The Slow Growth of the Chinese Navy (1990-2019)


number of type 053, type 051, type 054, type 055, sovremenny class frigates and destroyers in China's navy

Since the end of the Cold War, the Chinese Navy has grown from an obsolete coast defense force into the second largest navy in the world. Now composed of every class of modern warship, including aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and guided missile destroyers, as well as the necessary auxiliaries needed to support them, the Chinese Navy has become a true blue water force seemingly overnight. However, a closer examination reveals that the growth of the Chinese Navy has actually been rather measured and may well be aiming for a smaller overall force than many estimate.

For the purposes of this post, I'm only going to be covering the larger Chinese surface combatants because good numbers on their small combatants, submarines, and auxiliaries is not available. However, this may actually overestimate the Chinese expansion because their auxiliary and submarine fleets in particular have lagged behind that of their surface force.

At the end of 1990, the Chinese surface force consisted of 43 medium combatants (which I am defining as warships measuring 100-150 meters in length). Although these were of no fewer than 9 different classes, they were all variants of 2 basic hulls - the Type 051 destroyer and the Type 053 frigate. The Type 051 was around 130 meters in length, while the Type 053 was around 110 meters in length (although the different versions of both varied significantly). Neither carried significant armament and they were virtually defenseless against air or submarine attack.

A Type 053H frigate - the backbone of the 1990's Chinese Navy

At the end of 2019, the Chinese surface force consisted of 27 large combatants (warships over 150 meters in length) and 53 medium combatants. Some 54 (68%) of these ships were modern Type 052 destroyers and Type 054 frigates. Measuring around 155 meters and 135 meters respectively, both of these classes were equipped with fairly modern sensors and weapons for all warfare areas. The remaining third of the fleet was legacy Type 051 destroyers and Type 053 frigates as well as the four Sovremenny-class destroyers purchased from Russia in the 1990's and early 2000's.

But although this means that the Chinese Navy has roughly doubled in size over the past 30 years, that is actually rather underwhelming when one considers that during that same period the Chinese economy grew from $360 billion to over $14 trillion. And while the larger modern designs that China is currently constructing are certainly far more expensive on a per-hull basis than the older ships, it seems unlikely that a Type 052 or Type 054 is 40 times more expensive than a Type 051 or Type 053. In fact, the effective cost difference may well be even less than one might expect as the new ships are equipped with indigenous weapons while the old ships often relied on foreign systems that had to be paid for in dollars rather than yuan.

However, the growth of the Chinese Navy is not only slower than what the Chinese economy could likely support, it is also slow in absolute terms. While it may seem absurd to claim that the Chinese have been building ships slowly, the numbers do not lie. The 30 Type 054A frigates were commissioned at an average rate of 2.7 hulls per year, while the 12 Type 052D destroyers joined the fleet at a rate of 2.0 hulls per year. And these are only the most successful classes. If you look at all of the Type 054 and Type 052 variants, then the annual build rates drop to 2.1 and 0.85, respectively. Even peak numbers are not that high, with no more than 4 frigates or 3 destroyers ever joining the Chinese Navy in a single year.

China's current workhorse - the versatile Type 054A frigate

For comparison's sake, the United States Navy's Arleigh Burke-class destroyers were built at an average rate of 2.7 hulls per year (taking into account the 5-year hiatus), peaking at 6 ships in 1995. Even the glacial LCS program (which I have previously compared to Cold War frigate build rates) averaged 2.1 hulls per year if you discount the first two prototypes, and peaked at 6 hulls in 2019.

On top of these rather uninspiring build rates, the Chinese Navy has also been decommissioning old ships nearly as fast as it has been building new ones. In fact, from 2010 to 2019, the Chinese Navy grew by a grand total of just 2 destroyers and frigates. While the vast majority of the ships that have been decommissioned were 30-40 years old on top of having marginal military value, some of the ships were fairly modern. The 4 Type 053H2G frigates for example were retired at an average age of just 23 years, demonstrating China's desire for capability over raw numbers. However, the Chinese Navy has also shown that it is interested in extending the service lives of their larger hulls, with extensive modernizations of older ships such as the Sovremenny-class or the Type 051B.

Thus, the overall position of the Chinese Navy appears to be one of building a firm foundation and replacing obsolescent ships with modern designs rather than one of maximum rapid expansion. The fact that the Chinese Navy has massively grown in size since the end of the Cold War is more a reflection of how just how small it was to begin with. If the current Chinese build rates were maintained into the future, the Chinese Navy would ultimately achieve a stable surface fleet of around 60-70 destroyers and 80-95 frigates. This would indeed be a sizable force compared to the possible stable United States Navy surface fleet of around 70 destroyers and 60 frigates that I predicted in my last post, although even the current Chinese designs are significantly less capable than those of the United States.

A Type 055 destroyer - the future of the Chinese Navy?

However, there is currently little evidence that the Chinese Navy desires to maintain stable "drumbeat" production. Instead it appears that it might be favoring more traditional batch construction. Not only has China been quick to abandon experimental designs such as the early Type 052 variants, but even production of the highly successful Type 054A frigate appears to have ceased after 2018. Given this, it is possible that the Chinese Navy is actually aiming for a much smaller fleet than might be imagined. Now that nearly all of the older Type 051 and Type 053 ships are gone from the fleet, the next few years should reveal whether China intends to continue steady growth or simply maintain the modern fleet that it has built.

It is also possible that China may seek to replace the current mix of Type 052 destroyers and Type 054 frigates (both of which date back to the early 2000's) with even larger and more capable ships such as the Type 055 that are better-suited to operating around the world as part of carrier task groups. But of course, the future is always impossible to predict.

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