Sunday, October 24, 2010

Understanding Asia-Pacific Sea Power

Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) boasts the world's largest fleet. For example, in August, The Economist published a story titled ‘Naval Gazing’, noting that the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies said China now has more warships than the United States. And sure enough, accompanying the story was a graphic showing that the PLAN has. For example, he noted that the US Navy ‘operates 11 large carriers…In terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship.’ It ‘has 57 nuclear-powered attack and cruise missile submarine—again, more than the rest of the world combined.’ And ‘the displacement of the US battle fleet—a proxy for overall fleet capabilities—exceeds, by one recent estimate, at least the next 13 navies combined.’PLAN boasts 1,045 vessels of all types—more than double the number available to the United States. According to the Naval Vessel Register, the US Navy is currently comprised of 287 ships, of which 257 are in full commission and ready for service. Add in the 163 civilian-crewed non-combatant vessels of the Military Sealift Command (51 of which are laid up in reduced operating status) and the grand total is 450 ships at US policymakers' disposal.

None of this is lost on Beijing. In fact, Chinese commanders count on employing packs of small, nimble, hard-hitting fast attack boats to contest an adversary's attempts to impose sea control along the mainland seaboard. Stealthy Type 022 Houbei catamarans displacing about 220 tons are designed specifically to use hit-and-run tactics against larger warships. Armed with long-range anti-ship cruise missiles, they punch well above their weight. As long as the PLAN contents itself with fighting within range of shore-based aircraft, small surface and subsurface combatants and antiship missiles, that weaponry must be factored into the fleet's overall strength.  Nor do all the aircraft carriers and missile-toting destroyers in the world mean much if the US Pacific Fleet dare not venture within range of Chinese anti-ship ballistic missilesand so can’t bring its offensive firepower to bear.

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