For over a decade the U.S. Navy has been fighting a losing battle to obtain enough cargo and fuel ships to support a major military operation in the Pacific against China. During World War II the U.S. Pacific Fleet consisted of 250,000 personnel and 200 warships plus even more supply ships keeping the combat ships in action. Currently the entire U.S. fleet consists of 340,000 personnel and 300 warships with over half in the Pacific. The Chinese fleet has 240 warships and 200,000 personnel, all of them in the Pacific. Only the presence of the South Korean and Japanese fleets, and naval bases American ships have access to, even things up. What is still missing is sufficient American supply and support ships to support major military operations in the Pacific against the Chinese.
One reason for this disparity is the fact that China has become the largest shipbuilder in the world and the largest owner and operator of cargo and tanker ships. To support a major naval campaign in the Pacific the American fleet needs dozens of tankers and cargo ships available to operate near the fighting and even more to bring forward fuels and other supplies to the combat ships. Recent simulations of campaigns in the Western Pacific show that the U.S. Navy needs about twice as many supply ships as they have now. This is not a new problem.
Modern at-sea replenishment methods were developed out of necessity by the United States during World War II because of a lack of sufficient forward bases in the vast Pacific. The resulting service squadrons (Servrons) became a permanent fixture in the U.S. Navy after the war. Ships frequently stay at sea for up to six months at a time, being resupplied at sea by a Servron. New technologies were developed to support the effective use of the seagoing supply service. Few other navies have been able to match this capability, mainly because of the expense of the Servron ships and the training required to do at sea replenishment. China adopted this approach to enable their warships to remain at sea for longer periods, especially if engaged in combat operations.
China has some major advantages in seagoing logistics, while the advantages the United States enjoyed in the 1930s and 40s have faded. Over the last two decades China has become the largest builder and operator of merchant ships. By 2019 China’s two major shipbuilders, CSSC and CSIC, merged to create the largest shipbuilder in the world with 310,000 employees. A decade earlier there were nearly half a million employees but recessions, continued competition from rivals South Korea and Japan forced the change. The new company, CSG (China Shipbuilding Group), as well as the two it merged from are all state owned. The merger was a return to the situation in 1999 when CSSC and CSIC were created from the then single state-owned shipbuilding operation. This was meant to encourage competition and it worked.
Chinese shipbuilders, mainly the two large firms, account for most of the shipbuilding in China and were striving to overtake their main rival South Korea as the largest shipbuilder in the world in all categories. There are several ways to measure shipbuilder output. South Korea was the champion in most of them. Japan was once in first place but now must settle for third place. South Korea and China have been close competitors for first place since 2012 and to that end the two largest South Korean ship builders also merged in 2019.
South Korea made a comeback in shipbuilding, an industry it led until 2012 when it was briefly overtaken by China. By 2018 South Korean firms surpassed China in new orders. This was mainly because South Korean shipbuilders are seen as leaders in the construction of more complex transports like LNG (Liquid Natural Gas) vessels, which transport refrigerated (enough to turn natural gas to a more compact liquid) natural gas. Another form of unique ship construction that South Korea has excelled at was off-shore oil exploration and drilling vessels and structures. The offshore platforms are built in shipyards and are mobile, via towing at slow speeds from one work site to another.
All major shipbuilders had to deal with a sharp decline in orders since a global economic recession began in 2008. One way China helped its shipyards cope was increasing orders for warships. This was going to happen anyway but the government gave the navy all it wanted and then some. This resulted in 2019 being a record year for warship construction with 28 surface warships launched, including a record ten destroyers plus 16 corvettes and two large amphibious ships. While warships are more complex ships to build, commercial ships still accounted for over 95 percent of the work at the new China Shipbuilding Group. From that point on China has been the largest producer of non-nuclear warships.
Since 2012 China and South Korea have been competing for overall first place. Eventually even the South Korean edge in quality and innovation was not enough and now China is firmly in first place with South Korea second and Japan third. China has been helping its shipyards since the late 1990s, and that has enabled Chinese shipbuilders to gradually catch up to South Korea and Japan. In 2009, sooner than anyone expected, China surpassed South Korea as the world's largest shipbuilder in terms of tonnage. In late 2009, Chinese yards had orders for 54.96 million CGT of ships, compared to 53.63 million CGT for South Korea. China had 34.7 percent of the world market. In 2000, South Korea took the lead from Japan by having the largest share of the world shipbuilding market.
At the same time the Chinese have been working hard on how to build new classes of navy supply ships. These are built to efficiently supply ships at sea. In addition to learning how to transfer these supplies at sea, the crews have also learned how to keep all the needed supplies in good shape and stocked in the required quantities. This requires the procurement officers learning how to arrange resupply at local ports in a timely basis.
As the major producers of commercial ships, China was able to design and build supply ships for the Chinese Navy quickly. This included designing and building two Sansha class supply ships by 2014 for use in supplying new naval bases in the South China Sea. The design was unique and to speed up the construction process China bought the rights to an existing European design that had not been built yet. This degree of ship building skill and innovation was something the United States no longer has. Since World War II, when the U.S. was the largest shipbuilder in the world, the American shipbuilding capability diminished. Currently the U.S. can build ships but slowly and in small quantities and most of those built are warships. American yards are not as efficient as the Chinese shipbuilders and take five to ten years to complete a warship China can complete in a year or two. This includes non-nuclear aircraft carriers.
The American warships are still, on average, more powerful than their Chinese counterparts. This is largely due to the American nuclear aircraft carriers and nuclear submarine forces. China has nothing like these, but does have more anti-ship missiles on their ships plus cruise and ballistic missiles launched from land to hit American ships far from the Chinese coast. American warships are generally well-protected from those but supply ships aren’t. At all. The primary American weakness is seaborne supply and the Chinese are well aware of that.