Why does the Pentagon downplay China's "Phony Fleet"?
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From Forbes by Craig Hooper
A few days after the Pentagon released its annual report to Congress on “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” the Navy awarded six contracts to refine the requirements for the Navy’s future Large Unmanned Surface Vessel(LUSV).
The Pentagon report on China’s emerging military prowess telegraphed the Navy’s purported need for large unmanned surface vessels, trumpeting that China “has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines”.
But, of all the worrisome things in China’s growing arsenal, China’s conventional Navy, in itself, is an odd threat to highlight.
While a strong conventional navy justifies the Pentagon’s interest in unmanned vessels, this was the wrong maritime threat to emphasize, and the report only made China’s conventional navy look far stronger than it is.
A more provocative analysis might note that, despite China’s lofty maritime aspirations, China’s conventional naval force is undersized and still dominated by a plethora of tiny, low-endurance coastal defense platforms—platforms that are little threat beyond Chinese-held waters.
And yet, while the Pentagon took to the fainting couch over China’s small conventional Navy, the Department of Defense turned an almost blind eye to China’s massive “Phony War Fleet”, a giant array of low-tech, “non-military” maritime forces.
China uses this force—a massive Coast Guard, civilian “fishing fleet” militia and an array of “ad hoc public/private” logistical partnerships—to change status quo in the maritime.
But the Pentagon glossed over the threat of the “Phony Fleet”, only granting the force a few measly paragraphs in the back of the report.
Given China’s record, the dismissal of China’s maritime shock troops is inexplicable.
China’s conventional navy is small because China uses it’s “Phony War Fleet” to fight.
Working from an expansionist-minded playbook and backed by China’s over-hyped economic reputation, China’s belligerent “wolf warrior” diplomats and China’s formidable long-range strike forces, China’s “Phony War Fleet” is not phony at all.
China’s enormous unconventional naval force might be dismissed as a “Phony War Fleet” by the Pentagon, but it is a clear and present danger anywhere from the Galapagos to Africa.
Outside of potentially Turkey, China’s “Phony War Fleet” is the only maritime force in the world capable of massing and sweeping aside established maritime order.
These are colonization-oriented shot troops, built for one thing—preying on the global maritime commons.
And while the Pentagon dreams of a low-cost robotic surface fleet, building up the reputation of China’s pipsqueak conventional Navy to get it, China’s massive “Phony War Fleet” gets a relative pass.
China’s small conventional Navy is only set to hold whatever advanced positions China’s “Phony War Fleet” can grab.
China’s “Phony War Fleet” is the present threat, and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s low-cost robots can do little to stop it.
China’s Conventional Navy Is Puny:
Given the extensive maritime threats on China’s maritime periphery, the conventional Chinese Navy remains a coastal defense sideshow, poorly-sized to contend with the big and modern navies that surround much of China’s coast.
In the First Island Chain alone, the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force boasts a fleet of some 150 modern vessels.
Despite some oddly defeatist talk from some DC thinktanks, Japan maintains a formidable force of almost 30 destroyers, two pocket aircraft carriers, and one of the most modern undersea fleets in world.
Japan’s eight 10,000 ton-range Kongo, Atago and Maya class heavyweight destroyers can easily go toe-to-toe with China’s planned set of eight over-hyped but likely nuclear-armed Type 055 Renhai class cruisers.
South Korea’s green-water fleet is nothing shabby either, and Korea’s vast array of frigates, corvettes and patrol vessels can easily rebuff China’s mass of small conventional escorts.
America, even without the help of nearby friends, still outmatches China’s conventional Navy.
Of the forces arrayed in China’s 350-unit “battle force”, the Pentagon included 86 missile patrol boats.
Most of these patrol boats are 60 tiny, 220-ton missile-carrying catamarans, Type 022 Houbei class missile patrol boats.
America doesn’t even bother to count vessels of this size.
The U.S. Navy’s 13 pint-sized 336-ton Cyclone Class (PC-1) patrol craft outweigh China’s Type 022 patrol boats, yet the U.S. Navy refuses to include the Cyclones as part of America’s battle fleet.
And, while the Cyclones are mixing it up in the Persian Gulf and catching smugglers in the Caribbean, the Type 022’s are not out roaming the high seas.
The pint-sized catamarans are tough on their crews, and even if these patrol craft evolve to become “optionally unmanned” platforms, their endurance is very limited.
The Type 022s are only useful off islands, bases and other areas where China has sufficient support infrastructure in place.
China’s fearsome-seeming numbers were also bulked up by some 49 modern Jiangdao class Type 056/056A corvettes.
Type 056s comprise a second set of pint-sized, limited-mission, 1500-ton patrol vessels, half the displacement of an old American World War II-era Gearing class destroyer.
These corvettes boast a Littoral Combat Ship-sized crew, which, in America’s case, “was barely able to meet the Navy’s underway watch requirements and struggled to maintain qualified security teams while the ship was in port.”
These are simply vessels for imposing Chinese sovereignty in waters near any base China is lucky enough to establish.
On the amphibious side, much of China’s 52-ship fleet of tank and medium landing ships listed in the Pentagon’s report are obsolete and need replacing.
Certainly, if economic conditions permit, China’s conventional fleet is set to grow over time.
The report’s hyperventilation over how “China has already achieved parity with—or even exceeded—the United States” in shipbuilding is old news.
But, again, other countries have a vote here.
In 2019, South Korea outbuilt China by tonnage, with Japan and Italy following behind.
So while there are a lot of things worth worrying about in China’s military modernization, China’s conventional Navy looks awfully undersized and coastal—too small to fight, but ideal for securing and colonizing outposts that China’s expeditionary “Phony War Fleet” has already grabbed—snatched from a timorous international community that is, quite likely, too frightened by the Pentagon’s constant overestimation of the conventional Chinese “threat” to resist.
Fear China’s Sovereignty-Grabbing “Phony Fleet”
China’s massive “Phony Fleet” of low-end integrated maritime forces is well worth fearing.
But somehow, the Pentagon gave both the Chinese Coast Guard and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia a mere three paragraphs apiece.
That is rather light coverage for a set fast-growing forces that, time after time, have been at the center of China’s maritime colonization efforts.
It is growing in both numbers and size.
“Since 2010,” goes the report, the Chinese Coast Guard “fleet of large patrol ships (more than 1,000 tones) has more than doubled from approximately 60 to more than 130 ships”.
That’s a significant threat.
To compare, the U.S. Coast Guard has only about seventy ships of more than 1,000 tons.
The report fails to even attempt to quantify China’s burgeoning Maritime Militia, dismissing it even though this force has directly confronted U.S.
naval vessels, seized territory and led one provocation after another.
It’s the pointy edge of China’s maritime spear, and yet, the Pentagon refuses to offer any in the way of substantive analysis.
Satellite images show ships next to the exclusion zone around the Galápagos.
Nearly 300 Chinese vessels were seen between July and August.
The Pentagon report fails to justify the growth in both number and size of these two coordinated fleets.
Civilian sources like Ian Urbina of Slate.com offers better analysis of China’s globe-spanning and highly-subsidized fleet of 200,000 to 800,000 aggressive, militarized fishing boats.
China already operates sovereign floating sea—bases for their fishing flotillas, but the evolution of Maritime Militia and Chinese Coast Guard units to long-endurance, out-of-area operations is a significant development, worth more than a few sentences.
It suggests that China’s “Phony” force will, in the coming years, be used in an expeditionary fashion, coordinating the irresponsible despoiling of shared maritime commons with unilateral grabs of maritime territory.
Only a big and unified armada of manned, boarding-ready Coast Guard-like ships can stop China’s “Phony War Fleet.”
A lawless “Phony War Fleet” bent only upon maritime mayhem and industrial-sized colonization will fail only if it is constantly confronted and discomfited.
Until a robotic surface fleet can do the delicate and dangerous work of constant confrontation, managing a relentless tempo of visit, board, search and seizure missions, Mark Esper’s effete fleet of robot surface ships will do little to stop China’s creeping colonization of the global maritime.