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Made in Latin America: Domestically Manufactured Ecuadorian and Peruvian Ships Meet in the Pacific

The Southern Tide

Written by Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“We focus on partnerships…Our partners want to work with us. They want the advantage of the United States education, training, exercises and military equipment. It’s the best in the world. And so it’s up to us to deliver that in a way that’s relevant and also provides a return on investment for American taxpayer. So that is our focus.” –Navy Adm. Craig S. Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command, before the Senate Armed Services Committee July 9, 2019.

By Wilder Alejandro Sánchez

The Ecuadorian coast guard vessel Isla Santa Cruz escorted the Peruvian training vessel BAP Unión while the latter sailed through Ecuadorian waters as part of a training mission in mid-May. While cordial encounters at sea between ships belonging to friendly navies are quite common, a curious fact about this meeting is that both vessels were manufactured domestically by local state-run shipyards.


Isla Santa Cruz escorts the Peruvian training vessel BAP Unión (Ecuadorian Navy photo)

The significance of this encounter cannot be overstated. The navies of Ecuador and Peru, in addition to other Latin American fleets, will certainly continue to acquire vessels and submarines from extra-regional suppliers for the foreseeable future. But the era of “Made in Latin America” ships is here.

Made in Ecuador, Made in Peru

Isla Santa Cruz (LG 43) is one of four coastal patrol boats, class LP-AST-2606, produced by the Ecuadorian state-run shipyard ASTINAVE. The vessel and its sister ships, Isla Marchena (LG 42), Isla Pinta (LG 44), and Isla Balta (LG 45), are based on a Damen’s Stan Patrol 2606 model. The vessels are operated by the coast guard, a part of the navy, and operate in Ecuadorian waters, which include protecting the maritime biodiversity of the Galapagos Islands, listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Isla Santa Cruz was commissioned in 2012.

As for training vessel Unión, the ship was commissioned in 2016. Built by the Peruvian state-run shipyard SIMA’s main facilities in Callao, the ship measures 115 meters in length, displaces 3,200 tons, has a maximum speed of 12 knots and can transport up to 250 officers, crew and trainees. Unión, named after a Peruvian warship that fought in the 19th century War of the Pacific, is the largest training vessel in Latin America. As part of training missions with future naval officers, Unión has also participated in international sailing competitions. For example, in 2017 Unión participated in Rendez-Vous 2017 Tall Ships Regatta, where the vessel won the race from Boston, Massachusetts to Charlottetown, Canada.

How Often Do Such Meetings Happen?

It is unclear how often locally built vessels meet in Latin American waters. Such meetings can occur via passing exercises (PASSEX), one vessel escorting the other as it voyages through territorial waters, working together in counter-narcotic operations, or via multinational exercises like PANAMAX or UNITAS.

For example, for UNITAS LIX (2018), held in Colombia, the host’s patrol vessel ARC 20 de Julio (PZE-46), manufactured by the Colombian shipbuilding corporation COTECMAR, and the Chilean OPV Piloto Pardo (OPV-81), built by the Chilean shipyard ASMAR, were deployed together. Similarly, UNITAS LVII (2017), held in Peru, included the participation of patrol boats BAP Río Pativilca (PM 204) and BAP Río Cañete (PM 205), built by SIMA, and the Chilean OPV Comandante Toro (OPV 82), built by ASMAR. This author has not been able to find confirmation that these locally-built vessels directly interacted in these exercises, but it is plausible.

Chilean OPV Piloto Pardo (OPV-81). (Chilean Navy photo)

Interestingly, even though there are a plethora of analyses in Spanish and Portuguese about what regional shipyards are producing and the status of regional navies, this author has not found previous research that discusses other instances of locally built vessels meeting at sea in Latin America. Figuring out how often these meetings occur would require exhaustive research through various news sources, including press releases and statements by regional navies, to keep track of when this type of meeting at sea occurs, and researching where each ship was built.

A Look at Ongoing Projects

In various analyses for CIMSEC (see the 2016 commentary “The Rise of the Latin American Shipyard”) this author has discussed the rise of Latin American shipyards, several of which are currently engaged in major construction projects.

Brazil is building four conventional submarines and one nuclear-powered submarine via the PROSUB program, in cooperation with the French shipyard Naval Group; the Chilean shipyard ASMAR is building an icebreaker and plans to construct at least two transport vessels, a project called Escotillón IV; and the Colombian shipbuilding corporation COTECMAR has manufactured a fleet of amphibious vessels (Buques de Apoyo Logistico y de Cabotage) for the local navy, while two units were sold to Honduras (FNH 1611 Gracias a Dios) and Guatemala (BL 1601 Quetzal). COTECMAR has also manufactured several patrol vessels based on a design by the German shipyard Fassmer. COTECMAR’s most recent project was the launch this past September of ARC Isla Albuquerque for the country’s Dirección General Marítima, commonly known as DIMAR, a part of the navy. 

Both Colombia’s COTECMAR and Chile’s ASMAR have ambitious projects for the near future as well, namely the construction of frigates. The Colombian Navy wants to domestically manufacture frigates (a project called Plataformas Estratégicas de Superficie or PES for short) via COTECMAR to replace its aging Almirante Padilla-class frigates, but the project has been delayed. Similarly, the Chilean Navy’s high command aims to also domestically manufacture frigates by 2030.

Even the internationally sanctioned and economically crippled Venezuela is building domestic vessels. Case in point, a 24 April tweet by a Venezuelan military Twitter account shows a video of Centinela, a locally-manufactured speedboat which will be utilized by the national guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana) for coastal operations. At the time of writing, the Iranian forward-basing ship IRINS Makra, formerly an oil tanker, is transporting seven fast attack craft, apparently to be transferred to Venezuela. If this happens, it would be the first time in years that the Venezuelan Navy obtains foreign-made vessels, and highlights the service’s current status in which international suppliers of new ships are very limited in number (this author ahs discussed the status of the Venezuelan navy in a May 10 commentary for Strife, The Venezuelan Navy: The Kraken of the Caribbean?”).

Both Ecuador and Peru have ongoing shipbuilding projects as well. ASTINAVE has teamed up with a German shipyard to build a multipurpose combat vessel. Even though the construction of the MPV70 MKII vessel has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ecuadorian shipyard is upgrading and expanding its infrastructure. Specifically, the shipyard’s main facilities in Planta Centro will be expanded to cope with the new project as the combat ship will be manufactured and assembled in sections.

Similarly, Peru’s SIMA is building BAP Paita, a second landing platform dock (the first one, BAP Pisco, is already operational); while two coastal patrol vessels, BAP Río Tumbes and BAP Río Locumba, were commissioned this past March. SIMA’s facilities in Iquitos, in the Peruvian Amazon, also build vessels for the army’s and navy’s riverine operations.

BAP Río Tumbes and BAP Río Locumba (Peruvian Navy photo)

The Bad News: Argentina and Mexico

Unfortunately, there are shipyards in two countries that have been unable to move forward with new projects. After much fanfare, Mexico’s long range oceanic patrol project (Patrulla Oceánica de Largo Alcance or POLA) is not moving forward, as President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is not interested in having the local state-run shipyard ASTIMAR construct new units in partnership with Damen. Only one of this class has been built, the POLA ARM-101 “Benito Juárez.* On June 1, as part of the celebrations for the Mexican navy’s anniversary, the patrol vessel ARM Tabasco (PO-168) was commissioned. But this ship was originally launched in 2019 and it is unclear when ASTIMAR will receive orders for new ships (See Christian J. Ehlirch’s “The Evolution of the Mexican Navy Since 1980” analysis in Strife for more information about the status of the fleet.)

POLA ARM-101 “Benito Juárez. (Photo via Damen Shipyards Group)

Similarly, Argentine shipyards like Rio Santiago and Tandanor are in limbo due to a lack of funds. Two outstanding projects include the construction of two training boats to train cadets (Lanchas de Instrucción de Cadetes or LICA), and one Small Waterplane Area Twin Hull (SWATH) hydrographic ship for the Argentine Navy. The Alberto Fernández administration is reportedly providing funds to finish both projects, however it is unclear when they will be launched.

Why Build at Home?

Navies and shipyards routinely advocate for the domestic construction of vessels, highlighting the advantages of such projects as compared to purchasing from international suppliers. The primary advantage is that domestically manufacturing ships, or submarines in the case of Brazil, means direct and indirect jobs for the citizens of the country where the shipyard is located. SIMA, for example has three facilities across Peru: Callao and Chimbote in the coast, and Iquitos in the Amazon. Similarly, ASTINAVE is preparing to expand its main assembly facility. More shipbuilding orders and new facilities mean more jobs.

For navies, building at home is also preferable as the naval officers and sailors can observe first-hand how a new vessel is built, from the keel laying to the launching of the ship. Shipyard employees are also more intimately aware of the technical aspects of new ships, which can considerately quicken maintenance and repair operations.

Moreover, building at home decreases a dependency on extra-regional suppliers. For example, a navy without a local functioning shipyard that plans to acquire new vessels in order to replace old units may have to settle for what is available on the international market (e.g. used or decommissioned vessels) depending on budgetary issues.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that building new vessels involves a learning curve. By building at home, technicians and the leadership of navies and shipyards will become more ambitious and will aim to build more complex platforms. A quick summary of ASTINAVE’s and SIMA’s projects in the past decade exemplify this learning curve, and also what one could call an “ambition curve.”

ASTINAVE built Isla Santa Cruz and three other small coastal patrol craft in the first half of the 2010s, then two 50 meter offshore patrol vessels (Isla San Cristóbal and Isla Santa Isabel, delivered in 2017), and now is preparing to build a multipurpose combat vessel. Similarly, in recent years, SIMA’s facilities in Callao and Chimbote have built six coastal patrol vessels, a training vessel, and now two complex landing platform docks (this list does not include riverine vessels built by SIMA-Iquitos).

Without a doubt, there is a level of technological capability and expertise that many shipyards do not possess. Hence it is highly implausible to assume that Latin American navies will stop relying on extra-regional suppliers for warships, submarines, coastal patrol vessels or transport ships in the near future. Even a second-hand warship from an “A-class” navy is more technologically advanced than what some regional navies currently operate or can hope to build domestically. Nevertheless, as has been demonstrated in this commentary, many shipyards have the ambition which, if financially supported by their respective governments, will translate into more complex vessels being built in regional shipyards in the near future.

The Ambition for More “Made in Latin America” Ships

Nowadays, occasional tensions and some border disputes notwithstanding, the possibility of inter-state warfare in Latin America and the Caribbean is quite low. Nevertheless, navies must possess minimum deterrent capabilities. Moreover, they have other non-defense tasks, such as combating maritime crimes like illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing; drug smuggling; participating in search and rescue; and HA/DR operations.

To carry out these numerous missions, navies must operate modern vessels with different capabilities. While many navies are acquiring brand new vessels – Argentina is acquiring four offshore patrol vessels manufactured by French shipyard Naval Group– due to budgetary issues or what is available in the international market, some services are sometimes forced to acquire decommissioned vessels or ships that do not exactly match the service’s requirements. The result are Frankenstein’s monster-type fleets, with ships of various origins. Over the past decade, Latin American shipyards like Ecuador’s ASTINAVE and Peru’s SIMA have provided an important alternative regarding the procurement of new ships.

The meeting of Ecuador’s patrol vessel Isla Santa Cruz and Peru’s training vessel Unión in Ecuadorian waters was not solely a standard encounter of two friendly navies. It highlights the current status and trajectory of many Latin American shipyards, which are building more technologically complex ships for their respective navies. By the time the young Peruvian cadets aboard Unión become senior officers, this type of meeting on the high seas may become the norm across Latin American waters.

Wilder Alejandro Sánchez is an analyst who focuses on international security and geopolitics. The views expressed in this article belong to the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

*The ARM Reformador (POLA-101) was renamed to POLA ARM-101 Benito Juárez.

Featured Image: March 2017 – COTECMAR delivers OPV ARC Victoria to the Colombian Navy (COTECMAR photo)

Breaking the Mold: How to Build a 355-Ship Navy Today, Pt. 2

Read Part One here.

“It shall be the policy of the United States to have available, as soon as practicable, not fewer than 355 battle force ships.”

-Section 1025, Para (A) of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2018 (FY18 NDAA)

“Battle force ships are commissioned United States Ship (USS) warships capable of contributing to combat operations, or a United States Naval Ship that contributes directly to Navy warfighting or support missions, and shall be maintained in the Naval Vessel Register” –SECNAVINST 5030.8C

By Keith Patton

Flotillas and Ants Versus the Elephant

Current shipbuilding plans expand the fleet, but no consideration is given to mass producing a warship smaller than the “small surface combatant” role filled by the LCS and new frigates, which are larger than World War II destroyers. The Navy could consider even smaller vessels, less than 100m. These would be of a few different designs, or perhaps one design that can be optimized when constructed for different mission areas. One variant could be an armed replacement for the T-AGOs as they age out of service and to expand their numbers. Another could be a close-in ASW escort for ships. A third would be a surface strike platform with either or both land-attack and anti-ship missiles. The main goals would be ship designs that are compact, can be built in additional shipyards besides the current ones supporting the U.S. fleet, and provide needed niche capabilities. A flotilla of smaller vessels can be in more places at once to show the flag, be part of the deterrence force suggested as an alternative operating concept, and any losses in combat are more easily tolerated compared to large, multi-role vessels. Training would be streamlined as each crew would only have a few missions to focus on. Being able to use more shipyards to produce them would also allow reaching a 355 ship force sooner. However, this would break the mold of building most U.S. surface combatants as multi-mission platforms.

A more radical idea to save costs and accomplish the above is to stop carrier production after the last Ford on order. The existing carrier fleet would still exist, in dwindling numbers, for decades to come and still outnumber any projected rival carrier fleet in size and capability. The Navy has already floated the idea of cancelling the refueling of the carrier Truman as a cost savings measure. By block buying the last two Fords and retiring Truman early, a significant savings is achieved. SECDEF Mattis wanted the savings rolled into unmanned systems (discussed below) and other new capabilities. Additionally, the USN does not have sufficient air wings to equip all its carriers today. For the cost of a Ford class, including crew, multiple DDGs or perhaps a score of small combatants could be procured. They would likely also be produced much faster. However, while this idea would help expand the size of the U.S. fleet quickly, it would not do it within the next decade because the existing Fords are already on the way within that timeframe. This would simply allow a bigger fleet, more economically, in future decades. As such, it might be a pressure release against decisions that expand the fleet sooner but less economically. However, considering  the House Armed Services Seapower Subcomitteee Chairman announced the idea of retiring a carrier early is a non-starter, the political obstacles to early retirement or cancelling future carrier production are enormous.

The Ghost Fleet

The critical first step in a naval war is locating targets – the battle of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and Counter-ISR (C-ISR). You cannot hit what you can’t find. The submarine is the pinnacle of this concept, but modern combatants are becoming stealthier in an attempt to reduce the ranges they can be detected from. An example is the Zumwalt destroyers, which reportedly have such a small radar cross-section they are likely to be seen visually before being detected on radar.

However, there is another and perhaps cheaper approach to not being detected – flooding the adversaries ISR network. While jamming systems can deny an adversary information, they also provide it by making it clear that something is producing the jamming. Since high power jamming systems are located on warships and aircraft, the source of the jamming is a worthwhile target, and jamming is itself an active emission. Decoy systems, however, produce a false target. If there are ten contacts, and only one is a warship worthy of expending weapons against, the adversary must sort through all of the decoys to ensure they target the correct contact. This takes time and energy, allowing the warship to gain the upper hand. Alternatively, the adversary could attack all ten contacts. However, they might not have the resources available to attack all of them effectively, and may be expending great effort for low returns.

Does a battle force ship need to be manned? It is not listed in the definition as a requirement. Since a battle force ship must contribute “directly to Navy warfighting,” small, minimally manned or unmanned decoy and jamming vessels would count. DARPA’s Sea Hunter anti-submarine warfare continuous trail unmanned vessel (ACTUV) cold serve as a prototype example. Instead of following an adversary submarine, it could have signal arrays and deployable decoy payloads that could produce radar or radio emissions to mimic a warship. If sufficient power was available, it could also produce high power radar or jamming signals to attract an adversary’s attention. If the Sea Hunter is not cost effective enough, basic merchant hulls could be procured for the same purpose. They could be visually altered to resemble Navy logistics vessels, have noisemakers to better mimic high-value targets, and even periodically launch a drone helicopter to simulate manned flight operations. If not completely unmanned due to feasibility issues of command and control, they could be minimally manned with crew mostly living and working in an armored citadel-like structure, and if the decoy ship succeeds in its mission and draws fire, they are at reduced risk. In some ways this is like the Q-ships that were designed to lure in a submarine and survive torpedo damage to fight back. Procuring 50-100 civilian construction “Ghost Ships” to stretch an adversary’s ISR network with numerous false or less valuable contacts would raise the battle force count, increase fleet resilience, and help protect traditional warships.

Armed Merchantmen

The idea of armed merchant ships is not new. While the 1856 Treaty of Paris continued a prohibition on privateering (privately owned ships permitted by its government to wage war), as noted above military crews were placed in command of armed merchants (Q-ships) designed to lure in U-boats and the U.S. placed the U.S. Navy Armed Guard detachments on civilian ships to operate defensive weapons. During the Cold War, the United States armed its supply and auxiliary vessels with defensive weapons. This practice was stopped as a cost savings measure. Transferring auxiliaries from regular Navy to Maritime Sealift Command and civilian mariners saved hundreds of millions of dollars annually, never mind the cost savings of not having to equip them with expensive weapons and train personnel in their use. Such policy decisions could be reversed and the auxiliaries placed under military command, and then armed again to provide basic self-defense capability. However, this does not increase the count of battle force ships.

Mass-produced commercial hulls could provide a way to quickly increase battle force ship numbers, particularly as escorts or strike platforms. Container ships can carry thousands of twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) standardized cargo containers. 100 TEUs could contain the combat system and power requirements equivalent to a modern frigate. Israel has demonstrated a containerized ballistic missile launched from a cargo vessel, and Russia has advertised containerized versions of its Club-K missile family. Containerized U.S. missiles have been suggested by a former Dean of the U.S. Naval War College. It has also been suggested that commercial ships could form the basis of a naval surface fire support platform. Another way of looking at this is that the combat system would be independent of the hull. The cargo vessel would be carrying a capability akin to AEGIS ashore, manned by NAVY personnel or a modern equivalent of the U.S. Navy Armed Guard. These would not be true “arsenal ships” as conceived of in the 90s. They might only carry 32-64 missiles (standard Mk.41 VLS configurations) rather than 500. However, a mix of defensive or long-range strike weapons would free traditional warships of some missions. The slower design speed of commercial vessels would not make them valuable carrier escorts, and they may not be as capable and certainly not as stealthy as modern U.S. surface combatants, but a number of these vessels could augment capabilities like long-range strike, ballistic missile defense, or act as escorts for similarly large and slow logistics vessels. Also, these hulls could be produced very quickly and probably would require lower manning than traditional warships. The 2018 GAO Shipbuilding report showed that the T-EPF and T-ESD designs, largely commercial in nature, were the only Navy shipbuilding programs of the last decade to come in under budget.1

Warship Equivalents

Another line of thought is considering when a Battle Force Ship is not a ship. Can the Navy “break the mold” in the definition of a ship and provide a 355-battle force ship equivalent fleet without 355 actual vessels?

Coastal Artillery Corps

The U.S. Army used to have a prestigious coastal artillery corps. The coasts of the United States have many examples of old, fixed fortifications operated by the U.S. Army for harbor defense. As airpower developed, these defenses became casemented to protect against air attack, or mobile to complicate an adversary’s ability to locate and target them. A modern Army (or USMC) Coastal Defense Corps would have to employ mobile systems. This would not just be to increase their survivability but to allow them to be forward deployed or surged in a crisis or war. The anti-ship capability of the land-based HIMARs rocket was tested during RIMPAC 2018 and future ATACMs rounds are planned to have much longer range and an anti-ship seeker capability. The venerable Harpoon anti-ship missile is already used as a coastal defense cruise missile (CDCM) by many nations and is being considered for U.S. Army and USMC use. The Norwegian Strike Missile or LRASM missile are also potential contenders for a CDCM, as would be the planned Maritime Strike Tomahawk now that the U.S. announced plans to withdraw from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Tomahawk had a land-based variant until that treaty was signed, and the 2017 NDA authorized funds to study a new long-range ground-launched cruise missile. Could a battery of mobile CDCM’s be a “warship equivalent”?

The advantage of these land-based weapons is they could be deployed to allied territory and dispersed to avoid targeting. Their range rings could cover a significant amount of water space, and a camouflaged and mobile land-based weapon would be more survivable than a ship, as well as being more cost effective overall and faster to transport to a theater by air should speed be needed. Batteries of land based CDCM, possibly with their own SAM capabilities as well, could provide a ship equivalent asset for sea denial missions.

Patrol Bombers

The U.S. Navy’s shipbuilding plan to reach a 355 ship Navy (or 335 by FY48), doesn’t address naval aviation specifically. It can be assumed sufficient helicopters and air wings are acquired to support the aviation capable ships in the fleet. However, can the return of a Navy bomber force act as a ship equivalent?  The Navy did field bombers for patrol and strike in WWII – VB squadrons.

This move would both break the mold of a 355-ship navy being composed of ships, and infringe somewhat on the U.S. Air Force mission area. However, USAF bombers are generally optimized for strike against land targets and tasked for such a long-range power projection missions. While USAF bombers can employ anti-ship missiles and drop sea mines, these capabilities were allowed to atrophy for decades and such missions would pull USAF bomber resources away from other traditional USAF missions. A naval bomber would not need deep penetration capability. A naval bomber would be a simpler missile truck to get into position to launch long-range anti-ship missiles or mine a chokepoint that was not protected by adversary air defenses. While the P-8 is capable of these missions, it is more a reconnaissance, sub hunting and patrol aircraft with a relatively limited weapons load compared to a true bomber.

Dedicated VB squadrons, either manned or perhaps as a large armed drone, could provide a long-range maritime strike capability similar to Russia or Chinese maritime bomber squadrons. They could greatly augment the firepower of a surface action group or even a carrier air wing. Their long-range would allow them to rapidly shift missions across an AOR in a way surface vessels cannot. Additionally, unlike surface vessels, they can quickly rearm. While warships provide presence, sustained ISR, and other critical naval capabilities, VB (or VUB) squadrons would provide maritime strike capabilities and deterrent capabilities when actual ship hulls are not available. While USAF bombers could also do this, aircraft directly manned, trained, and equipped by the Navy and optimized for the maritime domain would seem more efficient and in keeping with increasing fleet power to a 355-ship equivalent on a quicker timeline.

License or Purchase Foreign Designs

If current United State battle force shipbuilding cannot produce the required quantity of vessels, could foreign designs be licensed or outright purchased to meet the needs of a 355 ship Navy?  Some options would require a rethinking of U.S. procurement policy and laws. 41 USC 8302, amended most recently by H.R.904, is a U.S. law, more commonly called the “Buy American Act” that requires anything the U.S. government buys be made in the United States. The Presidential Executive Order of 18 April 2017 directed government agencies to minimize exemptions to 41 USC 8302. The law does have two exceptions that could allow purchase of foreign battle force ships. One is that items procured for use outside the United States are exempt. It can be argued warships, and indeed most of the U.S. military, is intended for use outside the United States. Under the concept of regionally designed ships, covered earlier, these warships could be procured from the countries they are forward based in and intended for the defense of. The second is when there is insufficient U.S. production capacity. Since U.S. shipbuilding cannot ramp up to produce a 355 ship navy in a few years, this criteria is met.

The Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth-class carrier, while not as capable as a U.S. nuclear-powered carrier, still provides a significant aviation capability at a significant cost savings compared to U.S. nuclear carriers. Procurement of a third hull, before the line goes completely cold, would allow an increase in the Navy carrier fleet faster than if domestic carrier building was the sole source. For a time, the Queen Elizabeth class was planned to have catapults and arresting gear like U.S. carriers, a capability which would make them significantly more capable, at increased cost. In either short take off, vertical landing (STOVL) or Catapult Assisted Takeoff and Barrier Arrested Recover (CATOBAR) configuration, a Queen Elizabeth-class would add to Navy capabilities and battle force ships count.

While an additional aircraft carrier would increase the battle force ship count, it would require appropriate escort and supporting vessels. Additionally, as noted above, the Navy seems to have a greater need for escorts and smaller combatants that can be geographically dispersed for presence, shadowing, or ISR missions, or used in surface action groups (SAG). The new Navy frigate program will eventually produce some ships of this nature, but to rapidly achieve a 355 ship navy, already available foreign designs should be considered. The Israeli Sa’ar V and VI corvettes are 1,000-2,000 thousand tons, have small crew sizes, deck guns, and 32 defensive VLS missiles as well as deck-mounted anti-ship missiles. The Sa’ar V ships were even built in the United States by Huntington Ingalls. A U.S. corvette built to these designs would be well-suited for operations in the 5th Fleet or 6th Fleet AORs and possibly as part of an offensive SAG in PACOM. Both Korea and Japan produce Arleigh-Burke-like warships, and there are multiple solid frigate designs available in allied countries. Using foreign builders would allow a rapid buildup and shield U.S. industry from a boom-bust impact. However, it would be politically challenging. There are also fewer options for nuclear submarines.

Diesel AIP

Accelerated U.S. shipbuilding plans do not reach the requested number of SSNs in the fleet until 2042. Indeed, under current shipbuilding plans, the Navy is looking at a valley in attack submarine strength between FY25 and FY36, reaching a low of 41 SSNs in FY30.2 This is a 20 percent decrease in SSN strength as the Navy attempts to reach a congressionally-mandated goal for a 20 percent increase. There appears to be no way for the U.S. to achieve desired submarine numbers for a 355 ship fleet, with current levels of U.S. production.

Several allies produce extremely effective conventional submarines, or conventional diesel submarines (SSP) augmented with Air Independent Propulsion (AIP). These submarines are significantly smaller and cheaper than U.S. nuclear powered submarines. The U.S. has long preferred nuclear submarines due to their higher sustained speeds for transit to a theater, on station times only limited by consumables, and no need to raise a snorkel above the water for a period every few days. However, if forward deployed and perhaps built in the countries they are deployed in, some of these limitations can be mitigated. Soryu-class AIP subs built and operated from Japan would be able to arrive rapidly on station in Asian waters and contribute to the battle force. German Type 212 could provide a similar option in Europe. Both provide critical capabilities in their respective areas, and multiple SSPs can be built and manned for cost of a single U.S. SSN while also being available far sooner than any potential acceleration of U.S. submarine shipbuilding.

The Truly Radical

A final, truly radical idea, is the establishment of a U.S. Navy Foreign Legion. Two different options could be considered. One would be a mercenary, small boat operations force akin to Chinese Maritime Militia, but more overtly armed and associated with the U.S. military. These could be locals recruited into service, or contractors from the United States. Like the French Foreign Legion, they would have to be an official part of the U.S. military despite their foreign status. This would allow them to operate ships counted as battle force ships and under the laws of armed conflict. The small craft, while perhaps useful for some lower end missions, would not count as battle force ships. This idea seems to help more with the manning requirements of a 355 ship navy than with actually achieving the ship count sooner.

An alternate method would to procure foreign warships, as discussed above, and crew them with the US Navy Foreign Legion crews. These would take the form of non-citizens, but under U.S. command and control. In some ways it would be like the Japanese building a submarine or warship, crewing it, and then seconding it to the U.S. Navy. This would both raise battle force ship count and solve the man power problem simultaneously. However, it would also be very “mold breaking” in that the U.S. hasn’t done such a thing with its Navy before, and use of foreign citizens as full crews would be controversial aside from the controversy of non-U.S. built warships. Foreign nationals already serve in the U.S. military, but not a dedicated formations.


This has been an attempt to capture some of the interesting thoughts, from two separate working groups, on how the U.S. Navy could achieve a 355 battle force ship Navy sooner than current plans predict. Several of the ideas above could increase the battle force size, but come at significant economic or political risk to achieving them, like using older or reactivated ships or buying foreign warships possibly with foreign crews. Others challenge Navy established practices by phasing out carriers, giving up SSBNs, or focusing on smaller combatants. Some challenge the idea of what a warship is, what can be counted and what should count as a warship. Is 355 correct? Or is the equivalent capability of 355 ships desired? 

Right now, the Navy has presented a plan to Congress. There may be no need for the above. But the global political situation is rapidly changing, especially with worsening relations with increasingly assertive great power rivals, and the urgent need for a 355-ship Navy could very well come sooner rather than later.

CDR Patton is deputy chairman for the U.S. Naval War College’s Strategic and Operational Research (SORD) Department.  SORD produces innovative strategic research and analysis for the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, and the broader national security community.  CDR Patton was commissioned in 1995 from Tufts University NROTC, with degrees in history and political science and has served four tours conducting airborne nuclear command and control missions aboard the US Navy E-6B Mercury aircraft, and two tours as Tactical Action Officer (TAO) and Combat Direction Center Officer (CDCO) aboard the carriers USS KITTY HAWK and USS NIMITZ. 

The opinions and ideas above do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense, U.S. Navy, or the Naval War College. The ideas expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the principal author either. They were drawn from the Breaking the Mold II workshop held at the U.S. Naval War College with invited participants from military, industry, government and academic institutions. The workshop was held under the Chatham House Rule, so these ideas will not be attributed to their originator. Some ideas were specific enough that they are not included here because the idea itself might identify the originator and violate the Chatham House rule.


1. “Navy Shipbuilding,” June 2018, pg. 8

2. Ronald O’Rourke, “Options and Considerations for Achieving a 355-Ship Navy” July 25, 2017. Pg. 6

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (Dec. 23, 2018) MV-22 Ospreys assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 264 (Reinforced) prepare to launch from the flight deck of the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) during night flight operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Mike DiMestico/Released) 181223-N-UP035-0011

Breaking the Mold: How to Build a 355-Ship Navy Today, Pt. 1

“It shall be the policy of the United States to have available, as soon as practicable, not fewer than 355 battle force ships.”

-Section 1025, Para (A) of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2018 (FY18 NDAA)

“Battle force ships are commissioned United States Ship (USS) warships capable of contributing to combat operations, or a United States Naval Ship that contributes directly to Navy warfighting or support missions, and shall be maintained in the Naval Vessel Register” –SECNAVINST 5030.8C

By Keith Patton

During the Reagan administration, it was the policy goal of the United States to build a 600-ship Navy. That goal came very close to being realized, but the end of the Cold War and the “peace dividend” resulted in a rapid contraction of U.S. battle force ship count. This is not to say the U.S. Navy became less powerful since current U.S. multi-mission destroyers are far more capable than their 80s predecessors, but the fleet can be in far fewer places at once and is less casualty tolerant.

In 2015, the Navy’s force level goal was 308 ships. In 2016, this was raised to 355. This policy goal was codified by Congress in the FY18 NDAA. Currently, the Navy has 286 battle force ships, or only 80 percent of its own and now the Congressionally stated requirement. Pursuant to FY18 NDAA, the Navy produced a report to Congress with a plan for achieving a 355-ship force level after 2050, but included options to achieve this level by 2030.

What if world circumstances or political decisions forced the U.S. to look at achieving a 355-ship Navy far sooner than in 11 to 30 years? Possibilities range from how to stretch or improve what already exists, to more radical notions of foreign warship procurement, armed merchantmen, and development of a U.S. Navy foreign legion type force.


Some of the current and proposed policies for fleet building are built on numerous assumptions. One, that a 355-ship Navy is necessary. This is codified in the FY18 NDAA, but some the forthcoming ideas will stretch the definition or purpose of a 355-ship Navy. Second, that the Navy is in a technological competition and simply adding hulls to the battle force count is insufficient. These hulls must be capable of adapting to emerging technology rather than simply using what is available today. However, some of the offered ideas focus on using current or less capable designs to reach 355 ships. Third, that it is feasible for the Navy to fund a commensurate increase in personnel and weapons procurement. This is also impacted by the type of ships procured. This assumption is not directly challenged, but is fundamental to manning and arming the fleet constructed. Finally, that the political will exists to champion these changes, which could threaten established programs, industrial bases, or voting blocks.

Stretching What We Have

The Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration has already been told by the Navy that, in the event of a major conflict, there will be insufficient ships to escort a sealift effort to Asia or Europe. Recalling Operation Drumbeat, or the “happy times” of the German U-boat force off the U.S. Atlantic coast in 1942, this is very concerning. 23 merchants were sunk off the U.S. coast by just five Type IX U-boats. For perspective, that is equivalent to 40 percent of the current ship inventory of the Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Fleet, which is tasked with transporting U.S. forces in wartime. During U-boat operations, 22 percent of the tanker fleet was sunk, and 232 ships total in seven months. This is more than the entire U.S. merchant marine fleet today. Raising the U.S. battle force ship strength to provide escorts for vital transport and logistics vessels would seem a logical first step.

A quick way to preserve and grow battle force ships is to stop decommissioning vessels and to execute service life extensions on them instead. These would include younger Los Angeles-class SSNs and DDGs. The FY18 NDAA already prohibits the Navy from retiring Avenger-class MCM (Sec 1046). By extending the life of Arleigh Burke-class destroyers to 45 or 50 years, the Navy can reach its desired large surface combatant end strength by 2029. However, this is still 10 years away. Even with extending the lives of Los Angeles-class SSNs, the Navy does not reach its desired attack submarine count until after 2048. Stopping the bleeding is not sufficient to reach 355 in less than a few decades,if the Navy needs to find more hulls in the next few years.

The Navy also could draw upon a limited quantity of warships in Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facilities (NISMF) including two aircraft carriers, two cruisers, two destroyers, a score of frigates, amphibious assault ships, and auxiliaries. Appendix 6 of the Navy report to Congress on shipbuilding notes 66 battle force ships being retired, dismantled, or sunk in the next five years. Reactivating those ships would almost instantly reach the 355 vessel goal. A 355-ship fleet, therefore, might be quickly met by delaying decommissioning and returning old warships to active duty

There is a significant downside to both extending the life of existing ships and returning old ships to service. First, there is the upfront cost of nuclear refueling and updating combat systems. Some cost savings could be made, for instance not using the catapults or arresting gear of the old carriers, making them STOVL carriers for helicopters, Ospreys, and F-35Bs (and saving significant manning and maintenance costs) or not updating the combat systems of the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates and only using them for low-end counter-piracy or counter-narcotics missions. However, this would severely limit the combat capabilities of the ships to the battle force. They may be able to handle a low end mission and free more expensive assets for higher-threat theaters, but they would not be suitable for great power conflict. Upgrading them with modern combat systems would further increase their cost. Additionally, these old vessels were decommissioned for a reason. Taking old vessels back into service introduces assets that are less capable in modern warfare due to limited growth margins and worn out hulls, and adds significant maintenance costs to stretch their service for a few more years. Long term, this seems far less bang for the buck than procuring new, modern combatants with growth margins for emerging technology. It also violates the planning assumption that the Navy’s new hulls will need growth room for emerging technology to field new weapons and systems.

Building Smarter, Better and Faster

The Navy currently receives new warships from five large and two smaller private shipyards. The shipbuilding industry is not at capacity in the U.S. To achieve a 355-ship in a decade would require almost doubling new ship production.1 Additionally, buying more warships in a smaller interval of time drives down unit cost. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) estimated 10 percent savings by doubling the production rate of combatants.2 The same report also estimated 5-10 percent savings by using multiyear procurement. By energizing the U.S. shipbuilding industry, the 355 battle force ship count can be achieved sooner.

However, U.S. shipbuilding can only achieve a 355-ship Navy slowly. Upon funding, it takes two years for long lead time components for a SSN to be produced, and five to six years for construction. Additional workers and production space would be needed before the five to six year construction phase began. Even with immediate funding, therefore, a decade might elapse before additional warships and specifically SSNs could join the fleet.

The Government Accountability Office 2018 report on Navy Shipbuilding does not give much room for optimism on meeting shipbuilding time or costs. It notes “construction during the last 10 years have often not achieved their cost, schedule, quality, and performance goals” and that the Navy has spent more on shipbuilding but has fifty fewer ships in the inventory than was planned in its 2007 shipbuilding plan.

Another consideration is that building more of existing designs does not allow margins for growth. The DDG-51 Flight III design does not have the growth margin or electrical generation to support projected future weapons, nor crew reductions. Procuring more DDG-51s at an accelerated rate provides a short-term advantage, but leaves the Navy with a large number of hulls that consume manpower and can’t adapt efficiently as new systems are developed. Designing a new combatant takes years, and this will delay the date when the Navy can achieve a 355-ship force. Simply building existing or projected future designs faster does not offer much hope of meeting a 355-ship battle force quickly.

Another consideration is the boom and bust effect of sudden surges in shipbuilding. Even if a 355-ship Navy could be built in three to five years, what would befall the warship industry in the following years? Once the goal was reached, unless there was a new, higher goal set, shipyards would have to massively trim the workforces they hired to support a surge in construction. A stable growth plan is more economical and sustainable than one based on sudden surges and decelerations. It would also be more politically palatable to the Congress that authorized it.

Increasing the Firepower of What We Have

If ships cannot be built or brought back into service in a timely or economical way, could there be a way to increase the fleets combat ability until a 355 ship force is achieved? This is “breaking the mold” of the first assumption – that a 355-ship navy is necessary. Can a more powerful force of what we have suffice in the interim until a true 355-ship fleet can be achieved? 

The SSGN conversion of four SSBNs gave the Navy four stealthy, high-capacity, long-range, strike platforms. Each can be equipped with up to 154 cruise missiles and other payloads, more than a  cruiser, and offers far more offensive capability when one considers that many of the cruiser’s tubes are filled with defensive weaponry. What if the Navy converted the remaining 14 Ohios? This would provide an 18 percent increase in missile tubes (or firepower) available to the  battle force, when the 355 battle force count goal is a 20 percent increase in hulls. This seems to close the capability gap, for strike anyway, with what is available. The question is, would 18 Ohio SSGNs roaming the oceans provide a greater conventional deterrent, and an effective platform in worst case A2AD environments than more of other ships? For high-end warfare and strike, likely yes. But there are many missions a submarine does not do well, like air and ballistic missile defense, presence, and maritime interdiction. The SSGNs would also be a stop gap since they are aging out. To replace the Ohio SSGNs as they age out, the new Columbia-class SSBN could be repurposed as SSGN as well.

This would dramatically alter U.S. nuclear posture by removing the SSBN leg of the triad. However, this could be mitigated to an extent by the already announced plan to put nuclear-tipped Tomahawks back on U.S. submarines. As hypersonic or smaller intermediate range ballistic missiles became available, nuclear armed versions of these weapons on all the SSGN would provide a survivable nuclear response to underpin US deterrence. The Navy could also consider spreading nuclear Tomahawks or successor systems across more than just the submarine fleet. Instead of a few, high capacity SSBNs, the naval leg of the triad would become a dispersed force of ships and subs with a few weapons each, much as it was during the Cold War.

While far less survivable than a submarine, missile tubes could also be added to existing combat logistics force ships or even amphibious assault ships. The San Antonio-class LPD was originally designed with a 16-cell Mk 41 VLS forward. The Navy has considered back fitting it. However useful, the entire fleet of LPDs outfitted with VLS would yield fewer missiles than two SSGNs, and be less survivable. Another concept would be to take the San Antonio follow on and build them as missile ships with large radars and extensive VLS capability. Huntington Ingalls has produced a model of this concept, with twice the missile firepower of a U.S. cruiser. This would allow the Navy to close the firepower gap between a 355-ship Navy and now with fewer than 355 ships.

While these ideas do not produce a 355-battle force ship fleet any sooner, they do produce a fleet that is more survivable, with more firepower, sooner, than the official ship building plans call for. The cost is shifting and ceding some capability in nuclear deterrence and amphibious lift. Each of these would be controversial alone. Even together, they may be insufficient should the U.S. feel it needs a 355 battle force ship equivalent sooner rather than later.

Change in Deployment Methodology/Theater Specific Ships

While not directly increasing the battle force ship count, changing Navy deployment methodology could allow the force to be more capable as the size grows. This methodology is similar to the report published by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments as part of the Navy’s fleet architecture study. This report suggested the Navy be divided into two forces. First was a deterrence force, sub-divided among COCOMs, with the capacity to provide prompt, high capacity fires to punish an adversary should their existence fail to deter them. These ships would be tasked to support a particular COCOM rather than CONUS-based forces rotating between them. In low-threat SOUTHCOM, LCS and reactivated Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates, Coast Guard, or newly designed ships could focus on low-end missions and free up high end warships for other theaters. In CENTCOM, the ships assigned would focus on FAC/FIAC threats and air and missile defense. Ships assigned to PACOM or EUCOM would focus on high end missions. Ships could be built, manned, and trained around these priorities, in contrast to current operations where ships focus on all warfare areas and multiple AORs, risking becoming jacks of all trades but masters of none. While this may have been adequate during a low naval threat period, with the return of great power competition, specialization may be needed again. The SSGN conversions in particular might be outstanding vessels for the deterrence force in EUCOM and PACOM. Difficult to detect and counter, and with two or three perhaps on station at any time able to bring high capacity fires against an adversary’s aggression, the could depart the theater to reload and join the maneuver force.

Theater-specific ships could also be homeported in their AOR, reducing transit time and acting as a force multiplier. CRS estimated it takes 42 additional warships to keep eight additional ones on station in the Mediterranean if home ported in CONUS.3 If homeported in the Mediterranean, only 14 warships would be required. This could reduce the need for a 355-ship force, or allow those 28 warships to be tasked to other missions.

The second part of the fleet would be a maneuver force consisting of a multiple carrier strike groups and larger amphibious vessels that would relieve and replace the deterrence force and provide sustained combat power. By keeping the multi-carrier maneuver force together and away from the immediate area of crisis, it could conduct more high-end training and not be at risk in the initial stage of conflict. This would also mesh with the enduring Mahanian desire to keep a large portion of the fleet concentrated and surge capable. This contrasts with the current deployment methodology where ships frequently shift COCOM and tasking, and carriers don’t consistently operate together as they may have to in wartime to provide 24/7 effects and protection.

All of these ideas, deterrence/maneuver force, theater-specific ships, or greatly increasing overseas homeporting, breaks the mold of U.S. deployments and acquisition. However, they fail to increase the battle force ship count. They simply hold the dream of making the existing ships more efficient, available, or capable for specific missions.

Change in Battle Force Ship Definition

Another idea would be to change SECNAVINST 5030.8C, specifically enclosures (1) and (2) to assign more vessels from the category of Auxiliary to Combatant. The combatant category, which counts toward the 355-ship goal, already includes afloat forward staging bases, cargo and ammunition vessels, expeditionary sea bases, fast transports, fleet tugs, surveillance ships, and towing and salvage vessels. Adding in oceanographic research vessels and survey ships (both similar to surveillance ships), transport oilers and aviation logistics support (both similar to combat logistics ships) and high speed transports (very similar to expeditionary fast transports) could immediately add vessels to the battle force ship count with the stroke of a pen.

Doing this, while breaking the mold in the definition of a battle force ship, seems to be going against the spirit and intent of Congressional policy and U.S. Navy desire to increase force strength. While it could be argued some of the ships listed as auxiliaries provide very similar support to ships listed as “Fleet Support” or “Expeditionary Support,” reclassifying is simply smoke and mirrors while not increasing capability. Even if weapon systems were added to these platforms to make them more plausible as “battle force ships” the increase in Navy power and capability would be far less than battle force ships as listed under current definitions.

CDR Patton is deputy chairman for the U.S. Naval War College’s Strategic and Operational Research (SORD) Department. SORD produces innovative strategic research and analysis for the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, and the broader national security community.  CDR Patton was commissioned in 1995 from Tufts University NROTC, with degrees in history and political science and has served four tours conducting airborne nuclear command and control missions aboard the US Navy E-6B Mercury aircraft, and two tours as Tactical Action Officer (TAO) and Combat Direction Center Officer (CDCO) aboard the carriers USS KITTY HAWK and USS NIMITZ. 

The opinions and ideas above do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense, U.S. Navy, or the Naval War College. The ideas expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the principal author either. They were drawn from the Breaking the Mold II workshop held at the U.S. Naval War College with invited participants from military, industry, government and academic institutions. The workshop was held under the Chatham House Rule, so these ideas will not be attributed to their originator. Some ideas were specific enough that they are not included here because the idea itself might identify the originator and violate the Chatham House rule.


1. Congressional Budget Office “Costs of Building a 355-Ship Navy”, April 2017 pg.9

2. Ronald O’Rourke, “Options and Considerations for Achieving a 355-Ship Navy” July 25, 2017. Pg. 3

3. Ronald O’Rourke, “Options and Considerations for Achieving a 355-Ship Navy” July 25, 2017. Pg. 11

Featured Image: DARDANELLES STRAIT (Jan. 19, 2019) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) transits the Dardanelles Strait, en route to the Black Sea, Jan. 19, 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ford Williams/Released) 190119-N-JI086-050

Chinese Shipbuilding and Seapower: Full Steam Ahead, Destination Uncharted

By Andrew S. Erickson

In recent years, China has been building ships rapidly across the waterfront. Chinese sources liken this to “dumping dumplings into soup broth.” Now, Beijing is really getting its ships together in both quantity and quality. The world’s largest commercial shipbuilder, it also constructs increasingly sophisticated models of all types of naval ships and weapons systems. What made this possible, and what does it mean?

History and Drivers

China’s shipbuilding industry enjoyed early and inherent advantages that its aircraft industry, for example, notably lacked. Unlike most other sectors, its infrastructure could not be physically relocated far inland as part of Mao’s disastrously inefficient Third Front campaign. When Deng began reforms at the end of the 1970s, he prioritized shipbuilding to support the shipping industry, which helped carry foreign trade, underwriting several decades of rapid growth that has changed China, the United States, and the world significantly.

In 1982, China State Shipbuilding Corporation was formed from the Sixth Ministry of Machine Building. That same year, the Middle Kingdom made its first delivery to the international ship market. Abundant cheap labor and domestic demand buoyed Chinese shipwrights despite a ruthlessly competitive international market.

Shipbuilding’s commercial dual-use nature has long facilitated transfer and absorption of much foreign technology, standards, and design and production techniques. China’s shipbuilding industry has leapfrogged key steps, focusing less on research and more on development, thereby saving time and resources and enjoying the most rapid growth in modern history.

China’s current naval buildout dates to the mid-1990s, catalyzed and accelerated in part by a series of events that impressed its leaders with their inability to counter American military dominance. These include Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-96, and the Belgrade Embassy Bombing in 1999.

Fleet Modernization

Ships are the physical embodiment of naval strategy—the most essential element through which a nation pursues its goals at sea. China has parlayed the world’s second-largest economy and second-largest defense budget into the world’s largest ongoing comprehensive naval buildup, which has already yielded the world’s largest navy by number of ships. It is making big waves, ever-farther from its shores.

After shrinking to replace many obsolescent vessels with fewer but more modern vessels in the 1990s and 2000s, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is now improving in both numbers and sophistication. As China’s maritime strategy has evolved, so have PLAN requirements. In response to this major growth in perceived needs, the PLAN has taken on more warfare areas, with significant improvements across the board. In the 1990s, the PLAN did not have significant strike or air defense capabilities; now it does. To meet high-end, multirole requirements—such as area and point defense in layers—with more missions and greater capabilities, PLAN vessels have grown more sophisticated, and generally expanded. The larger vessels of China’s navy increasingly resemble those of its American counterpart.

Shipbuilding Strengths

Regarding Chinese shipbuilding advantages, it is difficult to obtain specific data. Numbers related to budgeting and process efficiency in China’s relatively opaque defense industry unfortunately remain very difficult to investigate precisely using open sources. The official statistics Beijing releases still do not even include a reliable breakdown for China’s service budgets—such as that of the PLAN—within the overall official PLA budget (itself highly controversial). Because of the lack of precise information available, estimating Chinese ship production expenses logically involves making assumptions about relative costs in comparison to those known for other countries—not an exact science.

Still, the larger dynamics are clear. China has the world’s largest shipbuilding infrastructure, and its development enjoys top-level leadership support, starting with Xi Jinping himself. Commercial production is price-capped in part by China’s relatively stable business and vendor base. It helps subsidize military production, an option closed to the United States given its paucity of commercial shipbuilding. Chinese shipbuilding is greatly facilitated by an unparalleled organizational structure for collecting and disseminating technology, and integrating it into development and production processes at an industrial scale. Moving forward, an important variable is the extent to which China can use its familiar approach of moving up the value chain and parlaying exceptional cost-competitiveness into exceptional quantity at sufficient quality.

China’s effort to exploit civil-military synergies offers both opportunities and challenges. This was vigorously debated by the contributors to the Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI)’s Naval Institute Press volume on Chinese Naval Shipbuilding. “Not a good mix operationally—colocation and coproduction are challenging if not counterproductive” was one of the more pointed critiques. Potential civil-military incompatibilities cited include culture, security, standards, design, engineering, propulsion, construction, and timescales.

Nevertheless, dual-use construction is undeniably emphasized in many authoritative Chinese industry policies and publications, and also in the form of a central commission for integrated military and civilian development headed by none other than Xi himself. There is certainly some intermingling in practice, with the greatest manifestation visible in shipyard infrastructure. High-tech, high-value-added, and high reliability commercial shipbuilding—for example, of liquid natural gas (LNG) and liquid propane gas (LPG) tankers, very large crude carriers (VLCCs), high-capacity container ships carrying more than 10,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU), and even cruise ships—can be directly relevant to warship production in a way that building simple ships like bulk carriers is not.

Beijing’s prioritized military sector generally enjoys better funding, infrastructure, and human capital in the form of advanced personnel—such as engineers with long-term experience, as opposed to rapid turnover. The proof is in the pudding: the PLAN is “not receiving junk” from China’s shipbuilding industry but rather increasingly sophisticated, capable vessels. Its growing satisfaction with them is indicated in part by longer production runs of fewer classes.

A more specific question remains: what limitations on high-end capabilities plague Chinese-produced warships? For now, China faces substantial difficulties in fielding the largest, most sophisticated surface combatants and submarines, as well as remaining weaknesses in propulsion and electronics. These all involve complex systems-of-systems in which China’s preferred second-mover piecemeal integration of foreign and domestic technologies cannot offer a “good enough” result. China’s aircraft carrier program offers a prime example.

Deck Aviation Challenges

With regard to aircraft carrier development, China has come a long way but has still has further to go. The appeal is clear: these apex predators of the sea are also the most modularized naval system, one of the few ships that are relatively easy to upgrade over a considerable lifespan. But given difficulties inherent in improving marine and aviation propulsion, power, and launch technologies, an evolutionary “crawl, walk, run” trajectory seems likely for China’s aircraft carrier program.

This remains very much a work in progress: the PLAN is still “crawling” and not even “walking” yet. China has already shown that it can build decent carrier hulls. But deck aviation platforms are primarily a conveyance for aircraft-delivered payloads. And there is “no such thing as a free launch.” Payload delivery is essential to a fleet’s performance; so too is having infrastructure sufficient to support and sustain it. China’s first carrier, Liaoning, is designed for air defense, not strike. It offers a very modest extension of air defense: getting a Flanker-type aircraft like the J-15 beyond its unrefueled range from a land-based airfield.

The PLAN faces formidable challenges in such areas as electronics, maritime monitoring, and command; control; communications; computers; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR). All are often underappreciated due to their subtlety and ubiquity of employment, but are nonetheless essential for robust deck aviation operations. They may be less amenable to China’s preferred approach of copying and emulation than are simpler structural systems. Chinese personnel are improving markedly in their training, but need to become still more proficient in the hard-to-steal “tribal knowledge” of coordinating operations and using equipment, including shipboard electronics.

China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning is under restoration in a shipyard in Dalian. (AP Photo)

With far greater launching power than Liaoning’s ski jump, catapults will enable larger aircraft and payloads, delivering the PLAN to deck aviation’s “walking” stage. Deploying heavier airborne early warning aircraft will improve situational awareness. “Running,” as China perceives it, would require a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with an electromagnetic launch system—the latter of which the United States is still struggling to perfect.

Carrier Group Assembly

China is gradually strengthening its ability to project significant power into distant waters by increasingly fielding the components of an aircraft carrier group. Sustaining a carrier group at sea requires replenishment vessels. Protecting a carrier group requires surface combatants with robust air defenses and offensive missiles as well as nuclear-powered submarines with potent anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs).

To improve at-sea replenishment, China is currently building the Type 901 integrated supply ship, which can furnish fuel, food, and some spare parts. It remains limited in ability to transfer ordnance, its biggest difference from the U.S. Supply class. It is already more than adequate for furnishing air-to-air missiles for Liaoning. It could be refitted with more dry transfer stations to increase ordnance transfer capability—a useful indicator to watch for, which would suggest intent to emulate the United States in long-distance power projection.

As for protection and coordination, the Type 055 cruiser, if it has the command and control facilities described in open sources, will be the centerpiece of future Chinese carrier groups—able to organize other ships somewhat like a U.S. Aegis cruiser does. With 112 vertical launch cells (VLS), this large multi-mission vessel has more than double the missile capacity of any previous PLAN surface combatant. Its VLS loadouts of HHQ-9 surface-to-air missiles suggest great capacity for area air defense, its loadouts of YJ-18 ASCMs offer a significant anti-surface warfare capability, its loadouts of CJ-10 land-attack cruise missiles suggest a nascent potential for projecting power ashore, and its Yu-8 rocket-assisted torpedoes offer an antisubmarine warfare (ASW) capability.

China launches two Type 055 guided-missile surface warships at a shipyard in Dalian, Liaoning province. (Liu Debin for China Daily)

Most navies with aircraft carriers do not protect them with robust submarines, but if China is to approach the American gold standard that it so clearly admires, and to which it apparently aspires, it will have to improve its nuclear-powered submarines, which are needed to allow for a full range of long-distance undersea operations. Even with a towed sonar array, China’s 093A nuclear-powered attack submarine remains at a significant disadvantage in being able to detect, and if necessary, attack enemy submarines while remaining undetected itself. It is still primarily an anti-surface ship platform with torpedo-tube-fireable YJ-18 ASCMs and a relatively noisy reactor, particularly in the secondary loop. Major work remains for China to project distant undersea power.

Near Seas Operational Scenarios

Closer to China’s shores, there is limited value for Chinese carrier operations, given their relative vulnerability and the potential for a highly-contested environment. But China’s shipbuilding industry has already produced a fleet of several hundred increasingly advanced warships capable of “flooding the zone” along the contested East Asian littoral, including increasingly large amphibious vessels well-suited to landing on disputed features, if they can be protected sufficiently. This is also where China’s large, conventionally-powered submarine fleet can be particularly deadly. When several hundred easy-and-cheap-to-build ships from China’s coast guard and its most advanced maritime militia units are factored in, Beijing’s numerical preponderance becomes formidable for the “home game” scenarios it cares about most. And that does not even include the land-based “anti-navy” of aircraft and missiles that backstops them. In this way, Beijing is already able to pose a formidable military-maritime challenge to the regional interests and security of the United States and its East Asian allies and partners.

Trends and Implications

China’s naval buildup is only part of an extraordinary maritime transformationmodern history’s sole example of a land power becoming a hybrid land-sea power and sustaining such an exceptional status. Underwriting this transition are a vast network of ports, shipping lines and financial systems, and—of course—increasingly advanced ships. All told, this raises the rare prospect of a top-tier non-Western sea power in peacetime, one of the few instances to occur since the Ming Dynasty developed cutting-edge nautical technologies and briefly projected unrivaled maritime power across the Indian Ocean. Now, for the first time in six centuries, commercial sea power development has flowed away from the Euro-Atlantic shipyards of the West, back toward an Asian land power that is going seaward to stay. Military sea power may be poised to follow.

Beijing is pursuing a requirements-based approach:

The PLAN’s transition from a “Near Seas” to a “Near and Far Seas” navy is dispersing its fleet over greater distances, making it more difficult to protect and support, as well as requiring enhanced logistics and facilities access.

Some of the most important and challenging requirements include:

  • long endurance propulsion—especially nuclear power, the ultimate “gold standard
  • area air defenses for surface combatants and emerging carrier groups
  • land-attack and strike warfare, including from deck aviation assets
  • ASW
  • acoustic quieting for submarines, to help them both survive being targeted in deeper blue-water environments, and search more effectively without limitation by self-generated noise
  • and, finally, broad-coverage C4ISR

China has started to pursue all these objectives, but it will take years before it fully accomplishes them.

 Already, however, Chinese ship-design and shipbuilding advances are increasing the PLAN’s ability to contest sea control in a widening arc of the Western Pacific. China is producing two to three surface combatants for every one the United States produces. If current trends continue, China will be able to deploy a combat fleet that in overall order of battle (meaning, hardware-specific terms) is quantitatively larger and qualitatively on par with that of the U.S. Navy by 2030.

Whether China can stay on this trajectory, given looming maintenance costs and downside risks to its economy as it faces an S-curved growth slowdown, is another question. It is a question that is linked to many other uncertainties about China’s future. China under Xi is becoming increasingly statist and militarized, thereby suggesting that naval shipbuilding will not suffer for lack of resources even as debt continues to spiral upward in state-owned enterprises. China’s very capable shipbuilding industry is closing remaining gaps with its Japanese and Korean rivals, even as Korean shipbuilders suffer unprofitability and rapidly-declining order books. However, China faces continued challenges in overcapacity and an aging workforce.

Moreover, a major mid-life maintenance bill for the overhauls of all new PLAN vessels will start coming due in the next 5-10 years. This will demand considerable resources—in money and shipyard space, with production and maintenance in potential competition. By then, China’s aging society may reorient resource allocation by stimulating “guns vs. butter,” and even “guns vs. canes” debates. The true long-term cost of sustaining top-tier sea power tends to eventually outpace economic growth by a substantial margin. For all its rapid rise at sea thus far, China is unlikely to avoid such challenging currents.

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Professor of Strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute and the recipient of the inaugural Civilian Faculty Research Excellence Award at the Naval War College. He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board and is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. In 2013, while deployed in the Pacific as a Regional Security Education Program scholar aboard USS Nimitz, he delivered twenty-five hours of presentations. Erickson is the author of Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development (Jamestown Foundation/Brookings Institution Press, 2013). He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Erickson blogs at www.andrewerickson.com. The views expressed here are his alone and do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.

This article elaborates on a podcast in which CSIS scholar Bonnie Glaser interviewed Dr. Erickson as part of the ChinaPower Project that she directs there.

Featured Image: China’s first domestically made aircraft carrier, the Shandong, pictured during construction in Dalian in December 2016. (Kyodo)