This situation harkens back to the Soviet naval buildup of the 1970s. Having built up its naval power over the past two decades, China can now pose a challenge to the US Navy in the region. The Chinese surface fleet grown not only in size, but also capability. China has invested in new ground- and air-launched anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), ballistic missiles, new submarines, modern aircraft, large-deck aircraft carriers, and other naval assets.
This modernization effort has accelerated as the Chinese have shed older force structure. In 2000, the Chinese surface fleet consisted of 21 destroyers, 35 frigates, and 87 missile patrol boats, most of which were built before 1990. Today, China boasts 27 destroyers, 49 frigates, 40 corvettes, and 112 missile patrol boats—60 percent more assets than it had in 2000. Three-quarters of its surface fleet today was built after 2000. These ships have modern VLS tubes and phased array radars, as well as fleet air defense systems such as the HHQ-9 surface-to-air missile system (SAM), with a range of around 108 nm.
China has also modernized its submarine and naval aviation fleets and developed new weapons, such as the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), a new form of anti-ship weapon with a range of around 810 nm that features maneuverable re-entry vehicles and the ability to strike moving targets such as, specifically, US Navy aircraft carriers. Tying all of these capabilities together is a ground-based, over-the-horizon targeting radar that detects, identifies, and targets US ships in the Western Pacific. Collectively, these assets could deny American surface vessels access to waters from which these ships could strike Chinese land and naval targets.
While the operational potency of this force is subject to debate, the Chinese navy is now conducting increasingly complex, sustained, and combined arms training; is more proficient than ever in anti-surface warfare; and has proved increasingly capable in air defense.
China is deploying a large and growing number of capable combatant ships, submarines, and aircraft armed with short and long-range ASCMs. The ability of the US Navy alone to counter these threats with its surface ships, submarines, and carrier-based aircraft is limited. The US Air Force can provide a cost-effect solution to meet the challenges posed by China in the Pacific by renewing training and equipping its bombers for maritime strike missions.
Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, USAF (Ret.) is Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.