Comparing the US Navy and the People’s Liberation Army NAVY (PLAN) Part I

As we stand prepared to move deeper into the 2020s naval power is again becoming a valuable asset among the great powers of the world. In the conflicts of the first two decades of the 21st Century navies became secondary to land, and airpower as the United States and her allies grappled with low-intensity conflicts and insurgencies in the Middle East and Central Asia. Naval arms were ignored to an extent, denied the lion’s share of budget funds, and almost as a rule were first on the chopping block when budget cuts loomed. Gradually, navies have come back into the spotlight given events like China’s rise, and  Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Now in 2020 many global powers are reaching the point where their future ambitions, and economic well-being depend upon the power and capabilities of their navies. The South China Sea and Eastern Med are just two contemporary examples of areas where seapower is directly tied to the economic fortunes of a nation-state. In the coming years other bodies of water will be added to that list, and more nations will grasp and respect the importance of their navies.

The United States and China need not wait. Both nations recognize the value of seapower. For the Chinese, a relative newcomer to the ranks of first-class navies of the world, a powerful fleet is paramount to advancing its territorial ambitions in the region and beyond. China has embarked on a major ship building program that is adding platforms to the fleet in considerable numbers very quick, especially surface combatants, and amphibious assault ships. Two further aircraft carriers are also currently under construction, as well as multiple ballistic missile and attack submarines. China is transforming the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) into a major blue water force.

Then there is the United States, the perennial world naval power. Even though China has overtaken the US Navy in numbers of ships, the US still enjoys  major advantages in quality, and technology. After almost two decades of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US Navy is finally refocusing its attention on fighting and defeating a near-peer opponent at sea. New weapons and sensors are entering service. Doctrinal changes are in the works, and frequent exercises with allies are improving interoperability. Naval shipbuilding is at lower levels than most leaders would like, however, and there are still a number of challenges to address but the US Navy is on the right path.

Author’s Note: Next week’s Project entries will look at the following:

1.US Navy and PLAN ships, equipment, organization, and strategies

2. How both navies might operate in a hypothetical Sino-US war in the near future

September DIRT Project: Comparing the US and Chinese Navies

My track record on Monthly DIRT Projects is not good. I know it and accept full responsibility for letting the majority of project from months past fade away into obscurity. I apologize and intend to change that beginning this month. After reading a few recent articles on the balance of naval power in the Pacific I discussed the topic with some of the people I was at Newport with. Those informal talks are becoming the driving force behind the September DIRT Project and in all likelihood the topic is one that will be discussed regularly on the blog going forward.

There are two preeminent naval powers in the world today; the United States and the People’s Republic of China. While the United States has been a major naval power for over a century, China’s rise has been more recent, and considerably more disquieting. The first two decades of the 21st Century have seen two contrasting approaches by the US and China regarding their respective sea arms. Whereas the last 20 years have been a period of great forward progress for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) the same period of time has seen the US Navy in large part stuck in the mud so to speak for a number of reasons.

At present, the two navies are approaching parity in some regards. Ship numbers most evident The PLAN seems to be perched on an incline and still ascending while the US Navy is on the decline. Whether or not this is the case or just an erroneous first impression needs to be examined closer. Sino-US relations continue to deteriorate because of COVID-19, trade concerns, and expansionist moves by China. Tensions are especially high in the South China Sea where Chinese claims, and actions have forced a visible US response. The PLAN, and US Navy will factor largely into the Beijing and Washington’s future plans regarding the Western Pacific.

So, given the state of the US-China relationship I’d say that now is a good time to look at the two navies, and examine what direction they’re going in, and how their respective strengths affect US and Chinese geopolitical plans and actions in the Pacific and Indian Ocean.

All things considered, the first post on this topic will probably come around by next weekend. Expect 2-3 entries before the end of the month.

South China Sea Remains Uneasy

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The US Navy has maintained operations in and around the South China Sea (SCS) through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Even though COVID-19 has had an adverse effect on US military operations and deployments globally, FON (Freedom of Navigation) operations, military aircraft overflights, and reconnaissance activities in the SCS region have continued. Granted, the size, and scale of these operations has dropped off somewhat they continue. The SCS is a critical area of the gameboard when it comes to the US-China security competition in the Pacific, and beyond.

Two days ago, the US sent two ships to patrol near an area of the SCS where a mineral rights dispute between Malaysia and China is ongoing. The two ships are the USS Montgomery, a Littoral Combat Ship, and the replenishment ship USNS Cesar Chavez. Chinese naval and coast guard vessels have been operation in the area regularly, and the recent appearance of US ships serves as a reminder to Beijing that the United States is watching its activities the SCS with great interest.

The number of available US naval assets in and around the Western Pacific is set to grow in the coming days and weeks. The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and her escorts have departed from Japan after the carrier’s annual repair period. Reagan will undergo a period of sea trails and carrier qualifications for her air wing before the carrier group begins its spring patrol in the Western Pacific. On the west coast of the US, the USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group is working up in preparation for a deployment set to begin later this month. This will give the US Navy potentially two aircraft carriers for operations in and around the SCS.

If US-Chinese relations continue down the same path they’re on presently, a largescale  US show of force in and around the South China Sea could occur sometime in the early days of summer.

South China Sea Tension Ramping Up

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Despite a global pandemic, the South China Sea has become more active over the past week, owing in large part to China’s aggressive posturing in the area. Concern is growing now with COVID-19 seriously affecting US Navy readiness in the Pacific, China could be preparing to take advantage of the pandemic and assert its dominance over the South China Sea. Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak China has expanded its claims in the sea, announced new research stations at its military bases on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, and has started landing military aircraft at Fiery Cross.

Late last week a Vietnamese fishing boat was rammed and sunk by a Chinese coast guard ship near the Parcel Islands. Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims the boat was conducting normal fishing activities in sovereign Vietnamese waters. Shortly after the incident the Chinese laid the blame on Vietnam, claiming the fishing boat was in illegally fishing inside of Chinese territorial waters. Both nations lay claim to the Parcel Islands and this incident is helping to ramp up tensions between them. On Wednesday, the Philippines rebuked Beijing and released a ‘statement of solidary’ with Vietnam. The move came as something of a surprise given the large amount of aid China has given to the Philippines during the coronavirus crisis, and the fact that Manila’s stance on the South China Sea dispute has softened in recent years.

Yesterday, a US Navy destroyer transited the Taiwan Strait amid increasing Chinese air activity in the area. US reconnaissance and ELINT aircraft arrived and were operating in the vicinity later in the day. Since mid-March, following a surge of US Navy activity in and around the South China Sea, PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) exercises, and activity have become almost daily occurrences. Now, with a growing number of US 7th Fleet warships contending with infected crewmembers, the PLAN operations tempo could be rising once more.

China’s moves in the South China Sea have to be monitored closely now with the world’s attention focused on the pandemic. When the cat’s away, the mice will play, so to speak and Beijing will not hesitate to take advantage of this situation if it will strengthen its position in the South China Sea both militarily, and economically.

South China Sea: Will China Conquer?

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It cannot be said that China’s recent actions in the South China Sea have come as a surprise to the rest of the world. Indications of Beijing’s strategic objectives regarding this body of water have been detectable for years. From its territorial claims, to the construction of artificial islands, and their militarization, China has made clear its intention to dominate the South China Sea. What has yet to be determined is whether or not domination and conquest are interchangeable terms in Beijing’s strategic lexicon.

The potential benefits stemming from a Chinese conquest of the South China Sea are immeasurable. It would affirm China’s position as the preeminent power in Asia. The emerging geopolitical, and economic dictum of the 21st century is: ‘whoever controls the South China Sea controls the economies of Asia.’ The underlying logic that control of the sea lanes of communication through the South China Sea is crucial to the economic survival of Asia’s largest economies cannot be challenged. A brief glance at the South China Sea situation today leads people to believe that territorial claims, and assumptive natural resource deposits serve as the nucleus of the disputes. While these are important factors, it is the sea lanes, and their connection to the global economy that makes the South China Sea such a valuable body of blue real estate.

China claims “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands and the adjacent waters.”  Action speaks louder than words, however. Unless China is compelled to support this declaration with the use of force, it’s a hollow statement. Commerce flows through the area with no interference from China. Warships and aircraft of the United States, and its allies conduct frequent freedom-of-navigation transits of the South China Sea and encounter minimal harassment by Peoples Liberation Army Navy forces. The encounters, while tense, remain peaceful. The one area where China has become more aggressive is fishery rights. More frequently, Chinese naval and coast guard ships have been challenging the fishing vessels belonging to Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and other South China Sea nations.

In May, 2019 this blog will be examining China’s ambitions in the South China Sea and how its drive to dominate and conquer these waters could play out in the coming months and years. New posts on this topic will appear every Monday next month.