This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
China may have enough resources to expand its naval force to 419 ships and submarines in the next ten years, including five aircraft carriers and 28 nuclear-powered subs, according to a new report.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) already has the largest navy in the world by number with approximately 355 ships and submarines, according to the Pentagon.
“China’s Choices,” a new report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), an independent U.S. think tank specializing in defense policy, planning and budgets, said “the PLA has the resources necessary to continue its modernization over the 2020s.”
Using a computer assisted Strategic Choices Tool, the CSBA developed a cost-informed 2021–2031 structure projection, which indicates that the PLA “may have sufficient resources to boast five aircraft carriers and over 60 cruisers and destroyers, the vast majority of which will be considered modern.”
China currently operates three aircraft carriers, the third having been launched in June. By comparison, the U.S. Navy has 11 aircraft carriers, most of them of the large “supercarrier” category.
In addition to the ships, CSBA said the PLA’s submarine fleet could increase to 77 subs by 2031, including 10 nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), 18 nuclear attack submarines (SSNs) and 49 diesel-electric submarines (SSKs).
The U.S. Navy currently has 72 submarines, all nuclear-powered, according to publicly available data.
The CSBA report also revealed an ambitious projection for air force and naval aviation expansion, with 235 bombers and 258 fifth-generation fighters.
“It’s not an unreasonable prediction,” said Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.
“The PLA Navy already has three carriers and six SSBNs. They would have eight years to get the numbers up to five and ten.”
“However, Chinese prototypes are often pretty poor in terms of quality and capability,” he warned.
Another military analyst said the PLA Navy “could challenge the U.S. Navy in the Western Pacific before 2030 if Beijing chooses to try it.”
Carl Schuster, a retired U.S. Navy captain turned military analyst, said U.S. aircraft carriers are “superior for now, but stretched globally.”
“China’s five will equal the Pacific Fleet’s five carriers in the Western Pacific and outnumber them if China times its aggression while one or two U.S. carriers are in refits,” Schuster told RFA.
“Also, the PLA is integrating its Strategic Rocket Force’s anti-ship missile units with the PLAN [PLA Navy] Air Force and surface units to provide a formidable defense against American naval entry into the first island chain,” he said.
The first island chain, conceptualized during the Cold War, commonly refers to the major archipelagos that lie off the East Asian mainland coast. The chain stretches from the Kamchatka Peninsula in the northeast to the Malay Peninsula in the southwest, and includes the territories of U.S. allies Taiwan and the Philippines.
“China can challenge the U.S. in the Western Pacific but it will neither be easy nor cheap, for either side,” Schuster said, adding that one important factor “will be the actions and support of America’s allies.”
Three months ago, China launched “Fujian,” its third, and most advanced, aircraft carrier. Experts said it is a major step up from the previous two carriers, Liaoning and Shandong, and the closest to rival U.S. supercarriers.
“I think China can complete one Fujian-class or similar carrier every four years,” said Schuster, who served as director of operations at U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.
“The fourth carrier has already had is keel laid and will be launched in about 2024 and enter sea trials in 2026. The Liaoning will be decommissioned once the sixth carrier is commissioned around 2032,” he said.
The CSBA report stated that the PLA, particularly the navy, “will face increasing strain from operations and maintenance costs over the next decade, yet this may not pose a major obstacle to the PLA’s continued modernization over the mid-term.”
Areas to expand until 2031 include frigates, missile boats and diesel-electric submarines that can be used for regional defense as well as to pressure Taiwan, which China considers one of its provinces that must be reunited with the mainland.
Beijing claimed an official defense budget of 1.35 trillion yuan (U.S. $212 billion) in 2021 but it is commonly understood that the country’s actual defense spending is much higher. The U.S. Department of Defense said during the 2000s the PLA’s budget was two to three times greater than officially stated.
In order to reach ambitious modernization targets the PLA also has to make considerable cuts in the army force structure and personnel, the report noted.
“The PLA has been downsized repeatedly since 1985, shedding roughly 1.7 million personnel in total,” it said.
For the first time in history, the Chinese army is now under one million personnel.