Is the US Navy Big Enough to Take on China and Iran?

Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam. He is completing a book on the international challenges America faces in the 21st century.


Obama claimed during the debate that the US Navy, now at its smallest size since 1917, is more than big enough for what we need to do. At the same time, Obama has pushed into the Pacific to counter China, while trying to maintain a presence in the Mediterranean to fight piracy and still holding on to enough naval power to lift an Iranian blockade of the Strait of Hormuz.

China has gotten fairly aggressive in the South China Sea, confronting Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. These confrontations may eventually lead to war.

We won’t get too detailed here in terms of vessel equivalency, or what kind of vessels will be most useful in what type of conflict, so let’s just look at numbers alone.

The US Navy has 53 submarines. The Chinese Navy has 63.

The US Navy has 62 destroyers. The Chinese Navy has 25.

The US Navy has 24 frigates. The Chinese Navy has 47.

The US Navy has 13 aircraft carriers. The Chinese Navy has 1.

The US Navy has has a total of 285 active vessels. The Chinese Navy has a total of 515 combat vessels and 138 major combat vessels, though this includes some ships and forces that would be classified as part of the Coast Guard in the US.

And the Chinese Navy is being expanded with all that money that Obama is borrowing to pay off his campaign donors.

Now add to that another 30 Iranian submarines, 2 destroyers and 6 frigates, and the US Navy’s resources becomes strained if it has to deal with two conflicts at the same time, while maintaining anti-piracy operations as well.

As former Naval captain John McCain has pointed out, “I don’t know why the President of the United States feels it necessary to denigrate and insult his opponent,” he said. “This is a man who has never known anything about national defense or national security or served in the military, and to make a smart remark about horses and bayonets and planes that fly off aircraft carriers to me is not only unpresidential but shows a lack of maturity and a lack of judgment.”

“We have pivoted to the Asia Pacific and we know that requires more ships and more naval presence,” McCain said. “To justify a steady reduction in shipbuilding shows a misunderstanding of the size of the challenge we face in the Asia-Pacific region. And sequestration, which he cavalierly said ‘won’t happen,’ will have a draconian effect on shipbuilding in Portsmouth and the other industries such as BAE in New Hampshire as well.”

  • Terry

    Come on people it doesn't take a large Navy to launch nukes !
    Go back to your armchairs and watch what Americans do best
    and watch your Foorball games.
    Leave it up to the military experts and not the greedy arms builders.

    • Daniel Greenfield

      No, it takes a large Navy to protect commercial trade routes and maintain international alliances.

      • Richard

        Yes, it does. I don't know where you get the idea that the USN would have to take on Iran and China simultaneously, though. It does take a very large navy to maintain commercial routes, but many of those routes go to China, so nix those in the case of a conflict. Also, in the case of Chinese commerce raiders running rampant, there would be many more ships of our allies taking to the sea lanes, both to aid us and defend their own interests. You are talking about several hundred ships there. Our contribution would be largely battle fleets, and we so outclass the Chinese in that regard, the comparison is absurd. It would take the Chinese decades to be able to challenge the USN, or even credibly threaten our commercial interests. I do not, however, forsee any open conflict with China. They are far too important a trading partner right now, and we haven't even begun to get our part back in that trade. We got into China early and gave them an early advantage in order to achieve a long-term payoff. Why would they or we jeopardize that now?

        • Daniel Greenfield

          Tensions are hearing up in the Strait and South China Sea, so it's an entirely plausible scenario.

          • Richard

            Sorry, but I need more than a one-sentence statement saying it is so. Yes, there are tensions in the region. There's Taiwan. There's the Spratley Islands. China might start something over Taiwan, but they're not ready for that yet. They wouldn't throw their weight around for the Spratley's, though, not yet anyway. There's no point to it. That there is tension in the Gulf of Persia and the South China Sea simultaneously doesn't mean those antagonists would team up. In fact, they'd both try to play off each other as distractions. There will be no alliance. I see no plausible scenario. Our navy is sufficient, and they have new toys to play with.

          • Daniel Greenfield

            History is full of conflicts that one side was sure wouldn't happen.

          • objectivefactsmatter

            "Sorry, but I need more than a one-sentence statement saying it is so."

            That merely reflects your ignorance.

            "That there is tension in the Gulf of Persia and the South China Sea simultaneously doesn't mean those antagonists would team up."

            No. Enemy nations always wait their turn to fight their opposition. "Oops. Pardon me, did you strike already? We'll just wait for your conflict to finish before we start up over here. Please let us know when your ready to fight on this side of the world."

            Yeah, that's how the real world works.

            "In fact, they'd both try to play off each other as distractions."

            And what in real terms does that mean to you? What's the example where they "play off each other" by waiting politely while they strike in turn, waiting for one to go first and the other following only when the USA regroups?

            "I see no plausible scenario. Our navy is sufficient, and they have new toys to play with."

            You've convinced nobody but yourself.

          • objectivefactsmatter
        • PaulRevereNow

          "It would take the Chinese decades to challenge the USN, or even credibly threaten our commercial interests." So why did the USS George Washington evacuate the Yellow Sea, a few years ago, upon being told to do so, by the Chinese? Sorry, I don't agree with your complacent view of things. The Chinese are responsible for the loss of 9 million American jobs; they OWN the United States. You'd better wake up.

        • objectivefactsmatter

          "I don't know where you get the idea that the USN would have to take on Iran and China simultaneously"

          Ever heard the phrase "doomsday scenario" outside of fiction? How about "disaster planning?"

          "I do not, however, forsee any open conflict with China. They are far too important a trading partner right now, and we haven't even begun to get our part back in that trade. We got into China early and gave them an early advantage in order to achieve a long-term payoff. Why would they or we jeopardize that now?"

          Thank you armchair analyst. Um, how far in to the future do you foresee? How long would it take to rebuild the navy when things change? You do realize that China is not a democracy, right? Leaders change, policies change, circumstances change. China's investments could lead to disaster and desperation as their economy is not diverse or as flexible as past growth leads some to assume. Most investments are centrally planned, so what does that tell you?

          Actually my counsel is to keep and expand the "big" navy, and send China a bill for the sea lanes we police on behalf of their trade ships.

    • objectivefactsmatter

      "Go back to your armchairs and watch what Americans do best
      and watch your Foorball games.
      Leave it up to the military experts and not the greedy arms builders."

      Like you and Barrack? Time for a change in leadership. As for you, we need you as much as we need Obama.

  • amused

    C'mon Greenfield how many Los Angeles class subs do the Chinese Have ? How many Aegis Cruisers do the Chinese have ? How many Killer Subs do the Chinese have ? What size fleet of Advanced American Vessels is necessarry to keep the Hormuz open ?
    Face it Greenfield , whoever on Romneys team advised him to bring up that fruitcake comparison with the American Fleet of 1917 [which by the way was inferior to tyhe British Fleet ] had rocks in their head .The analogy that Obama used was realistic .

    • PaulRevereNow

      Face it,, the U.S. Navy won the Spanish-American war by first destroying a Spanish squadron in Manila Bay, on May 1, 1898. There was a powerful German naval squadron in Manila Bay, watching the combat; ready to destroy the Spaniards had they won. When the U.S. fleet was victorious, the German naval squadron retired, leaving the Americans strictly alone. In 1898, it was good to be American; you could do almost anything.(As John Milius says) It was likewise in 1917, when but for the presence of American troops, the Germans would have won WWI, as the British and French were completely exhausted. The U.S. fleet has been the world’s best since then; and under George W. Bush, our fleet had nearly 600 ships; and was a very credible threat to the nasty boys from China and Iran. But thanks to Barry and Dhimmicrat spending sprees, our fleet has been made into McHale’s navy. Barry thinks that a Navy is something in the bathtub.

      • Richard

        What does the battle in Manila Bay have to do with any of this? It didn't even have a great effect on the Spanish-American War. That was mostly fought in Cuba. What does the presence of the Germans there have to do with anything? You make a good statment about the American influence on the outcome of WWI, but what is your point? WWI did not make the USN ascendant. Heck, Germany had a larger and better fleet than us in WWI. And how does any of that relate to the size of the fleet under Bush? Reagan wanted the 600 ship navy. What good did that do? It sure set us in good stead in Granada, eh? We sure whupped them Commies. What does any of that have to do with our current fleet and its mission? What does any of this have to do with the current president? Did you just want to give us all a half-lesson in history?

        • PaulRevereNow

          You're not only wrong, but ignorant. The Spanish-American war was mostly a naval war; some of which was fought around Cuba. What good does having a 600 ship fleet do? Well, its the difference between being able to handle a two-front war, and not being able to. If you think not being prepared is better than being ready, then that's your problem. And you're forgetting about the Lend Lease to England, in 1940-41; by which we gave 50 destroyers to the British, so they could win the crucial battle of the Atlantic, and hold out alone against Hitler's attempts to cut England off from badly needed supply convoys.

    • Daniel Greenfield

      How many stealth fighters and Apache helicopters do the Taliban have?

      • Richard

        None. I suppose your point is that an opponent can wreak havoc without the world's best equipment. However, your example is that of a guerilla war. There is really no such thing as a guerilla war in the ocean, not any more. This is no day of commerce raiders. You can make an argument for it in coastal waters, but not so much any more. Satellites have made that very difficult, and obsolete in a blue water navy. Then there is the issue of armament. The Taliban can do nothing to a stealth fighter, while it can strike them with impunity. The Apache can also deal them considerable damage, though they can bring it down. What can the Taliban do to a ship? With a fast cigarette boat and explosives, they can make a harbor attack, but that stands a better chance of working during peacetime than during war.

        • Daniel Greenfield

          Iran is planning for one actually. It's their naval doctrine.

        • Raymond in DC

          A handful of Taliban fighters a few weeks ago destroyed a squadron of Harriers and other aircraft at a supposedly "secure" Marine Corps base in Afghanistan.

          As to Iran, they can field hundreds of speedboats (based on a British design) and a number of submarines armed with fast torpedoes. With the aid of Iran's own UAVs, this will be asymmetric warfare on the high seas.

          In 2000 a US warship was put out of commission by a few guys in a rubber dingy. In 2006 an Israeli warship was put out of commission by a single missile fired from Lebanon. In both cases we underestimated the will and capabilities of the enemy.

        • objectivefactsmatter

          "None. I suppose your point is that an opponent can wreak havoc without the world's best equipment. However, your example is that of a guerilla war. There is really no such thing as a guerilla war in the ocean, not any more."

          2 words for you to google: boat swarm

    • objectivefactsmatter

      "The analogy that Obama used was realistic"

      LOL. Clueless.

    • patrick byrne

      China is growing to be pretty impressive in many areas, but their naval capability, though by what this invalid article states or fails to state, is so far behind the USA's it's laughable…though we both have nuclear missiles, and that is all we need to eliminate mankind for good. This type of one-sided article is as laughable as the capability of the Chinese navy!

  • tarasbalderdash

    Being superior is not the same as being capable of being in two places at once. We already had challenges keeping all the bases covered when I was in the Navy decades ago playing underwater tag with the Soviets. I was shocked to read the number of ships we currently have deployed. The current approach to ship building, combined with the neglect of our nuclear weapons development and testing program is irresponsible and dangerous.

    • Richard

      So we need more nukes?

      • Cuthbert

        More? Not really. We need to replace the aging warheads we have, improve the design and test them. We are the only power NOT doing that at this point. We are unilaterally disarming, trusting that our enemies will follow our good example.

      • objectivefactsmatter

        "So we need more nukes?"

        I'll give you some ice cream if you'll go in the other room and leave the adults to talk. OK Richy?

  • Amused

    Good Point …..As stealth fighters and Bombers go ? NONE . As for Apache Helos NONE [ Helos wouldn't be used unless we were in a conflict with boots on the ground ] . If they were used to keep a waterway open they would be Carrier based and we have plenty with one due to be completed the CV Gerald Ford

  • amused

    One Aegis Cruiser could take out 5 battleships simutaneously before they even appeared on the horizon, ONE Carrier can destroy a Nation , ONE Nuclear Sub can destroy several ,ONE Squadron of US advanced Fighters can destroy an Air Force . The Chinese Navy couldn't even scare off the Japanese Naval contingent in the dispute over that island off the Northern Japanese coast .
    In addition , the Chinese have hardly any if at all military installations outside of their borders , and if there were to be a conflict with China at all militarily it would be over Taiwan , and if that be the case Naval power would not be an advantage , for there would either be a diplomatic solution or an out and out conflagration in which the consequences would be unthinkable . Unless of course there's a strategy to nuke China over the issue .

    • Cuthbert

      Agreed, our weapon systems are awesome. But they are too expensive and there are not enough of them. If you don't have your fleet reasonably close to the area of potential war you can't just make them magically appear. UPS does not have a combat ship sized overnight shipping tube. We're spread too thin.

    • objectivefactsmatter

      "One Aegis Cruiser could take out 5 battleships simutaneously before they even appeared on the horizon, ONE Carrier can destroy a Nation , ONE Nuclear Sub can destroy several ,ONE Squadron of US advanced Fighters can destroy an Air Force . The Chinese Navy couldn't even scare off the Japanese Naval contingent in the dispute over that island off the Northern Japanese coast "

      You are so clueless. I don't even know where to begin. It's another time sink. You are amusing though.

  • Rolly Guevara

    I'm a Filipino and live in this beautiful island nation since birth. I have Chinese friends and all I can say to them is, they are good in terms of running their family business, faithful and loyal friends indeed. As a young teenager in our place in Manila, we, together with my Chinese friends had conflicts with other groups. And to tell you frankly, my Chinese friends were running scared when we fought other groups, even if the advantage was on our side. All were left are my fellow Filipinos winning the rumble. If I may say so, the next American president should focus on the dwindling US economy and not on scarring the Chinese. It is obvious that China trembles as they watched the super aircraft carrier, USS George Washington, transit along the South China Sea and arrived here in Manila today, October 24, 2012. The Chinese are not generally as brave as the Americans and the Filipinos, who are great allies and fought side by side against the Spaniards in 1898 and against Imperial Japan in WW II. It is a mere fact that the Great Wall was built by the Chinese to show their perseverance but I see it as a symbol of their cowardliness to defend themselves against foreign invaders during the ancient times.

    • objectivefactsmatter

      "I'm a Filipino and live in this beautiful island nation since birth. I have Chinese friends and all I can say to them is, they are good in terms of running their family business, faithful and loyal friends indeed. As a young teenager in our place in Manila, we, together with my Chinese friends had conflicts with other groups. And to tell you frankly, my Chinese friends were running scared when we fought other groups, even if the advantage was on our side. All were left are my fellow Filipinos winning the rumble. If I may say so, the next American president should focus on the dwindling US economy and not on scarring the Chinese."

      I'm glad you're happy there. However, you are aware that China is not a democracy and that most people who care at all about foreign policy consider the Chinese people to be oppressed by their government I assume. So don't think anyone cautioning against trusting China has any problems with Chinese people.

      "It is obvious that China trembles as they watched the super aircraft carrier, USS George Washington, transit along the South China Sea and arrived here in Manila today, October 24, 2012"

      That's the way enemy nations should feel, and friendly nations should rejoice on sight of any USA flag and especially one flying on a naval ship. But remember, if China is our enemy, it's us against the Chinese government, not the people. I think most Chinese are pro-American. But let's not get so far off topic here.

  • Tough Love

    Dear Mr. McCain,

    I'm sure President Obama is very sorry for insulting any of the horses or bayonets listening to the debate.

    And as for not being "presidential", have you looked in a mirror lately ?

    • objectivefactsmatter

      "And as for not being "presidential", have you looked in a mirror lately ?"

      McCain is not the president.

  • amused

    Presently the US has 11 Nimitz class supercarriers / 1 Enterprise class supercarrier [ USS ENTERPRISE] / 2 Nimitz class supercarriers under construction and 1 un-named Nimitz class supercarrier in the planning stage ..So unless we plan having problems in all Seven Seas simultaneously I would think 15 Super carriers in conjunction with our Nato Allies ought to cover any gaps .

    • objectivefactsmatter

      "Presently the US has… I would think…ought to cover any gaps "

      You and your idol.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lachlans.ward.9 Lachlan S Ward

    An interesting site with a detailed look at some of the ships Obama is going to cut:
    http://www.jeffhead.com/usn21/

  • http://Pagemag.cOm Rob

    The argument is irrelevant as the US would have the navy on which the sun never sets,the best one in the world man for man ship for ship by their side. For example a type 45 Royal Navy destroyer can take out 38 fighter jets at once I’d love to see an American or chinnese on do that. You shouldn’t write off the ROYAL NAVY so quickly as the majority of the equipment was made and invented by the Brits so they know it’s flaws. HavIng said that the chInnese equipment is to bad to have been made in Great Britan.

    • Alan Dangerfield

      In the Falklands The Navy lost the Coventry to two outdated sky hawk bombers, and she was supposed to be the latest design in warships. don't be too confident, and don't forget we are led by Donkey's.

    • Patrick Byrne

      Ha, ha, ho, ho ha!! Oh man, are you really comparing the "colonies'" navy to the highly superior USN's? Man oh man you folks in the "colonies" are sure full of yourself. Too much weirdness going on over there, over there.

  • Bujai

    I would like to see that US should help democratic friendly allies to build a better Navy. This would help to protect both their mutual interests against hostile countries like China or say Iran.

  • http://www.konnection.com.au/ Shane Greenwall

    As of now, I think it can. However, I wouldn't rule out the US building even more ships to augment its fleet.

  • Demise of West

    blah, blah, blah, bunch of sack of western faeces wasting life w/o combat exp scanning for porn. I support BRIC b/c i dont want an unopposed West to preponderously rape the world as it pleases.

  • Demise of West

    Anyone know whats a word for denoting unopposed western world domination? Western Tyranny!

  • Demise of West

    Oh. look copycats of Fascist technologies proclaiming itself original & great?!! ie b2 stealth bomber from nazi, satellite from soviet, m60 from mg42, grenade from china, cruise missile from nazi, ICBM from v2 nazi rockets, nuke bomb from nazi WMD projects etc. oh & lets not forget M1 Abram MBT uses germany's engine technology.

  • Demise of West

    If it wasn't for the fact that fascist powers operate from lukeworm sized land mass of a country, we'll all be speaking jap & german. No technological edge can dismantle the law of nature: Big country (Russia, China, & yes USA) = more resources to work with. So inspite of all your western rambling & scrabbling, the West can never conquer big Russia & China period. Case in point, Korean war, when China was a technologically abysmal force, the superior US & literally the free world cannot conquer it then, it certainly cannot now, b/c China just like Russia, it has the competence to turn her enemies into smoldering ashes.

  • Demise of West

    Hold your western melee a sec, just indulge w/ me in the ageless law of nature that bestowed upon the universe; quality can killstreak w/ ease, but it can never overwhelm, while quantity cannot killstreak but it can forever overwhelm w/ ease. This rule applies to infinity BC, 2013 AD, & will continue to apply in infinity AD For example, say in 99999999999999999999999999999999999 AD West have 10 uber-ultra invincible MBT that indeed can easily killstreak but her adversary acquires 99999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999 tiger MBT of WW2 obsolete design that indeed will easily overwhelm the last stand of the 10 uber-ultra invincible MBT. Get it?

  • Demise of West

    So unless you western belligerent fiends can match your $$$ to your GDP to your uber-ultra tech to your 999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999 expensive military gears like B2, B3, B4, next gen MBT, submarine, aircraft carriers, laser, rail guns, particle cannon, then yes go full loadout on destroying China, Iran, Russia, NK into submission.

  • Ghenghis

    Senile McCain is up again, but only with military gibberish. McCain, after all, is just a POW in Hanoi Hilton. In contrast, Obama is a Nobel Laurette Kenyan in charge of little white House.

  • dr. elm

    China has no intention of damaging their foreign trade agreements and the USA has no intention to continue to give anything but the largest possible amount of money to their defense contractors. No worries. This nonsense will carry unhindered for enough time, until China falls apart internally.