March 26, 2024

The PLAN: Blue water capabilities, maritime primacy, and US-rivalry

Even though China has traditionally been a land power, the PRC today is en route to become a regional great power in the Indo-Pacific. This is mainly due to the unparalleled buildup of the PLAN over recent decades. This buildup accelerated in the 2010s, with the PRC today building more warships each year than any other nation. As such, it is the PLA’s naval development that receives the most attention internationally out of all domains of warfare that the PLA is active in. During the 2015 reforms, Xi Jinping posited that “the traditional sentiment of land over sea had to be abandoned.” Today the PLA’s developmental philosophy is one of naval primacy, with most resources allocated to the PLAN’s expansion.

The operational concept of ‘forward defense’ translates to the naval domain via the PLAN effectively practicing A2/AD up until the Second Island Chain in the Pacific and until the Nine-Dash Line in the South China Sea. All the PLAN’s buildup, as well as the PRC’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea serve this A2/AD purpose. To showcase how the PLAN is being transformed from a littoral navy into a blue water one, both the PRC’s shipbuilding capacity as well as its innovation in naval vessels and fleet composition must be illustrated.

In terms of shipbuilding output, the PRC outnumbers the US more than two-to-one. The US’ seven operational dockyards are mainly focused on maintenance and replacement of vessels in the existing US Navy fleet. Meanwhile, the PRC has the capacity to build up to 19 naval vessels in parallel. The Jiangnan Shipyard in itself – near Shanghai in the Yangtze Delta – can build nine vessels at a time. The PRC’s shipbuilding industrial capacity enabled the PLAN to grow to over 700 vessels. On paper, this vastly outnumbers the US Navy’s approximate vessel count of 293 as of 2023.

On this note, a word is due on the methodology of naval power calculation. The PLAN’s capabilities and their growth from a littoral navy since the end of the Cold War are undoubtedly remarkable. But how these numbers are aggregated can be nebulous and sometimes unnecessarily alarmist.

Firstly, organizational structure is a key factor. It is true that the PRC’s maritime armed forces operate 700+ vessels, however, around half of these belong to the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia or to the People’s Armed Police Coast Guard. Nominally, these bodies are branches not of the PLAN but of the People’s Militia – a rough equivalent of the US National Guard – and the PAP – the PRC’s domestic military police force – respectively. These armed forces are integral to the PRC’s domestic state apparatus, and they are often employed in ‘grey zone’ operations in violation of international law to assert control over maritime territory in the South and East China Seas. However, their vessels would be of little utility in a high-intensity warfighting environment between peer competitors. As such, they inflate the objective calculation of the PLAN’s strength.

Secondly, the PLAN also operates 150+ logistics and support vessels. Within the US’ organizational structure, these vessels fall under the US Navy Reserve Fleet and are calculated separately for that reason. In the same vein, while technically standalone vessels under PLAN designation, amphibious landing crafts should be seen as subsystems of the PLAN’s fleet of 11 principal amphibious assault ships and 49 landing ships. Given the PRC’s strategic-operational objectives in the Taiwan Strait, miscalculating these capabilities could prove fatal to US Allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.

Thirdly, even with these caveats the PLAN has approximately 370 vessels, against the US Navy’s 293, which is a considerable margin. That said, vessel count on its own is not a definitive metric of calculating naval preponderance. In terms of tonnage for example, the US Navy still outweighs the PLAN more than two-to-one at a displacement of 4.6 million tons against the PLAN’s 2.2 million notwithstanding the latter being distributed across a higher number of vessels. Conversely, the US Navy’s warships collectively are fitted with over 8,600 vertical launch system (VLS) cells. Calculating the same number for the PLAN is more complicated given incomplete open-source data, but most estimates put their VLS count between 4,000 and 6,000, giving a marked edge to the US.

As detailed above, the PLAN operates a higher number of smaller and less capable vessels than the US Navy. That said, advancements in specific warship classes illustrate the PLAN’s impressive growth. The PLAN’s first aircraft carrier entered service in 2012. The Type-001 Liaoning is a refitted Kuznetsov class Soviet carrier. Its sister ship, the Type-002 Shandong is the PRC’s first domestically built carrier and entered service in 2019. In 2022, the Type-003 Fujian followed, the PRC’s first fully indigenous carrier design. These carriers all have diesel and steam propulsion, capable of controlling green and to some extent blue waters outside of the PRC’s immediate littorals, but falling short of global blue water power projection due to limited range. Work on the nuclear-powered Type-004 is underway, with up to four more carriers entering service to the PLAN by 2035. The PLAN’s carrier fleet is nowhere near a peer competitor to the US Navy’s 11 nuclear supercarriers. However, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) war games in 2023 already predicted a loss of one or two US carriers in a hypothetical scenario of defending Taiwan. Similarly, at the current rate of carrier production, the PLAN may well match the US Navy by the mid-century if the latter doesn’t improve shipbuilding output. Moreover, the ‘dreadnought-effect’ given the PLARF’s coastal A2/AD capabilities along with general advances in sea-to-sea and other anti-ship missile technology may render the aircraft carrier an ill-suited platform for high-intensity kinetic warfare in the 21st century altogether. This trend is widely debated among naval strategists but suggests a need for increased US investment into missile-defense systems for the naval domain.

The PLAN also has the second highest number of prime surface combatants (PSC) out of any fleet in the world, surpassed only by the US. In fact, when including smaller surface combatants, such as the PLAN’s 40+ corvettes and 80+ missile-armed coastal patrol boats, the PLAN’s numbers are superior. As per the IISS Military Balance 2023, the PLAN operates seven Type-055 Renhan cruisers, – classified by the PLAN as destroyers – 42 destroyers of various classes, with variants of the Type-051 and the Type-052 being the most advanced, and 41 frigates, the variants of the Type-053 and the Type-054 leading the way in capabilities. The PLAN’s frigates and destroyers are typically fitted with 32 to 48 VLS cells each, with the Type-052D

Luyang III class fitted with 64, and the Type-055 Renhan class fitted with an impressive 112 VLS cells. These PSC classes together keep entering service year-on-year in the high single digits.

Arguably the best microcosm for comparative examination of the PLAN versus the US Navy within the context of their respective strategic-operational objectives is mine warfare. The PLAN has invested significantly in bolstering its mine warfare capabilities, manifesting in a fleet of specialized vessels exceeding 100 in number. These vessels encompass a diverse array of platforms, including mine countermeasure ships equipped with cutting-edge sonar systems and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), showcasing the PRC’s dedication to maintaining superiority in maritime defense. Within this arsenal, the PLAN deploys various types of mines, spanning from conventional contact mines to sophisticated influence mines outfitted with advanced sensors tailored for precise target acquisition. This robust infrastructure underscores the PLAN’s holistic approach to maritime strategy, emphasizing the importance of mine warfare as a force multiplier in achieving maritime dominance and complementing its overarching A2/AD strategy aimed at restricting adversary naval movements and projecting power across contested maritime domains in a cost-effective, scalable, and lethal manner.

Conversely, the United States Navy confronts hurdles in its mine warfare capabilities, marked by a modest fleet of fewer than 10 dedicated mine countermeasure ships. This limitation is further compounded by the reliance on supplementary mine-hunting capabilities integrated into a handful of littoral combat ships (LCS), widely considered to be a procurement disaster. While the numerical disparity between the US Navy and PLAN fleets is notable, the US Navy mitigates this shortfall through the utilization of advanced technologies and leveraging LCS mission modularity. Notably, airborne and remotely operated mine detection systems are pivotal assets utilized to augment mine countermeasure operations, showcasing the US Navy’s adaptability in navigating maritime challenges and countering potential A2/AD strategies given sufficient investment into scaling mine countermeasure capabilities. Having said that, the PLAN’s clear edge in mine warfare capabilities is considerable and serves as a leverage for successful A2/AD without the above-mentioned urgent investment on the US side. Mine warfare as such is

the clearest area, where the PLAN is better suited for the PLA’s strategic-operational objectives of A2/AD than the US Navy is suited for its own objectives of penetrating that A2/AD.

Finally, the PLAN’s submarine fleet also saw remarkable expansion since the end of the Cold War. In the mid-1990s the US’ most advanced submarine design was the formidable Los Angeles class. At the same time the PLAN operated legacy submarine hulls from the 1960s and 1970s. Today, variants of the Los Angeles class still form the bulk of the US Navy’s undersea capabilities, with the PLAN having developed three classes of nuclear submarines. As of 2023, the PLAN operated six Type-094 Jin class SSBNs, along with 53 attacks submarines, six of which belong to the Type-093 Shang I and Type-093A Shang II SSN classes. Newly built variants of these classes will have more stealthy propulsion systems for increased survivability in high intensity blue water warfare, with the PLAN continuing to expand their fleet of diesel-powered attack submarines for green water A2/AD. The US Navy still has the upper hand with a wide margin, having retired their last conventionally powered submarine in 2018, operating a force of 14 SSBNs, 53 SSNs, and four SSGNs.

All in all, the PLAN – as the PLA’s primary branch today – has seen astounding progress over the past decades, with continued steady growth and technological development. As a peer competitor the PLAN still lags behind the US Navy in terms of current and next generation capabilities. However, the PLAN is highly capable of challenging the US and Allies within the First Island Chain, with considerable and growing anti-ship and high-intensity naval combat capabilities within the Second Island Chain. Further development of the PLAN’s surface and submarine fleets will have the potential to rival the US Navy in terms of long-range power-projection on blue waters as well by the mid-century.

For a deeper discussion on any of this please contact

Global A&D

Craig Belanger
Senior Partner & Co-Founder Boston
Adam Meszaros
Analyst London
Anirudh Suneel
Principal London
Joe Giandomenico
Principal Boston
Robyn Pirie
Manager Boston
Ben Osterholtz
Manager Boston
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