Editor’s Note: We recently spoke with Dr. Andrew Erickson, a professor of strategy in the U.S. Naval War College (NWC)’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI), to get his take on the newly released U.S. maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea.
First, give us a sense of your overall assessment of the new maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea. What does it do, why does it matter, and how could it shape future naval strategy for the United States?
The tri-service strategy offers a clear vision of the greatest challenges facing the United States and its vital interests, how the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard can best address them, and the prioritization that will be required to do so. This well-written document is exceptional in its provision of information, substantive analysis, and guidance. It explains how China poses the greatest challenges to American interests of any nation: “the most comprehensive threat to the United States, our allies, and all nations supporting a free and open system.” It explains how America’s Sea Services, front-line witnesses to this sea change, are best placed to address many of those challenges, and why this should be the top priority moving forward.
I could not help but notice the amount of attention is given to China’s maritime militia in the document. Does the new strategy, in your view, pay enough attention to this threat? Do we have the resources needed in the Asia-Pacific considering the size and scope of the threat presented by Beijing in this area?
The strategy concisely explains China’s own tri-service strategy at sea with a laser focus that no previous U.S. government document provided so directly. Through a simple but powerful graph, this latest maritime strategy document offers new data concerning the ultimate expression of Beijing’s own maritime strategy: numbers of ships in service, by service, starting in 2000 and projected out to 2030. This includes a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy that has already trebled in size to as many as ~360 battle force ships today and is forecast to exceed 450 ships a decade hence. It already exceeds U.S. Navy battle force ship numbers, which have not quite reached 300.
The graph shows a China Coast Guard of ~250 ships, for which little further quantitative growth is forecast, but for which substantial qualitative development can be expected. A key area to watch is Coast Guard aviation, which will be greatly enhanced from its current limited state.
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Most interestingly, the graph offers the first public U.S. government estimate of ship numbers for China’s People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM). With an increase from virtually zero in 2015 to ~100 today and little further growth projected, this would seem to be the lowest, most strict-constructionist tabulation possible. The relatively low number appears to reflect only the very-most-advanced purpose-built hulls from a small subset of vanguard units: As the Pentagon’s 2020 China Military Power Report documents, the Sansha City Maritime Militia alone by 2016 received “84 large militia vessels with reinforced hulls and ammunition storage.” When one includes the many basic fishing vessels registered in the PAFMM, the total order of battle is in the high hundreds at least. Here, China draws from the world’s largest fishing fleet, which contained approximately 187,211 marine fishing vessels at the end of 2015.
Already, each of China’s three sea services is itself the world’s largest by number of ships. By the Strategy’s graphic calculus, their combined total currently stands at 700 and is projected to exceed 800 by 2030. Both numbers and quality matter, and China is growing considerably in both dimensions at sea.
We can be confident that the battle force numbers calculated for China’s Navy correspond numerically with those for the U.S. Navy battle force. The U.S. Navy is required to count PLA Navy (PLAN) ship numbers strictly according to the criteria listed in SECNAVINST 5030.8C (“General Guidance for the Classification of Naval Vessels and Battle Force Ship Counting Procedures”). It’s the closest to an “apples-to-apples” comparison that one can expect.
While U.S. forces continue to retain formidable qualitative advantages undersea, particularly in blue water and with submarines; in strike warfare; and in anti-air warfare, China has increasing advantages across the board in anti-surface warfare. Worryingly, on a ship-to-ship basis, new advanced PLAN platforms are increasingly closing the “apples-to-apples” gap with their USN counterparts in apparent hardware capabilities: equipment, weapons, and sensors. The U.S. Navy is increasingly banking on the intangibles of personnel, doctrine, tactics, and experience: being able to employ its ships better and to fight better overall. In a surface-to-surface fight, the U.S. Navy would be overmatched in surface-to-surface firepower (i.e., short-range, subsonic Harpoon missiles) against PLAN anti-ship cruise missiles that already have a range advantage, and with the new YJ-12 and YJ-18 also being supersonic. When it comes to Sino-American competition at sea, the strategy document warns starkly, the U.S. Navy is already quantitatively behind China and is rapidly losing qualitative advantages.
Overall, China has deployed far more missiles on land and at sea than has the United States. For some of these systems, reliable long-range targeting far from China’s land-based radars and other C4ISR architecture remains a work in progress. However, for the Near Seas scenarios that matter most to China, it enjoys increasingly robust overlapping sensor coverage. Beijing is rapidly expanding and enhancing its land-, sea-, and air-, and space-based C4ISR platforms. Its South China Sea outposts are making a major contribution. And reconnaissance has been a core PAFMM mission for decades, with many times the ~100 vessels documented in the strategy being potentially available to provide a rudimentary warning function—an extensive capability that would be hard to counter.
At the same time, China’s overall naval capacity is growing by leaps and bounds—especially in new aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines, conventional submarines, and new warships. Does the U.S. Navy have the resources it needs to counter this threat as well, particularly considering that our global footprint is stretched rather thin?
The strategy rightly underscores a key asymmetry: Overall, China’s Sea Forces remain largely regionally focused. Its Maritime Militia is not known to operate outside the “Near Seas”—Yellow, East, and South China Seas—home to all Beijing’s unresolved island/feature and maritime sovereignty claims. Its Coast Guard has vessels capable of global operations, but the majority of its force is regionally deployed. Its Navy increasingly operates around the world, but retains a strong home-region presence, and would certainly be recalled to a dedicated focus on any conflict scenario. In contrast, the U.S. Navy is dispersed across the world’s oceans. In the event of a Near Seas scenario, it could not be fully vectored there at the abandonment of other concerns, let alone the incentives of other rivals to exploit any emergent power vacuum.
As the strategy rightly contends, the U.S. Navy needs additional resources to address rising challenges. Resources need to be provided predictably to support consistent shipbuilding, operations, and maintenance. Recent years of shutdowns, sequestration, continuing resolutions, and other stopgap measures have wreaked havoc on America’s defense industrial base, in which private contractors cannot maximize investment and progress when facing excessive uncertainty. Resource provision, in turn, must be informed by a cohesive strategy. This document offers welcome strategic direction, but its impact remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the two-decade tidal wave of Chinese military shipbuilding that it enumerates has been powered by a consistency of strategy and resources that is in many respects superior to its formidable but floundering American counterpart.
Looking at some of the pressure points in the Indo-Pacific region like the South and East China Seas as well as the Taiwan Strait, it seems China is attempting to mass enough forces to make any sort of kinetic contest over those bodies of water a tough challenge. Does this new strategy do enough to ensure the United States can support allies and partners in the region if a crisis did erupt with China?
Even if it proves as influential over time as I hope it will be, this strategy will be only one element of what the U.S. and its allies and partners need to “hold the line” in the Near Seas. There, China is amassing a formidable overlapping constellation of capabilities not only at sea, in the form of the tri-service expansion the strategy describes; but also on land, in the form of a potent missile-centric “anti-Navy.”
Beijing has developed quite a range of land-based anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) weapons platforms like the DF-21D and DF-26B anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs). Does this strategy take into account these emerging threats where forces from the land like ballistic, cruise, and now hypersonic weapons could limit U.S. maritime forces’ ability to project power?
The strategy most certainly factors in China’s ASBMs and other A2/AD weapons. There are many ways in which U.S. maritime forces can continue to project power, but they require sufficient resources and sufficient numbers. The strategy makes plain a critical tipping point: given sufficient support, America’s sea services can continue to fully execute all missions with which they are entrusted; but absent such support, they will soon no longer be able to do so effectively where it matters most.
In terms of ship numbers, each of China’s three sea forces is the world’s largest by a large margin. For the scenarios that most concern the U.S. and its regional allies, these numbers matter greatly. This suggests an important conclusion: China’s numerical sea force supremacy and the corresponding need for power projection and presence to counter it effectively demonstrates the need for a substantially increased U.S. Navy. The cost of maintaining sufficient sea power is great, but the cost of not doing so would be devastating—not only to American ideals, but also to interests we have taken for granted since American sea power started helping to continuously secure a peaceful and prosperous postwar order nearly eight decades ago.
In addition to the new tri-service strategy, where can readers find the latest information on China’s sea forces?
This cogent new strategy needs all the support it can get. It comes amid a growing wave of serious books, monographs, and reports on PRC military maritime issues by specialists at the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) and elsewhere in the field. Beyond that, for near-real-time information, here are my reading recommendations:
The best coverage of China’s three sea services overall is in the Pentagon’s 2020 report, which has authoritative coverage of the PLAN and a special section on its coordination with the CCG and PAFMM (pp. 69-72). Another encompassing report is the Defense Intelligence Agency’s 2019 China Military Power. For those with an eye for detail, and the ability to zoom in or use a magnifying glass, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) maintains an exquisite ship Identification Guide, complete with silhouettes and pennant numbers. Even a quick glance is enough to grasp the enormity and variety of China’s oceanic juggernaut. I hope that ONI soon updates its Equipment Guide, PLAN Report, and accompanying videos—all excellent but dated 2015.
A formidable book-length counterpart to ONI’s “eye chart” is offered by Modern Chinese Maritime Forces, authored by Manfred Meyer and edited by Larry Bond and Chris Carlson. This unique compendium combines beautiful line diagrams that would impress Edward Tufte with a comprehensive order of battle and technical specifications that would amaze Mahan himself. (Full disclosure: I was so impressed with this quarterly-updated resource that I accepted the editors’ invitation to write the Foreword.)
For China’s Navy, see Library of Congress analyst Ron O’Rourke’s frequently-updated Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on “China’s Naval Modernization.” He offers detailed coverage of PLAN force structure, as well as thoughtful discussion and insights of its relative size and strength. O’Rourke’s report remains the sole public source of U.S. government projections out to 2040. The tri-service strategy only projects numbers out to 2030, possibly because meaningful projections for China’s Coast Guard and Maritime Militia out two decades were not readily available.
For China’s Coast Guard, see O’Rourke’s periodically-updated CRS report on “U.S.-China Strategic Competition in South and East China Seas.” This invaluable reference also compiles content and sources concerning China’s Maritime Militia. The work of my CMSI colleague Ryan Martinson, which I compile here, offers some of the best qualitative insights concerning the world’s largest civil maritime force and its role in China’s maritime strategy.
For China’s Maritime Militia, I maintain an extensive compendium of curated open sources. More than six years into my efforts in this area with Conor Kennedy and other CMSI colleagues such as former Director Peter Dutton, it is sobering that awareness and understanding of this virtually unique force remains so elusive for so many. Fortunately, a new Wikipedia entry on the “People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia” offers an invaluable distillation. I hope that dedicated Wikipedians will build on this foundation by incorporating some of the authoritative PRC and U.S. government sources that I highlight in keyword-searchable format.
Andrew S. Erickson is a professor of strategy in the U.S. Naval War College (NWC)’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI). A core founding member, he helped establish CMSI and stand it up officially in 2006, and has played an integral role in its development. CMSI inspired the creation of other research centers, which he has advised and supported; he is a China Aerospace Studies Institute Associate. Erickson is currently a Visiting Scholar in full-time residence at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, where he has been an Associate in Research since 2008. He blogs at www.andrewerickson.com.