Everybody knows that China is a big and rich country with a powerful naval force, but just how powerful EXACTLY is that force, and what can we do to counter them in the West Philippine Sea (WPS)? This is not an easy question to answer, but let me offer my opinion about it. First let’s take a good look at China’s naval forces so we can see what we are up against.
The Chinese navy is called the “People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)“, and no, there is no truth to the rumor that they own the “Army Navy Burger” chain of fastfood restaurants. The PLAN is composed of roughly 470 ships, although only around half are major armed naval combatants (i.e., which for me means Submarines and missile-armed Ships), broken down into:1
– One Aircraft Carrier
– 25 Destroyers
– 42 Frigates
– 120 Corvettes
– 65 Submarines
* 253 major naval combatants in total
These forces are divided into three main fleets covering different areas where the PLAN operates, which are the “North Sea Fleet“, the “East Sea Fleet“, and the “South China Sea Fleet” (which we shall refer to as the “West Philippine Sea Fleet“).
Their Northern and Eastern sea fleets are facing off the navies of Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, and since the navies of those countries are quite powerful themselves, the PLAN has put up their latest and/or their most powerful ships to face off against those navies, like their Sovremenny-class Destroyers, for example. The bulk of their submarine fleet are also shared between those two fleets.
The fleet that concerns us directly is the PLAN’s WPS fleet, which right now consists of:2
– One Aircraft Carrier
– Nine Destroyers
– 17 Frigates
– 35 Corvettes (approximate only, assuming their Houbei-class Missile Boats are equally divided among the three fleets)
– Eight Submarines
* 70 major naval combatants in total
Hence while China has more powerful enemies further up north, they are still able to field quite a formidable fleet in our area. In terms of quantity they have equally large numbers of both big and small ships, complemented by a couple of Submarines. Their lone aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is still not fully operational, and my guess is that they fielded it in the WPS because they are still gaining operational experience with it and they feel that it would be “safer” against the lesser navies in the WPS.
In the WPS, China is faced with not just one but two potential enemies in the Philippines and Vietnam. Vietnam is much closer to China than we are, in fact they share a border with them, and the “Vietnam People’s Navy (VPN)” is a strong one, more powerful than ours and currently consisting of:3
– Two Submarines
– Seven Frigates
– 17 Corvettes/Missile Boats
* 26 major naval combatants in total
Compared to China’s WPS fleet, the VPN only has less than half as many ships, but still formidable as they are of modern and contemporary design. Because of this, in any conflict with us, China will need to put a number of ships in reserve to pin down the VPN. However, since China has so many ships, even if they have a lot of potential enemies right now as long as they don’t fight those enemies all at the same time and just fight them off one at a time, then they will still be able to shuffle their forces around enough to reinforce an area. Hence we can assume that at any given time, they can, at the very least, field their ENTIRE WPS fleet in any confrontation against us.
To better appreciate just how strong this fleet is, let’s take a look at the current naval fleets of other rich and powerful countries:
- Australia (Eleven Frigates, six Submarines = 17 major ships in total)4
Germany, the number one economy in Europe (Eleven Frigates, eight Corvettes, four Submarines = 23 ships in total).5
India (Two Aircraft Carriers, nine Destroyers, 15 Frigates, 25 Corvettes, 15 Submarines = 66 ships in total)6
Taiwan (Four Destroyers, 22 Frigates, 90 Corvettes/Missile Boats, four Submarines = 120 ships in total)7
- Japan (Three Aircraft Carriers, 26 Destroyers, eleven Frigates, 16 Submarines = 56 ships in total)8
South Korea (One Aircraft Carrier, twelve Destroyers, ten Frigates, 21 Corvettes, twelve Submarines = 56 ships in total)9
(Note that Helicopters are also aircraft, hence a “Helicopter Carrier” is still an “Aircraft Carrier” which the navies of Japan and South Korea have.)
Remember that the number of ships cited above are the ENTIRE NAVIES of each country, and yet despite that only a few of them can numerically match up to just ONE FLEET of the PLAN. India, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have the numbers to almost numerically match up against a single fleet of China’s navy.
The sheer number of ships of the PLAN poses a huge problem for us in terms of establishing “Sea Control” anywhere in the Spratly Islands. Sea Control is defined as the power to use a maritime area for your own purposes AND at the same time PREVENT the use of that same area by your opponent.10 As applied to the WPS, we will need to establish Sea Control if we are to mine any area in the Spratlys because if not, our enemy will then be able to seize or destroy those mining assets.
Common sense dictates that to establish Sea Control you need to be STRONGER than your opponent in order to ensure that you can maintain your presence in an area despite opposition. If you are significantly WEAKER than you opponent, then you won’t be able to consistently defend your presence in an area. At the very least, you should be AS STRONG as your opponent to be able to have a 50-50 chance of maintaining control of an area.
But with China having such a large armada, it is unlikely that we can realistically match up to their entire navy. In fact, in terms of the sheer number of major naval combatants, China is NUMBER ONE in the world, not even the navies of Russia (176 major naval combatants)11 or the United States (183 major naval combatants)12 can match up with them numerically. Matching up to their WPS Fleet ONLY MAY be the more achievable option for us.
To establish Sea Control, we need to put something that will be VISIBLE to clearly communicate with everybody where the physical boundaries of our territories are which they should not cross. Submarines, wonderful weapons of war that they are, are not ideal for this because they rely on stealth for survival and effectiveness, and if they are out there showing themselves to challenge trespassers, then they are just throwing away their advantage. It’s good if we could just shoot anybody crossing our boundaries, but the reality is that initially there will just be a lot of POSTURING between both sides, with any actual shooting occurring later, if at all they do lead to such a situation.
For the same reason you can’t use land-based missiles as they are physically a hundred or so kilometers from an area, and will only come into play in a shooting war. Also, with the Recto Bank in the Spratlys being a good 260 km from the nearest area of Palawan, it is well beyond the range of most Anti Ship Missiles (AShM) made in the west, except for Russian missiles with their accompanying political complications.13
Aircraft would not be ideal as their endurance in patrolling areas are only measured in hours at a time, and they have relatively short lifespans measured only in thousands of flight hours before they need comprehensive overhauls. Also, with the Spratlys being a couple of hundred kilometers away, reinforcements even by high speed aircraft would arrive only after around 15-20 minutes, which may not be enough to prevent loss of our mining assets in the area.
So for me the only feasible tool that can establish visible presence and sea control of our boundaries for long periods of time are surface sea vessels or SHIPS as they can stay and monitor areas 24/7 for weeks or even months at a time.
Truthfully, it is kinda intimidating to even imagine how we can match up to a country with the most number of major naval combatants in the world, but let’s give it a try. It may be possible to discourage China from confronting our naval fleet thru “Deterrence“. This will only work if we can find a way to INTIMIDATE China, like for example having the capability to wipe out all or most of their WPS Fleet.
True, even if we wipe out their entire fleet they will just pull in more ships from their other fleets and destroy or seize our mining assets anyway, but other factors may also be in play, like that it will seriously degrade their naval capability and make them more vulnerable to their other enemies, and that maybe enough to discourage or deter them. The effect we are aiming for is like, “They may be able to kill us, but we can maim them also“, so in the end they will be thinking more about the prospect of being maimed rather than the prospect of “killing” us or our fleet.
The most straightforward way to do this would be to simple match up with them on a ship-for-ship basis, coming up with a fleet of around 70 vessels and target a 1:1 kill rate to wipe off their fleet, but this will be very difficult to do as it means having a navy as strong or as large of that of India, Japan, etc.
Another way to have an effective deterrence would be to have a navy with a QUALITATIVE ADVANTAGE, specifically meaning a navy made of ships that can destroy more ships than their total number, or in other words a navy that can inflict a 2:1 kill rate, meaning destroy two enemy vessels for a single loss. This means we can field a lesser number of ships, say only 35 vessels, but they will be of better quality and thus strong enough to wipe out the enemy’s entire fleet.
This “Qualitative Advantage” is what the navies of Russia and the US have over China, so even if their navies have lesser number of vessels, they are still more than a match for China’s navy. The problem though is:
– How to ensure that the casualty rate will indeed be 2:1 in our favor because if not, we will just end up losing our entire force and also lose the battle anyway.
– In order to gain that Qualitative Advantage, we will have to invest in more advanced and thus much more expensive technology, hence acquisition, operating and maintenance costs will be much higher;
– Since China has deeper pockets than ours, they may end up winning the technological battle anyway simply because they can spend more.
Remember that even as this blog is being written, China is building MORE and BETTER Destroyers and Aircraft Carriers. China is expected to have 3 operational Aircraft Carriers within a decade14 and will also be fielding a new, bigger Type 055 Destroyer15 intended to rival the United States’ new Zumwalt-class Destroyers.
And yet another alternative in the opposite direction is to have a QUANTITATIVE ADVANTAGE, meaning have more ships that are smaller and simpler than they have to win a Battle of Attrition. So for example, we field a force two times the size of their WPS Fleet at 140 vessels, so even if they achieve a kill rate of 2:1 against us, we will still be able to wipe out their entire fleet. This seems to be what Taiwan is aiming for judging by the sheer number of Corvettes/Missile Boats that they have.
The problem with this approach though is:
– Timing will be both critical and difficult in fielding such a large force into the right place and at the right time. Remember that ships aren’t very fast, it will take them hours if not days to go from one area to another depending on the distance. Smaller ships also have less range and endurance, compounding the problem.
– We will need to accept that we will have a LOT more CASUALTIES on our side than that of our enemy. We in fact will be SACRIFICING our naval assets and the lives of our sailors to win a victory;
– The MORALE of our force will have to be high enough so they will continue advancing and fighting even if they see most of their colleagues dying all around them;
– How to ensure that the casualty rate will indeed be no higher than 2:1 at most because if not, we will just end up losing our entire force and still lose the battle anyway.
– The costs of building, operating and maintaining such a large force will also be quite expensive.
‘The Philippine Navy’
Currently the Philippine Navy (PN) has a fleet of only thirteen ships, more than half of which are World War Two relics, and none are armed with missiles. In fact, the Navy has still yet to see its first AShM-armed vessel in its history. This fleet consists of:16
– Three Frigates
– Ten Corvettes
* Thirteen major naval vessels in total
So our navy is outnumbered in the WPS by a factor of more than five to one, meaning China has five ships for every single vessel that we have, and their ships are also better equipped and better armed than ours. The Navy does have a solid plan on the type of force they envision to have, call it a “Wish List” if you want, and it is called the “Philippine Navy Desired Force Mix“. In it, the Navy envisions a force of:17
– Six Anti-Air Warfare (AAW) Frigates
– Twelve Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Corvettes
– Three Submarines
* 21 major naval combatants in total
This force would not fit the theoretical forces needed to counter China as described in the previous sections, but then again when the navy came out with this list, their intention was to field a force enough to monitor and guard all of our vast territorial waters, and not necessarily to face up to China’s WPS fleet.
THEORETICALLY, there may be ways for us to contest China for Sea Control of the Spratly Islands, but REALISTICALLY, I think our prospects are bleak as we are working on a LOT of assumptions, like what might deter China, loss rates, etc. which in the end might be wrong. The costs of building a force strong enough to deter China would be enormous, one which our economy would not likely be able to handle without sacrificing the other aspects of our country like Infrastructure, Education, Agriculture, etc. And with a current Poverty Rate of 25% (meaning one out of every four Filipinos are poor, higher than Vietnam, Thailand, etc.), that’s not something that we might want to do.
So, does this mean that we should just give up on the modernization of our armed forces altogether? Not necessarily, as the whole idea above applies only to our prospects of securing mining assets in the Spratly Islands, and not necessarily to the defense of the Philippine mainland where the dynamics are a little bit different and may in fact still be in our favor despite China’s formidable armada. Besides, if we as a people keep electing the RIGHT leaders to lead this country, we may end up prosperous enough within the next 1-2 decades to be able to field a force that may at least deter China.
Bottomline is that we may have problems standing up to China now, but if we play our cards right we may be able to do so in the future. If we give up now, then there will absolutely be no chance for us to stand up to them at all …
- List of active People’s Liberation Army Navy ships, (https://web.archive.org/web/20150315054755/http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_active_People’s_Liberation_Army_Navy_ships) ↩
South Sea Fleet,
Vietnam People’s Navy,
- List of active Royal Australian Navy ships, (https://web.archive.org/web/20141016151705/http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Current_Royal_Australian_Navy_ships) ↩
- List of active German Navy ships, (https://web.archive.org/web/20150413081603/http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_active_German_Navy_ships) ↩
- List of active Indian Navy ships, (https://web.archive.org/web/20141027162504/http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_active_Indian_Navy_ships) ↩
- List of active Republic of China Navy ships, (https://web.archive.org/web/20160508095514/https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ships_of_the_Republic_of_China_Navy) ↩
List of active Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships,
- List of active Republic of Korea Navy ships, (https://web.archive.org/web/20150531041446/http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_active_Republic_of_Korea_Navy_ships) ↩
Sea Control and Sea Denial: Controlling of the seas today,
List of current ships of the Russian Navy 2014,
U.S.Navy Active Ship Force Levels, 2007 to 2011,
BRAHMOS MISSILES FOR THE PHILIPPINES?,
- China’s Oversized Aircraft Carrier Ambitions, (https://web.archive.org/web/20140903005010/http://thediplomat.com/2014/06/chinas-oversized-aircraft-carrier-ambitions/) ↩
Type 055 Desroyer,
- List of ships of the Philippine Navy, (https://web.archive.org/web/20150511020250/http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ships_of_the_Philippine_Navy) ↩
Philippine Desired Force Mix,