Video Above: Understanding and Defeating China’s Maritime Insurgency in the South China Sea

By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington, D.C.) The Chinese Navy is on track to reach nearly 500 ships in less than 10 years, should its current pace of expansion continue, a circumstance fortified by a strong domestic shipbuilding infrastructure and multiple new platform programs such as new amphibs, destroyers, carriers and submarines all under construction.

A newly released Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps strategy document articulates concern about this Chinese expansion with a specific mind to what it cites as concerning Chinese ambitions to expand its global power and influence, control strategic waterways and access points, militarize the South China Sea and ultimately displace the United States as a global Naval leader.

The strategy, “Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated, All-Domain Naval Power,” explains that China’s Navy battle force has more than tripled in size in only two decades. The size and scope of the Chinese build up is naturally of concern for long-term strategic reasons when it comes to global influence and stability, yet the strategy makes the point that China’s rapid ascent as a Naval power could introduce more pressing near-term tactical military concerns. A large, multi-layers and capable force could, for instance, seek to simply “take over” areas quickly before the U.S. had an opportunity to fashion any kind of response.

“In the event of conflict, China and Russia will likely attempt to seize territory before the United States and its allies can mount an effective response—leading to a fait accompli,” the strategy writes.

This prospect seems to introduce particular concerns regarding the Pacific, as the strategy indicates that China’s numerically superior force is “largely concentrated in the Western Pacific.” While China’s ambitions are known to be truly global in scale and reach in terms of expansionist aims, the country’s concentrated power in the Pacific compared with a much more dispersed U.S. Naval global operational presence, means some kind of “fait accompli” annexation of Taiwan or areas within the South China Sea could be difficult to counter quickly.

The Chinese expansion is intensified and further strengthened by its Coast Guard and Maritime Militia forces which will, together with Naval expansion, expand the Chinese Navy to nearly 800 ships by 2030.

The Chinese are quickly adding a new class of Type 075 amphibious assault ships, carriers and Type 055 destroyers, each platform introducing a new sphere of maritime warfare technologies.

“To support its multilayered fleet, China is also developing the world’s largest missile force, with nuclear capabilities, which is designed to strike U.S. and allied forces in Guam and in the Far East with everything from ballistic missiles to maneuverable cruise and hypersonic missiles,” the strategy writes.

China’s naval expansion has long been on the radar at the Pentagon, yet it is gaining even more traction as an area of concern given China’s aggressive behavior in the region and the reported technological sophistication of its Naval force.

“In conflict, excess PRC industrial capacity, including additional commercial shipyards, could quickly be turned toward military production and repair, further increasing China’s ability to generate new military forces,” the strategy writes.

It has long been believed that China was no longer developing its new J-31 5th-Generation stealth fighter purely for international sales but as a domestic platform as well. By extension, it has also been believed that China has been fast progressing with a carrier-launched FC-31 variant intended to rival the U.S. F-35.

Purported to be a stealthy 5th-Generation platform capable of matching the amphib-launched U.S. Marine Corps F-35B or carrier-launched F-35C, the emerging FC-31 would introduce an as of yet unprecedented maritime attack capability to the large and fast-growing Chinese Navy.

Certainly any kind of “F-35-like” maritime power projection presents a substantial threat to the U.S. Navy, it does not seem at all clear that the new jet is in any way comparable to an F-35 in terms of performance. The external configuration of the FC-31 appears like a transparent rip off of U.S. F-35 and F-22 design specs, as China is known to engage in consistent efforts to steal or copy U.S. weapons platform specs. However, a general external similarity does not in any way guarantee that the aircraft is comparable to an F-35 in any capacity.

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As a platform intended to launch from Chinese carriers, the FC-31 does not appear to operate with any kind of F-35B-like vertical take-off-and-landing, and its ability to parallel, replicate or in any way “match” the computing, sensing and weapons capabilities of an F-35. Should amphibious assault ship-launched U.S. F-35Bs attack the Chinese Navy or defend Taiwan, Chinese surface assets may not be able to respond or match the threat without having one of its two aircraft carriers armed with the planes immediately available.

While stealthy, the F-35 likely achieves its superiority as much through sensing, computing, data analysis and software-enabled weapons attacks as it does with a stealthy exterior. To what extent might an FC-31 replicate this? That is perhaps unknown to a large degree, yet it might be a deciding or crucial factor when it comes to assessing the seriousness of the actual threat posed by the aircraft. There are many more aspects to stealth than external configuration or contours, as an ability to elude radar relies greatly on an ability to reduce or manage heat emissions, deliver or carry weapons and incorporate radar absorbent materials.

Regardless of the specific margins of its capability, an FC-31 carrier variant would likely give the Chinese Navy new attack or maritime combat options. A carrier-launched fifth-generation stealth fighter would massively expand China’s ability to project power internationally, especially in places such as the South China Sea where it may be difficult to build runways for a fixed-wing attack. A sea-based fighter could surveil or target island areas without needing to take off and land from one of the islands themselves, thereby making themselves less vulnerable to ground or runway strikes against their air operations. It also goes without saying that fifth-generation air support would change the threat equation for Taiwan should it face an amphibious attack.

Having fourth-generation aircraft able to launch from carriers, such as an equivalent to the U.S. F/A-18s such as the J-10, may limit an ability to conduct operations over areas with extremely advanced air defenses. A stealthy fighter, however, while still at risk against some emerging air defenses, enables global power projection in a substantially different way. It takes little imagination to envision China’s grand ambitions for expanded global influence, as having attack-power projection fortifies their current efforts to expand into many areas of Africa, the Middle East and of course Southeast Asia.

The U.S. Navy is deciding to hold off on building a second destroyer in 2022 due to competing budget demands placed upon the service by other priorities, service leaders said.

Navy leaders explain that reaching a 355-ship Navy is still very much a clear goal, yet also acknowledge that a faster shipbuilding pace may be necessary to accomplish that.

Citing budget constraints and the pressing imperative to ensure continued acceleration of the Columbia-class nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines, Navy leaders said deciding not to build a second destroyer was a tough but necessary decision.

“With respect to the second DDG, this was clearly a hard choice with respect to what we could afford as we build the Navy for the '22 budget….The hard choice being that the Navy chose to invest the cost of the destroyer in a blended mix of readiness, modernization, and capability for the future,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Budget Rear Adm. John Gumbleton told reporters according to a Pentagon transcript.

However, while the Navy does have as many as 20 new destroyers at various stages of construction and development and an ambitious plan to field at least 10 Flight III DDG 51 high-tech destroyers, any kind of hesitation or delay regarding destroyer construction is likely to cause concern among many in light of China’s accelerated warship buildup.

The PLA Navy just fielded another new Type 052D guided missile destroyer, sending it into the South China Sea, a Chinese newspaper reported. The new destroyer joined supply ships, amphibious vessels and other warships in a combat preparation exercise in the South China Sea.

China’s Global Times newspaper reports that the new Type 052D destroyer, the Nanning, is an upgraded variant with an “extended helicopter flight deck and a new anti-stealth radar.”

The paper goes on to specify the pace of Chinese warship construction, stating that China launched its 25th Type 052D destroyer and eighth Type 055 new stealthy large destroyer. Many more are now being built, the Global Times explains.

Globalfirepower.com, for example, reports in its 2021 assessments that China operates 50 destroyers, as compared to 90 U.S. Navy destroyers. This ratio is, however, changing quickly.

The pace of China’s aircraft carrier and warship expansion is potentially concerning as it does change the dynamic. For instance, while China is already known to possess a larger Navy than the U.S., the PLA Navy does at the moment operate fewer destroyers and carriers and most likely could not truly rival the U.S. Navy in terms of maritime surface warfare. Sheer numbers of ships, the thinking goes, might prove much less impactful than larger numbers of the most capable ships such as destroyers and carriers. China’s massive expansion in this area could greatly impact the Naval balance of power. 

- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

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.