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China’s naval modernization effort, ,has been underway for more than 25 years, since the early to mid-1990s, and has transformed China’s navy into a much more modern and capable force. China’s navy is a formidable military force within China’s near-seas region, and it is conducting a growing number of operations in more-distant waters, including the broader waters of the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and waters around Europe.


within the past few years it has surpassed the U.S. Navy in numbers of battle force ships. ONI states that at the end of 2020, China’s will have 360 battle force ships,compared with a projected total of 297 for the U.S. Navy at the end of FY2020. ONI projects that China will have 400 battle force ships by 2025, and 425 by 2030.9 China’s naval ships, aircraft, and weapons are now much more modern and capable than they were at the start of the 1990s, and are now comparable in many respects to those of Western navies. ONI states that “Chinese naval ship design and material quality is in many cases comparable to [that of] USN [U.S. Navy] ships, and China is quickly closing the gap in any areas of deficiency.”10




China has been steadily modernizing its submarine force,Most of China’s submarines are non-nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSs). China also operates a small number of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) and a small number of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). The number of SSNs and SSBNs may grow in coming years, but the force will likely continue to consist mostly of SSs. DOD states that “The speed of growth of the submarine force has slowed and [the force] will likely grow to between 65 and 70 submarines by 2020.”


submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).23 China reportedly is developing a new SLBM, called the JL-3, as a successor to the JL-2.24


Aircraft Carriers


Shandong (Type 001A)
Shandong is a modified version of the Liaoning design that incorporates some design improvements, including features that reportedly will permit it to embark and operate a larger air
wing of 40 aircraft that includes 36 fighters.31 Its displacement is estimated at 66,000 to 70,000 tons.


Type 002 Carriers
Press reports state that the Type 002 carrier, the start of whose construction was announced in the Chinese press in November 2018,32 may have a displacement of 80,000 tons to 85,000 tons and that it will be equipped with electromagnetic catapults rather than a ski ramp, which will improve the range/payload capability of the fixed-wing aircraft that it operates.


Type 003 Carrier
following the Type 002 carrier design, China was to begin building a Type 003 carrier design that would displace 90,000 to 100,000 tons and, inddition to being equipped with electromagnetic catapults, be nuclear powered.


Although aircraft carriers might have some value for China in Taiwan-related conflict scenarios, they are not considered critical for Chinese operations in such scenarios, because Taiwan is within range of land-based Chinese aircraft. Consequently, most observers believe that China is acquiring carriers primarily for their value in other kinds of operations, and to demonstrate China’s status as a leading regional power and major world power. Chinese aircraft carriers could be used for power-projection operations, particularly in scenarios that do not involve opposing U.S. forces, Chinese aircraft carriers could also be used for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) operations, maritime security operations (such as antipiracy operations), and noncombatant evacuation operations (NEOs). Politically, aircraft carriers could be particularly valuable to China for projecting an image of China as a major world power, because aircraft carriers are viewed by many as symbols of major world power status.


Carrier-Based Aircraft


China’s primary carrier-based fighter aircraft is the J-15 or Flying Shark (Figure 10), an aircraft derived from the Russian Su-33 Flanker aircraft design that can operate from carriers equipped with a ski ramp rather than catapults. China reportedly plans to develop a carrier-capable variant of its J-20 fifth-generation stealth fighter and/or a carrier-capable variant of its FC-31 fifth-
generation stealth fighter to complement or succeed the J-15 on catapult-equipped Chinese carriers.34 China reportedly is also developing a carrier-based stealth drone aircraft.35


Surface Combatants


The first Type 055 ship was reportedly commissioned into service on January 12, 2020, and the sixth was reportedly launched (i.e., put into the water for the final stages of construction) in December 2019 Type 052D ships have been in serial production for some time, and the 23rd such ship was reportedly launched in December 2019


China is also building a new type of corvette (i.e., a light frigate, or FFL) called the Jiangdao class or Type 056 (Figure 14), which displaces about 1,500 tons.


Anti-Ship Missiles


China reportedly is fielding two types of land-based ballistic missiles with a capability of hitting ships at sea—the DF-21D (Figure 1), a road-mobile anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) with a range of more than 1,500 kilometers (i.e., more than 910 nautical miles), and the DF-26 (Figure 2), a road-mobile, multi-role intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) with a maximum range of about 4,000 kilometers (i.e., about 2,160 nautical miles) that DOD says “is capable of conducting conventional and nuclear precision strikes against ground targets as well as conventional strikes against naval targets ”16 China reportedly is also developing hypersonic glide vehicles that, if incorporated into Chinese ASBMs, could make Chinese ASBMs more difficult to intercept.17


Regarding the U.S.-China balance of naval power in general, U.S. and other observers generally assess that while the United States today has more naval capability overall, China’s naval modernization effort since the 1990s has substantially reduced the U.S. advantage, and that if current U.S. and Chinese naval capability trend lines (such as those shown in Table 1 and Table
2)do not change, China might eventually draw even with or surpass the United States in overall naval capability. Regarding the current U.S.-China naval balance of power specifically in the South China Sea, some observers are concerned that China has already drawn even with or even surpassed the United States. U.S. Navy Admiral Philip Davidson, in responses to advance policy questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee for an April 17, 2018, hearing before the committee to consider nominations, including Davidson’s nomination to become Commander, U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM),64 stated that “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”65 A January 18, 2020, press report quotes James Kraska of the Naval War College as stating that “the US has lost advantage throughout the spectrum of operations, from low-level interaction against China’s maritime militia to higher-end conflict scenarios,” and that “in other words, China has escalation dominance, because it has the power to deter any US turn towards escalation. The US is outmatched in all of the scenarios.”


The PLA is not close to catching up to the U.S. military in terms of aggregate capabilities, but it does not need to catch up to the United States to dominate its immediate periphery. The advantages conferred by proximity severely complicate U.S. military tasks while providing major advantages to the PLA.


Over the next five to 15 years, if U.S. and PLA forces remain on roughly current trajectories, Asia will witness a progressively receding frontier of U.S. dominance.


Although trends in the military balance are running against the United States, there are many actions that the United States could take to reinforce deterrence and continue to serve as the ultimate force for stability in the Western Pacific.