In a speech on September 16 that has been underreported, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper committed the country to a huge expansion of naval forces during the coming decades. He made it clear that this was being driven by China’s aggression – and the sheer scale of the PLA(N) build up, which he predicted would reach full capacity 30 years from now.
While that is some time away, given the timescales involved for the development of major platforms such as aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, now is a good time to start. That’s about the time it has taken China to ramp up to now having a serious naval production capacity. Until the early 1990s, the PLA(N) was very much a brown water, coastal defence fleet, never seen far from home. All of that has now changed, with the Secretary explaining:
“The Chinese Communist Party, for whom the PLA serves, intends to complete the modernization of its armed forces by 2035, and field a world-class military by 2049.
“In addition to developing traditional weapons systems, Beijing is also investing in long-range, autonomous, and unmanned submarines, which it believes can be a cost-effective counter to American naval power.
“ I want to make clear that China cannot match the United States when it comes to naval power. Even if we stopped building new ships, it would take the PRC years to close the gap when it comes to our capability on the high seas.”
The reason is that since the Second World War the USN has been a global force, able to project power wherever it wishes, based on 11 carrier strike groups – backed up with Marine Corps amphibious ships – and nuclear powered attack and ballistic missile firing submarines. While the PLA(N) is more numerous, it has two aircraft carriers and a third on the way. These are all smaller and less capable than their USN equivalent. Similarly, while the submarine fleet is growing it is still well short of its US rival.
Having said that, China only wishes for the moment to concentrate in the Pacific, while the USN as obligations around the world – most notably in the Middle East but also for the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Another factor that has been noticeable during the last decade is that China’s fleet is much newer, allowing for a greater take up of digital and other transformational technologies. Having recognised the problem, Secretary Esper is determined the USN will not be left behind:
“Ship numbers are important, but they don’t tell the whole story.
“They do not address the types of ships and the capabilities of the vessels being counted; the skill of the crews that operate them; the prowess of the officers that lead them; or the ways in which we fight and sustain them…just to name a few.
“Nonetheless, we must stay ahead; we must retain our overmatch; and we will keep building modern ships to ensure we remain the world’s greatest Navy.
“That said, to compete in a 21st century high-end fight, we will need a future fleet that optimizes the following operational attributes: first, distributed lethality and awareness; second, survivability in a high intensity conflict; third, adaptability for a complex world; fourth, ability to project power, control the seas and demonstrate presence; and fifth, capability to deliver precision effects at very long ranges.
“This future naval force will be more balanced in its ability to deliver lethal effects from the air, from the sea, and from under the sea.
“This fleet will be made up of more and smaller surface combatants; optionally-manned, unmanned, and autonomous surface and subsurface vehicles; unmanned carrier-based aircraft of all types; a larger and more capable submarine force; and a modern strategic deterrent.”
Secretary Esper did not address the budgetary aspects of this plan, other than to say it has the support of the Pentagon. With the Trump Administration potentially in its final few weeks, it is always possible that his successors will take a different view – though at least in the short term a conservative Democrat like Joe Biden is unlikely to make major changes in policy direction. Spending on the military tends to be a bipartisan issue in the US.
As we have pointed out previously, when it comes to military build ups something like Newtonian physics kicks in – for each and every ship built by one power, there is an equal and opposite ship from its major rival. In this case the US is indicating its willingness to spend what will be needed to maintain an edge. Chinese planners might wish to keep this in mind because the Soviet Union was bankrupted partly from a futile attempt to keep up with Washington’s military spending – and particularly President Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ program.