The Magazine

We Should Build a Bigger Navy

China is.

Jan 26, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 18 • By SETH CROPSEY
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About a decade ago the foreign policy establishment was busy dismissing China's efforts to build a powerful, modern military. Writing in the Washington Post in 1997, Michael Swaine, a China specialist then at the RAND corporation, declared that the "enduring deficiencies in China's military logistics system call into question its ability to operate [naval and aviation] weapons over a sustained period, particularly outside China's borders." Well, right now, Chinese naval vessels are deploying in the Gulf of Aden to assist in the international anti-piracy mission. It's 4,000 miles from China to the Gulf of Aden.

Swaine further predicted that China "will remain at least a full generation behind the world's leading military powers." In January 2007, Beijing used a ground-based medium range ballistic missile to destroy one of its own aging weather satellites--an impressive technological accomplishment that only two other nations, the United States and the Soviet Union, have ever achieved.

In 1999, the Brookings scholars Bates Gill and Michael O'Hanlon concluded in an article--"Power Plays .  .  . While There's Less to the Chinese Threat than Meets the Eye," also in the Washington Post--that China's "ballistic missiles will be hard-pressed to defeat Taiwan's military or sink nearby U.S. ships." Yet the Defense Department's 2008 assessment of China's military noted that "PLA planners are focused on targeting surface ships at long ranges from China's shores. .  .  . One area of investment involves combining conventionally-armed ASBMs [anti-ship ballistic missiles] based on .  .  . C4ISR [DoD-speak for command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] for geo-location and tracking of targets, and onboard guidance systems for terminal homing to strike surface ships or their onshore support infrastructure." China's effort to threaten U.S. ships at sea is taken seriously today, as is shown by the debate over whether the Navy's next generation of carrier-based aircraft has sufficient range to accomplish their missions without forcing U.S. carriers to sail within areas of the Pacific to which China seeks to deny access.

A 1998 Foreign Policy Research Institute article written by Avery Goldstein asserted that Beijing was so far behind other advanced industrial states that "successful modernization will leave China with forces by the second or third decade of the next century most of which would have been state of the art in the 1990s." This observation retains some validity, but there is nothing primitive about China's effort to deny the U.S. Navy access to large strategic swaths of the Western Pacific. Indeed, the last few weeks have produced the prospect of another particularly important advance in the Chinese military's steady transformation into a modern, serious, powerful force.

On the last day of 2008, the Asahi Shimbun reported that China is planning to begin construction of two medium-sized aircraft carriers--a contemporary navy's most flexible instrument of power projection--in its Shanghai yards this year. They are scheduled for launch in 2015. The article also repeated widely circulated information that the shipyards in the Yellow Sea port of Dalian are putting the finishing touches on a refurbishment of the 55,000 ton Soviet-built Kuznetsov-class carrier, the Varyag, a vessel that a Chinese company with connections to the People's Liberation Army purchased in 1998 and then towed to China from the Black Sea in 2002.

The Soviet carrier was a good platform to learn--in established Chinese tradition--the architecture, design, and gross characteristics of the aircraft carrier. As a training platform, the Varyag will provide indispensable experience for future carrier pilots and support personnel in the demanding business of naval carrier aviation. China should have three operational aircraft carriers to add to its submarine and surface fleets around the midpoint of the next decade.