Surface Forces: The Illusion Of Chinese Power


February 7, 2014: Fears that the Chinese Navy are a threat to 70 years of American naval dominance in the Pacific are premature. While the Chinese have come a long way since the 1970s, when the fleet largely consisted of lots of coastal patrol boats and some larger World War II era warships the Chinese still do not have a very effective high seas force.

One thing is undeniable; they are making progress. By the 1980s a lot of those patrol boats were armed with anti-ship missiles. By the 1980s there were over 800 patrol boats, 50 destroyers and frigates and 107 submarines. Most of these ships were Russian designs and a lot were equipped more like late World War II than late Cold War ships. The few nuclear subs were unfit for sea duty.

By the late 1990s the Great Transformation had begun. The number of patrol boats, frigates and destroyers remained about the same but many of those in service a decade ago had been replaced by newer and more effective models. The submarine forces had shrunk 40 percent but the boats in service were more modern and the crews better trained. There were more nukes but these were still way inferior to American boats.

Going into the 21st century quantity and quality both increased. There are now 53 modern diesel electric subs and eight nukes which still suck but keep getting better. There are 80 modern frigates and destroyers. There are fewer patrol boats (about 400, including those of the greatly improved and expanded Coast Guard). Naval aviation has made great strides, although against the U.S. it would still largely provide target practices. The Chinese Coast Guard has been greatly enlarged, apparently aiming for a force with over fifty frigate and corvette size warships.

The U.S. fleet is still larger, even when half the American fleet is assigned elsewhere. The U.S. fleet has been shrinking since the 1970s but has continued to improve its technology. Moreover the U.S. has allies in the area (Japanese and South Korea in particular) that have American style (modern and well trained) ships and crews.

China still has a long way to go when it comes to training and the capabilities of many of their weapons are suspect, if only because they are largely untried in combat. China continues to upgrade its ships and aircraft and spend more money getting the ships to sea for training. China does have one major problem and that is with their military traditions. These ancient habits involve a lot of corrupt officers and a tendency to cut corners and be more concerned with appearances than reality. Chinese leaders are aware of this, but are finding that these old ways are remarkably resistant to reform. Thus the Chinese Navy looks better to outsiders than it actually is.



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