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Yes, the US Navy is ‘still more powerful’ than China, but it is relative

Adjunct professor, Australia-China Relations Institute at UTS, Greg Austin has caused quite the debate highlighting the comparative strength of the US Navy over the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) as a reason against Australia’s pursuit of enhanced naval capability, however, his analysis overlooks one key point: it’s all relative.

Adjunct professor, Australia-China Relations Institute at UTS, Greg Austin has caused quite the debate highlighting the comparative strength of the US Navy over the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) as a reason against Australia’s pursuit of enhanced naval capability, however, his analysis overlooks one key point: it’s all relative.

Whether it was the naval competition between Elizabethan England and Spain or the British Empire and Imperial Germany and even during the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union reinforced the centrality of the world’s seas and oceans in the relationships between history’s great powers and their ambitions on the global stage.

Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has been seen as the world’s pre-eminent naval power, responsible for maintaining the stability and security of the global maritime commons to the benefit of the post-war economic, political, and strategic order.


However, in aftermath of the Cold War, the global centre of geopolitical, economic, and strategic power has shifted away from a world dominated by North America and the European continent towards the ocean-centric Indo-Pacific, a new power has arisen to challenge the post-Second World War order.

Xi Jinping’s ambitions for the ancient Middle Kingdom have leveraged decades of truly astronomical economic growth off the back of the US-established and maintained world order to embark on the largest peacetime modernisation and build-up of military capabilities since the Second World War, fundamentally transforming the People’s Liberation Army into one of the world’s pre-eminent military forces.

For nation’s like Australia that have long depended on the enduring commitment, benevolence, and “overmatch” of the United States Navy in particular to maintain the security and integrity of the global maritime commons, the transformation of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) from a second-rate, “brown water” navy, to become an increasingly capable “blue water”, global navy is presenting some challenges.

The central focus of much of the concern about the rising power of Beijing’s Navy has been the rapid number of ships built and put into service and their increasing capability to seemingly match the best that the US and its allies can field, with the scale to tip the balance of power in the favour of Beijing’s ambitions and interests in the Indo-Pacific.

Highlighting this, the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) report titled, China Naval Modernization: Implications for US Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress states:

China’s navy is, by far, the largest of any country in East Asia, and sometime between 2015 and 2020 it surpassed the US Navy in numbers of battle force ships (meaning the types of ships that count towards the quoted size of the US Navy). The overall battle force [of China’s navy] is expected to grow to 400 ships by 2025 and 440 ships by 2030. The US Navy, by comparison, included 294 battle force ships at the end of FY2021, and the Navy’s FY2024 budget submission projects that the Navy will include 290 battle force ships by the end of FY2030. US military officials and other observers are expressing concern or alarm regarding the pace of China’s naval shipbuilding effort and resulting trend lines regarding the relative sizes and capabilities of China’s navy and the US Navy.”

This has been reinforced by the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, and Defence Minister Richard Marles at the recent Labor Party National Conference in Brisbane where he reinforced the reality that China will field a surface fleet of 200 major warships and a fleet of 21 nuclear submarines alongside an increasing number of conventional submarines that will ultimately represent the single largest naval force in the Indo-Pacific.

However, for adjunct professor, at the UTS-based Australia-China Relations Institute, Greg Austin, Australia’s response to Beijing’s rapid fleet modernisation and expansion, mainly our pursuit of nuclear-powered submarines under the AU$368 billion AUKUS trilateral agreement is largely unwarranted based on one factor: the US Navy is still significantly more powerful than it’s Chinese rival.

Allied weight surpasses Beijing, but...

At the core of Austin’s thesis, he cites that the US Navy, when measured alongside it’s allied navies, namely its regional partners including Japan, South Korea, and Australia, has a collective weight (capability, not physical mass) greater than that of Beijing’s own fleet.

Austin states, The truth is the US navy, alongside its allied navies, especially Japan, remains much more powerful compared with China’s navy – and that’s likely to continue.”

As previously mentioned, while much of the emphasis on the rise of Beijing’s naval capability has been on the number of warships it now has in service, that, Austin posits is an “old way” of comparing navies in the modern context where type of ship and its respective capability is far more important than sheer numbers of the overall fleet.

To this point, Austin explains, China is frequently described as the world’s largest navy. But the US has more of the most important types of major warships, which are suitable for maritime warfare. The count only shifts in China’s favour for lighter and less heavily armed ships, such as frigates and coastal patrol vessels. China’s advantage in lighter classes of warships could be particularly important in a conflict contained largely within the Taiwan Strait and other coastal areas near China.”

Going further, Austin highlights, In a war between the US and China, we could expect the US would be prepared to undertake crippling cruise missile strikes on naval bases and other targets inside China. Even on short warning, the US navy could, for example, launch more than 1,000 cruise missiles against the Chinese mainland in an initial engagement over several days if it chose to do so. According to the US Congressional Research Service, the US navy has 9,000 missile vertical launch tubes to deliver long-range cruise missiles, compared with China’s 1,000.”

One key point missed or overlooked by Austin is the reality that these figures are measured on current projections for fleet numbers and despite this statement, On the other hand, even though the US doesn’t normally deploy all its naval force to the Western Pacific, it could deliver overwhelming naval power in the region in most circumstances if war was imminent”, fails to account for the global responsibilities of the United States and the US Navy, in particular, and that means only a fraction of those 9,000 vertical missile launch tubes will be stationed in the Pacific.

In comparison, the vast majority of Beijing’s strike capability will be available to confront the US and its regional partners, this is further enhanced by China’s staggering advantage in advanced anti-ship cruise and ballistic missile technology which can be fired or launched from a host of land-based and air-based platforms as part of their broader and increasingly advanced and capable Anti-Access, Area-Denial (A2AD) kill chain.

Equally critical, Austin forgets two of the universal truths of war, first, your enemy gets a say in any engagement, and second, that no strategy, not even the best-laid and prepared plans survives first contact with an adversary.

Failing to account for attrition and broader ambition

Another major oversight of Austin’s analysis is his failure to account for attrition of key platforms on both sides, but more specifically those of the US, Japan, South Korea, and Australia in any potential engagement, when there is already a limited number of strategic force multipliers available to the allies, namely aircraft carriers, large-deck amphibious warfare ships, destroyers, and attack submarines.

While the same reality certainly holds true for the People’s Liberation Army-Navy, the proximity of Beijing’s centres of naval shipbuilding to any potential conflict zone presents major advantages and disadvantages for China, namely it can repair, refit, and rearm warships and return them to a combat zone far quicker than the US and its allies (geography has pros and cons), on the disadvantages side, it also means much of China’s industrial base is in close proximity to comparatively short-range strike weapons.

The distance of US and Australian naval shipbuilding, maintenance, and repair infrastructure (assuming Japan and South Korea’s infrastructure is taken out in a decapitating strike) from the conflict zone, equally reduces the number of allied warships that can stay engaged at any given time when accounting for attrition and losses.

This only becomes more relevant when you consider the necessity for combat operations on a broader geographic scale, namely if India remains neutral (particularly likely in any conflict over Taiwan) essentially relinquishing control of the Indian Ocean to the Chinese Navy and given Australia’s limited naval capabilities will again draw critical firepower away from the central fight.

Further compounding this is any requirement to respond to Russian or Iranian participation in the Atlantic and/or Persian Gulf, again drawing critical warfighting resources from the central fight in the Western Pacific.

Ultimately, this leaves one with an uncomfortable recognition, we’re going to need more and bigger boats.

If the US declines, prepare for massively expanded defence spending

Whether Australia’s political and strategic leaders want to admit it or not, the post-war era of economic prosperity and political and strategic stability is dependent upon a transactional relationship between the United States and smaller powers, whether they be traditional “great powers” like the United Kingdom, or middle powers like Australia, with this new era spelling trouble for the future.

This is perhaps best explained by US geostrategic analyst and author Peter Zeihan, who explains, “Most people think of the Bretton Woods system as a sort of Pax Americana. The American Century, if you will. But that’s simply not the case. The entire concept of the order is that the United States disadvantages itself economically in order to purchase the loyalty of a global alliance. That is what globalisation is. The past several decades haven’t been an American Century. They’ve been an American sacrifice.”

This is particularly troubling for the US-led world, as an increasing number of countries begin to shift away from the dollar-backed trading system, driven by growing uptake by the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) economic, quasi-security bloc that continues to expand its influence across the Middle East, Africa, South America and to a lesser extent, Southeast Asia, effectively undermining the economic balance of power much of the world has become dependent upon.

The true impact of this fragility is highlighted by former defence minister Kim Beazley, who states, “Moving away from the US as uncertainties mount in our region accrue would be extraordinarily risky. If other powers in the region decide that access to our resources or land would solve their problems, we wouldn’t have the means to handle it. If a gutted US does emerge, prepare for a defence outlay massively north of 2 per cent of GDP.”

While Zeihan and Beazley both paint a particularly grim picture of the US strategic umbrella, particularly for the US as the leading strategic benefactor for the global order, Australia can learn from the weakness of the US-designed system, while leveraging its strengths, providing the United States with a period of respite to regather its strength and resilience.

Such a shift in Australian doctrine requires a dramatic shift in thinking, relationship-building, and most importantly, policymaking across domestic, industrial development and competitiveness, defence, and foreign affairs beyond what was outlined in the DSR — with massive potential benefits for Australia’s economic prosperity, national security, and resilience in the face of mounting geopolitical competition.

Final thoughts

The growing realisation that both the United States and allies like Australia will need to get the balance of its military and national capabilities just right, not just to support the US as part of a larger joint task force, but to ensure that the Australian Defence Force can continue to operate independently and complete its core mission reliably and responsively.

Critically, while there has been a recognition that Navy, like the broader ADF, needs to grow in personnel and firepower, however, it can’t be half measures, rather, we need to accept that Navy, in particular, will require a major overhaul and tactical and strategic rethink in its structure and priorities to better deliver impactful projection.

Importantly, if Australia is going to truly respond to the challenges and opportunities presented by the global shift in the balance and centre of economic, political, and strategic power to our immediate region, we, as a nation, need to collectively take responsibility for our own future.

We also need to address the domestic challenges we confront, namely, the social and economic disenfranchisement and disconnection many young Australians face, because if our young people don’t feel invested in our nation, then they definitely won’t step forward to defend the nation and our values.

Preparing the nation to truly face these challenges requires a unifying, inspirational grand strategy which not only articulates our values and principles, but equally identifies a vision at both the macro and micro level, with clearly defined objectives and metrics for delivering provides the nation with the capacity to resist the traditional and hybrid challenges of great power competition in the Indo-Pacific.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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