In the report submitted to Congress annually, the Pentagon said: “The PRC has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants.
“In comparison, the US Navy’s battle force is approximately 293 ships as of early 2020.”
Speaking at a press conference, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China Chad Sbragia said that China was on course to expand its fleet to 360 vessels by the end of 2020.
The majority of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) fleet is made up of ‘modern multi-role platforms’ that host anti-ship, anti-air and anti-submarine weapons and sensors, the report says.
As part of the PLAN’s modernisation efforts, it has embarked on a shipbuilding programme that includes submarines, surface combatants, amphibious warfare ships, aircraft carriers, and auxiliary ships as well as indigenous weapons, sensors and command and control systems.
China’s fleet breakdown
- Aircraft carriers – 2
- Cruisers – 1
- Destroyers – 32
- Frigates – 49
- Corvettes – 37
- Amphibious transport dock – 37
- Medium landing ships – 21
- Diesel attack submarines – 46
- Nuclear attack submarines – 6
- Ballistic missile submarines – 4
- Coastal patrol (missile) – 86
On top of having the largest naval fleet in the world, the combined aviation presence of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and PLAN aviation constitutes the third-largest aviation force in the world and the largest in the region.
Last year the PLAN commissioned its first domestically-built aircraft carrier; this ship is expected to enter service in 2023. China also last year launched its first Yushen class amphibious assault ship, the country’s first large-deck amphibious ship.
China’s latest-generation aircraft carriers feature a catapult launching system and offer greater endurance than the countries’ earlier carriers. These, along with other
improvements, increase the potential strike power of a potential carrier group deployed outside ‘China’s immediate periphery.’
The report reads: “China continues to learn lessons from operating its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning. Its first domestically built aircraft carrier, Shandong, was launched in 2017 and commissioned in December 2019—the beginning of what the PLA states will be a multi-carrier force.
“China’s next generation of carriers, including one that began construction in 2018, will have greater endurance and a catapult launch system capable of launching various types of special mission fixed-wing aircraft for missions such as early warning, EW [electronic warfare], and ASW [anti-submarine warfare].”
The DoD report explains that the modernisation push aligns with China’s growing interest in the maritime domain and demands for the PLAN to operate further from mainland China.
Sbragia said: “This report in particular, which we’re here to talk about, doesn’t take a position on future force structure of the United States Navy. It states as a fact the size of each country’s battle force.
“There is certainly more to naval power than ship counts, total counts of the Chinese vessels, there’s tonnage, but I would also draw your attention to weapons systems and it’s important to highlight the Chinese shipbuilding advantages in terms of its size of fleet, is both in context of the broader modernization ambitions, virtual class military.”
The report says that China is increasingly looking to expand its naval operations ‘beyond China’s immediate region’, a move the US says facilitates the countries ‘non-war military activities and further legitimise the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China’s] growing global military posture’.
The DoD report adds: “The PLAN’s ability to perform missions beyond the First Island Chain is modest but growing as it gains more experience operating in distant waters and acquires larger and more advanced platforms.
“China’s experience in extended range operations primarily comes from extended task group deployments and its ongoing counterpiracy mission in the Gulf of Aden.”
China’s naval power is split between three theatres, the Northern, Eastern and Southern, each with its own headquarters in Qingdao, Ningbo, and Zhanjiang respectively.