With the US fiscal year starting in the autumn, there is already plenty of jockeying for a stake in the military budget. The army, navy, air force and marines all want the overall budget to increase and will probably get their way in an election year. But the sheer unpredictability of Donald Trump, coupled with his frequently stated aim to “bring our boys back” from the Middle East, has unnerved military chiefs, who are waving the China card to justify expansion.
The US navy’s current ambitions are to grow its entire fleet from 290 ships to 355 by 2034. Larger than in recent years but still far below the Cold War era when the aim, never realized, was for a 600-ship navy. Even 355 ships is pushing it given the state of its current fleet. This has been demonstrated painfully by two serious accidents in the Pacific in the past year involving destroyers colliding with commercial shipping.
The reports paint an embarrassing picture of badly trained sailors and under-strength crews, and sources within the Navy are quick to admit that these examples have been the tip of the iceberg. Occasionally one of the senior figures goes public, which gives an indication of the depth of concern.
Just this week, as the acting navy secretary, Thomas Modly, was re-iterating the call for 355 ships, the chief of naval operations, Admiral Michael Gilday told a Surface Navy Association symposium that he would, instead, trade a cut in the rate of production of new ships for improvements in readiness. As he put it:
“I’m focused on closing capability gaps, closing readiness gaps and increasing lethality… and so for me the focus is on sustaining the Navy that we have, [which] comes at a high price. Some of that price is, perhaps, a reduction in growth. Not to say that growth stops, but growth perhaps slows.”
Even so, the priority is still likely to be more ships, the main reason being China’s own expansion.
Over the past two decades the main focus of China’s military has been to increase its capability, even at the expense of numbers, with the aim of securing political and economic interests in Southeast Asia and the West Pacific. There have been deployments in the Indian Ocean right through to the Arabian sea, and Chinese warships have cooperated with Western states in anti-piracy operations close to Yemen and Somalia, but there is little evidence of an ambition for a global navy.
For the Chinese, their own region is crucial and since the Russian Pacific Fleet is little more than a shadow of its former Soviet self, it is focusing on the United States, especially the US navy with its aircraft carrier battle groups. In turn, the United States is insistent on remaining a global power and it is here that the crunch is coming. Russia is not a serious threat in European waters and the Atlantic, so China is the opponent of concern.
Meanwhile, with China now fielding what it considers to be a more efficient military, the question is whether expansion will follow. There are indications that this is already happening, primarily with the navy.
China didn’t have a carrier until 2012 when the Liaoning was first deployed, but this was a heavily modified Soviet-era ship bought cheaply from Ukraine. The change came with the first indigenous carrier, the Shandong, which entered service in December. Another is under construction and yet another may be started in 2021, leading eventually to a fleet of up to six carriers.
That will still be far fewer than the US navy, with the Chinese carriers a lot smaller and far less powerful. The same goes for its amphibious warfare ships. Nevertheless, both are highly significant for the region.
Perhaps the most interesting and closely watched part of the Chinese navy is the new Type-055 destroyer, the first of which, the Nanchang, joined the navy in January. In naval terms, destroyer is a misnomer. At 12,000 tonnes, it is substantially heavier than the US Ticonderoga-class cruiser, has a much wider range of missiles with larger magazines and carries two helicopters, making it a cruiser in everything but name. That, at least, is how the US Navy will see it.
As the first of its type the Nanchang will spend many months, and maybe more than a year, in training before being declared operational. Already, though, China has such confidence in its abilities that a substantial assembly line has been established with another five of the class already launched.
Overall, China is rapidly developing a naval force that will, in its view, match that of the US navy in its region. But since the United States sees itself as a global power this will simply not be acceptable to the Pentagon. We could therefore be at the start of a new arms race due to what in international relations circles is known as the security dilemma. This is the circumstance where one state builds the forces needed to feel secure, but that makes a competitor feel insecure and therefore follow suit.
One way out of this is a negotiated regional arms control regime in which each “side” agrees to slow things down, thereby avoiding unnecessary spending and the increased risk of confrontation. The problem, as ever, is the power of the military industrial complexes in both the United States and China and with politicians all too ready to oblige it.
The next few months and the outcome of horse trading in Washington will determine which way the United States will go. But if the US navy gets its way and gets a budget to build a lot more ships, even as it tries to make itself more efficient, then China will not stand by and will respond in kind. It is at this stage that arms control can work but whether it will, given the current White House occupant, is very much open to question.