China’s Naval Buildup Is a Real Challenge to the U.S. Navy’s Dominance

China’s Naval Buildup Is a Real Challenge to the U.S. Navy’s Dominance
Chinese naval officials stand in front of the ship Daqing, San Diego, Calif., Dec. 7, 2016 (AP photo by Gregory Bull).

While the United States Navy struggles to figure out if, how and when it can expand the size of its combat fleet by 47 ships—a 15 percent increase—China continues to crank out around a dozen new large warships a year. In May, the busy shipyard in the port city Dalian put to sea China’s second aircraft carrier, following up on that milestone two months later by simultaneously launching two Type 055-class cruisers. With the U.S. Navy being the only other fleet to operate a large number of vessels of such size and capability, the pace and scale of production at Chinese shipyards is a sign of Beijing’s desire for a fleet commensurate with its perceived status as a great power.

Displacing more than 10,000 tons, the Type 055-class cruisers are large, multirole warships similar to the U.S. Navy’s high-end Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. Such warships constitute the backbone of navies focused on high-intensity naval combat. Even a decade ago, the Chinese navy had only a handful of ships capable of providing a broad range of naval combat capabilities over a large area. Until the early 2000s, most Chinese warships were incapable of even targeting hostile aircraft more than a dozen or so kilometers away. Without such vessels, combat success in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait was well out of reach, even against adversaries far less capable than the U.S. Navy.

Today, by contrast, China has 20 large and modern multirole cruisers and destroyers in service, with another 10 in the water awaiting completion and a further seven under construction. Remarkably, most of these warships have been built since 2010.

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