You may have heard recently that China’s People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is rapidly outstripping the U.S. Navy with its larger battle force. Or if you read a different stripe of commentary, that the U.S. Navy’s mighty warships collectively out-mass its rival across the Pacific by more than two to one.
Both claims are true but can mislead when presented without context. There are several different ways to calculate the size of a fleet, each of which offers its own insights.
Those alarmed by Chinese military power tend to focus on ship totals. To be sure, the pace of China’s shipbuilding has been impressive and is expected to remain that way into the 2020s
Counting various auxiliary and coast guard ships, the IISS think tank counted 777 PLA assets to 490 for the United States.
But such counts make no distinction between a gigantic nuclear-powered aircraft carrier—the U.S. Navy has eleven, China none—and patrol boats armed with a few missiles. And the PLAN counted eighty-four missile boats in the aforementioned congressional report, while the U.S. Navy has just ten.
Tonnage and Firepower
Displaced tonnage is a classic shorthand metric for assessing a ship’s size and capability. While some ships are more efficient weapons platforms than others, it’s usually a good bet that a 9,000-ton destroyer is tougher and has more powerful weapons and sensors than a 7,000-ton destroyer.
In gross tonnage, the U.S. fleet displaces more than twice as much as the PLA Navy: 4.6 million tons to roughly two million tons. Essentially, most U.S. Navy surface warships are stuffed full of missiles or jet fighters, while the PLAN has a lot of small vessels mustering just two to eight missiles each.
But is China packing more total firepower into its more numerous, smaller boats?
Counting how many battle force missiles (BFMs) a fleet can project before needing to replenish at port is a pretty good measure of its ability to deal out and absorb punishment.
Modern naval warfare centers around long-range missiles used to strike ships and land installations, and surface-to-air missiles to shoot down said anti-ship missiles and aircraft. Next in importance are torpedoes, used primarily by and against submarines.
So the BFM tally includes capacity for anti-ship and -submarine missiles, medium- and long-range air-defense missiles, land-attack missiles, and torpedoes. It excludes short-range self-defense weapons like SeaRAM missile launchers.
A 2019 study counted 11,834 battle force missiles in the U.S. Navy, versus only 5,250 in the PLAN—a more than 2:1 disparity.
The PLAN is certainly narrowing that gap in the 2020s. For example, Beijing’s plans to commission fifteen more Type 055 cruisers with 112 missile cells and six torpedo tubes each would add 1,770 BFMs, by itself a 33 percent increase over the 2019 figure. But it’s still a big disparity to roll back.
Ships by Type
The navies of China and the United States are not pieces on a symmetrical chessboard. U.S. warships must operate many thousands of miles away from the United States, relying on a sprawling global network of overseas bases and support ships. Meanwhile, the PLAN is primarily focused on sea control within a few thousand miles of mainland China, though it is also building an expeditionary capability in the Indian Ocean.
That’s why the PLAN can make more use of small ships. But while small boats have their upsides, Chinese naval planners have stated they want to focus on larger U.S.-style warships going forward.
So consider ship count by ship type. In the 1990s such comparisons would be dubious because of the technological gap between U.S. and Chinese warships. But after two decades of experimentation, in the 2010s the PLAN developed modern designs deemed suitable for mass production—the Type 052D destroyer, Type 054A frigate, Type 055 destroyer/cruiser, and Type 056A corvette.
The table of major surface warships below draws on the U.S. Navy register, a 2020 congressional report, and this excellent 2021 PLAN force structure graphic by Sarah Kirchberger of the Institute for Security Policy. It also includes in parentheses expected-so-far changes to the numbers of ships due to retirements and current orders. It doesn’t count ships that are due for retirement this year, are unlikely to be used operationally due to obsolescence, or that have been transferred to the coast guard.
|Comparison of Major Surface Combatants in 2021|
|PLA Navy||U.S. Navy|
|Conventional Carriers||2 (3-4)||0|
|Missile Cruisers||2 (8-16)||22 (11)|
|Destroyers||34 (42)||68 (70)|
|Frigates||46 (63)||0 (3-20)|
The PLAN’s numerical edge is mostly due to its larger force of Type 056 anti-submarine corvettes and (more significantly) its frigate fleet.
The U.S. Navy currently doesn’t operate any frigates, though it plans to introduce new FFG(X) frigates in the 2020s. When it comes to large warships, the U.S. Navy has a clear edge in cruisers, destroyers, and carriers—the last of which are far more capable than China’s.
Beijing’s shipbuilding plan will see the fleet expand significantly due to the construction of new frigates, destroyers, cruisers, carriers and amphibious assault ships. U.S. fleet numbers will increase more slowly, particularly as U.S. cruisers begin retiring in the mid-2020s, with no replacement near being identified.
In the arena of submarines, the U.S. naval lead remains robust.
|PLA Navy||U.S. Navy|
|Nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN)||6 (8-12)||14 (12)|
|Nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine (SSGN)||0||4 (5)|
|Nuclear-powered attack (SSN)||9||50|
|Conventional attack submarine (SSK)||56||0|
(The PLAN count omits three obsolete Type 091 SSNs and one Type 092 SSBN, and a unique Qing-class missile testing submarine .)
The PLAN’s slight numerical advantage here is vastly offset by the superior range, speed, and endurance of the U.S.’s entirely nuclear-powered submarine fleet, which is also uniformly much quieter. Beijing’s future attack submarine construction plans remain unclear.
Finally, consider large amphibious assault ships used to carry helicopters and landing craft to deploy ground forces onto faraway shores.
|Large Amphibious War|
|PLA Navy||U.S. Navy|
|Amphibious Assault Ships (LHA/LHD)||1 (8)||9 (10)|
|Landing Platform Dock (LPD)||8 (16)
Type 071 LPD
|Landing Ship Dock||0||11|
Beijing is thus undertaking a major effort to build large amphibious ships to replace its 50-60 smaller, shorter-range LST and LSM amphibious ships. U.S. amphibious assault ships, moreover, can carry F-35B jump jets on board, potentially allowing them to be used as light carriers.
Forces in Theater
In the end, it’s important to remember that total counts of ships and tonnage don’t reflect how many ships would actually be deployable in a conflict.
The narrower geographic scope of the PLAN means its ships are densely concentrated in the western Pacific, while the U.S. Navy is spread across the globe. Near China, the PLAN can be supported by hundreds of land-based warplanes and anti-ship missiles. Regional allies and air bases on Okinawa and Guam also need to be factored on the U.S. side of the equation.
Thus, practical analyses of U.S.-China naval strength must be based on the forces likely to be present in the theater, or capable of intervening in a timely fashion, rather than some fantasy cage match pitting the total strength of the two navies against each other.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.