Chinese Navy ‘Burgeons’ With Might & Muscle, US Navy Looks At Japan & South Korea To Counter The PLA Navy

The plan to shift repair of forward-deployed warships in Japan and South Korea is being pushed to encompass shipbuilding to match China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) swelling armada. 

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However, experts and policymakers are divided on the suggestion. Some warn about the temporary economic fallout of manufacturing going out of the country, others point to the speed at which ships will be available to the USN, meeting its immediate needs. 

The plan’s backers also point to the sophistication of warships produced in frontline allies Japan and South Korea (particularly the former) that naturally complements their larger strategic, political, economic, and military alliance with the US. 

The Pentagon estimates China’s navy to have around 340 warships at present, while the US has fewer than 300. It expects the Chinese fleet to grow to 400 in the next two years, while the US fleet will take until 2045 to hit 350.

Korean & Japanese Shipbuilding – Next To The Best

A CNN report talks about China’s Type 055 destroyer, widely considered the world’s most advanced. But observers then particularly praise South Korea’s Sejong the Great and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Maya and Mogami destroyers for their sophistication that matches China’s naval technology. 

The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces (JMSDF) Mogami-class destroyer.

The report quoted diplomatic and military experts on the sidelines of the recently concluded Shangri La Dialogue that touched upon the repercussions of the plan. This follows an earlier report about US officials considering Japan and South Korea for ship repairs instead of sending them back to the continental US and unburdening the shipyards there. 

Blake Herzinger, a research fellow at the United States Studies Center in Australia, and Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center in Hawaii, called the countries’ warships the only ones that match Chinese technology. 

Alessio Patalano, a professor of war and strategy at King’s College in London, says the Maya class’s 96 Vertical Launch Silo (VLS) cells can also fire anti-ballistic missiles with “top-of-the-end sensors and systems.” While on par with the US Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, the Japanese ship is also half its price of $2.2 billion. 

Besides, Japanese and South Korean warships also carry US technologies like the Aegis combat system and the SPY radars for interoperability. Given their complete familiarity with American systems, this makes the countries’ naval engineers more suited for building warships for the US. 

The Japanese status as a sophisticated warship builder also warrants a cursory look at the distinction of its shipbuilding industry evolution. Its naval architects have instituted a tradition of pursuing “sound” technological and engineering practices that birthed many formidable destroyers with stable hulls with advanced sensors and weapons. 

A report in The National Interest notes how Japan developed a state-of-the-art military-industrial manufacturing ecosystem by investing just one percent of its GDP in defense. Its engineering decisions also chose proven and established technical concepts in hull design, combined gas and gas (COGAG) power plants, and armaments like VLS systems. 

The Gerald R. Ford carrier at Newport naval shipyard

After rigorous experience and fully mastering these technologies, they gradually introduced newer hull designs and propulsion systems like hybrid gas and electric and AESA radars.

“The US Navy must continually be reminded that great procurement programs are not born when the Navy attempts to squeeze an inordinate number of revolutionary technologies into one single program,” said the report. 

Existing US laws disallow American ships from being built abroad or buying vessels from foreign shipbuilders and are “fraught” with “political” risks, some experts caution. Others, however, say the measures would only be temporary until the pressing shortfall before China is met and investments to address the capacity issues in US shipyards are realized. 

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Endemic issues in the American shipbuilding industry support the case for sourcing vessels from foreign partners.

The US has seven naval shipbuilders, with four public shipyards, including the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, and Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. The other three private military shipbuilders are Huntington Ingalls in Virginia, Bath Iron Works in Maine, and General Dynamics Electric Boat in Maine, the USN’s primary submarine builder. 

At an event in February this year, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro rated China’s shipyard capacity and shipbuilding capability far ahead of the US. “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.

Constraints ranging from the lack of trained manpower owing to high employment rates in the US, post-Covid supply chain disruptions, and other economic and funding issues have afflicted US naval shipbuilding. 

US Shipyards – Underestimated Modernization Cost, Creaking Infrastructure

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) captured the state of affairs in a May 2022 report. Delays in shipyard maintenance directly affect the Navy’s readiness by hindering its ability to conduct training and operations. For example, in August 2020, the GAO found that maintenance delays on aircraft carriers between 2015 to 2019 resulted in the ships not being available for 1,128 days. 

This is the equivalent of losing the use of more than 0.5 aircraft carriers each year. For submarines in the same period, maintenance overruns resulted in a total of 6,296 days of submarine unavailability. This was the equivalent of losing the use of more than three submarines each year. 

The same year the Navy began a 20-year, $21 billion effort to modernize and optimize its shipyards, known as the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan (SIOP). 

But detailed shipyard plans will not begin to be made until 2025. Their fruition is subject to the ensuing and usual delays from the commencement of the physical work and monetary allotment to the inevitable revision of deadlines. 

The paucity and obsolescence of key shipyard infrastructure like dry docks itself need redressal, 17 of which are either in a state of disrepair or would be incompatible with the newer generation of large ships, like the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers. While 2018 the USN estimated $4 billion to modernize the 17 dry docks, it later found that the price to upgrade the first three dry docks alone has overshot $4 billion. 

Interestingly, the estimate of $21 billion for the SIOP itself has been reached without considering many overheads. “(It includes) inflation, utilities, environmental remediation, and historical preservation not included in the initial SIOP estimate, which could add billions,” the GAO report said. 

The USN’s unprioritized approach towards its modernization programs, too, has been responsible to some degree for the poor state of its shipyards. According to officials interviewed by the GAO, the USN leadership often puts the acquisition of platforms like aircraft, submarines, and ships “over facility sustainment because of their perceived greater importance in performing assigned missions.”

Shipbuilding & Manufacturing Industries Are Intertwined

Shipyard modernization and expansion is a smaller subset of the manufacturing and engineering products industry. Yards involve capital goods like cranes, sheet metal rollers, lathe machines, furnaces, and electrical tools. 

Most of these are the products whose imports into the US have increased, owing to the decline in American manufacturing that has characterized the last two decades of its socio-economic, electoral, and foreign policy scene. 

Research from McKinsey Global Institute identifies some of these as precision tools, auto parts, semiconductors, medical devices, and communication equipment. The firm says the US share in global manufacturing has fallen from 25 to 17 percent.