With lax labor laws and rapidly growing shipbuilding capacity, a United States Navy (USN) official said on Tuesday China could out-produce the United States in warship construction—and he might be just right.

USN Secretary Carlos Del Toro spoke at a National Press Club Headliners luncheon in Washington, DC, about the persistent endeavors of Beijing “to violate the maritime sovereignty and economic well-being of other nations,” especially to allies situated around the highly-disputed South China Sea.

Carlos Del Toro
Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro speaking during a ceremony at Mahan Hall in Annapolis, Maryland, February 17, 2023. (Image source: DVIDS)

Because of its rapidly growing naval fleet, China has become more daring and aggressive in its military expansion and activities near the waters it claims to be historically theirs, which, if ignored, could spiral out of control.

They got a larger fleet now so they’re deploying that fleet globally,” Del Toro said, stressing more than ever the urgent need for the modernization and shipbuilding expansion of the US Fleet. “We do need a larger Navy, we do need more ships in the future, more modern ships in the future, in particular, that can meet that threat.”

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) currently boasts approximately 340 ships and might ramp up its fleet to 60 more in the near future. Meanwhile, the US Navy maintains less than 300 warships, which could further shrink as several old vessels are scheduled for decommissioning, according to a November report by the US Congressional Budget Office. Not to mention the Navy’s plans to replace the retiring fleet with more sophisticated next-generation warships, the expected number of 350 manned ships by 2045 remains a hundred-plus short of China’s projected fleet.

‘Quality’ Couldn’t Always Win Over ‘Quantity’

This urgent call from Del Toro isn’t new, as many experts have previously highlighted the outnumbered fleet issue of the USN.

Yes, our fleet is no doubt more sophisticated, powerful, and capable, with thousands of competent and highly skilled sailors on board, but as history has shown us— particularly in naval warfare, the side with “the larger fleet almost always wins.”

CVN 77
A C-2A Greyhound aircraft takeoffs from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) on February 21, 2023. (Image source: DVIDS)

Retired USN Captain Sam J. Tangredi tackled this in the January issue of the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine. He examined 28 naval wars—from the Greco-Persian Wars of 500 BC to the recent Cold War proxy conflicts and interventions—and found only three instances of quality defeating quantity.

I’ve heard a lot of people saying recently, ‘Quantity has a quality all its own.’ And I just want to be clear: No, it doesn’t. That’s one of the dumbest damn things I’ve ever heard,” Tangredi, a US Naval War College professor, wrote. “With respect to the quoted speaker, not only does quantity have a quality all its own, but it also almost always proves decisive in naval warfare when professional competence is equal.”

He continued: “Using technological advantage as an indicator of quality, historical research on 28 naval wars (or wars with significant and protracted naval combat) indicates that 25 were won by the side with the larger fleet. When fleet size was roughly equal, superior strategy and substantially better trained and motivated crews carried the day.”

Only three could be said to have been won by a smaller fleet with superior technology.”

With tensions increasing between the US and China, and the potential invasion of the latter of Taiwan by 2027, concerns about “American Navy lag” becomes more imperative than ever.

When professional naval competence and strategic acumen were equal, the larger fleet usually won, even when the smaller fleet possessed technological advantages at the start of the conflict,” the retired captain wrote, adding, “In a war between equally competent technological near peers—absent a series of amazing strokes of luck—the larger fleet always won.”

Pentagon officials have previously recognized this issue as a “pacing threat,” with most relying on the technology the US clearly dominates. However, to counter this argument, Tangredi highlighted how the “quantity” of USN ships and their fast-paced production capacity was among the reasons why the “quality” fleet of the Imperial Japan Navy in World War II was defeated at the Pacific Theater. (You can check out Tangredi’s full essay here)

Keeping Up With The Demand

Compared to China, which has leeway in stretching its production and labor-related limitations to the brim, the US needs to catch up or surpass, if possible, before it’s too late. In addition to restrictive labor laws and economic pressure, extending the latter’s shipyards could warrant challenges and pose manufacturing inadequacies.

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ROCS Fong Yang (FFG-933) Wikimedia Commons

That presents a real threat,” Del Toro claimed, pointing out over a dozen Chinese shipyards with some capable of major production than all the shipyards in the US. Thus, boosting Beijing’s capacity to build ships faster, though not guaranteed to be as good as the tech quality the US Navy possesses.

Aside from the production gap, the weapons support to Ukraine is also among the factors for the cause of ammunition stock lowering to adequate levels.

Admiral Daryl Caudle, commander of US Fleet Forces Command, called on the nation’s defense industries last month to step up their game, saying, “you’re not delivering the ordnance we need.”

He added, “It’s so essential to winning. And I can’t do that without the ordnance … [the US is] going against a competitor here, and a potential adversary, that is like nothing we’ve ever seen.”

Despite its rapid progress in modernizing its military, China remains far ahead behind in terms of advanced technologies. Nonetheless, its capacity to build a fleet and other military equipment (such as missiles, hypersonic technologies, etc.) at an alarming rate—to which the US is lagging behind—is a reasonable cause for concern.