China United States

Could the U.S. Navy Replace Ships Fast Enough in a War with China?

Written by James Holmes

The United States could lose a Western Pacific naval war because Communist China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) can regenerate combat power more readily than the U.S. sea services can. Or, more precisely, China’s sprawling industrial base could replace hardware lost in action faster than could U.S. industry. That’s a message General David Berger, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, will reportedly broadcast in a forthcoming directive entitled Naval Campaigning: The 2020 Marine Corps Capstone Operating Concept. Breaking Defense reported on an advance copy of Naval Campaigning last week.

Among the document’s money quotes: “Replacing ships lost in combat will be problematic, inasmuch as our industrial base has shrunk, while peer adversaries have expanded their shipbuilding capacity. In an extended conflict, the United States will be on the losing end of a production race—reversing the advantage we had in World War II when we last fought a peer competitor.” This is incontestable. In the Pacific, for instance, the U.S. economy was nine or ten times the size of Japan’s. Industry was already roaring by the time the United States entered the war. After all, the nation had commenced riveting together what amounted to a second complete U.S. Navy under the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940. That isn’t the case today.

General Berger may sound like a Cassandra spinning lurid prophesies. But remember, the Greek god Apollo blessed Cassandra with the gift of foresight. Her prophesies were accurate. Her curse—also courtesy of Apollo, whose amorous overtures she had rebuffed—was that no one ever believed her words, no matter how prescient they were.


One hopes Commandant Berger finds a more receptive audience. His chances are better than Cassandra’s. Like the mythical soothsayer, he is no stranger to stark forecasts. Unlike her, he wields substantial authority. He can impose his views on the Marine Corps for the most part. He enjoys a bully pulpit vis-à-vis the Pentagon and Congress, and he uses it to hold forth.

Read more at National Interest

About the author

James Holmes

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and author of “Visualize Chinese Sea Power,” in the current issue of the Naval Institute Proceedings. The views voiced here are his alone.

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