Pentagon chief says China is no match for the US Navy, even if it has more ships

A member of the People's Liberation Army Navy stands in front of a warship.
A member of the People's Liberation Army Navy stands in front of a warship.
  • Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Wednesday that China has built a larger fleet but it's still no match in for the US Navy. 
  • Nonetheless, he argued that it is necessary to increase funding for shipbuilding to ensure that the US Navy can maintain its overmatch.
  • His remarks, which were delivered at a RAND Institute event, follow the recent release of the Pentagon's China Military Power report, which noted that China has the world's largest navy and is the top ship-producing nation by tonnage.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Wednesday that while China has more ships, it'll be a while before it can match the power of the US Navy.

"I want to make clear that China does not have parity when it comes to our Navy," Esper explained in prepared remarks at a RAND Institute event.

"Even if we stopped building new ships, it would take the [People's Republic of China] years to match our capability on the high seas," he said. "Simple ship numbers don't address the capabilities of the vessels being counted, nor the crews that man them."

Esper said that the US military must take steps to maintain that overmatch, to include expanding the size of the US Navy to over 355 ships. "We must increase funding for shipbuilding," he said Wednesday.

He argued in favor of a 2% increase, which would translate to several billion dollars in additional funding for the construction of new warships, to include both manned and unmanned warfighting systems.

"The future fleet will be more balanced in its ability to deliver lethal effects from the air, from the sea, and from under the sea," the secretary said.

"This fleet will need to be marked by more and smaller surface combatants; optionally manned, unmanned, and autonomous surface and subsurface vehicles; unmanned carrier-based aircraft of all types; a larger and more capable submarine force; and a modern strategic deterrent," he explained.

The unmanned component of the Department of Defense's planned future fleet "will be a major shift in how we will conduct naval warfare in the years and decades to come," Esper said, arguing that these assets could be tasked to "perform a variety of warfighting functions, from delivering lethal fires and laying mines, to conducting resupply or surveilling the enemy."

Unmanned assets have the potential to be a less expensive, attritable alternative to more manned warships and could be used to compete against an rival power with a more robust shipbuilding capacity, such as China.

Esper's comments on China and his stated interest in boosting US shipbuilding capacity follows the recent release of the Pentagon's annual China Military Power report.

"China has already achieved parity with — or even exceeded — the United States in several military modernization areas," the Pentagon reported.

"The PRC has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants," the report said, adding that China is also "the top ship-producing nation in the world by tonnage."

The report further explained that China is striving to increase "its shipbuilding capacity and capability for all naval classes." The China Power project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies has estimated that China could have 425 battle force ships by 2030.

Experts told Insider that "their shipbuilding capacity is a huge advantage for them in a protracted conflict with the United States," as it "gives them some extra capacity if they need to do a buildup or ramp-up of the navy or rebuild the navy in a conflict where they lose a lot of ships."

Speaking Wednesday about the military challenges from China, particularly as it modernizes its military, Esper said that "the United States must be ready to deter conflict, and if necessary, fight and win at sea."

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