In a speech delivered on June 2 to the Shangri-La Security Dialogue conference in Singapore, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta attempted to convince his audience that America's "rebalancing" strategy to the Asia-Pacific region -- previous called a "pivot" -- is serious and will be backed by expanded military power. Panetta announced that by 2020, 60 percent of the U.S. Navy will be positioned in the Pacific. He also openly discussed the controversial Air-Sea Battle concept, while denying that the reinforcements and new plans are a challenge to China. He also promised to step up the presence of U.S. military forces in the region, both through new basing arrangements and by an expanded list of training exercises with partner military forces.
Panetta likely hoped his remarks would bolster the credibility of the administration's strategy. On closer examination, there is less to Panetta's Pacific naval buildup than meets the eye. The U.S. Navy's intelligence office, by contrast, expects China's naval expansion this decade to be more substantial, especially when it comes to its submarine force. The reinforcements that Panetta discussed and new ideas like the Air-Sea Battle concept are necessary but insufficient responses to the worsening military trends in the region. The United States should not expect to win an arms race in the Western Pacific. Instead, it will have to find other more enduring advantages if it hopes to craft a sustainable strategy for the region.
Panetta's promise to base 60 percent of the U.S. fleet in the Pacific was not news -- Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced this intention in a speech back in March. Panetta's assertion that there is currently a "50/50 percent split between the Pacific and the Atlantic" is also not quite right. According to the department's website, of the Navy's 186 major conventional warships (aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, amphibious ships, and attack and cruise missile submarines), 101, or 54 percent, current have home ports on the Pacific Ocean. The Navy's latest 30-year shipbuilding plan forecasts 181 of these major combat ships in the fleet in 2020. A 60 percent allocation implies 109 major combatants in the Pacific in 2020, an increase of eight such ships from today.
On the other hand, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) forecasts that China's navy will own 106 major warships in 2020, up from 86 in 2009. Seventy-two of these are expected to be attack submarines, compared to 29 for the United States in the Pacific in 2020, under the 60 percent allocation assumption. For the two decades beyond 2020, the U.S. Navy's shipbuilding plan projects no increase in the number of major warships. China's long-range shipbuilding plans are unknown; however, its defense budget has increased at an 11.8 percent compound annual rate, after inflation, between 2000 and 2012, with no indications of any changes to that trend.
Of course, counting ships does not tell the whole story. Even more critical are the missions assigned to these ships and the conditions under which they will fight. In a hypothetical conflict between the United States and China for control of the South and East China Seas, the continental power would enjoy substantial structural advantages over U.S. forces.
China, for instance, would be able to use its land-based air power, located at many dispersed and hardened bases, against naval targets. The ONI forecasts China's inventory of maritime strike aircraft rising from 145 in 2009 to 348 by 2020. U.S. land-based air power in the Western Pacific operates from just a few bases, which are vulnerable to missile attack from China (the Cold War-era Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty prevents the United States from developing theater-based surface-to-surface missiles with ranges sufficient to put Chinese bases at risk). A comparison of ship counts similarly does not include China's land-based anti-ship cruise missiles, fired from mobile truck launchers. Nor does it account for China's fleet of coastal patrol boats, also armed with anti-ship cruise missiles.