China’s global Navy eyeing sea control by 2030, superiority by 2049

I assess that the PLA Navy by 2030 will consist of a surface force of over 450 ships and a submarine force approaching 110 submarines, an almost 10% increase from my 2015 estimate. It may still be a low estimate.

by Captain James E. Fanell (Retd)

In June 2018, I stood aboard the fantail of the PLA Navy guided missile frigate Binzhou in port Kiel, Germany—it was never clearer to me than at that moment that Beijing has the national will to dominate the seas.

China Naval power
Binzhou had been at sea for two and a half months, patrolling the waters of the Gulf of Aden, as part of China’s anti-piracy naval task force. Moored among German, British and United States warships, Binzhou stood out with its immaculate appearance. Staff, ship’s officers and crew exuded confidence and preparedness to get underway…to sea where they looked like they belonged. This contrasted sharply with my recollections from a 2004 visit aboard the destroyer Luhu in Qingdao, as well as many subsequent visits aboard Chinese warships over the course of the next 15 years.

The visit to the Binzhou, in that port halfway around the world from China, crystallized for me that in the short space of a decade and a half I had witnessed the transformation of the PLA Navy from a timid near-seas assembly of ships into a global naval force where their ships and crews were as comfortable, confident and capable mariners as were their German, British, American and Indian counterparts.

A half decade ago the conventional wisdom held that the PRC’s leaders were only focused on “domestic concerns” of regime survival. We were wrong. In hindsight it’s now clear the PRC was building a naval force intended to sail and eventually dominate the seven seas.

After 20 years of transformation, the PLA Navy operates around the world from the Baltic to the South Pacific and from the Arctic to the Antarctic. China’s naval shipbuilding continues unabated in order to support the PLA Navy’s expanding set of missions to fulfill the “China Dream” of national rejuvenation and restoration.

In 2015, I assessed there would be “a massive expansion in the size of the PLA Navy” for the period of 2015 to 2030. While that assessment essentially remains on track, there is one impediment in the strategic environment that could stymie the PRC’s maritime strategy—the Donald Trump administration. The current administration has challenged 40 years’ worth of assumptions about how to deal with the PRC. It’s definitive decision to treat the PRC as a strategic competitor, especially if combined with the deepening partnerships with our allies, may be the only chance to stop the PRC from becoming the dominant global military and naval power over the course of the next three decades.

The PRC’s naval expansion is already well advanced. Since 2008, the PLA Navy has dispatched 35 naval escort task forces through the Indian Ocean and into the Gulf of Aden, and PLA Navy ships have visited over 60 nations. According to the US Navy War College China Maritime Studies Institute, these naval escort task force deployments have provided the PLA Navy with “irreplaceable naval training” and catalyzed “the development of naval skill sets often taken for granted but absolutely critical for long-distance operations”.

In the summer of 2018, the PLA Daily announced the Chinese Navy is no longer worried about warship shortages. Not only were more warships built, but the qualities have also been improved, transforming the Chinese Navy from a green-water navy into a robust blue-water navy. They aren’t building those ships to stay in port, or even to stay in East Asia. They have been in India’s backyard for over a decade.

Perhaps no platform has received more attention than the PLA Navy’s aircraft carrier program. A decade ago, Chinese naval planners were aware of “the problem of a relatively small aggregate tonnage of naval vessels must be resolved, in order to increase the navy’s capability to confront naval hegemonies in the world”.

As of today, the PLA Navy has two operational aircraft carriers and a third under construction. Just how many aircraft carriers the PRC will build is a topic of great discussion in the PRC press. Given the PRC’s penchant for being the “biggest” or “number one”, I believe the PRC is determined to build more carriers than the US, despite their assertions of needing just six. I expect at least ten by 2049. And with this number, the people of India should expect to see PLA Navy aircraft carrier strike groups operating in the Indian Ocean in the next 1-3 years.

Another facet is the dramatic expansion of the PLA Marine Corps to 100,000 strong personnel—a tenfold increase of its Marine Corps of just a few years ago. Reporting indicates some of these new PLA Marine Corps forces will be dispatched to Gwadar, Pakistan or its new PLA Navy base in Djibouti. The growth of PLA Marine Corps personnel is necessary to keep up with the increasing number of high-end, large amphibious warships that China has acquired and is intent on building over the near term. For instance, the PLA Navy has 59 amphibious warships, including the large, modern Yuzhao-class Type 071 amphibious transport docks (LPD), that are perfectly fitted for an amphibious island campaign as they “can carry up to four of the new air cushion landing craft”, as well as “four or more helicopters, armored vehicles, and troops”.

Not content with the Yuzhao, China started building a new generation of Yushen-class Type 075 landing helicopter (LHA) amphibious assault vessels that will strengthen the Navy as it plays a more dominant role in projecting the PRC’s power overseas. Indian Naval officers can expect to see PLA Navy and Marine Corp expeditionary strike groups patrolling in the Indian Ocean within this decade.

Regarding PLA Navy submarines, between 2006 and 2013, PLA Navy submarine operations expanded into the South China and Philippine Seas and became a normalized pattern of activity. Since 2013, PLA Navy submarines have conducted regular deployments into the Indian Ocean and can be expected to be the eyes and ears for future PLA Navy aircraft carrier and expeditionary strike group operations into the Indian Ocean.

As for the number of PLA Navy submarines that can be expected in the future, given the expected increased production from a new production facility in Huludao, the PRC may be able to launch up to two SSNs and one SSBN annually, meaning the PLA Navy could have as many as 24 SSNs and 14 SSBNs by 2030. These are SSBNs that most assuredly will have missiles pointed at the United States, but also India. And while some may scoff at this estimate, recall as late as a decade ago similar doubts existed for Chinese destroyer production.

As a result of the past 20-year trajectory in PRC naval construction, the PRC’s expressed desire and ability to continue to increase its spending on naval shipbuilding, the cost advantages its shipbuilding industry enjoys compared to foreign naval shipyards, and Chinese shipbuilders continued trend of indigenous technical mastery of complex designs and systems integration, I assess the PLA Navy will surpass the combined number of US Navy and Indian Navy warships as early as 2030.

Specifically, I assess that the PLA Navy by 2030 will consist of a surface force of over 450 ships and a submarine force approaching 110 submarines, an almost 10% increase from my 2015 estimate. It may still be a low estimate. The most notable feature of our China assessments is that all of our misjudgements have been in the same direction—underestimating China’s rise in military aggressiveness and capabilities—perfectly fitting the definition of systematic error. The most accurate predictions of the PLA Navy are derived from an in-depth and consistent observation of what the PLA Navy is actually building and where their ships and submarines are actually operating.

So then, what does the future hold for the PLA Navy in the far seas? All indicators point to a global naval presence, first to the Indian Ocean, and then beyond. A future similar to what the world witnessed in the South and East China Seas over the past decade as PLA Navy forces bullied and intimidated weaker nations to comply with Beijing’s dictates.

Given the PLA Navy’s operational and naval construction trajectory, the PRC’s overall economic strength, the PLA Navy’s decade long experience operating in the far seas, and its established track record of intimidating neighbours to forfeit their coastal state rights to China, we can also assess the PRC is on track to able to achieve sea control in the global maritime commons as early as 2030, and potentially even sea superiority by 2049, and it will use its power for the expansion of China’s interests at the expense of others. A global PLA Navy will increasingly threaten US, India and allied interests abroad, increasing, not decreasing the risk of major power war.

It is popular to say that conflict with China is not inevitable. Of course, it’s not. However, the likelihood of conflict will not be wished away by platitudes and more unconstrained engagement. The best option to avert future conflict is for the US and India to adopt a combined effort to significantly enhance our whole of government approach to strengthen and integrate our military capabilities to confront the PRC’s bad behaviour, especially at sea.

Captain James E. Fanell (Retd) was the Director of Intelligence and Information Operations for the US Pacific Fleet.