Five American Weapons of War China Should Fear

While Beijing's military power is growing, Washington still retains advantages that make it worthy of the title "superpower."

Last week, I discussed on these pages the five Chinese weapons Washington fears most. Some of the weapons, such as the Type 071 amphibious ship and Chinese cyber weapons were unfamiliar to many readers. This week we’re turning the list around and discussing the five American weapons that China likely fears most.

As a superpower, the United States has maintained a formidable, technologically advanced military for decades. While the Chinese weapons highlighted last week were often designed with the United States in mind, none of the weapons this week were explicitly designed to fight China. In fact, many of the weapons featured here were first designed during the Cold War and predate China’s military rise.

Again, it’s important to point out that the chances of war between the United States and China are remote. There is too much advantage for both countries in maintaining the status quo of a strong economic relationship (roughly $500 billion in bilateral trade) and cordial—if stiff—diplomatic ties. A war would be a political, economic, and military disaster for both sides.

Ford-class Aircraft Carriers

Since the end of the Second World War, the aircraft carrier has been the symbol of American power projection. American carriers typically displace up to 100,000 tons fully loaded. The embarked carrier air wing typically includes four squadrons of F/A-18C Hornet or F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet strike fighters (up to fifty-two aircraft total), four or five EA-6B Prowler or EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft, approximately a dozen MH-60 Seahawks, and a pair of C-2 Greyhound carrier onboard delivery aircraft.

The Ford-class, America’s latest class of aircraft carriers (the first of which is set to the join the U.S. Navy in 2016), is the weapons system China fears most. The mix of aircraft onboard a carrier makes it capable of a wide variety of missions, including air superiority, land attack, anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare. Modern aircraft carriers represent a threat not only to Chinese naval and air forces away from China, but could strike China itself.  

Aircraft carriers such as the USS Ford are also visible reminders of Chinese technological inferiority. From the nuclear reactors to electromagnetic catapults systems designed to hurl aircraft into the air to the integrated anti-air warfare system, American carriers represent a showcase of technologies that China hasn’t mastered. Last summer, while China was proudly certifying its first pilots and deck crew to operate from the carrier Liaoning, the historic event was undercut by news of an American X-47B unmanned drone landing for the first time on the carrier USS George Bush.

American aircraft carriers are symbols to China of American intrusion into its sphere of influence. In 1996, in response to Chinese missile launches near Taiwan, the USS Nimitz and USS Independence carrier battle groups were sent into the Taiwan Strait. There was nothing the Chinese military could have done to prevent the carriers from entering the strait. This humiliation deeply affected Chinese thinking, and was almost certainly the impetus for the development of weapons such as the DF-21D Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile or ASBM.

F-22 Raptor

The F-22 Raptor is currently the only operational fifth generation fighter in the world. A stealthy, single-seat fighter with ground attack, reconnaissance, and electronic warfare capabilities, the F-22 is capable of cruising at Mach 1.82 (1,220 miles an hour) without afterburner. The F-22 carries up to two AIM-9X short-range and six AIM-120 medium range anti-aircraft missiles in the fighter role, and can carry precision-guided air to ground weapons in the ground attack role.

China fears the F-22 because there is nothing like it in China’s arsenal. For the foreseeable future the F-22 will dominate the air environment wherever it is sent. China’s existing fighters, the indigenous J-10 and various derivatives of the Su-27 Flanker design (J-11, J-16, Su-30MKK) are not stealthy, and in a beyond visual range battle would be at a disadvantage against the F-22. 

In a shooting war, the F-22 Raptor could cripple the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) by stripping away support aircraft that allow Chinese fighters and bombers to fly long distances. F-22s could evade Chinese combat air patrol sweeps and engage airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft such as the KJ-2000, and midair refueling aircraft such as the Xian H-6. Chinese aircraft would then be limited to whatever fuel they can carry, and Chinese early warning coverage would be limited to mainland radar installations.

The ground attack and electronic warfare capabilities of the F-22 would also pose a problem for the PLAAF. The F-22’s ability to evade radar en route to bombing targets on the ground makes it a platform that can likely penetrate Chinese air defenses. The F-22’s sensor suite makes it capable of quietly collecting enemy data, such as radio and radar emissions, without an adversary knowing it was in the area. This capability could even be useful in peacetime for intelligence collection purposes.