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Shortly after Operation Desert Storm the U.S. Navy was by far the largest and most modern naval force in the world with 529 total ships, including the following combatants:

  • 1 Battleship
  • 15 Aircraft Carriers
  • 47 Cruisers
  • 47 Destroyers
  • 93 Frigates
  • 87 Fast Attack Submarines
  • 34 Ballistic Missile Submarines
  • 65 Amphibious Warfare Ships

At about that same time, Communist China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) included no modern warships—no aircraft carriers, no cruisers and no modern destroyers or frigates. The PLAN had a few nuclear powered submarines, but they, like China’s fleet of destroyers and frigates, were a full generation or more behind those that made up the U.S. fleet.

Today, almost 30 years later, the U.S. Navy has a total of about 291 ships, including the following combatants:

  • 11 Aircraft Carriers
  • 22 Cruisers
  • 66 Destroyers
  • 17 Littoral Combat Ships
  • 35 Fast Attack Submarines
  • 4 Guided Missile Submarines
  • 14 Ballistic Missile Submarines
  • 34 Amphibious Warfare Ships

Over the same 30 years, however, the PLAN has been transformed from a virtual non-factor to a major, modern blue water force. Today the PLAN is made up of around 400 ships and submarines. Most are no match for modern U.S. vessels, but that is changing—and rapidly.

For example, whereas PLAN naval aviation was almost non-existent 30 years ago, today China has a 68,000 ton aircraft carrier that it bought from Russia and extensively refitted. A 70,000 ton modified version of the same carrier is undergoing sea trials right now. It is believed that as many as 3 additional aircraft carriers are under construction in Chinese shipyards.

The PLAN has 4 modern Type 055 “destroyers” entering service very soon. These are classified as cruisers by the U.S. Navy. 4 more Type 055s are under construction. They are believed to be roughly the equivalent of the U.S. Navy’s Aegis cruisers, with modern phased array radars and missiles.

The PLAN has 11 modern Type 052D destroyers, roughly the equivalent of the U.S. Navy’s Aegis destroyers. Nine more are under construction. There is a smaller version of this ship type, the Type 052C, of which the Chinese have 6. The PLAN has 4 of the original, less advanced Type 052 destroyers, as well as several Type 051C/B destroyers in service.

The PLAN has dozens of Frigates, though they are not as modern as their destroyers and cruisers. The most significant is the Type 054A frigate.

What is most notable about all of these surface combatants is that all of them have been commissioned since about 2004. In other words, China is in the mature stages of a huge naval buildup, while we have been reducing our fleet substantially.

The PLAN’s power projection capabilities have not caught up with the rest of its fleet yet, but it has gone from zero to seven amphibious assault ships since 2006 in the form of its Type 071 LPDs and 15 Type 072A landing ships.

The PLAN’s modernization build-up has put particular emphasis on submarines and China now has some 70 submarines, including 18 nuclear powered boats in commission or building.

These numbers include the Type 094 ballistic missile submarines whose nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles are no doubt aimed right at America.

The PLAN’s most dangerous submarine is probably its Type 093 attack submarine, the latest versions of which worry many U.S. observers.

How did the PLAN go from a virtual non-factor 30 years ago to the U.S. Navy’s chief challenger today?

The answer can be found in the meteoric rise of Red China’s economy over the past 30 years to the point that today it is the world’s largest. The wealth generated from that economic growth has enabled China to build a modern blue-water fleet almost from scratch.

China gets much of its wealth from trade with the West. In other words, we—you—have funded the PLAN, which is aimed directly at the U.S. Navy.

But that’s not the whole story.

As part of that trade, China has received direct technology transfers that it has used to modernize its entire country, its naval fleet and the rest of its military included. Without the huge infusion of high-tech know-how and gear, China would never have been able to develop the advanced radar systems, propulsion systems and weapons that make its fleet the modern threat that it is today.

In other words, we have financed and enabled a serious—and growing–naval threat that didn’t even exist 30 years ago.

Christopher Holton
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