Throughout much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the UK’s Royal Navy was among the largest naval forces in the world. In May 1889, Parliament’s Naval Defence Act resulted in what was known as the “two-power standard,” which further increased its size. The standard called for the Royal Navy to maintain a number of battleships at least equal to the combined strength of the next two largest navies in the world.
The two-power standard was even maintained until disarmament began following the First World War. Naval historians have suggested it actually had only limited economic success but did allow for the financing of warships over time while it led to only minimal increases in the cost of labor and material.
Yet, while it also failed as a deterrent, the Royal Navy played a crucial role in the First World War. Its size ensured it could conflict its enemies around the globe and maintained the supply of goods from overseas.
Larger is Better
In the January issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine, Captain Sam J. Tangredi, U.S. Navy (Retired), a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, warned that China’s rapid naval expansion should be seen as a serious threat to the United States.
Tangredi wrote that China’s numerical advantage could even lead to a defeat for the United States Navy in a future war. The Leidos Chair of Future Warfare Studies at the U.S. Naval War College cited examples from history that included 28 naval wars – from the Greco-Persian Wars of 500 BC through the Cold War – and noted that there were only three instances where superior technology was able to overcome a larger naval force.
As an example, he noted how French warships were considered superior in technology to the vessels employed by the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, “but ultimately, it was the large numbers of Royal Navy ships that prevented Napoleon from crossing the channel.”
Likewise, Imperial Japan began World War II with vastly superior fighter aircraft and better torpedoes, but the Arsenal of Democracy was able to make it up in numbers, but also quickly neutralized the technological advantage.
China’s Growing Fleet
The United States Department of Defense (DoD) has identified China as the United States military’s “pacing threat,” and warned that the U.S. Navy can’t keep pace with China’s naval growth.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) surpassed the U.S. Navy in fleet size in 2020 and now has 340 warships, while that number is expected to increase to 400 ships. By contrast, the U.S. fleet sits at under 300 vessels, and it is unlikely to reach the Pentagon’s goal of 350 manned ships by 2045.
Counter Points to Consider
Tangredi dismissed the argument that “numbers don’t matter” but his paper did neglect a few important points that perhaps need some consideration. First, as David Axe of Forbes.com noted in a November 2021 article, China has more warships than the United States because it includes numerous smaller craft while on average, U.S. Navy ships are far bigger.
In terms of sheer tonnage, the U.S. fleet weighs in at around 4.5 million tons, while the Chinese fleet might slightly exceed 2 million tons. Though it is true that navies don’t operate large battleships anymore, China could achieve victory at sea simply with a vast number of Type 056 corvettes that displace a mere 1,500 tons.
Currently, the United States Navy operates 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, along with 10 amphibious assault ships and 21 amphibious transport dock vessels. Those amphibious assault ships (LHDs) are larger than many actual aircraft carriers in service by other nations, and can operate with the Lockheed Martin F-35B – the short/vertical take-off and landing (S/VTOL) variant of the Joint Strike Fighter. These flattops are essentially as large and as capable as early Cold War carriers.
By contrast, the PLAN has two operational aircraft carriers, neither of which is nuclear-powered, while a third is under construction, along with two landing helicopter docks and eight amphibious transport docks. These ships lack the endurance of the U.S. Navy’s carriers, but China also doesn’t have the overseas bases that the United States has to resupply or maintain such vessels.
The U.S. Has a Coalition
Another point that Tangredi’s paper didn’t note is that China essentially has no significant allies, but numerous potential adversaries. Though it could likely count on North Korea in a ground war, Pyongyang can’t offer much at sea. The North Korean Navy consists of a brown-war (riverine) navy that operates close to shore.
In a regional conflict, the United States could likely count on Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, and Japan. Likewise, India is another regional partner – one that is already engaged in a border dispute with China – and it is now operating two carriers. South Korea’s government is also considering building a carrier, while Japan has been converting its helicopter assault ships to actual carriers that could operate with the F-35B due to aggression from Beijing.
Factor those U.S. allies and partners into the mix, and China’s numerical advantage disappears quickly. This doesn’t even address the fact that the U.S. has forward operating bases in Guam and Japan, where long-range bombers could quickly strike China’s ports.
China’s Population Decline
A final consideration not addressed by Tangredi is that China’s population fell in 2022 to 1.411 billion, down some 850,000 people from the previous year, the country’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) announced this month. The last time China’s population saw a decline was in 1961, during a famine that killed tens of millions of people as part of its “Great Leap Forward.”
The decline is the result of Beijing’s one-child policy that was introduced in the 1980s. The rule was scrapped in 2015, and China is now actively encouraging its people to have more children. If the issue isn’t resolved, China could have a population of just 600 million by the year 2100.
The problems could begin much sooner for Beijing.
Experts have suggested that as China faces an aging workforce, where nearly one-fifth of its population is elderly, it will result in economic stagnation. As its workforce shrinks, it will impact productivity – while its economy expanded by just 3% in 2022, one of the worst performances in nearly half a century.
China’s other missteps include its expensive “ghost cities,” the under-occupied developments where there are as many as 65 million empty homes, which cost the nations billions of dollars to construct.
The naval expansion could be China’s latest debacle. It is building up a massive fleet at a high cost, and it may prove in the coming decade to be too expensive to maintain. It should also be noted that the Soviet Union also once had the largest naval fleet in the world with nearly half a million service members and more than 1,000 ships – yet the United States was on the winning side of the Cold War.