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The U.S. Navy may only build six new warships in Fiscal Year 2021, including just one submarine, and retire at least five, according to a budget proposal released Monday by the Pentagon. It contrasts with China, which continues to grow and modernize its navy. China is producing warships at an incredible rate, almost certainly many more than the Pentagon plan.
The Chinese Navy, known as the PLAN, has several new shipbuilding programs underway. Last month it commissioned the first of its latest Type-055 class of destroyers, the 10,000-ton Nanchang. At least five more Type-055s are at various stages of construction. And then there is its second aircraft carrier, the Shandong, which was commissioned in December. And an array of other modern destroyers and frigates, not to mention new assault carriers. The first of the assault carriers was launched last year and at least one more is already under construction.
It is difficult to closely compare the U.S. Navy and Chinese Navy shipbuilding. The two navies have different starting points for underlying capabilities. The U.S. is still ahead in numbers and quality so needs to build fewer to maintain its position. And China often takes longer to build warships. But stepping back it is hard not to see the growing gulf in output. This latest U.S. budget plan is much smaller than previous years, while Chinese shipyards continue to pump out very modern hulls.
The 2021 budget plan does include two Arleigh Burke Class air defense destroyers and the first of a new class of guided missile frigates. The U.S. Naval Institute (USNI) reported that 3 major vessels previously expected are cut from the plan. These are a Virginia Class attack submarine, the second frigate and an oiler. The attack submarine is particularly significant as both China and Russia are building new nuclear-powered submarines.
And on the other side of the equation, the first four Littoral Combat ships (LCS) and a large amphibious warfare ship will be retired to save money. Four Ticonderoga Class cruisers and two more amphibious ships would also be retired earlier than planned. The LCS in particular are relatively young and retiring them so early may be controversial in itself.
The Pentagon plan will certainly be controversial. The Chairman of the House Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, Joe Courtney, has already laid out a challenge. Referencing previous plans to grow the U.S. Navy, he said, “The President’s shipbuilding budget is not a 355-ship Navy budget. As Chair of the Seapower Subcommittee, I can say with complete certainty that … it is dead on arrival.”
China’s own shipbuilding program may also face some challenges. The ongoing Coronavirus outbreak may impact the delivery timelines of some Chinese projects. But it is unlikely to change the story.