April 23 marked the 71st anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). As U.S.-China frictions continue and great power competition becomes the central focus of U.S. defense strategy, the question of just how far the PLAN has come in its development has become critical. Does the PLAN currently pose a threat to the U.S. Navy? And could it soon surpass it?

Based on commercially available intelligence and an evaluation model developed by the author, this summary attempts to evaluate the warfare capabilities of Chinese and U.S. naval forces so as to prevent strategic miscalculation on either side.

Service Capabilities

In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the PLAN has undergone significant development. In the past 20 years, the PLAN commissioned 2 conventionally-powered aircraft carriers, 13 nuclear-powered submarines, 24 destroyers, and 30 large frigates. In the same period, the U.S. Navy commissioned 3 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, 19 nuclear-powered submarines, 39 destroyers, and 19 littoral combat ships. While its numbers are still lower overall, it would seem that the Chinese navy is catching up.

Submarine Forces

The PLAN currently operates 70 submarines, including 4 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), 9 nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), and 57 diesel-electric submarines. The 69 submarines of the U.S. Navy, meanwhile, are all nuclear-powered and are comprised of 14 SSBNs, 4 guided missile submarines (SSGNs), and 51 SSNs. While the total number of submarines are nearly the same, the total tonnage is not: the U.S. Navy submarine fleet checks in at 730,000 tons—three times that of the PLAN. This difference reflects the gap between China and the United States in oceangoing (beyond the “first island chain” that rings China) underwater warfare capabilities. Furthermore, the warfare capability of the diesel-electric submarines that make up the bulk of China’s fleet is far behind that of nuclear-powered submarines and is only further diminished by the U.S. Navy’s operation of significant anti-submarine platforms, including 71 P-8 and 73 P-3C land-based anti-submarine aircraft as well as 269 MH-60S shipborne anti-submarine helicopters.

Naval Aviation

Within the first island chain the PLAN enjoys a geographical advantage and will be supported by more than 4,000 aircraft and air defense forces of the PLA Air Force. But the PLAN itself has just 441 fixed-wing aircraft and 118 helicopters, while the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps have 2,915 fixed-wing aircraft and 1,231 helicopters. If operating beyond the first island chain, the PLAN can only rely on 70 aircraft carried on two aircraft carriers, a significant gap compared with the more than 800 aircraft that can be carried on the 11 aircraft carriers of the U.S. Navy. The gap would only be exacerbated in a scenario that took place within operational range of the United States’ military facilities in Northeast Asia, the Pacific, or the Indian Ocean. And while the U.S. Navy boasts 426 intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance aircraft, the PLAN has only 22, which exposes a gap in informatized combat capability beyond the first island chain.

Surface Combat Warships

Currently, the PLAN has 63 ocean-going surface combat warships over 3,000 tons, with a total tonnage of 447,000 tons. By comparison, the 120 naval surface combat ships of the U.S. Navy have a total tonnage of 2 million tons, 4.5 times that of the PLAN. In terms of oceangoing logistics support, the U.S. Navy has 31 fast combat supply ships with a total tonnage of 1.29 million tons, while the PLAN is equipped with only 12 supply ships totaling 330,000 tons. These differences reflect the enormous advantages of the U.S. Navy’s long-range endurance and sustained warfare capabilities. The number of missiles aboard warships tells a similar story: the PLAN has 1,900, only one fifth of the U.S. Navy’s 9,500 missiles (excluding shipborne short-range air defense missiles).

China has ways to make up for these deficiencies in its near seas. It has embraced an asymmetric strategy, relying on a large number of bases to make up for the weakness of its endurance and ocean support capabilities while equipping its 66 corvettes and 86 missile boats with a total of 950 anti-ship missiles. The large number of land-based anti-ship cruise missiles operated by the PLAN’s coastal defense forces also provide a certain advantage in offshore surface combat operations.

Amphibious Forces

Amphibious operations are essential missions for the PLAN given the salience of coastal island combat targets such as Taiwan and disputed islands in the South and East China Seas. The ability to project a large number of troops simultaneously is key in such scenarios, and China’s amphibious forces have developed with this principle in mind. The PLAN currently has 6 amphibious dock landing ships, 40 tank landing ships and 100 small landing craft. This type of ship composition meets the strategic needs of the PLAN, which are entirely different from the U.S. Navy’s need for global force projection. The launch of the Type 075 amphibious assault ship, however, indicates that the PLAN’s amphibious forces are developing in the direction of three-dimensional delivery, which improves long-range force projection.

Naval Mine Countermeasure Forces

Naval mine warfare is an important coastal defense mission of the PLAN. Reflecting this, it has 35 mine countermeasure ships, including mine hunting ships and traditional minesweeper ships, compared to the U.S. Navy’s 11 Avenger-class mine countermeasure ships. The U.S. Navy, however, operates 29 MH-53E mine countermeasure helicopters, which can provide more flexible naval mine warfare capabilities. 

Evaluating the Results

Index of Sino-U.S. Naval Warfare Capability

Naval Warfare U.S. Navy PLAN
Oceangoing submarine warfare 1 0.3
Oceangoing naval aviation warfare 1 0.1
Oceangoing anti-surface warfare 1 0.3
Oceangoing logistic support 1 0.3-0.4
Amphibious warfare 1 0.3-0.4
Near seas submarine warfare 1 0.5
Near seas anti-surface warfare 1 0.5-0.6
Near seas naval aviation warfare 1 0.3-0.4

The above chart quantifies the author’s assessment of the relative warfare capability of the U.S. and Chinese navies based on the characteristics of their existing equipment; it does not incorporate any differences in the professional qualities and training levels of military personnel.

The strategic guidelines for the development of the PLAN are to transform its coastal defense capability into an oceangoing capability and to improve strategic deterrence and counterattack capability, maritime maneuver operations, joint operations, comprehensive defense, and integrated oceangoing support. Within the first island chain, the PLAN has certain geographical advantages. In oceangoing operations in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean, however, the PLAN’s disadvantages are still apparent, and there exists a considerable gap between its capabilities and those of the U.S. Navy.

At present, China’s maritime power in the Indo-Pacific region is second only to the United States. At the rate of development in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the gap between the navies of China and the United States will slowly narrow. But because of differences in naval strategy, it is unrealistic to predict that the PLAN aims to surpass the U.S. Navy. In the foreseeable future, while the PLAN may be able to establish temporary and local advantages within China’s near seas, the significant advantages of the U.S. Navy in dealing with long-term regional or global conflicts will still exist.

About Liu Xiaobo

Captain Liu Xiaobo (Ret.) is an associate research fellow and director of the World Navy Research Center, National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS), in Haikou, China. His research focuses on national maritime security policy, sea power, and the Law of the Sea. Prior to joining the NISCSS, Capt. Liu served in the Chinese navy for 25 years, working as a navigation officer aboard the PLAN destroyer Harbin and later as a research associate in the Naval Research Institute.