Secretary of Defence Mark Esper said on 16 September that while China had more ships, it would be a while before it could match the power of the United States Navy. “I want to make clear that China cannot match the United States when it comes to naval power.,” Esper explained at a RAND Corporation event. “Even if we stopped building new ships, it would take them years to close the gap when it comes to our capability on the high seas.,” the secretary who is also the Pentagon head said. “Ship numbers are important, but they don’t tell the whole story.”
“They do not address the types of ships and the capabilities of the vessels being counted; the skill of the crews that operate them; the prowess of the officers that lead them; or the ways in which we fight and sustain them,” the Pentagon chief said.
Esper said that the US military must take steps to maintain the clear edge. That would mean expanding the size of the US Navy to over 355 ships through the construction of new manned and unmanned naval assets. “We must increase funding for shipbuilding and the readiness that sustains a larger force,” he said.
“The future naval force will be more balanced in its ability to deliver lethal effects from the air, from the sea, and from under the sea,” the Pentagon chief said.
“This fleet will need to be made up of more and smaller surface combatants; optionally manned, unmanned, and autonomous surface and subsurface vehicles; unmanned carrier-based aircraft of all types; a larger and more capable submarine force; and a modern strategic deterrent,” Esper explained.
The unmanned component of the Department of Defence’s planned future fleet “will be a major shift in how we will conduct naval warfare in the years and decades to come,” Esper said. He argued that these assets could be tasked to “perform a variety of warfighting functions, from delivering lethal fires and laying mines, to conducting resupply or surveilling the enemy.”
Unmanned assets have the potential to be a less expensive alternative to more manned warships and could be used to compete against a rival power with a more robust shipbuilding capacity, such as China, the Pentagon chief said.
Esper’s comments on China and his stated interest in boosting US shipbuilding capacity follows the recent release of the Pentagon’s annual China Military Power report.
“China has already achieved parity with — or even exceeded — the United States in several military modernization areas,” the Pentagon reported.
“The PRC has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants,” the report said, adding that China is “the top ship-producing nation in the world by tonnage.”
The report explained further that China was striving to increase “its shipbuilding capacity and capability for all naval classes.” The China Power Project at the US Center for Strategic and International Studies has estimated that China could have 425 battle force ships by 2030.
Experts told Insider that “their shipbuilding capacity is a huge advantage for them in a protracted conflict with the United States,” as it “gives them some extra capacity if they need to do a buildup or ramp-up of the navy or rebuild the navy in a conflict where they lose a lot of ships.”
Speaking about the military challenges from China, particularly as it modernises its military, Esper said that “the United States must be ready to deter conflict, and if necessary, fight and win at sea.”