Seoul, South Korea
As China continues to develop what is already the world’s largest navy, a US Naval War College professor is issuing a warning to US military planners: In naval warfare, the largest fleet almost always wins.
Pentagon leaders have identified China as the “boosting threat” to the US military. But fleet size figures show that the US military cannot keep pace with Chinese naval growth.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) surpassed the US Navy in fleet size around 2020 and now has about 340 warships, according to the Pentagon’s 2022 China Military Power Report, released in November. China’s fleet is expected to grow to 400 vessels over the next two years, the report said.
Meanwhile, the US fleet numbers fewer than 300 ships, and the Pentagon’s goal is to have 350 manned ships, still far behind China, by 2045, according to the US Navy’s 2022 Sailing Plan released l ‘last summer.
So to compete, American military leaders rely on technology.
This same document states that “the world is entering a new era of warfare, one in which the integration of technology, concepts, partners and systems – more than fleet size alone – will determine victory in the conflict. “.
Not so fast, says Sam Tangredi, Leidos Professor of Future Warfare Studies at the US Naval War College.
If history is any lesson, China’s numerical advantage will likely lead to the defeat of the US Navy in any war with China, according to Tangredi’s research, featured in the January issue of US’s Proceedings magazine. Naval Institute.
Tangredi, a former captain in the US Navy, examined 28 naval wars, from the Greco-Persian Wars of 500 BC, to recent Cold War conflicts and proxy interventions. He found that in only three cases, superior technology defeated greater numbers.
“All other wars have been won by superior numbers or, between equal forces, superior strategy or admiral,” Tangredi wrote. “Often the three qualities act together, as operating a large fleet generally facilitates more in-depth training and is often an indicator that leaders are preoccupied with strategic requirements,” Tangredi wrote.
The three outliers—the wars of the 11th, 16th, and 19th centuries—probably aren’t familiar to all but the most ardent scholars, but others that show where numbers outweigh technology certainly are.
Take the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s, for example.
“French warships were superior in ship design and construction technology, but ultimately it was the large number of Royal Navy ships that prevented Napoleon from crossing the (English) Channel,” Tangredi wrote. .
Or World War II in the Pacific, where Japanese technology started out as America’s best.
“Imperial Japan entered the war with superior technologies: the Zero fighter, the Long-Lance torpedo, and aerial torpedoes that could strike in shallow water,” Tangredi wrote.
“However, it was the overall strength of American industry and the size of the American fleet (especially its logistics and amphibious ships) that enabled victory over the Imperial Japanese Navy,” he said.
Alessio Patalano, professor of war and strategy at King’s College London, praised Tangredi’s work.
“His research is a really good way to push back the silly assumption that mass doesn’t matter in warfare at sea,” Patalano said.
He insisted on two essential points.
Bigger size means more leaders are looking to take advantage in their commands.
“A larger fleet tends to be more competitive, in terms of training staff development and operational capability,” Patalano said.
And he said a large industrial base is essential, especially to be able to build new units after suffering combat losses.
“In a naval war, attrition is a reality, so replacement capability is vital,” Patalano said.
Tangredi’s look at WWII aircraft carrier fleets shows the stark numbers. The United States and Japan started the war with eight aircraft carriers, he said.
“During the war, Imperial Japan built 18 equivalent aircraft carriers… while the United States built 144. Unless the United States decided not to fight, Japan never had a luck,” he wrote.
Shipbuilding was a strength of the United States when it was the global industrial giant in the 1940s. That title now goes to China.
“Most analysts doubt that the U.S. defense industry — which has been consolidating and shrinking since the end of the Cold War — can grow fast enough to meet wartime demand,” Tangredi wrote.
Indeed, there are fears that US industry cannot meet the demand for arms assistance from Ukraine to fight the Russian invasion while maintaining US arms stockpiles at adequate levels.
Admiral Daryl Caudle, commander of US Fleet Forces Command, last week called on the nation’s defense industries to step up their game, saying “you’re not delivering the munitions we need.”
“It’s so essential to win. And I can’t do this without the artillery,” Caudle said at a symposium in Washington, adding that the United States “is facing a competitor here and a potential adversary, it’s unlike anything we have. never seen “.
In an online forum last week, Caudle’s boss, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday, also noted the numbers problem the United States faces in a potential conflict in the Pacific.
“The US Navy will not be able to match the PLAN missile for the missile,” Gilday said.
And if the US Navy can’t match Chinese missile for missile, or ship for ship, Tangredi wonders where it can find an advantage.
“American leaders need to ask themselves how much they are willing to bet on technological superiority – without digital – in this fight,” he wrote.
“I’m not saying that a smaller, technologically superior fleet could never defeat a much larger fleet, I’m only saying that – with the possible exception of three cases in the last 1,200 years – none have.”