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By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization

(National Harbor, Md.) The People’s Liberation Army - Navy is surging ahead quickly with new quasi-stealthy Type 055 Destroyers, several new Type 075 amphibious assault ships and a third aircraft carrier to add to its fleet of two operational carriers. Much attention is paid to China’s industrial base and the pace at which they are able to produce new platforms and build new ships, as it is something cited in a recent Pentagon report on China.

Part of the complexity resides in the fact that China does not operate with any kind of distinction or divide between commercial and government enterprises but rather merges them. This can expedite modernization in certain respects and, when combined with the size of their shipyards and large labor force, China’s shipbuilding machine is causing major concern among Pentagon leaders and members of Congress.

“When you look at the modern elements of the Chinese Navy, it should concern all of us…..not only the total number of ships, but actually which ships are comparable to ours,” Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va), Ranking Member on the SeaPower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, told Warrior in an interview.

Wittman’s comment resonates alongside remarks he made in a prior discussion with Warrior, which was that while most people are aware that China has “quantity,” meaning a larger Navy than the US … they are increasingly developing “quality” as well. Certainly much of the specifics of relevance to how capable their warships actually are may not be available, yet they are known to be rapidly advancing in technological capability. The numbers gap between the US and China when it comes to warships, is growing larger, Wittman said.

“We have about 167 warships that you would consider state of the art incredibly complex, capable of multiple mission sets, and can do that in a pretty significantly contested environment. If you look at the total number of Chinese ships, both their larger warships and their smaller platforms, they have about 285 that are on the equivalent of ours. So they still have significant overmatch there. So we had better get our act together as far as the total complement that we bring to the table, autonomous systems, unmanned ships, as well as the ships that we have now and the ships that we need to build in the future,” Wittman said.

Rep. Rob Wittman, (R-Va), Ranking Member of SeaPower and Projection Forces Subcommittee talks to Warrior about the Chinese Naval threat 

This circumstance may be why Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday’s Navy Navigation Plan 2022 calls for a 500 ship fleet with as many as 150 drones, a plan he identifies as a “hybrid” mix driven by manned-unmanned teaming, advanced AI and autonomy as well as long-range sensors and multi-domain networking. Gilday’s plan does specifically mention the threat posed by China and emphasizes the need for an intense and robust modernization and weapons development process.

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The US Navy is currently embarking upon a number of ambitious shipbuilding programs to include a contract for as many as 10 new DDG 51 Flight III Destroyers with advanced SPY-6 Radar, upgraded Aegis Combat Systems able to perform air and cruise missile defense on one system. Aegis Combat System advanced software can connect fire control systems for ship defenses with a highly-sensitive, long-range radar able to see threats one half the size at twice the distances. The US Navy is also accelerating construction of Virginia-class attack submarines and adding a new fleet of Constellation-class Frigates. The US Navy is also pivoting toward the future through conceptual work on new platforms such as DDG(X), a next-generation destroyer intended to sustain Naval surface warfare through 2060.

Much attention is perhaps correctly being placed upon the growing size of the Chinese Navy, as it not only exceeds the US Navy in terms of size but also reportedly increasingly incorporates a wide sphere of advanced technologies as well.

The increase in Chinese warships, the numbers of which now exceed the amount of US Navy available surface war platforms, does not in and of itself suggest that the PLA - Navy is in any way comparable in capability to the US Navy.

Long-range sensors and weapons, coupled with high-speed, AI-enabled computer processing connecting air, surface, land and even undersea domains, could potentially enable a smaller, yet more technologically capable force to prevail.

Pure numbers, therefore, does not necessarily equate to maritime warfare superiority, as there are many variables to consider such as the scope and security of multi-domain networking technology. Certainly “mass matters” to quote the famous Sun Tzu, particularly when it comes to a need to blanket an area with incoming attack fire or spread an offensive across wide spanning swaths of ocean, however it seems quite relevant to consider the tactical impact which effective, long-range, multi-domain networking could have as well.

Should surface warships operate with a new generation of radar able to detect incoming threats at much greater ranges, and share information through an “aerial gateway” platform extending reach beyond the horizon, then a larger force could potentially be seen and destroyed while the attacking force operated beyond-line-of-sight at standoff ranges. Should fighter jets operating in forward locations be able to receive targeting specifics from drones, submarines or surveillance aircraft, the larger attacking formations could be vulnerable from the air. Stealthy attack submarines operating with a new generation of quieting technologies and long-range, precise sonar might be able to detect and destroy a large, approaching surface fleet of warships.

The margin of difference in any major maritime warfare conflict, therefore, may reside in the quality of multi-domain networking, information assurance and the pure processing and transmission speeds necessary to massively truncate or shorten sensor-to-shooter time. Should a slightly smaller, yet effectively networked force be able to process and transmit data and target specifics faster than an enemy, it might be well positioned to prevail. This is likely a main reason why the Navy is working intensely on “Project Overmatch,” an effort to establish a series of interfaces and common standards sufficient to enable widespread, high-speed data sharing across multiple platforms and domains.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn

Kris Osborn