China is determined to develop a
warship building capability by becoming the largest builder of merchant
shipping in the world. Currently, China produces about a quarter of the worlds
merchant shipping, while South Korea is in first place, producing about a
third. China expects to take first place in the next decade.
The big thing holding China back is the shortage of
skilled personnel. By encouraging shipbuilding, the government is creating
experienced ship builders for the more complex task of building warships. In
most cases, merchant ships are larger than warships, and much less complex. For
example, a common type of merchant ship is the VLCC (Very Large Crude Carrier)
of 300,000 deadweight tons (DWT) . This is the largest size tanker than can use
the Straits of Malacca to carry oil from the Persian Gulf to East Asia. These
ships haul two million barrels (about 290,000 tons) of oil per trip. These
ships are larger than the biggest American aircraft carriers (like the Nimitz
class, that are 110,000 tons displacement, and nearly 1,100 feet long.)
The major difference between merchant vessels and
warships is what equipment they have. Merchant ships are quite basic and plain.
A 300,000 DWT VLCC is about the same size as a Nimitz class carrier, but costs
much less to build ($130 million for the VLCC, versus over $4 billion for the
carrier). Actually, it costs more to run a carrier for one year, than the VLCC
costs to build. Part of that has to do with crew size, with the carrier having
a hundred sailors for everyone needed to run the VLCC.
By building all those merchant vessels, China has
acquired the ability to build the basic warship hull. Where it has big problems
is in creating the complex electronics, mechanical systems and weapons needed
to make a warship work. China is making progress there as well, but not nearly
as much as it has in the ship building area.
Note that deadweight tons measure the actual weight
of everything carried in the ship, including supplies, miscellaneous equipment,
fuel, and even crew, expressed in long tons: As a rule for every 1,500
deadweight tons a cargo ship could carry about 1,775 measurement tons. Warship
tonnage is measured differently, in terms of "displacement tons."
Each 35 cubic feet of sea water displaced by the vessel is a "displacement
ton." As that volume of sea water actually weighs approximately one long
ton, displacement gives a rough indication of the actual weight of the vessel.