As China continues to grow what is already the world’s largest navy, a professor at the US Naval War College has a warning for American military planners: In naval warfare, the bigger fleet almost always wins.
Pentagon leaders have identified China as the US military’s “pacing threat.” But fleet size numbers show that the US military can’t keep pace with China’s naval growth.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) surpassed the US Navy in fleet size sometime around 2020 and now has around 340 warships, according to the Pentagon’s 2022 China Military Power Report, released in November. China’s fleet is expected to grow to 400 ships in the next two years, the report says.
Meanwhile, the US fleet sits under 300 ships, and the Pentagon’s goal is to have 350 manned ships, still well behind China, by 2045, according to the US Navy’s Navigation Plan 2022 released last summer.
So to compete, US military leaders are counting on technology.
That same document says, “the world is entering a new age of warfare, one in which the integration of technology, concepts, partners, and systems — more than fleet size alone — will determine victory in conflict.”
Not so fast, says Sam Tangredi, the Leidos Chair of Future Warfare Studies at the US Naval War College.
If history is any lesson, China’s numerical advantage is likely to lead to defeat for the US Navy in any war with China, according to Tangredi’s research, presented in the January issue of the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.
Tangredi, a former US Navy captain, looked at 28 naval wars, from the Greco-Persian Wars of 500 BC, through recent Cold War proxy conflicts and interventions. He found in only three instances did superior technology defeat bigger numbers.
“All other wars were won by superior numbers or, when between equal forces, superior strategy, or admiralship,” Tangredi wrote. “Often all three qualities act together, because operating a large fleet generally facilitates more extensive training and is often an indicator that leaders are concerned with strategic requirements,” Tangredi wrote.
The three outliers – wars from the 11th, 16th and 19th centuries – aren’t likely familiar to all but the most ardent of scholars, but others that show where numbers beat technology certainly are.