Foreign Policy

The Chinese Threat to American Naval Dominance

Despite the present focus on the Middle East, it will be China that poses the greatest Geo-strategic threat to the United States in the future. This fact is the cause of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, and has also been the source of a considerable amount of anti-China rhetoric in the current campaign. While it is clear that the outcome of this year’s election will not hinge on foreign policy, it is still important to note the primary differences between the statements of President Obama and Governor Romney. The disparity between their naval policies means that the outcome of the election will be essential in determining if America will maintain its position in Asia, or if it will cede control to Chinese interests.

The Office of Naval Intelligence forecasts that China will have 106 major warships within the next decade. Over half of these will be attack submarines. To counter this buildup, the US Navy plans on having 109 major combatants in the Pacific by 2020. These may sound like comparable numbers. But this fails to take into account that in any confrontation between these two navies the American force will necessarily have to take the fight to China. This puts the American force within range of land based aircraft, missiles, and short range patrol craft, greatly increasing the combat power of the Chinese navy. There is also a considerable difference in the composition and role of the two fleets. The US Navy is built around carrier task forces, capable of projecting air power around the globe. The People’s Liberation Army Navy has been designed purposely to combat this force. As stated above, submarines are projected to make up the majority of the Chinese fleet. The goal of these subs, along with anti-access technology such as cruise missiles and anti-ship ballistic missiles, is to prevent any American force from approaching the mainland. This would severely limit the effectiveness of carrier based aircraft, the mainstay of US naval warfare.

President Obama’s plan to counter this is to maintain the Navy’s current shipbuilding rate of nine warships per year. At the current rate of construction and retirement the Navy is on track to have fewer major combatants in 2020 than it did in 1914. While changes in naval technology make this an imperfect comparison, it is worth noting that numbers do count. Many of the ships retiring over the next decade are the cruisers and destroyers that the Navy needs to counter the Chinese submarine threat. The US will continue to be the predominant power when it comes to aircraft carriers, but without an adequate number of escorts the carriers are very vulnerable.

Mitt Romney’s plan is to increase the number of warships built each year to fifteen. If done correctly this would go a long way towards filling projected gaps in the fleet. Especially in much needed classifications of warships such as destroyers and submarines. If elected Governor Romney needs to work closely with the Navy to specify exactly what type of ship these extra six per year would be. There is a vast gulf, in both capability and cost, between six cruisers or destroyers and six littoral combat ships. Governor Romney has the better plan to counter the Chinese naval threat. But he will need to specify in exactly what ways he plans on increasing naval capabilities.