Saturday, March 10, 2018

Combat Fleet Count - China vs. U.S. Comparison

I’m beginning a combat fleet count for China to use as a comparison to ours.  I’ll use the same criteria for inclusion.

To refresh your memory, the combat fleet is composed of carriers, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, submarines, and amphibious ships (CVN, DDG, CG, FFG, SSN, SSBN, SSGN, LHA, LHD, LPD, and LSD).  Vessels like patrol ships, minesweepers, hospital ships, tugs, salvage ships, and ships whose designation starts with “T” or “A” are not counted as part of the combat fleet.  Yes, I know that China doesn’t necessarily use the same designations we do but I’ll do my best to apply the same categorization regardless of what the Chinese designations are.

I’ve included the Chinese missile boats (Fast Attack Craft – FAC) due to their heavy offensive firepower which makes them a significant battle fleet asset.  This is a reasonable inclusion but it does distort the total fleet size number comparison so take that into consideration.

Here are the numbers and breakdown as of the start of 2018

                  China(1)    U.S.

SSN                    14      51
SSBN                    5      14
SSGN                    0       4
SSK                    58       0
CV                      1      10
LHA                     0       1
LHD                     0       8
LPD                     4      11
LSD                     0      12
LST                    32       0
LSM                    31       0
CG                      0      16
DDG                    29      66
FFG                    49       0
FS (Corvette)          39       0
FAC (Missile Boat)    203       0

Total                 474     193

Here’s a few noteworthy considerations:

  • The U.S. has more “heavy” ships such as carriers, cruisers, and high end destroyers and, therefore, retains a firepower advantage.
  • The U.S. Navy has a huge advantage in carriers and, therefore, mobile aerial firepower but the Chinese have begun an aggressive carrier construction program and will likely match the U.S. carrier fleet in about 10 years.
  • China has a heavy investment in lower end ships such as frigates, corvettes, and missile boats, all of which are heavily armed for their size and would constitute a significant firepower threat.  This is the U.S. Navy’s vaunted distributed lethality realized.  We’re talking about it and the Chinese have done it!  So, all the U.S. Navy’s claims of disproportionate impact that distributed lethality will have on the enemy’s operational complexity and confusion, the Chinese have already applied against us many times over.  ComNavOps has severe doubts about the validity of distributed lethality but according to the U.S. Navy’s claims, China has already hugely overmatched and beaten us in this arena.
  • China’s fleet is, for the most part, new and getting newer all the time.
  • The U.S. fleet still possesses as qualitative advantage in technology although this gap is shrinking rapidly. 

I’ll continue to update this from time to time.


(1)Wiki, "List of active People's Liberaton Army Navy ships", retrieved 12-Mar-2018,


  1. Late in 2013 I blogged about the rise of the Chinese naval power and pointed out that the really interesting and informative part of it is the fleet of auxiliaries. The replenishment ships signal whether the navy is meant for the Western Pacific only or Indian Ocean and South Pacific as well.

    Their fleet of replenishment ships has been growing rapidly since.

  2. We are going to have to take them on at some point. Best sooner than later.

    1. I suspect a better way of looking at it is; we are already taking them on but due to lack of strategy, tactics,bureaucracy run amok, etc we are not doing a very good job.

    2. "we are already taking them on but due to lack of strategy, tactics,bureaucracy run amok, etc we are not doing a very good job."


  3. CNO,

    Thanks for posting the numbers and taking the time to try and put them in categories. When we talk about strategy, tactics, fleet composition, etc it is good to look at a starting point.

    I agree with Leviathan that China fudges it's numbers. But I don't believe we need to say, China has exactly this many subs. I think it is more important to our strategy to understand the trends of what they are doing.

    I fear that some people tout the 355 ship fleet as a number with no context. I would be more interested how that fleet is to be used today in peace time, in conflicts short of war and in peer wars short of a nuclear trigger(i.e. no we are not going to bomb Beijing and march troops there to overthrow communist China without a nuclear war.)

    I would also be interested how that fleet will be budgeted during a time of reduced budgets. How resilient will it be. The fleet we have couldn't be sustained. We need to fix those problems before we throw more money at the Navy.

    IMO the Navy need one big gigantic risk reduction survey instead of an audit. Pentagon audits lead to band aids that are more about saving face instead of ending up with a resilient fleet that supports a strategy.

    1. Perhaps your way of saying it is better. Functionally we are still left with trends. Or do you believe it would be better to get a more exact number?

    2. Leviathan,

      I didn't mean to sound dismissive of you arguing the numbers. The numbers CNO and you cite are worlds apart. I would be curious where CNO and you got your numbers?

    3. "I think it is more important to our strategy to understand the trends of what they are doing.

      I fear that some people tout the 355 ship fleet as a number with no context.

      I would be more interested how that fleet is to be used

      The fleet we have couldn't be sustained. We need to fix those problems before we throw more money at the Navy."

      Spot on in every respect! I'm attempting to address all of those concerns with this blog, a piece at a time. Feel free to contribute your thoughts!

    4. "Whatever source is being used for China's numbers is wrong, that's all."

      This blog is based on data and logic. Provide a source for your statement or I'll delete it as unsubstantiated.

    5. If you were using the "list of active PLAN vessels" Wiki article, I think I understand where the difference in the SSN/SSBN numbers comes from:
      In the list of different submarine types, the "name" entry contains "x in service" for the newer types and a name "Changzheng x" for each of the submarines of the older types (91/92). If you add "x values" of the 4 "Changzheng x" entries you get 18 (instead of 4 vessels named "something 3,4,5,6").

      When it comes to missile boats, Wikipedia still thinks that about 67 of the older versions of the type 037 (built between 1967 and 1982) are still in service. As the newest of these would be older than 35 years, I would argue that the number of still usable vessels should be much smaller. I guess decommissionig these small vessels doesn't get noticed.

    6. "I would be curious where CNO and you got your numbers?"

      Wiki. Here's the link.
      China Navy

      It provides names and pennant numbers of each vessel.

    7. "I would argue that the number of still usable vessels should be much smaller. I guess decommissionig these small vessels doesn't get noticed."

      You may be right. Or, you may be wrong. The Chinese tend to keep equipment active much longer than we do. Do you have a source to make the claim that the numbers should be smaller? Give me some data!

    8. "In the list of different submarine types, the "name" entry contains "x in service""

      Yes, believe I did misinterpret those entries and I've corrected the table in the post. Thanks for pointing that out. If you see any more discrepancies, let me know.

  4. Of the noteworthy considerations, what about the crews.
    Impossible to know of the Chinese of course.
    The USN however, there have been various mishaps that the USN crews are not performing. You have commented that the performance of USN crews being affected by extra curricula endeavours that are foisted on them from above.
    I doubt that the Chinese Navy do a strong line diversity training , etc.

    1. An important point. The good news is, it's not hard to figure out what went wrong. Basic seamanship, proper manning isn't new. We just need to stop doing what we're doing because we're shooting ourselves in the foot.
      The bad news is that the navy wants to put collision avoidance on all ships now. High tech solution to being asleep at the wheel. Yikes.

  5. One thing is doesn’t count is asymmetrical assets. Just as Russia used “Rebels” in Ukraine for justifying taking Crimea, China has a sea going equivalent in their Naval Militia where hundreds of fishing boats and civilian vessels bully away ships from other nations daring them to provoke the sleeping dragon. In wartime expect them to deliver commandos, surveillance, and the occasional suicide run.
    Ditto + armament for their Coast Guard which is launching destroyer sized cutters.

  6. The Chinese Navy today is still based on the Soviet Navy structure, which emphasized on a large number of small vessels with heavy firepower along with a blue water fleet.

    The US on the other hand believed in having a blue water fleet since most of their operations happen across the ocean.

    1. I'm not sure I would agree with either the assessment of the Soviet Navy structure or that China is copying it.

      The Soviet Navy had a good balance of high end cruisers (Kirov), destroyers, frigates, and corvettes. They were working towards building a carrier fleet. They had a very high end submarine fleet. Yes, they also had a numerous missile boat force but that was more a logical requirement given their proximity to other countries. The Soviets also integrated bomber regiments into their naval force.

      They were, very much, a blue water navy though more defensive than offensive in nature.

      China seems to be emulating the U.S. naval force structure moreso than the old Soviet one, if anything. Like the Soviets, they also have a strong missile boat component in recognition of their geographical realities.

      What do you think?

    2. "it will not become as heavy as USN's because it will continue to have strategic interests close to home"

      I'm not quite sure what you mean by "heavy" but the proximity of "strategic interests" close to home actually dictate the need for a heavier naval force! Now that force/firepower can be concentrated in a few mammoth vessels (like a Kirov) or distributed among smaller vessels like the U.S. LCS or Chinese Type 022 missile boat or frigates but the closer threat requires a heavier force, however they choose to achieve that.

      I would also note that they have begun a crash program of carrier building. They already have 5 carriers planned for the very near future, the last of which is intended to be an equivalent of the Ford. They will likely have around 10 carriers built or in various stages of construction within 10 years considering that have 5 already in the works!

    3. "PLAN has no crash carrier program."

      You have a habit of making incorrect statements which is why your posts get deleted. China currently has 5 carriers in various stages of completion and construction. Five current builds certainly qualifies as a crash program by anyone's standards!!!

      You also have a habit of arguing about things that no one has stated. No one has stated that China's carriers are yet the equal of U.S. Nimitz/Ford classes so you're arguing yourself.

      If you confine yourself to factual statements or opinions identified as such, you're welcome here. If not, I encourage you to find a blog more to your liking.

  7. I think it would be worthy to include the coast guards of both China and USA in the comparaison. They are less lethal ships, but China is making bigger and bigger coast guard ship so they are more and more relevant, and coast guard have saw lot of action during many of the war USA have done.

    1. You rightly note the importance of the CG to the Chinese naval operations. They actively use their CG as an extension of their navy and foreign policy whereas the U.S. tends to ignore the CG until a war occurs.

      The Chinese have used their CG vessels to illegally claim territory, illegally force foreign fishing vessels out of legitimate fishing areas, etc. As I said, their CG is an active arm of their foreign policy.

    2. The chinese version of the russian little green men.

    3. Now, what do you think we should do to counter it, if anything?

  8. I do not much original ideas on that one, but the best I have read so far are :

    _well doing the same (weaponized fishing boat activities as practical sovereignty)
    _bigger role for coast guard, and bigger boats for them (ramming might come back)
    _the famous US coast guard blog point to how big coast guard gun need to be to make a ship go down (you also question the wisdom of how easy ships are to sunk yourself). US army stopped using as shooting practice retired vessels as you (and him too I think) pointed it too.
    _political, well, all the previous one supposed that the one in power accepted it is a confrontation. You pointed out many times the cowardness on that front. I like the XX commitee blog which point out similar cowardness in intelligence area.
    _classical grand strategy/geopolitics is to try to use the neighbour who fear china against it, it is partially done (japan and korea ship bulding industry rival china, which is important in naval conflict)
    _ resolve border conflict, philipines, Brunei, Indonesia, vietnam should be pushed by US diplomacy to compromise to have a more united front. OTAN was made to opposite USSR. South East Asian need a nato against China (but it would be more naval than anything else). Granted it would be harder to pull (the region is more divided, and USA less motivated).
    _do less "freedom of navigation" and more focusing on readability of forces, having more stock for short war (spare part, missiles, ammo) and planning for transition to full war. Basically, what russia does with its army. Russian army can operate in Ukraine only because there is the fear of the full Russian army. Again, nothing original (you, defence and freedom, and some other blog I forgot).

    1. The equivalent of NATO exists in the form of ASEAN. Check it out on the Internet, if you're not familiar with it. The difference from NATO is that while NATO was formed as a military defensive organization, ASEAN is dedicated to economic and cultural advancement and lacks any military/defensive purpose or power. Still, it could, potentially, form the basis of such an organization.

  9. That was my point. I remembered it was mainly economical, not military. After I have not studied the details of it. I would be unable the say extend of economic cooperation in the ASEAN. I have read about the economies of Japan/Korea/China.

  10. We once had SEATO, the south East Asian version of NATO, which disbanded in 1977. Many forget that SEATO nations sent troops and fought alongside the US in Vietnam War.
    Ironically, if we reformed the organization this time I think Vietnam would join. We might even be able to Include India and Japan as they both have a stake in checking China’s military ambition. It could obstensibly be formed to handle NK, piracy, and terrorism but be an obvious if unofficial tool to get China to back up a bit.

  11. The USN enjoys a pretty hefty advantage in the undersea realm. Most of their subs are relatively slow, short ranged diesel boats. Ours are all nukes.

    Still China's numbers advantage could presents real problems. Particularly in a near coastal fight.

    1. "The USN enjoys a pretty hefty advantage in the undersea realm. Most of their subs are relatively slow, short ranged diesel boats. Ours are all nukes."

      Without agreeing or disagreeing, I find it interesting that you cite SSNs as being significantly better than SSKs given that so many people seem to want the U.S. to acquire significant numbers of SSKs.

  12. China is building a navy that will stay close to China, many small ships with limited range and a few big ships to challenge the US and Japan. The US is building big ships/ nuc subs to cross the ocean to fight. Until we start building WARSHIPS again, we should stay out of Chinese waters.


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