In raw numerical terms, there is no contest. Japan'snavy
boasts 48 "major surface combatants," ships designed to attack enemy main fleets while taking a pounding themselves. For the JMSDF these include "helicopter destroyers," or light aircraft carriers; guided-missile destroyers equipped with the state-of-the-art Aegiscombatsystem
, a combination radar, computer, and fire-control system found in frontline U.S. Navy warships; and an assortment of lesser destroyers, frigates, and corvettes. A squadron of 16 diesel-electric submarines augments the surface fleet. Juxtapose this against the PLANavy
's 73 major surface combatants, 84 missile-firing patrol craft, and 63 submarines, and the bidding appears grim for Japan. China's navy is far superior in sheer weight of steel.
But raw numbers can be misleading, for three main reasons. First, as strategist Edward Luttwak has observed, weapons are like "blackboxes
" until actually used in combat: no one knows for sure whether they will perform as advertised. Battle, not technical specifications
, is the true arbiter of military technology's value. Accurately forecasting how ships, planes, and missiles will perform amid the stresses and chaos of combat thus verges on impossible. This is especially true, adds Luttwak, when conflict pits an open society against a closed one. Open societies have a habit of debating their military failings in public,whereas closed societies tend to keep their deficiencies out of view. Luttwak was referring to the U.S.-Soviet naval competition, but it applies to Sino-Japanese competition as well. The Soviet Navy appeared imposing on paper. But Soviet warships on the high seas during the Cold War showed unmistakable symptoms of decay, from slipshod shiphandling to rusty hulls. The PLA Navy could be hiding something as well. The quality of the JMSDF's platforms, and its human capabilities, could partially or wholly offset the PLA's advantage of numbers.