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Does China Really Have the World’s Biggest Navy? Not Exactly.

World's Largest Navy
Image: Creative Commons.

This year’s release of the Pentagon’s annual China military report indeed raised some eyebrows when China was given the title of having the planet’s biggest naval force.

As reported in The Diplomat, in response to analysis done prior to the report, “the United States Office of Naval Intelligence has confirmed that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has surpassed the United States Navy in total battle force ships, approximately three hundred sixty to two hundred ninety-seven, with future projections expecting the gap to grow. By 2025, the PLAN is predicted to field as many as four hundred vessels whereas the United States plans only to field three hundred fifty-five.”

However, as pointed out by prominent defense journalist Dario Leone at the Aviation Geek Club, the giving of China’s navy such recognition might not tell the full story.

Reilly Brangan, an aeronautical engineering student at the University of New South Wales, wrote on Quora that “the statement of China (having) the largest navy in the world is largely misleading and used mainly for sensationalist headlines. In reality, China does not have the world’s largest navy, in any meaningful metric.”

He continues: “But ‘China has more ships than the United States!’ you may claim. It is true, the PLAN has over five hundred thirty active vessels in service, whereas the United States Navy only has some four hundred eighty vessels in service. What this fails to consider is that, almost half of the PLAN is made up by vessels like these.”

Not Just About Counting

Brangan then points toward the rather pedestrian Type 022 Missile Boat and the Type 037 Corvette.

“Together, the PLAN’s Missile boats, coastal patrol craft, and small mine-clearing vessels account for two hundred fifty-six ships, or almost half of the entire PLAN vessel count. This is why simply using vessel numbers is not a genuine or realistic metric for ‘largest’ or most capable navy. By the same metric I could throw five hundred sail boats in the water and also have a larger Navy than the United States Navy, does that mean I can compete against it in any meaningful way? No,” he contends.

Fleet Displacement

“If we use this same metric, the largest navy in the world is actually the Korean People’s Army Naval Force (KPANF), which absolutely dwarfs both the USN, and the PLAN with over one thousand vessels in service. But the reality is quite obviously that the North Korean naval forces are dwarfed by both of those nations. The more appropriate metric to analyze in this scenario is total fleet displacement, i.e. the total combined tonnage of all of the vessels in each of these respective services,” he continues.

Brangan also notes that “the U.S. Navy, which is heavily biased towards large surface and sub-surface blue water combatants, has a total fleet displacement of over 4.6 million tons whereas the PLAN has a total fleet displacement of less than two million tons, or well below half that of the United States Navy. In blue water fleet capability, the PLAN is still dwarfed by the USN as of 2021. It should also be mentioned that China relegates duties that would be assigned to the U.S. Coast Guard to their navy as well, so it would be apt to add Coast Guard vessels to the U.S. total, which adds at minimum two hundred forty-three more ships.”

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.

Written By

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Matthew Jacobs

    November 6, 2021 at 4:41 pm

    In this situation, numbers don’t matter as much as China Navy has bases just a hop and a skip away while the US navy supply lines are thousands of miles to be traveled…Also, China doesn’t have its forces spread out all over the globe…so they can follow the doctrine of concentration of forces…Having a Carrier task force in the Med won’t do any good in a battle in the So. China Sea

  2. Mike

    November 7, 2021 at 5:49 am

    Finally an author who knows what he’s talking about. In a war situation it’s the carriers that count. A gathering of 8 strike carriers would annihilate the Chinese navy in three weeks. Someone commented about the dispersant of the usn but in a war situation most of the usn would be deployed against a Chinese enemy. Our attack submarine force also would devastate the Chinese navy and ports. Not to mention the 1500 f15,f16 etc that will be flown to Japan and other smaller islands in a massive buildup to bombard China. They may get a lot of shots in with their missiles in the beginning but once the USA starts to move assets there then the real payback will begin. Chinese factories and ship building areas will also be under bombardment and they will struggle to make good ship and jet losses. As the battle of attrition sets in the tide will turn and the USA will gain air superiority and at a later point air supremacy. Then the massive military output of warplanes and ship building will have begun in the USA while the Chinese struggle to build long range missiles that may be able to target some of these factories. After two years of war the USA will have produced enough war planes and ships and the Chinese will have become a punching bag. Just like Germany and Japan were to the aerial bombardment in 1944 and 1945. Other adversaries will reel in fear at the new powerful military buildup and change their aggressive tones. The USA will then divert resources to wipe out threats like Iran in order to deal once and for all any other threats. The mentality of today of let’s negotiate nuclear treaty will no longer be an option instead it will be disarm now or face regime change through a massive aerial bombardment. When China sues for a cease fire all trade will be stopped with them by the civilized world having realized that the rich had financed a massive military threat and it must never be allowed to happen again.

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