by employing container ships and roll-on/roll-off
ships of the merchant fleet.
A formidable force, perhaps. But, the reader should
recognize that a) these are small vessels, and b) prior to China’s effort to
put this fleet in place it had nothing. Which means that China is doing
nothing more than playing catch up, albeit with new, modern equipment
instead of 80s–90s vintage stuff. One should also recognize that most of
these ships were originally launched to support a possible future amphibious
assault and landing on Taiwan. Now that the need for such a landing has
dissipated, one wonders what value these smaller vessels might have for
China on the high seas of the Pacific? Surely if, say, China were to decide
to use them to support an amphibious landing on the
Spratly Islands, say, to take over an
island claimed by the Philippines or Viet Nam, U.S. satellites would see
this fleet putting to sea far before it arrived, and have ample time to
what China started out with as a Navy, it has done well in modernizing and
expanding it, albeit the vessels in its stable are not exactly world ranging
ocean going ships. Still, following a well funded program, the PLAN has been
following a three-step strategy to bring it up to speed and parity with the
countries that sail through its home waters… countries like Singapore,
Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, and Japan.
The first step was planned around giving China the
capabilities it needed to operate a 1980s–1990s level naval force in what it
termed the first island chain. The first island chain is composed of
a series of islands that stretch from Japan to the north, to Taiwan, and
Philippines to the south.
The second step of the program involves increasing the
breadth and scope of its naval force so that it can project its capabilities
beyond the first island chain to what is called, quite naturally,
the second island chain. The second island chain includes Guam,
Indonesia, and Australia. At the same time as these efforts are underway,
China intends to slowly develop a third-stage of the program. This third
stage will again extend its forces, globally. The third stage of expansion
is intended to be achieved by the middle of the twenty-first century.
- - -
So what’s the point? Why go through this effort? Does
China have something up its sleeve, or is it simply taking some of the
profits from the trash it manufactures and sells to us, and spending it on
the navy it always wanted but never had?
Our guess: a little bit of both, but no big deal in
Clearly, China can afford to buy whatever navy it wants
these days. If so, then why shouldn’t we worry. The answer: apart from the
economic integration case made earlier, the real threat in what China is
doing is not in the 1990s navy it is building, but in a) the 21st
century technology it is working on that will be on board that navy, and b)
its feeling that it has a right, and perhaps even an obligation, to toss its
weight around when it comes to what happens in the waters of its own back
"Toss its weight around," we said. Not "engage in a
naval war." There is a difference.
Looking at the issue of concern over the size of China's
navy, versus the capabilities of its newer technologies, on the former point
there is little doubt that the U.S. Navy can hold its own against China’s
new upcoming 21st century version of a 1990s-era Navy, even without funds being taken from the other
branches of service and passed on to the U.S. Navy for use.
Regarding the issue of 21st century
technology however, this is a much more serious matter. The problem is not
the vessels that China puts its men on, but the missiles those men operate
on those vessels. China’s lead over the U.S. is not in naval technology, but
in software and application development, in support of supersonic anti-ship
missiles. Fully capable of developing the best in the way of every sort of
rocket motor from solid and liquid fueled to turbojets, turbofans, and
ramjets, China’s overall naval strength in this area will likely cause
heartburn for many U.S. Navy commanders.
An example of this is the FL-7 (Fei Long,
meaning Flying Dragon) supersonic anti-ship missile. This little beauty can
be carried on aircraft or warships. It has an effective range of 32
kilometers and a speed of Mach 1.4. But that’s not the best of it… it has
powerful anti-jamming capability and its supersonic flight makes terminal
interception extremely difficult. The warhead of the FL-7 can pierce solid armor and
destroy large and medium-sized surface warships in a flash.
Compared to the newly announced Dong Feng
21D missile however, the FL-7 is just a toy. Known as the carrier killer,
the Dong Feng began as a conventionally-armed high hypersonic land-based
anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), but was modified so that it would
provide the ability to target a moving aircraft carrier strike group.
Launched either from a long-range, land-based mobile launcher, submarine, or
any other type of naval vessel, the missile is an example of not just
advanced missile technology, but also good strategic thinking in terms of
arms development, and more importantly, world class software development.
The Chinese say it’s a carrier killer. The U.S. Navy
says don’t worry about it. We’ll let you decide. For us, what’s more
important than the idea that this and other kinds of new Chinese weapon
systems might pose a challenge to the U.S. Navy is the fact that China feels
it needs them to begin with. It’s the fact that China is trying to
project strength that’s important, not the fact that the strength is, to
borrow a phrase from Mao Tse Tung back in the 1950s when he spoke about
America, a paper tiger.
Let us explain.
- - -
To understand just how much of a threat China's new
Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles are to the U.S., one has to look closely at
what China might do with them, and what the U.S. Navy thinks about them.
To begin with, let’s take the U.S. Navy at its word when it comes to
what they say about the kind of threat China represents to the U.S. Let’s accept the statements of U.S.
Naval commanders that these kinds of missiles and the increase in China’s
naval projection they represent are no threat at all to the U.S. Navy. If that’s
the case, then what China is in actuality doing by spending its money on
these weapon systems is bluffing in the game of Pacific Ocean poker. That
is, they’re trying to project a perceived power and capability on
their part by creating hype around the money they are spending, and the
things they are spending that money on, rather than the actual capabilities
they are claiming they have. In effect then, China is not winding
throw a punch, it’s merely positioning itself to be able to toss its elbows
around a bit, if need be.
And therein lies the truth: China wants to be able to
sail around the South China Sea, throughout the Spratly Islands (claimed by
six countries, including the Philippines, Viet Nam and China, these islands
sit on massive oil deposits), down along the coast of Australia, into the
Indian Ocean, as well as across the Pacific towards the U.S., and be
respected in the process. It’s looking for what East Los Angeles low riders
would say is a little street cred.
Compared to the Navy it once had, what it is building
today will bring China that street cred. For now, at least.
As for why China feels the need to project street cred
in the Pacific, the answer comes back again to being able to muscle its way
through any confrontation with its neighbors, without going to war. That is,
it’s not the U.S. Navy that China feels it will need to go up against when
it tosses its elbows around, it’s the Navies of the Philippines, Viet Nam,
India, Russia, Japan, and a few others. Since these countries are the
claimants to the ocean areas that China wants to have a right to drill for
oil in, it needs to be able to muscle these guys off to the side, without
taking them on directly.
It’s new navy, by projecting power, will help it do
How will it help China do that? Because while the U.S. Navy may be able
to take on the new Chinese navy, none of these smaller countries will be
able to do so in and of themselves. And since it is unlikely that Uncle Sam will go to war with China
to protect, say, Manila’s rights to drill for oil in the Spratly Islands,
China’s gamble on the hand it will be holding once it launches its new navy
will likely pay off. At the Pacific Ocean poker game table, China will have placed a
good bet by throwing enough money around to make the other players think it
is holding a flush. Fortunately for all of us, it isn't.
Returning to comments made by Robert Kaplan, “The
struggle for primacy in the Western Pacific will not necessarily involve
combat; much of what takes place will happen quietly and over the horizon in
blank sea space, at a glacial tempo befitting the slow, steady accommodation
to superior economic and military power that states have made throughout
history. War is far from inevitable even if competition is a given.” We
agree with him. In the case of a naval battle between the China and the
U.S., war is a non-starter, and so is a hot naval engagement between China
and the U.S.
So where does this leave us? We would posit that it is
plain and obvious from all of this that China is seeking to expand its sea
muscles. From a fair-minded perspective, one could certainly say that since
it lives in the neighborhood that it is seeking to project its power into,
it certainly has a right to do so. With this in mind, one would think that
if the U.S. wants to temper this show of strength on China’s part, it should
gear up its State Department diplomats to engage China and, reasonably
speaking, help it achieve
its goals without sacrificing the needs, rights, and goals of the other
countries that the U.S. should be standing beside. In basic English, the
U.S. should seek to find a way to work hand in hand with both China and the
other players in the region that have a vested interest in how sea matters
are handled there, rather than flash its elbows when it begins to see
China’s ships coming over the horizon.
Which brings us back to all this talk about our
government needing to cut back on the Army’s budget in order to toss a bit of
money in the direction of the Navy. By our reasoning, it’s just another
excuse to cut back on military spending at the end of yet a couple of more
wars. There’s probably nothing that we can be done about it, except let the
government know that it’s not fooling anyone, and in the process hope and pray
that while the U.S. and the Chinese navy are running around out in the
Pacific circling each other, no one needs the Army to sort out another mess
on the ground in some God forsaken country… like Iran.