The U.S. Navy's 2016 shipbuilding plan called for 355 ships needed to compete in an increasingly contested international environment. The acting Secretary of the Navy has promised the Navy's new plan will be complete by Jan. 15, 2020, but by all accounts, the number of ships will be reduced to 304, allotting for the construction of 10 new ships per year, fewer than the 2016 assessment.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Navy is increasing its naval presence – at a massive rate.
The People's Liberation Army Navy is gearing up for the naval fight of the century, one that will likely happen without ever firing a shot. For control of the contested islands in the South China Sea, the PLAN is going to have to intimidate all the other naval forces of the world, but mostly the United States Navy. While China sees the waters around the Spratly Islands as its sovereign territory, other countries in the neighborhood don't see it that way. The U.S. Navy, as part of its Freedom of Navigation mission, makes regular trips through these "Chinese waters," challenging China's claim to the islands and its territorial sea.
Basically, the U.S. Navy goes to contested sea areas and conducts operations inconsistent with "Innocent Passage," which would be any action that doesn't contribute to their quick and hasty movement through the territorial waters. When the U.S. Navy does something like launch planes or helicopters while in the disputed zones, it's basically telling China, the U.S. doesn't recognize their claim. In the South China Sea, there are at least two island chains in dispute between the Chinese and their neighbors.
The U.S. doesn't take sides, but it also doesn't recognize China's Excessive Maritime Claims, so it frequently conducts Freedom of Navigation operations – and China hates it.
China's response to the ongoing Freedom of Navigation operations has been to increase the presence of its deployed military hardware throughout the Spratly and Paracel Islands. It has even moved its vaunted DF-26 Ballistic Missile forces onto the islands in an effort to intimidate the U.S. Navy from continued operations. It has not been successful. China has even put its own ships in the way of the U.S. ships traversing the islands, threatening to stop them with one ship and sink it with another. But that is easier said than done. The United States Navy is the largest and most advanced fleet of ships in the world, with 11 aircraft carrier battle groups and hundreds of ships. It's a lot to consider fighting.
Unless you also have hundreds of ships.
While the U.S. Navy is planning to build ten ships every year, the Chinese shipyards have been documented building up to nine ships at a time. The photo above shows nine Destroyers under construction, a number that would dwarf the UK's Royal Navy, who has just six destroyers in service. This is only one yard, captured on social media for the world to see. China just finished its homegrown aircraft carrier, its second, and it boasts a crazy mysterious sailless submarine the United States knows very little about.
One day soon, the U.S. Navy's intimidating Freedom of Navigation missions might just blow up in its face and it might find a fleet of Chinese ships waiting for it.