China vs. America: Who Would Win the Battle of the South China Sea?
The year is 2016, and two of the U.S. Navy’s latest ships are backing a key ally in the tinderbox of the South China Sea. They’re facing down the Chinese navy halfway across the world with the latest weapons and systems the United States can get its hands on. But is it enough?
For more than a hundred years, the U.S. Navy has been using naval wargames to test ships, tactics and strategy. Today, thanks to the ability of computers to process massive amounts of data, sharply accurate, procedural “hard” simulations are possible.
One such sim is Command: Modern Naval/Air Operations, a new game that attempts to model modern sea and air warfare as closely as a game for civilians can.
Command is particularly suited for attempting a high-fidelity simulation of modern naval combat — it included an admiral and staff from the U.S. Naval War College in the game’s beta testing — and we’re going to take a page from the Navy and put America’s latest fighting ship to the test.
The result isn’t good — and a harrowing lesson to be cautious about how we equip the U.S. military.
The post 9/11 ship
Today, we’re sending the Littoral Combat Ship into the fray — a new class of warships developed following the 9/11 attacks.
The LCS was designed to fight close to shore, a characteristic that opens the vessel up to more missions — and challenges — than most Navy ships. For one, they have to be both versatile and agile. The vessels are lightly armed, and rely on swappable “mission modules” to increase firepower and other special capabilities such as surface warfare, minesweeping and anti-submarine warfare.
A normal LCS has a rapid-fire 57-millimeter gun, a pair of 30-millimeter cannons and heavy machine guns. The ship also has Rolling Airframe anti-aircraft missiles to defend against enemy jets and incoming missiles.
But compared to larger surface ships, the LCS lacks firepower — something critics of the LCS have seized upon. These critics contend the LCS should have a larger gun, longer-range self-defense missiles, and anti-ship missiles capable of taking on enemy vessels its own size.
Our scenario takes place in the South China Sea at a cluster of reefs and rocks called the Scarborough Shoal, roughly 137 miles west of the Philippines. In real life, China and The Philippines both claim the shoal as part of their territory, and tensions between the two nations have been growing.
In 2012, this dispute almost came to blows when the Philippine navy dispatched the ex-U.S. Coast Guard cutter BRP Gregorio del Pilar to inspect Chinese fishing boats near the shoal. Gregorio del Pilar was forced to withdraw when confronted by two ships of the Chinese coast guard.
The potential for a shooting war is very high.
Note — we’re not using this scenario to make a statement about the ambitions of Beijing and Manila, or what we think will happen in the real-life Scarborough Shoal. The scenario just makes a good backdrop for our test of systems on the Littoral Combat Ship.
The U.S. Navy is backing up its Philippine allies — two LCSs, USS Freedom and USS Fort Worth, are both about 30 miles south of the Emilio Jacinto and Artemio Ricarde. The USS Halsey, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, is behind them at an equal distance.
The ships of the Philippine navy have comparatively crude sensors — basically amounting to eyeballs and navigational radars — and are having a difficult time identifying all of the ship traffic in and around the shoal. There are a lot of surface contacts. Some are fishing boats, and some may be … something else.
If Emilio Jacinto and Artemio Ricarde really knew what was out there, they’d turn tail and run.
I’m playing the forces of both the U.S. and The Philippines, and fortunately I have an MQ-4C Triton in the area — the naval version of the Air Force’s Global Hawk drone. I send the Triton over the shoal to get an idea of what’s down there.