US Naval Transformation Challenges PLA Navy
Dr Vijay Sakhuja

Numerous commentaries and essays have argued and concluded that the military gap between the US and China is closing and the numerical naval balance between the two Pacific powers has converged. The PLA Navy is growing rapidly, and in the last five years (2014-2019) it added 52 vessels.1 According to US Office of Naval intelligence (ONI), PLA Navy’s current strength is pegged at 360 vessels which is projected to grow to 400 warships by 2025, and 425 by 2030.2

The larger Chinese naval combatants bristle with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles; the submarine force is impressive; it has an ambitious aircraft carrier development plan - Liaoning and Shandong (60,000 and 70,000 tons displacement respectively) are operational; the third carrier is under construction, and a fourth (80,000 tons to 85,000 tons displacement) may begin construction by 2021;3 and the high-tech PLA Naval Air Force is frequently sighted over the seas. The PLA Navy has been challenging the US Navy’s “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) in the South China Sea and has attentively shadowed US naval ships during their transits through Taiwan Strait which have increased in recent times. 4

Over the last few decades, the PLA Navy has emerged as a strong force when compared with other Asian navies such as those of Australia, Japan, India, South Korea and ASEAN-combine. However, in the Pacific Ocean, the PLA Navy contends with a technologically superior US Navy that has a total of 297 vessels (end of FY2020). It is a formidable force built around nearly a dozen aircraft carriers, a fleet of nuclear submarines and surface vessels, and is pursuing an aggressive buildup plan i.e. 314 vessels in 2024 and 355 vessels by 2034.5 The ongoing technological transformation in the US Navy cuts across organisational and operational domains and merits attention.

First, at the organisational level, the US Navy has set up a new Warfighter Development office which brings together three departments under one roof i.e. force planning, strategic thinking, and officer education. Vice Admiral Stuart Munsch, the current Director of Warfighter Development (OPNAV (N7)) office has expounded on the necessity for this new set up and explained “We were a Navy then [Vietnam War] that was focused on power projection ashore against a nation that didn’t have much in the way of naval capability, …We saw the future coming, and knew we would have to change the Navy to be more focused on Sea Control against a Navy that had considerable capability, and that was the Soviet Union” ; and after nearly decades of war on land (Middle East), Vice Admiral Munsch categorically stated that it was time to “shift to Sea Control against an adversary with considerable capability, namely China.”6

Second is about concept of operations. Since 2015, the US Navy has been mulling the idea of Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO). The idea first appeared in US naval strategic thought as Distributed Lethality. It was envisaged that dispersed hunter-killer Surface Action Groups (SAGs) could be constituted and these would be ‘capable of defending themselves against air and missile attack’ and ‘networked and integrated to support complex operations even when not supported by the carrier air wing and land-based patrol aircraft.’7 SAGs would thus ensure and help sustain ‘competitive advantage in power projection against a growing set of sea-denial capabilities’. In 2016, a document titled ‘A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority’ discussed the necessity to return to Sea Control strategy in view of threats to US’ global interests from China and Russia. In December 2018, another document ‘A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Version 2.0’ was released. This was aligned with the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) and the January 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS).

These strategy documents were clearly oriented towardsand focused on great power competition with China and Russia in mind. The current DMO architecture includes (a) Tactical grid to connect distributed nodes; (b) Data storage, processing power, and technology stacks at the nodes; (c) An overarching data strategy; (d) Analytic tools such as artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML), and services that support fast, sound decisions.8

In essence, the kernel idea of Distributed Lethality took nearly five years to mature into the US Navy’s war fighting concept and has considerably improved US’ ability to counter Chinese maritime A2/AD capabilities through development of unmanned vehicles, ship mounted lasers, hypervelocity projectile and the gun-launched guided projectile called electromagnetic rail gun (EMRG).9

Third is about the Ghost Fleet which the US Navy is currently conceptualizing. At its heart is the threat perception that the Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) such as the DF-21D and DF-26 with ranges of 1,000 nautical miles as well as other missiles in the Chinese inventory could “strike a surface fleet or territory out as far as Guam,”10 Ghost fleet is closely associated with the architecture of the Distributed Maritime Operations. It comprises armed unmanned surface combatants that will supplement the current fleet. Rear Adm. Randy Crites, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for budget has observed that such a fleet would comprise of vessels that could displace about 2,000 tons and could be about 200 to 300 feet in length.11 The US Navy has experimented with several small unmanned surface vessel (USV) and has plans to acquire 10 large USVs (corvette-sized) capable of carrying a variety of sensors, vertical launch system (VLS) cells for guided missiles.12

The fourth issue relates to fiscal support for the development of a Ghost fleet and Distributed Maritime Operations. There is an internal debate within the US Navy about having a relook at future plans for surface combatants. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in its study has observed that the “New concepts for surface fleet missions... will increasingly rely on unmanned systems to perform sensing operations because unmanned systems can achieve the proximity or distribution to use passive sensors effectively or employ active sensors at acceptable risk,”13 Furthermore, “Engagements will largely continue to be ordered by a human operator, although that operator may be on a nearby manned platform and the weapon launched by an unmanned vehicle. Unmanned systems would conduct almost all counter- [surveillance and targeting] missions; they can make risk-worthy decoys or employ active countermeasures without exposing a manned platform to detection and attack.”14 A distinct trend towards unmanned and autonomous vessels and platforms in the future US naval force structure is discernable.15

In this context, the former acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly observed earlier this year “Unmanned is going to be a huge part of our future…Unmanned is a critical element — not just aerial but unmanned ships as well.”16 The US Navy plans to acquire a variety of large, medium and small unmanned vehicles (UVs) in FY2020 and beyond, and has sought US$ 628.8 million in FY2020 for R&D on three UV programs17 and the associated enabling technologies.18

It is evident from the above discussions that exceptional transformative changes in the US Navy are currently underway. The primacy of unmanned systems will increase in the US Navy’s force structure, and these platforms could lead intothe battle space without exposing human lives. The US Navy is also experimenting with a number of deployments; for instance, two MQ-4 high-altitude, high-endurance UAVs have been positioned in Guam and Admiral Michael Gilday the US Chief of Naval Operations has stated that these are “game-changing in terms of long-range ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] at altitude, with sensors that we haven’t had supporting the fleet before.”19 Similarly, US Navy’s autonomous ship Sea Hunter has been undertaking technology experimentations during the last few years. It has clocked nearly 30,000 nautical miles of which more than half have been under autonomous self-control.20 In 2019, Sea Hunter traversed 2,000 nautical miles between San Diego, California, to Hawaii and back, without human intervention and could be ready for operational deployment in the near future.

Although it has been noted that the “Americans are coming back strongly,” into the Pacific Ocean and “by 2024 or 2025 there is a serious risk for the PLA that their military developments will be obsolete,”21 the PLA Navy also boasts of an impressive lineup of Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies. It has been experimenting with an array of 4IR-enabled unmanned and autonomous naval and air platforms.22 However, little is known about PLA Navy’s concept of operations particularly in the context of integration of unmanned and autonomous platforms with manned warships. Perhaps what is conspicuous from open literature and sources is that it is not as grandiose and expansive as that of the US Navy!

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant, Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi

  1. “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress”, (accessed 12 June 2020). p. 25.
  2. Ibid.,p.2.
  3. “Eagle vs Dragon: How the U.S. and Chinese Navies Stack Up”, (accessed 12 June 2020).
  4. FONOP :Obama Administration-two in 2015 and three in 2016; Trump Administration: six in 2016, five in 2017 and three in 2018. Navy transits of the Taiwan Strait: 12 in 2016, five in 2017, three in 2018 and nine in 2019. “In challenging China’s claims in the South China Sea, the US Navy is getting more assertive”, (accessed 12 June 2020).
  5. “30-Year Plan: Navy Puts 355-Ship Cap on Fleet Size; Plans to Introduce Large Combatant, CHAMP Auxiliary Hull”, (accessed 12 June 2020).
  6. “Navy Kicks Off Most Advanced Wargames Since 1930s”, (accessed 12 June 2020). Also see “New Warfighter Development Directorate (OPNAV N7) Meant to Align Learning Efforts With Strategy”, (accessed 12 June 2020).
  7. “Distributed Lethality”, (accessed 12 June 2020).
  8. “Operationalizing Distributed Maritime Operations”, 12 June 2020).
  9. “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress”, (accessed 12 June 2020). Also see Vijay Sakhuja, “Game-changing Technologies for Future Naval Operations”, (accessed 12 June 2020).
  10. “Navy Wants 10-Ship Unmanned “Ghost Fleet’ to Supplement Manned Force”. 12 June 2020).
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. David B. Larter “The surface Navy needs to fundamentally reshape itself to defeat the Chinese threat, study finds”, (accessed 30 March 2020).
  14. Ibid.
  15. While the American fleet throughout its history has shifted back and forth between naval concepts favoring fewer large ships or smaller ones, the fleet architecture currently under development for the first time includes large numbers of robotic vessels.” See “Yes, the Navy Is Wants a Lot of Robot Ships to Deter a Rising China”, (accessed 29 March 2020).
  16. “CNO Calls Unmanned MQ-4C Triton ‘Game-Changing’”, (accessed 12 June 2020).
  17. Large Unmanned Surface Vehicles (LUSVs), Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicles (MUSVs), and Extra-Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (XLUUVs).
  18. “Report to Congress on Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles”, (accessed 29 March 2020).
  19. “CNO Calls Unmanned MQ-4C Triton ‘Game-Changing’”, (accessed 12 June 2020).
  20. “A fleeting advantage: No time to lose for US Navy’s unmanned ambitions”,
  21. (accessed 12 June 2020).

  22. “U.S. rearms to nullify China's missile supremacy”, (accessed 12 June 2020).
  23. For more details see Vijay Sakhuja “South China Sea: Unmanned Vessels and Future Operations”, ; Vijay Sakhuja, “China Leaps into Artificial Intelligence” South Asia Defence and Strategic Review, Vol 11, Issue, 6 Jan - Feb 2018, p.31.; Vijay Sakhuja “The Fourth Industrial Revolution and Underwater Warfare” South Asia Defence and Strategic Review, Vol 2, Issue1, Mar - Apr 2018, p.47.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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