China fails faster than the US Navy in shipbuilding

Image courtesy of USNI

In the 1950s and 1960s, the term “Made in Japan” was a way of pointing out the poor quality of items, particularly vehicles, coming from Japan. Recovering from World War 2, Japanese manufacturing was just getting back on its feet, while America had enjoyed not being bombed or nuked into submission. But the Japanese were pretty industrious, and while American cars continued to decline in quality, particularly in gas mileage, Japanese vehicles slowly improved. All that was needed was a spark, and when the oil crisis happened in 1973, imports of the more fuel efficient Japanese cars soared. “Made in Japan” no longer implied poor quality.

“Made in China” is going through the same throes now. The picture above is the LUYANG III destroyer. If it looks uncannily like a US Destroyer, you’re not wrong, and capability-wise, its pretty close in many respects. The PLA Navy is on pace to crank out 2-3 of these every year. That alone is scary, but more importantly, the LUYANG III represents a Chinese 3 step building plan that involved failing fast, then making a big investment.

China didn’t have the most robust ship building, and its first LUYANG model, the Type 052B, was more of a test platform. They built two of these and learned a LOT about shipbuilding in the process. The Type 052B isn’t very capable in a big fight, but the point was to build something and be OK at failing a lot.

The next failed step was the Type 052C. Here China added extensive air search capabilities and used only Chinese systems. They also made these at different shipyards, exposing them to the issues created when you build ships in an enterprise. It’s not a bad ship, but again, was built to teach the Chinese how to build warships.

Enter the Type 052D, the LUYANG III. Extremely capable warship. Now that China has the right design, its cranking these out quickly. There are 13 in service and 11 in construction now. To put this in perspective, in 2019 the US Navy commissioned 2 new destroyers, and 8 total ships, one of which was an aircraft carrier.

Speaking of aircraft carriers, China is working on carrier #4 now. You’ll see the same “fail fast” pattern here as well. First carrier was a Ukrainian purchase. It sucks, but it was mostly designed to teach China how to operate with a carrier. The second carrier was China’s first Russian-knock off, the Shandong, and it taught the Chinese how to build something pretty large. The third carrier, with an estimated 85K tonnage, will likely be completely Chinese design and help iron out bugs in the design process. Talks about carrier number 4 being nuclear are already happening. I’m guessing that when China begins carrier #5, it will have a design it likes and will crank out 10 of them in a row.

In the meantime, we can’t get a US shipyard to crank out a warship on-time or on-budget, and we’re cutting the shipbuilding budget anyway. We have more experience than the Chinese Navy, but that gap is closing as the Chinese deploy around the world, including near constant deployments to the Middle East and Europe.

Give it five years, and China’s Navy will have the numbers and equipment to be better than the US Navy in nearly any combat situation. That should scare us.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.