“The PRC [People’s Republic of China] has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants,” states the U.S. Department of Defense’s 2020 annual report to Congress on Chinese military power. “In comparison, the U.S. Navy’s battle force is approximately 293 ships as of early 2020.”
According to a report by Forbes magazine, while the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has more warships than the U.S. Navy, the American fleet is ahead in tonnage due to having larger warships, including 11 aircraft carriers that weigh in at 100,000 tons apiece.
China’s navy “is an increasingly modern and flexible force that has focused on replacing previous generations of platforms with limited capabilities in favor of larger, modern multi-role combatants,” the report says. “As of 2019, the PLAN is largely composed of modern multi-role platforms featuring advanced anti-ship, antiair, and anti-submarine weapons and sensors.”
“China’s growing fleet of aircraft carriers has garnered the most attention. The PLAN has one decrepit ex-Soviet carrier, a newly commissioned carrier that is the first built in China, the third carrier under construction, and plans to build an additional four or more vessels. Fitted with advanced features like an electromagnetic launch system, a Chinese carrier fleet could provide air cover for an amphibious invasion of Taiwan, or even confront the U.S. Navy in the first carrier versus carriers battles since World War II,” the report says.
But there’s a lot more to a navy than just carriers: watch U.S. carrier strike groups, and you’ll notice that the flattops are always surrounded by cruisers and destroyers for anti-aircraft and anti-submarine defense. China has been busily building a new generation of sophisticated, heavily armed cruiser, destroyers and corvettes.
For example, in December 2019, China launched the sixth Type 055 Renhai-class cruiser. The Renhai fields a large array of anti-ship cruise missiles and anti-aircraft missiles, “along with likely LACMs [land attack cruise missiles] and anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) when those become operational,” the Pentagon noted.
This raises the prospect of a U.S. fleet being overwhelmed by massed salvoes of anti-ship missiles, including deadly new hypersonic weapons that travel faster than Mach 5.
In addition to its current four Type 094 subs armed with 12 JL-12 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) each, a new “boomer” submarine is on the way. “China’s next-generation Type 096 SSBN, which will likely begin construction in the early-2020s, will reportedly carry a new type of SLBM,” the report predicts. “The PLAN is expected to operate the Type 094 and Type 096 SSBNs concurrently and could have up to eight SSBNs by 2030.”
Particularly interesting is China’s growing ability to launch land-attack cruise missiles, a capability that the U.S. Navy has demonstrated with its Tomahawk missiles on more than one occasion. This would allow Chinese surface ships and submarines to strike key bases, such as Guam, in the Pacific and beyond.
“In the coming years, the PLAN will probably field LACMs on its newer cruisers and destroyers and developmental Type 093B nuclear attack submarines,” the Pentagon report noted. “The PLAN could also retrofit its older surface combatants and submarines with land-attack capabilities as well. The addition of land-attack capabilities to the PLAN’s surface combatants and submarines would provide the PLA with flexible long-range strike options. This would allow the PRC to hold land targets at risk beyond the Indo-Pacific region.”