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US Navy shipbuilding too little, too late to catch China


Nov 4, 2011
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US Navy shipbuilding too little, too late to catch China​

MAY 18, 2023

The US plans to catch up with China’s navy by building its first frigates since the early 2000s, a strategic scheme that may make up for dwindling fleet numbers but not lost time.

US chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday, during a recent hearing of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, said that he wants to boost US naval shipbuilding from two ships at one shipyard per year to production at two shipyards, Popular Mechanics reported.

The comment underscores the perceived need to ramp up production of upcoming Constellation-class frigates, with the US Navy initially committing to acquire 20 ships. The Popular Mechanics report mentions that the desire to add a second shipyard for production could yield 40 more ships in the next ten years, with around 50 ships seen as the ideal number for the US Navy.

Since decommissioning the successful Oliver Hazard Perry-class, the US Navy has not operated frigates, opening a capability gap in specific mission areas. Peter Suciu notes in an August 2021 article for The National Interest that the Perry-class frigate was a low-cost design built between 1977 and 2004 intended to replace the US Navy’s World War II destroyers and meet large Cold War fleet numbers that set stringent design controls on size and costs.

Suciu notes that the 71-ship Perry class had a 40-year service life performing low-intensity missions such as maritime interdiction operations, counter-narcotic efforts and engagement with partner navies.

However, he says that led to the frigates ending in worn condition, leading to their removal from service in 2003, with the last Perry-class frigate decommissioned in 2015. That left the US Navy without frigates for the first time since 1943.

That decision has seen the US Navy deploy overly-capable ships for low-intensity missions. Jerry Hendrix notes in an April 2020 article for National Review that the US practice of deploying ships such as Arleigh Burke destroyers for tasks like counter-piracy operations, showing the flag and maintaining persistent naval presence may detract these critical naval assets from more important roles such as providing missile defense and other high-end missions.

Hendrix says that frigates and corvettes, with their smaller size, smaller crews, lower sensors and weapons complexity, and lower costs make them feasible to purchase in large numbers to perform low-intensity missions.

He says that while the US Navy tried to replace the Perry-class with Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) corvettes, the LCS proved not as effective as hoped with multiple problems with weapons systems, survivability and hull integrity, leading to the type’s early retirement.

Although John Cole and Thomas Ulmer note in a December 2017 article for Defense 360 that the US briefly reconsidered reactivating the Perry class in 2016, that plan was shelved as the frigates would face maintenance, personnel and capability issues.

Cole and Ulmer point out that shipbuilders may no longer make the legacy frigates’ components, training new crews would sap limited resources that could be spent acquiring newer naval assets, and that refurbished frigates are unsuitable as a capability gap filler for higher-end naval assets.

Aside from addressing a capability gap in performing low-intensity missions, the US may need to match China’s rapidly growing navy regarding ship numbers.

Asia Times noted in February 2023 that as of 2022, the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) is the world’s largest navy with 340 ships, while the US Navy is the second-largest at 280 ships.

That gap is expected to grow with China having 400 ships by 2025 and 440 by 2030, with much of that growth coming in the form of major combatants such as cruisers and destroyers. In contrast, the Biden administration’s plan for 280 ships by 2027 and, ultimately, 363 ships by 2045 is small in comparison.

Although US warships may be more advanced, quality cannot replace quantity and physical presence. In a May 2022 Heritage Foundation article, Brent Sadler points out that the Biden administration’s “divest to invest” naval shipbuilding strategy shrinks the US Navy’s capability outright while placing too much faith in “wonder weapons” such as unmanned warships that are still in the prototype stage.

Sadler notes that even if the US gamble pays off, the US Navy will still have fewer ships to train future crews. He says keeping ships on active duty, training and sustaining capacity is better until viable replacements are at hand.

China’s fleet numbers are backed by formidable naval shipbuilding capabilities, with one of its 13 naval shipyards having more capacity than all seven US naval shipyards combined. This capacity is possible through China’s civil-military fusion strategy that entails the concurrent building of warships and civilian ships in the same shipyards.

That approach allows China’s shipbuilding industry to operate at capacity despite economic downturns, apply civilian mass production techniques to naval shipbuilding, incorporate advanced civilian technologies to warships, maintain surge production capability and circumvent sanctions targeting its military modernization.

China is already deploying this fleet globally, with new warship designs being built for that purpose.


China’s Type 055 cruiser Nanchang. Photo: Facebook

Asia Times noted in a separate February 2023 article that China’s upcoming Type 054B frigate is a low-end anti-submarine ship designed to work alongside the high-end Type 055 cruisers and Type 052 destroyers, which are too expensive to build in large numbers.

The Type 054B has a size closer to the Type 052 destroyer than its Type 054A predecessor. This increased size and displacement may indicate more global deployments and a desire to match US naval power.

In addition, its increased size allows it to carry more fuel and stores for global deployments aimed at securing its Maritime Silk Road geostrategic project while integrating new weapons, armaments and technologies, thus enabling it to operate as part of China’s carrier battlegroups.

US Navy laments China’s shipbuilding supremacy
US Navy Secretary says its imperative to upgrade fleet to keep pace with China but the reality is America lacks the capacity to do so
FEBRUARY 27, 2023

The US is seemingly at a loss to match China’s ascendant naval shipbuilding capacity as US Navy leaders engage in a blame game rather than addressing past failures and mismanagement.

CNN reported this month that US Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said the US cannot match China in terms of fleet numbers, an admission that could have significant implications for the Pacific region’s power balance.

At the National Press Club in Washington, DC, Del Toro said that China now has a larger fleet and is deploying it globally, making it imperative for the US to upgrade its fleet in response.

According to the Pentagon’s November 2022 China Military Power report, China’s People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) is the world’s largest navy with 340 ships as of 2022. The US Navy, in comparison, had just 280 ships.

Del Toro said that China has 13 naval shipyards, with one of these facilities having more capacity than all seven US naval shipyards combined. He also highlighted problems in finding skilled labor for US naval shipbuilding programs.

A December 2022 US Congressional Research Service report states that budget cuts and other issues have resulted in layoffs of shipyard workers whose specialized skills cannot easily and readily be replaced.

In his speech, Del Toro also said China does not face the same restrictions, regulations and economic pressures that hound US shipbuilders while accusing China of using “slave labor” in its naval shipbuilding program, without providing corroborating evidence.


US Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro (L) says the US is falling behind China’s shipbuilding capacity. Image: US Navy

However, defense policy expert Blake Herzinger said that Del Toro’s remarks were typical of the US Navy’s leadership response to China’s ascendant shipbuilding program, which he said tends to criticize China rather than acknowledge US failures, CNN reported.

In a December 2018 Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report, the Washington-based think tank said the US has focused on expanding naval shipbuilding instead of integrating civilian and military shipbuilding operations.

This philosophy, the report notes, is due to the different requirements of civilian and military shipbuilding, with consolidation potentially affecting the productivity and efficiency of both.

However, in an October 2021 article for Foreign Policy, Alexander Wooley notes that US naval shipbuilding woes can be traced to the post-Cold War “peace dividend,” which resulted in the private shipbuilding industry successfully lobbying the Clinton administration to take over engineering and design work traditionally done by the US Navy.

In the late 1900s, Wooley notes, the US Navy subsequently sought cost savings by reducing in-house naval architecture and engineering staff by 75%, from 1,200 to roughly 300.

Wooley also notes that the lack of new shipbuilding facilities has left US warships staying longer at shipyards for repairs, giving little incentive for shipyards to invest in increasing production capacity and thus resulting in the loss of skilled workers, technical know-how and subcontractors.

In contrast, China has chosen to apply its civil-military fusion strategy to its naval shipbuilding program to boost productivity.

This strategy brings several other advantages including cost savings, shortened development time and production cycles, improved military equipment quality and overall more efficient production, as well as allowing military industries to leverage advances in civilian technology, notes Richard Blitzinger in a January 2021 report for the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.

The approach also builds on China’s centralized and top-down strategic culture, enabling it to quickly shift attention, capital and resources to strategic sectors such as shipbuilding.

According to the 2022 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development Statistics Handbook, China built 44.2% of the world’s merchant fleet last year, followed by South Korea at 32.4% and Japan at 17.6%. In contrast, the data shows that the US built only 0.053% of the world’s total merchant fleet in 2022.


Chinese President Xi Jinping on a naval inspection tour. Photo: Xinhua

Monty Khanna notes in a 2019 article in the peer-reviewed journal Maritime Affairs: Journal of the National Maritime Foundation of India how China manages to build warships quickly and efficiently.

Khanna notes that China’s concurrent building of warships and civilian ships in the same shipyards has allowed its shipbuilding industry to operate at capacity regardless of economic downturns, apply mass-production techniques for civilian ships to naval shipbuilding, apply advanced civilian technologies into warships, maintain surge production capability for naval shipbuilding and circumvent sanctions targeting its military modernization programs.

Still, China’s shipbuilding program has its share of challenges. For example, in a 2015 article, Andrew Erickson notes that China still relies on foreign sources for surface ship and submarine propulsion.

A June 2021 article from Deutsche Welle reports that engines from German manufacturer Motoren und Turbinen-Union (MTU) are used in China’s Luyang III destroyers and Song-class submarines, with Beijing able to evade EU sanctions due to the engines’ dual-use applications.

Moreover, Erickson also says that China still has difficulty producing sophisticated sensors. Along those lines, in September 2021, a US court sentenced a Chinese national for smuggling US hydrophones that could be used for anti-submarine warfare to the Chinese military.

Erickson also notes that adherence to quality control standards may be a weakness in China’s naval shipbuilding program due to a cultural emphasis on personal relations and pragmatism, which he argues may result in problems in compliance to strict standards compared to Western ship-builders.

He also points out that China’s centralized and top-down strategic culture can result in bureaucratic inefficiencies and ineffectiveness.

Erickson also points out that China’s shipbuilding workforce remains relatively undereducated, resulting in China being capable of building large numbers of large and small non-complex ships.

It’s a deficiency he says China is addressing through partnerships between shipyards and the creation of technical schools to boost the capacity of its shipbuilding workforce.


US can’t keep up with China’s warship building, Navy Secretary says

By Brad Lendon and Haley Britzky, CNN
Updated 9:56 AM EST, Wed February 22, 2023

Members of the Chinese navy stand on the deck of a navy ship at a military port on May 18, 2022, in Zhoushan, China.

Members of the Chinese navy stand on the deck of a navy ship at a military port on May 18, 2022, in Zhoushan, China.
VCG/Getty Images/FILE

China’s navy has significant advantages over its US rival, including a bigger fleet and greater shipbuilding capacity, as Beijing seeks to project its power across the oceans, the head of the United States Navy said Tuesday.

Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, US Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said China “consistently attempts to violate the maritime sovereignty and economic well-being of other nations including our allies in the South China Sea and elsewhere.”

“They got a larger fleet now so they’re deploying that fleet globally,” he said, adding that Washington must upgrade the US fleet in response.

“We do need a larger Navy, we do need more ships in the future, more modern ships in the future, in particular that can meet that threat,” he said.

According to the US Navy’s Navigation Plan 2022 released last summer, the Pentagon’s goal is to have 350 manned ships by 2045 – still well short of the projection for China’s fleet.
Before that target is met, however, the US fleet is expected to shrink as older vessels are retired, according to a November report from the US Congressional Budget Office.

A Great Wall 236 submarine of the PLA Navy, participates in a naval parade on April 23, 2019.

A Great Wall 236 submarine of the PLA Navy, participates in a naval parade on April 23, 2019.
Mark Schiefelbein/AFP/Getty Images/FILE

Del Toro’s claims​

Del Toro said Tuesday that US naval shipyards can’t match the output of Chinese ones. As with fleet size, it’s about numbers.

“They have 13 shipyards, in some cases their shipyard has more capacity – one shipyard has more capacity than all of our shipyards combined. That presents a real threat,” he claimed.

Del Toro did not give a breakdown of those shipyards, but Chinese and Western reports say China has six major and two smaller shipyards building naval vessels.

In the US, seven shipyards produce large and deep draft ships for the US Navy and Coast Guard, according to an October report from Brent Sadler at the Center for National Defense.
But no matter the number of shipyards, they need workers, and Del Toro says China has a numerical advantage there, largely because it is free of the restrictions, regulations and economic pressures that affect labor in the US.

One big US problem is finding skilled labor, he said.

“[W]hen you have unemployment at less than 4%, it makes it a real challenge whether you’re trying to find workers for a restaurant or you’re trying to find workers for a shipyard,” the Navy leader said.

He also said China can do things the US can’t.

“They’re a communist country, they don’t have rules by which they abide by,” he said.

“They use slave labor in building their ships, right – that’s not the way we should do business ever, but that’s what we’re up against so it does present a significant advantage,” he claimed.

CNN has reached out to China’s Foreign Ministry for reaction to Del Toro’s allegations.

The US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey refuels at sea with the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson on October 11, 2018.

The US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey refuels at sea with the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson on October 11, 2018.
US Navy/Reuters/FILE

US advantages​

Del Toro did not supply specifics to support the slave labor allegation, and analysts expressed doubt that Beijing would resort to such a tactic.

“China has a very large pool of available manpower and it wouldn’t really make sense to use slave labor in a high-tech sector vital to their national security,” said Blake Herzinger, a nonresident fellow and Indo-Pacific defense policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

Herzinger said comments like that from the Navy chief are indicative of a pattern where US attention is put in the wrong place – to the detriment of US abilities.

“This seems unfortunately common, that Navy leadership throws stones at real or imagined faults in Chinese shipbuilding rather than reckoning with US failures over two decades to conceptualize, design and build ships for its own navy,” Herzinger said.

220119-N-EE352-1075 PHILIPPINE SEA (Jan. 19, 2022) A Sailor fuels an F-35C Lightning II, assigned to the Argonauts of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 147, on the flight deck aboard Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), Jan. 19, 2022. Operating as part of U.S. Pacific Fleet, USS Carl Vinson is conducting training to preserve and protect a free and open Indo-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Leon Vonguyen)

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Here's why the US doesn't want its F-35 wreckage to fall into China's hands
03:03 - Source: CNN

According to a US Congressional Research Service report from November, the US Navy has taken steps to address the gap with China, including assigning more of its fleet to the Pacific and using newer and more capable ships in Pacific roles.

And Del Toro said Tuesday that the US retains one big advantage over China – “our people.”

“In many ways our shipbuilders are better shipbuilders, that’s why we have a more modern, more capable, more lethal Navy than they do,” he said.

US military personnel are better on their feet, too, Del Toro contended.

“They script their people to fight, we actually train our people to think,” he said.

“There’s a fundamental difference in how we train our Marines and our sailors and our soldiers and our airmen and our Space Force in this country that gives us an inherent advantage over anything the Chinese can put up.”

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