China now owns the distinction with 355 vessels in its fleet, as reported in a 2021 U.S. Naval Institute report. In comparison, the U.S. Navy operates a smaller fleet of 296 ships, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But what's raising concerns within the U.S. Navy is China's rapidly expanding shipbuilding capacity.
According to leaked U.S. Navy intelligence, China's shipyards have a staggering capacity of over 23.2 million tons, which is more than 232 times greater than the U.S. capacity of less than 100,000 tons. This significant numerical advantage in shipbuilding poses a considerable challenge to the U.S. Navy.
In its 2022 annual report on China's military development projects, the Pentagon said China's naval fleet will continue to grow, reaching 400 ships by 2025 and 440 ships by 2030. However, despite China's numerical lead, the U.S. Navy remains widely recognized as the world's most powerful.
Even if the U.S. were to stop building ships, former U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper asserted in 2020 that it would take years for China to match the U.S. Navy's capabilities. This is attributed to the U.S. Navy's expertise and technological sophistication.
Still, some of the ships China is churning out have greater firepower than some of its U.S. counterparts.
China's Type 055, the world's premier destroyer, is one prime example. It is bigger than typical destroyers and packs a formidable punch. It has 112 vertical launch system (VLS) cells that fire surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles, which is more than the 96 on the newest of the U.S. Navy's Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. It also boasts sophisticated radio and anti-submarine weapons systems.
To address the challenge posed by China's rapid shipbuilding, experts have suggested a potential solution: tapping into the shipbuilding capabilities of U.S. allies in the region, specifically South Korea and Japan. Both countries have demonstrated their ability to construct high-quality naval vessels at competitive prices.
"Their warships are "certainly a match for their (Chinese) counterparts," said Blake Herzinger, a research fellow at the U.S. Studies Center in Australia. Japan's warship designers "are among the world's best," according to Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the U.S. Pacific Command's Joint Intelligence Center in Hawaii.
However, U.S. law currently prohibits the Navy from procuring foreign-built ships, even from allied nations, or constructing its ships in foreign shipyards. This restriction serves to protect national security interests and the domestic shipbuilding industry.
While experts acknowledge the need to balance these concerns, they argue that it may be time to reconsider these regulations to bolster the U.S. Navy's capabilities more quickly.
Japan's Maya-class destroyers and South Korea's Sejong the Great-class destroyers are highlighted as examples of vessels that could enhance the U.S. Navy's strength. These ships possess advanced technology, impressive firepower and competitive pricing.
The potential benefits of partnering with South Korea and Japan in shipbuilding, include closing the gap with China's growing naval power more rapidly. Japan's efficient shipbuilding processes, cost control and strict adherence to budget estimates are seen as factors contributing to its competitiveness.
Still, any changes to the existing laws would require careful consideration to safeguard national security while harnessing the advantages of accessing high-quality, cost-effective ships from trusted allies. This proposed approach presents an opportunity for a mutually beneficial arrangement amid evolving challenges in the maritime domain.
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