How Big Is The Chinese Navy?
2 and Growing
The People's Republic of China's Navy, known formally as the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has changed its
historical inward-looking stance and is growing strongly in parallel with China's emergence as a global superpower.
This growth is not necessarily a preparation to being an aggressor, but as a predictable 'gearing up' to defending
its expanding trade routes, raw material imports and exports. It is now an active participator in the Combined
Naval Task Force, deterring piracy off the Somali coastline.
The US Navy is the largest in the world with over three hundred thousand personnel, but China ranks second at about
two thirds that size, like for like. Tonnage-wise, the US fleet is about three million tons across 200 vessels,
whilst that of China scales at about a tenth of that with a much smaller average tonnage per ship. As a percentage
of the world's fighting tonnage, China's measures at about 3%. The Indian Navy is also expanding rapidly with
almost 2% of tonnage.
Can they deliver? This is difficult to measure - it includes quality of crew, equipment quality, training,
operational exercise intensity, command and control structures and systems (and this includes a political element
too), average age (equipment), equipment servicing effectiveness, logistics support efficiency, new technology
development rates, and a host of other factors. "Much room for improvement" is how most observers would mark
Does the PLAN have and edge and where are they weak?
The main points are:
A commitment to growth is arguably the most important, as the senior command is focused on growing fleet and
effectiveness aggressively, with the support of the politicians. Arguably, India is the only other country where
the naval command and politicians are aligned so effectively.
The naval budget also is critical, and China appears to be growing its naval budget rapidly. However, budget isn't
everything, as the country has to grow its naval/industrial complex to deliver. You can buy an automobile plant,
but not advanced naval construction capability off the shelf. This is most apparent in the case of aircraft
carriers, where they are building their construction capability - they bought the uncompleted Varyag carrier from
the Ukraine and have been refurbishing it for years. They now have two conventional and two nuclear powered
carriers in their plans, but it's likely to take at least another fifteen years before they are operational.
Defence electronics is a critical area too, but given China's aerial electronics momentum, then 'technology drag'
is less likely to be an issue.
Using advanced (even unique) munitions, the effectiveness of a navy relative to others can be improved. China has
weapons such as the Dong Feng 21D anti-carrier missile and the EM52 rocket propelled mine .
It can be argued that the PLAN is hampered by a complex command structure which has both executive and political
chains of command. These forms of organisation have been tested in various wars - for example by the former Soviet
Union. Some commentators would claim that lower effectiveness is compensated for with greater numbers of
The PLAN is organised into three fleets: the North Sea Fleet (HQ Quindao) with six major bases, the East Sea Fleet
(HQ Ningbo) with five major bases, and the South Sea Fleet (Zhanjiang) with five major bases.. There are at least
as many minor bases as major bases.
Phil Marks, March 2011
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