The U.S. Navy’s advantage over China is shrinking and lawmakers don’t care
The navy’s advantage over our greatest military adversary, China, is rapidly diminishing. Still, some House leaders who oversee national defense don’t seem too worried about it.
Earlier this month, the chairmen of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee and the House Armed Services Committee followed up with a misleading, albeit reassuring, qualitative comparison of the two navies with a comforting assurance that our allies will help fight our wars to safeguard our interests. Spoiler alert: they never did and never will.
On May 11, Rep. Betty McCollum, chair of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, said, “The Chinese may have 500 ships, but 230 of them are small support ships that don’t have a qualitative advantage over American combat ships… the United States. can count on allies… Japan, with 154 ships, South Korea, with 160 ships, and Australia, with 43 ships.
On the same day, Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said, “But we – everything we see from China – China, well, they have this number. Well, how capable are their ships? How many ships has China deployed around the world at any given time? That’s a very low number from what I understand. And… and the capacity of those ships isn’t as great either.
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The claim that the US Navy’s 298 warships – when augmented by allies Japan, South Korea and Australia – exceed those of the Chinese Navy certainly supports the desire of the administration to reduce the navy to 280 warships by 2027. It is, however, completely out of step with reality.
There are two things to consider: quality of numbers and expectations of how allies would support American interests.
First, consider only the most lethal and modern naval fighters in China. That number is 148, according to the Defense Ministry’s annual report on China. But, add the smaller warships that you’ll need to defend against and, at a minimum, follow to prevent them getting a lucky hit, and the number jumps to 285. This doesn’t include launch submarines. -missiles nor their 57 amphibious warfare ships. or 223 coast guards (many repurposed navy warships) – a total of 571 in 2021 (higher now, given the rate at which China is building warships).
Now, applying that same metric to the US Navy, you get an active lethal warship count of 167 – no littoral combat ships and only nine of the largest amphibious warfare ships (America and Wasp classes), to be consistent .
While we have treaty obligations to NATO to consider, when it comes to allies in Asia, there is no obligation for them to come to our (or Taiwan’s) defense. So, expectations of Japan or South Korea joining us in a war with China, in the absence of strong national interests, are incredibly misplaced. And that’s a dangerous assumption to make in determining the size of the navy the United States needs: National politics and interests can change quickly, but naval construction takes years.
Peacetime competition in the South China Sea and a potential war in Taiwan are also prompting debates today about the future of our navy. However, in such scenarios, our allies have operational limitations.
Japan is close to Taiwan and, for political and operational reasons, would concentrate its maritime forces in the East China Sea. Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces, using the previous metric, have 74 highly capable warships to contribute, but with limited endurance for sustained long-distance operations and no strike capability.
South Korea faces an existential threat from North Korea on a daily basis, and its military objective will remain to deter a war with the North. We’ll have to wait and see if South Korea’s new president Yoon Suk Yeol proposes a bigger regional security role for his country.
Australia’s navy is too remote and too small to be decisive in a war with China, but is playing an increasingly important role in peacetime competition with China over the rules-based order of the seas of Southern China. Australia’s aspirations to deploy a nuclear submarine with the recent AUKUS initiative are welcome, but delivery is far from certain and too distant to affect today’s debates here about the size of the navy .
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This leaves the United States as the dominant maritime player in the South China Sea, with Japan adding significantly in the East China Sea to significantly contest a Chinese naval war. That said, it is fanciful to assume that the allies will answer America’s bidding in the conflict – and especially in the peacetime competition with China.
Finally, China’s air and missile threats are pushing the US Navy to be more dispersed and further away from combat. This increases the need for more US warships. And our country’s inability to replenish wartime casualties puts even greater emphasis on greater numbers and the need to win any war with China decisively and quickly, which is increasingly unlikely as we allow our numbers of ships to dwindle.
In this dangerous decade with China, allies matter. They are our asymmetric advantage, but they do not replace the navy that the nation needs. In fact, if the United States does not have a relevant naval force, these same allies could very well seek safety elsewhere.