As the US heads towards a fleet of 355 ships, its major power contender, the People’s Liberation Army Navy, is keeping up with the US and, in some cases, challenging America’s long held industrial supremacy with an unprecedented program of naval modernisation and expansion.
The unique geographic realities of Indo-Pacific Asia ranges from vast swathes of deep, open ocean to Australia's west, to relatively shallow, congested and narrow archipelagic bound choke points, including the Straits of Malacca, Lombok Strait and into the South China Sea (SCS).
These serve as unique tactical and strategic challenges for all regional nations, including Australia – China has recognised the unique geographic and strategic realities facing it and has responded with an unprecedented period of naval modernisation and expansion.
Further complicating the calculus is the advent of advanced and integrated anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems, introduced largely by the Chinese on reclaimed islands in international waters in the SCS.
While sea control has traditionally been the domain of ocean going, 'blue water' navies, the strategic realities combined with the modernisation programs expanding regional naval capabilities requires a hybrid approach, combining traditional 'blue water' and 'green water' capabilities and doctrines.
China’s pursuit of a credible blue water naval capability is taking a step closer to reality with recent civilian imagery revealing the results of the rising power's unprecedented period of naval modernisation and expansion.
Forming key components of this future force is a range of major surface and subsurface combatants, with a growing force including various aircraft carrier, large deck amphibious warfare ships, guided missile cruisers, destroyers and frigates and auxiliary replenishment designs as the core of the 'blue water force' and 'green water' forces of advanced guided missile frigates and corvettes.
The startling imagery of what appears to be the Shanghai-based Jiangnan Shipyard, one of many similar shipyards around China reveals not only the industrial capability of the rising global power, but also its commitment to dominating the Indo-Pacific maritime domain, despite claims of a "peaceful rise".
Unparalleled industrial capability revealed
Taking a closer look at the imagery sourced by Twitter blogger @Loongnaval reveals the scale and capacity of China's naval shipbuilding capability with an array of advanced major surface combatants at the shipyard.
Lined up dockside, we can see a line of four newly constructed guided missile destroyers either undergoing minor fitting out and finalising prior to deployment – three of the vessels are Type 052D air defence destroyers similar to the US Navy's Arleigh Burke Class and Australia's Hobart Class Aegis-powered guided missile destroyers.
The 7,500-tonne vessels are capable of a top speed of 31 knots and are armed with a Chinese-developed combat system similar to the American Aegis combat system for potent area-air defence and anti-submarine warfare sonar systems enabling battle-group protection.
The Type 052D vessels are are armed with the same 130mm dual purpose naval gun as the Type 055 Class.
The vessels' armament also includes a 64 cell VLS system for anti-submarine, anti-air, anti-ship and land attack cruise missiles, and also includes a 24 cell HQ-10 short-range surface-to-air missile launcher, a H/PJ-12 close-in weapon system, torpedoes and a single anti-submarine warfare helicopter.
An additional three Type 052D destroyers are visible pier side, in a basin toward the top of the image – bringing the total number of Type 052D destroyers to six at this shipyard
Additionally, the imagery reveals two completed Type 055 guided missile destroyers, with a third vessel under construction on a slip way.
The Type 055 Class represents the pinnacle of Chinese destroyer design. The six vessel destroyer class fills a role similar to the US Navy's Ticonderoga Class guided missile cruisers.
Weighing in at 12-13,000 tonnes fully loaded, with a top speed of 30 knots, these potent vessels are also equipped with a Chinese-developed combat system similar to the American Aegis combat system, enabling potent area-air defence and battle-group protection.
The Type 055 are armed with a dual purpose 130mm main gun, a H/PJ-14 close in weapon system, a 24 cell HQ-10 short-range surface-to-air missile launcher and a 112 cell VLS system for surface-to-air, anti-ship and land attack cruise missiles, supplemented by missile launched anti-submarine torpedoes and two anti-submarine warfare helicopters.
This brings the total number of large destroyers in the image to nine. By comparison, the British Royal Navy's entire destroyer fleet is six Type 45 Daring Class vessels and Australia has three Hobart Class destroyers, with eight Anzac Class frigates.
Type 002 and the shift towards true power projection carriers
Concerningly, to the top right of the image we can see further progress on China's third aircraft carrier, expected to build on the capabilities delivered by the in-service Type 001 Liaoning (CV-16) and Type 001A, yet to be named aircraft carrier.
Liaoning (CV-16), the first Chinese carrier (Type 001), was commissioned in 2012 and provides a potent, 58,600-tonne, 304.5-metre platform capable of supporting an airwing of 40 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, including the Shenyang J-15, a Chinese variant of the Russian designed Su-33 Flanker D and a limited fleet of domestic anti-submarine warfare, maritime patrol, airborne command and control support helicopters.
In contrast, CV-17, the second Chinese carrier commissioned earlier this year and an enlarged variant of the Liaoning, is a 70,000-tonne, 315-metre vessel with a similar airwing capacity of 40 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft.
Both vessels use short take-off, but arrested recovery (STOBAR) ski-ramp configurations, which limit the offensive and defensive capabilities of the platform.
Recognising the limitation of these platforms, China has plans to field an expanded carrier force incorporating a fleet of large, conventionally powered catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) aircraft carriers – to be designated the Type 002.
The vessels are expected to be complemented by a large fleet of up to four nuclear-powered supercarriers expected to be similar in size and capability to the US Nimitiz and Ford Class carriers.
China's Type 002 are expected to be capable of supporting an airwing of between 70 and 100 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft that would serve as the mainstay of the Chinese naval force, focused on Chinese power projection and resource security.
The Type 002 carrier, expected to be commissioned in 2023, will be a traditional, CATOBAR-based vessel, weighing in at 80-85,000 tonnes.
Incorporating the next-generation launch system will enable the carriers to launch and recover a range of advanced aircraft – including advanced, fixed-wing airborne early warning and control aircraft and an increased carrier air wing and an advanced ship-borne active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar system to integrate within the supporting carrier strike group.
The next evolution of China's carrier force provides a launching point for the nuclear-powered Type 003 aircraft carrier, currently understood to be in the design phase.
The Type 003 will serve as the basis of China's power projection focused aircraft carrier force and is expected to be constructed at the Jiangnan Shipyard, which is currently undergoing a series of modernisation and expansion programs to accommodate an increase in the Chinese carrier fleet.
America's industrial might challenged
While discussion about the size of the US Navy has been a contentious issue for some time – recent efforts to get the force to 355 ships has seen growing support, particularly as China continues to exert its own influence and presence throughout the Indo-Pacific.
Despite concerns about a small number of increasingly expensive platforms – think the troubled Zumwalt and Ford classes, respectively – Admiral Michael Gilday remains optimistic about the US Navy's capacity to adapt and win the fight.
"Our fleet is too small, and our capabilities are stacked on too few ships that are too big. And that needs to change over time. [But] we have made significant investments in aircraft carriers and we’re going to have those for a long time," ADM Gilday stated.
"Look, people don’t give us enough credit for the gray matter between our ears, and there are some very smart people we have thinking about how we fight better. The fleet that we have today, 75 per cent of it, will be the fleet we have in 2030. So, we have to think about how we get more out of it."
This push is something that the acting US Secretary of the Navy, Thomas Modly, has reinforced the President's push for a 355 ship force, stating: "It was also the President’s goal during the election. We have a goal of 355, we don’t have a plan for 355. We need to have a plan, and if it’s not 355, what’s it going to be and what’s it going to look like?"
Building on this, acting Secretary Modly raised the important question around next-generation weapons systems including hypersonics, unmanned and autonomous systems and new operational concepts to support the objectives of the US Navy.
"How many more hypersonics are we going to need? Where are we going to put them? These are long-term investments that we will have to make, but we have to get our story straight first. So, I’m going to focus a lot on that this year," he said.
As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea-lines-of-communication in the 21st century.
Further compounding Australia's precarious position is an acceptance that 'Pax Americana', or the post-Second World War 'American Peace', is over and Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate.
Increasingly, multi-domain air power plays an important role in the efficacy of naval forces and serves as a key component in both the force structure and capability development plans for both South Korea and Australia.
These similarities support not only closer relationships between the two nations that share unique geo-political and strategic similarities, but also provide the opportunity to develop robust force structures to respond to the rapidly evolving regional strategic environment.
Recognising this changing regional environment – what carrier options are available to Australia should the nation's leaders elect to pursue a return to fixed-wing naval aviation for the Royal Australian Navy?
Traditionally, Australia has focused on a platform-for-platform acquisition program – focused on replacing, modernising or upgrading key capabilities on a like-for-like basis without a guiding policy, doctrine or strategy, limiting the overall effectiveness, survivability and capability of the RAN.