Thomas is a junior sailor in the United States Navy. He can be found on Twitter @CTNope. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the United States Navy, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
National Security Situation: Worrying trends in military shipbuilding by the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Date Originally Written: April, 29, 2017.
Date Originally Published: June, 15, 2017.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author believes that the current balance of naval forces, both qualitatively and quantitatively, between the U.S. and the PRC, must be examined or the U.S. will face severe policy consequences. The article is written from the point of view of U.S. Navy (USN) leadership as they assess the growth of the People’s Liberation Army’s (Navy) (PLAN). This article focuses on options that U.S. policymakers have in response to the trends in the PRC’s military shipbuilding, not the trends themselves.
Background: Since the mid-2000’s the PRC’s economic situation has vastly improved, most evident as its GDP has grown from 1.2 billion to 11 billion over fifteen years, a growth of over 900 percent. This growth has enabled the PRC to embark on a remarkable shipbuilding program, achieving vast strides in training, technology, capabilities, and actual hull count of modern vessels. This growth is creating security challenges in the Pacific as well as igniting tensions between the U.S. and the PRC, as the disparity between the USN and the PLAN shrinks at an alarming rate. These developments have been closely watched by both the U.S. and her Partners, challenging U.S. policymakers to address this new, rising maritime presence while maintaining security in the region.
Significance: In the U.S. there is a growing bipartisan voice concerned about an assertive PRC, as halfway across the globe Asian nations wearily observe the PRC’s growth. A more powerful PLAN allows greater flexibility for PRC officials to exert influence. These impressive shipbuilding trends will embolden the PRC, as now they can brush aside actors that held credible deterrence when competing against an unmodernized PLAN. If current trends in the capacity of PRC shipbuilding and technological advancement continue, the PLAN will be able to challenge the efforts of the USN and U.S. Partners to continue to keep sea lanes of communication open in the space around the disputed ‘nine-dash-line’ as well as other parts of the Pacific. It is plausible that in the long-term the PLAN will emerge as a near-peer to the USN in the Pacific; as U.S. has to provide for its own security, the security of others, and the security of the Global Commons, while the PRC only has to provide security for itself and its interests.
Option #1: Platform centric approach. Review the current force structure of the USN to decide how large the force needs to be to satisfy U.S. policy goals and modify the fleet accordingly.
Risk: Focusing too heavily on platforms could leave the USN without the tools needed to be on the technological forefront during the next conflict. Also, a focus on building legacy systems could take resources away from initiatives that require them.
Gain: An increased number of platforms would allow U.S. policymakers more flexibility in how they decide to most effectively use the USN. Additionally, more hulls would not only contribute to the deterrence generated by the USN, but also improve the readiness of the USN as more ships can remain in port and undergo maintenance, while other ships conduct missions. Option #1 maximizes readiness for the next conflict.
Option #2: Modernization approach. Focus on improving today’s platforms while additionally investing in the future with disruptive technologies, but do not undertake an extensive build up of hulls. In this option the fleet would still expand in accordance with current programs, to include the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), Arleigh Burke Class Destroyers, and Virginia Class Submarines, but these production runs would be cut short to save funds.
Risk: In the mid-term the USN might not have the hulls necessary to address global security concerns. However, having fewer hulls does not mean that the USN can’t fight and win, instead, it will require that the USN’s leaders adapt.
Gain: Investing in the future could yield powerful technologies that change the calculus on how the U.S. employs military forces. Technologies like the railgun or unmanned systems change the way the USN fights by improving critical traits such as firepower and survivability. Future technologies could create even greater offsets than previously discovered technologies, with the advent of artificial intelligence on the horizon, future applications appear limitless. Option #2 increases the chance that the U.S. will continue to operate at the cutting edge of technology.
Option #3: Balanced approach. Modify the USN’s size, but not as broadly as the first option, instead providing additional funding towards Research and Development (R&D).
Risk: This option could prove to be too little, too late. The USN would benefit from the handful of additional hulls, but PRC shipbuilding pace might negate the benefit of the extra vessels. The PRC could possibly out-build the USN by adding two new hulls for every one the USN commissions. Likewise, the USN might need significantly more resources for R&D efforts.
Gain: The USN would receive additional Arleigh Burke Class Destroyers, LCS Frigates, and Virginia Class Submarines. In addition, this option would free up more funds to put into R&D to keep the USN ahead of the PLAN in terms of technology. Overall, this would keep the USN on a balanced footing to be “ready to fight tonight” in the short to mid-term, yet still on a decent footing in the long-term, from R&D efforts. Option #3 could turn out to be the best of both worlds, combining the increased readiness through hulls as well as continued technological innovation.
Other Comments: The PLAN still has many issues, ranging from naval subsystems, to C4I, to training and manning, but they are correcting their deficiencies at an impressive rate. As such, there is a cost for the U.S. in terms of both omission and commission.
 The World Bank Statistics. Retrieved from: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.CD?
 Gabriel Collins and LCDR Michael Grubb, USN. “A Comprehensive Survey of China’s Dynamic Shipbuilding Industry, Commercial Development and Strategic Implications”. Published August 2008. Retrieved from: https://www.usnwc.edu/Research—Gaming/China-Maritime-Studies-Institute/Publications/documents/CMS1_Collins-Grubb.aspx
 Ronald O’Rourke . “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress”. Retrieved from: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33153.pdf
 Shannon Tiezzi with Andrew Erickson. “Chinese Naval Shipbuilding: Measuring the Waves”. Retrieved from: http://thediplomat.com/2017/04/chinese-naval-shipbuilding-measuring-the-waves/
 Various. “Hotspots Along China’s Maritime Periphery”.
Retrieved from: https://www.uscc.gov/Hearings/hotspots-along-china%E2%80%99s-maritime-periphery