China’s growing challenge US domination of the North Pacific became ever more evident last week as the People’s Republic revealed a new, long-ranged, radar-evading stealth aircraft, the J-20.
The J-20 is likely five years from deployment. Its radar-evading ability is unknown, and probably no match for the operational US F-22 stealth fighter.
But this news has been the biggest cause of dismay to the US Navy since a Chinese attack submarine embarrassingly popped up in the middle of a US Navy fleet exercise off China.
China has also managed to deploy 60 modern submarines, a small number nuclear-powered, that are silent and deadly, in contrast to China’s older generation of noisy, vulnerable subs.
Adding to US concerns, China has completed an unfinished Soviet aircraft carrier, “Varyag,” that it brought from Ukraine a decade ago. I have been observing its completion at the northern Chinese port of Dalian.
Two new, 50,000-ton aircraft carriers are being built in Shanghai, to be launched 2014 and 2020. The new Chinese carriers will likely be equipped with Chinese-made naval fighters or naval versions of the formidable Russian Sukhoi warplanes.
Developing aircraft carriers and properly training their crews can take generations. China is only at the first day in school.
US carriers are one of the world’s most elaborate creations: 100,000 ton floating cities with a million gallons of fuel in their holds, massive amounts of explosives, and highly skilled c rews operating 24/7 like clockwork. I sailed aboard the US carrier “Abraham Lincoln” and was awed by the professionalism and skill of its crew and complexity of this gigantic creation.
But the US Navy is more concerned about China’s rapidly-growing arsenal of anti-ship missiles than its aircraft carriers. Last year’s impressive military parade at Beijing displayed a new generation of powerful anti-ship missiles that can be launched from land, sea, air, and underwater.
In addition, the US Navy is very worried about China’s work on a new ballistic missile, the DF-21D, that can reportedly be launched from mobile, shore-based launchers and hit large, moving targets at sea. The DF-21D is said to be vectored into its target by satellite, aircraft, submarines or drone aircraft.
Even with doubtful accuracy, such anti-ship ballistic missiles could keep the US Navy far away from the North Pacific coasts – which is just China’s intention. Carriers and their escorts cost $25 billion – they are too expensive and fragile to risk. Yet these mighty carriers are the ultimate expression of American power in the region.
Over the past decade, China has been slowly building the capability to force the US Navy away from its coasts and deep in the Pacific. Beijing was horrified and ashamed when during the 1996 Taiwan crisis, a US battle group led by the carrier “Nimitz” sailed down the Taiwan Strait almost within sight of mainland China.
Imagine if a Chinese naval battle group sailed into Chesapeake Bay near Washington, into the Florida Strait off Cuba, or up to New Orleans? The US would erupt in fury. But this is what the US Navy has been doing in China since 1945.
Now, Beijing’ new anti-ship missiles are putting US carrier battle groups at grave risk if they come too close to the mainland. This writer has conducted numerous naval simulation war games and can attest that no surface vessels, particularly not huge carriers, can withstand barrages of high-speed anti-ship missiles fired from 360 degrees.
However, the US Navy is run by carrier admirals who are as loathe to junk their flattops as were battleship admirals early in World War II. The answer clearly is less super-carriers and more small vessels with remotely piloted aircraft. But that sea change will only come slowly.
Meanwhile, the US must clearly adjust to China’s growing military strength. The days when the US Navy could rule China’s coasts and rivers are long gone. China is set on enforcing a 300-mile strategic maritime limit and is increasingly pressing claims to large areas of its coastal waters that has alarmed its neighbors and Washington.
The US and China are likely headed towards naval clashes until Washington pulls its Pacific fleet away from China’ coasts . But that will be a bitter pill for the mighty US Navy to swallow.