The United States is facing a naval shipbuilding dilemma as it grapples with China’s growing fleet and maritime influence. China has the world’s largest number of battle force ships, with over 370 platforms compared to 291 for the United States. It is expected that China’s fleet will reach 435 ships by the end of this decade while the U.S. fleet will not see any change in size.
China’s fleet is concentrated in the Western Pacific, giving them an asymmetric military advantage in the region. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy is stretched thin defending all of the world’s oceans. The United States currently lacks a collective approach to naval shipbuilding and sustainment with its allies and partners to effectively compete with China. Protectionist legislation, “buy American” quotas, and technology transfer restrictions have hindered industrial cooperation with allies.
The U.S. Department of Defense has acknowledged that the country’s maritime industry has significantly less capacity than leading shipbuilding nations such as South Korea, Japan, and China. China’s dominance in commercial shipbuilding has national security consequences for the U.S., as it relies on Chinese-built tankers and cargo ships for military operations.
China’s rapid growth in commercial shipbuilding capacity has translated into the world’s largest navy in less than 20 years. While the U.S. has made efforts to upgrade shipyards and develop new technologies, collaboration with allies is seen as vital to supplement America’s insufficient shipbuilding capacity. However, legislation like the Jones Act and the Buy American Act have made it difficult for the U.S. to engage in meaningful industrial cooperation with its allies.
The United States must fully harness the potential of its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific to address its naval shipbuilding dilemma. South Korea, the world’s second-largest shipbuilder, has emerged as a key naval supplier for U.S. allies and partners around the world. U.S. military and defense experts recognize that South Korea can help address America’s own needs and there is growing interest in shipbuilding cooperation between the two countries.
Exploring ambitious new ideas for collective shipbuilding among allies and conducting more sustainment in allied shipyards in the Indo-Pacific are approaches worth considering. The United States must leverage the industrial capabilities of its allies to effectively compete with China in naval shipbuilding and ensure its future in the Indo-Pacific.