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.
“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.