The Pentagon, to much attention, last month released a report about the military capabilities of China, an annual event in Washington, DC defense circles. The report, titled “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021,” made many headlines about what China could theoretically do in future wars.
“The PRC’s national strategy to achieve ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ by 2049 is deeply integrated with its ambitions to strengthen the PLA. In 2017, General Secretary Xi Jinping laid out two PLA modernization goals during his speech to the 19th Party Congress: to ‘basically complete’ PLA modernization by 2035 and to transform the PLA into a ‘world class’ military by 2049,” the Pentagon report said. “Throughout 2020, the PLA continued to pursue its ambitious modernization objectives, refine major organizational reforms, and improve its combat readiness in line with those goals.”
The report, among other conclusions, found that China now boasts the largest Navy in the world, with an estimated 355 ships and submarines.
“As of 2020, the PLAN is largely composed of modern multi-role platforms. In the near-term, the PLAN will have the capability to conduct long-range precision strikes against land targets from its submarine and surface combatants using land-attack cruise missiles, notably enhancing the PRC’s global power projection capabilities. The PRC is enhancing its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities and competencies to protect the PLAN’s aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines,” the Pentagon report said of China’s Navy.
However, a recent Forbes report noted something else about the report: China has far fewer naval-based missiles than the U.S. does.
“There’s more to the comparison than number of hulls,” Jerry Hendrix, author of To Provide and Maintain a Navy, told Forbes. “The real number in the competition is the number of missile tubes.”
While the U.S. has just over 300 front-line ships, per Forbes, the U.S. has more than 10,000 “ship- or submarine-launched offensive missiles such as Harpoon and Naval Strike Missile anti-ship missiles and Tomahawk land-attack missiles.” The Chinese Navy, by contrast, has 4,168.
“It’s worth noting that almost all of the USN launchers—9,804—are Mark 41 vertical-launch-system cells, which are compatible with a wide array of munitions. It’s highly unlikely an American fleet would sail with only offensive missiles in its VLS cells. A fleet must defend itself, after all. It would need anti-air missiles,” the Forbes piece said.
The piece also pointed out another place where the U.S. has an advantage: Allies.
“China has no dependable allies. The United States has many. This summer, the U.S., British and Japanese fleets formed a massive fleet in the waters south of Japan—one with three aircraft carriers, a helicopter carrier and many hundreds of offensive missiles.”
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.