China Can Thank Nazi Germany for Its Carrier-Killer Missiles

Why Chinese missiles may turn out to be as strategically ineffective as their German predecessors.

Despite a promising beginning in the Mediterranean, the German smart bomb campaign faltered by the time of the Normandy invasion in June 1944. The most basic reason was that for all their technological prowess, Germany lost control of the skies. By 1944, the battered Luftwaffe fighter arm was busy defending Germany from the Allied strategic bomber offensive. Without proper fighter escort, the bombers couldn't penetrate Allied day and night fighter screens. With the Nazis focused on producing fighters instead of bombers, Germany could not maintain more than six missile-equipped squadrons at a time.

Bollinger estimates that just 17 to 24 ships were sunk and 14 to 21 damaged. "At most, only 1 weapon in 24 dispatched from a German airfield scored a hit or damage-causing near miss," he writes. "Only about 1 in 14 of the missiles launched achieved similar success, and at most 1 in 9 of those known to respond to operator guidance was able to hit the target or cause significant damage via a near-miss. This is very different from the 50 percent hit rate experienced during operational testing."

Do Nazi smart bombs have implications for a U.S.-China conflict? Today's advanced warships are protected by batteries of missiles as well as an array of jammers and decoys. Shipboard radars have also improved, while the F-18 fighters of a modern U.S. carrier can engage targets well beyond the range of a 1940s combat air patrol.

On the other hand, ship-killing missiles have come a long way since the Fritz-X. China has developed ship-killing ballistic missiles that are essentially satellite-guided versions of the German V-2 (which the Allies could not shoot down). Instead of the subsonic Hs 293, China can field supersonic cruise missiles that will strain American defenses.

One significant lesson of the Nazi ship-killers is that what turned the tide wasn't jammers or evasive action. It was simply the Luftwaffe losing control of the air. The Germans could launch no smart bombs if the launch bombers were shot down or too busy evading interception. How well a U.S. carrier task force off Taiwan, even if backed by a handful of F-22 fighters, could defend itself from coordinated attacks by missile-armed Chinese aircraft, submarines and land-based ballistic missiles remains to be seen. Much like the Allies in 1943, the U.S. Navy is aware that the enemy has anti-ship weapons. The problem is that since World War II, the U.S. has had no experience in defending against massed salvoes of ship-killing missiles.

On the other hand, Nazi Germany's smart weapons failed to save Nazi Germany. Chinese anti-ship weapons are an asset, not a panacea. They require adequate command and control, intelligence and surveillance, and sufficient ability to operate in the air and at sea for the launch platforms to survive. Absent those factors, Chinese missiles may turn out to be as strategically ineffective as their German predecessors.

Wonder weapons are powerful. But they cannot work wonders.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy and a writer for War is Boring. Follow him on Twitter:@Mipeck1.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Kogo/GFDL