At the beginning of September, Chad Sbragia, deputy assistant secretary of defense for China at the U.S. Department of Defense, warned that the People’s Republic of China was well on its way to achieving the goal of having a world class military by 2049. The continuous maritime build-up of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s) surface forces has also resulted in China achieving a seemingly notable distinction – the world’s largest navy.

China’s Navy – Quantity of Ships

While many of its vessels are outdated, for the past 25 years since the mid-1990s, Beijing has been steadily building up the PLAN, which is now able to conduct a growing number of operations in more-distant waters, including the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and even to the waters around Europe.

China’s current naval fleet numbers 350 warships compared to the United States Navy’s 293 vessels. Pentagon officials expect the Chinese fleet to number at least 360 warships by the end of this decade and while that increase may not seem that significant, it would include a number of capital ships, with the PLAN to have at least three or more aircraft carriers in service, as well as numerous amphibious assault ships. While smaller than carriers, these warships can operate with vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin F-35B variant of the Joint Strike Vertical used by the United States Marine Corps, and the vessels can fill a similar role as carriers in distant waters.

In addition, China has undertaken a major effort to build up its fleet of guided missile destroyers and vessels that can be deployed in multi-role operations including anti-surface warfare (ASuW), anti-submarine warfare (ASW), anti-aircraft warfare (AAW), and still be used to fulfill a strategic land strike role with long-range cruise missiles.

The Future U.S. Navy

According to the forthcoming Future Force Study review, the U.S. Navy is moving towards addressing the threat posed by China with a lighter force that could include many more ships, but actually fewer large vessels, such as aircraft carriers and large surface combatants – which increasingly could be targeted by long-range missiles and torpedoes.

Instead, the focus would be on more small surface combatants, unmanned ships, and submarines with an expanded logistics force, Defense News reported. Two groups have been commissioned by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to determine what a future U.S. Navy could or even should look like – and a suggested fleet size ranges from 480 to 534 ships, including manned and unmanned platforms. That would be a 35% increase in fleet size from the Navy’s current target goal of 355 manned ships by 2030, which is still a significant increase from the present fleet size of 293 warships and other vessels.

The number of ships has changed since Esper first called for the plans in April, and the expectations are reportedly far larger-than-planned based on concepts laid out in the initial documents. In a speech delivered to the Rand Corp. earlier in September, Esper only suggested that the future U.S. Navy would be “over 350 ships,” which could be accomplished by increasing the Navy’s shipbuilding funding account.

The secretary further suggested that this “balanced force” of manned and unmanned warships could be built in a relevant time frame and budget-informed manner. Esper has previously said that the U.S. Navy is taking a direction in-line with other powers where ships are lightly manned and far more automated. The British Royal Navy, French Navy, and German Navy have all employed warships with greater automation and smaller crews in recent years, and China has also looked to expand the size of its navy in terms of warships while actually decreasing crew size on those vessels.

The U.S. Navy has been working on ways to better integrate artificial intelligence (AI) into weapons systems, and the Navy’s fiscal 2020 budget included a request that targeted the development of AI platforms – and upwards of $450 million of the budget was to go on unmanned surface vehicles.

Outside Views

The Future Naval Study is a collaborative effort that was overseen by Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist (Office of Secretary of Defense or OSD) in collaboration with the Joint Staff, and the Department of the Navy. However, as Defense News reported, Esper called for an outside take and the OSD-led review tasked three groups to provide their own respective version of an ideal fleet construction for the year 2045.

One was from the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment & Program Evaluation (CAPE), another from the Joint Staff, and a group from the Hudson Institute; and each considered the optional size for future U.S. Navy. While the exact sizes haven’t been publicly made available, the sizes as well as composition of the fleets have varied.

However, both CAPE and Hudson seemed to agree that there is a need to increase the number and diversity of the ships, while also boosting vertical launch system capacity – to employ aircraft such as the aforementioned F-35B variant. Both of the teams also were supportive of a reduction of supercarriers to nine down from the current 11 carriers. That would effectively allow the Navy to operate eight carriers while one carrier would be in its midlife overhaul and refueling.

In their place, the Hudson group called renewed investment in four smaller “light carriers,” which would be similar in size to the current amphibious assault ships such as the USS America-class, which can operate with around a half dozen VTOL aircraft as well as a numerous attack and transport helicopters. The reports also call for between 65 and 87 large unmanned surface vessels or optionally unmanned corvettes, which could take on the roles of the current Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and even some guided missile submarines.

“The Navy is arguably facing a once-in-a-century combination of challenges and opportunities as it embarks on its new family of ships,” said Bryan Clark, senior fellow and director at the Center for Defense Concepts and Technology at the Hudson Institute in June  in testimony before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces. “The fleet’s weighting toward large manned platforms creates unsustainable operations and support costs the Navy is even now struggling to pay.”

The Future Budget

To build this navy of the future would require an increase in budget, but even Esper was unsure of where the money might come from. The Pentagon has sought $207 billion for the Navy in its fiscal 2021 budget request, and even a 2% increase for shipbuilding would be $4.14 billion in extra funding.

Esper has called the forthcoming study a “guidepost as we decide on, program and build out future fleet and conduct follow-on assessment in select areas.”

While it could be difficult to actually meet the demands for such a future force, not finding a way could be as concerning given the increase in spending in Beijing.

Related News

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.