A U.S. Navy Nightmare: What If China Built a 'Battleship'?

October 12, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaBattleshipNavyU.S. NavyMilitary

A U.S. Navy Nightmare: What If China Built a 'Battleship'?

S’pose China built a battleship. What would such a sea creature look like, and how would it fare in the bare-knuckles world of naval diplomacy and warfare? This is no mere flight of fancy.

Future upgrades will demand electricity and hotel services beyond the DDG-51’s capacity. Hence the trend toward larger combatants such as the DDG-1000 Zumwalt class, a warship with half-again the tonnage of existing Aegis destroyers and cruisers. Zumwalt was built with excess engineering capacity to accommodate futuristic hardware now under development or on the drawing board.

Nor would a PLA Navy dreadnought necessarily be conventionally fired. Many navies, including China’s, operate compact nuclear reactors on board submarines. That’s more burdensome than powering a surface ship with a nuke. Indeed, the U.S. Navy once operated nuclear-powered cruisers, retiring them less because of technical rigors than their sheer expense.

The Russian Navy battlecruiser Kirov, furthermore, is nuclear-powered and still takes to the sea from time to time. There is precedent for an atomic-driven PLA Navy surface fleet. Beijing could go that route.

This survey yields clues into what a PLA Navy heavyweight might look like. Its physical dimensions would have to overshadow foreign surface combatants, much as battleships dwarfed destroyers and cruisers. The Iowa class weighed in at 58,000 tons when fully loaded. Sheer size imparted grandeur to American dreadnoughts, conferring diplomatic clout.

A Chinese battleship probably need not displace that much. It does need to be big enough to impress—which means big relative to foreign competitors such as U.S. Navy and allied Aegis destroyers. The Russian Kirov could provide a template for a PLA Navy capital ship. At just under 27,000 tons, Kirov displaces nearly as much as the battleship USS Arizona—more than older generations of battlewagons. Kirov could inspire a PLA Navy successor.

Like any scrapper, the ship would need a formidable mien, which means designers—unlike Zumwalt’s architects—would not put a premium on stealth. Stealth demands eliminating protuberances such as sensor arrays, missile launchers, and guns in order to reduce a ship’s radar cross-section, or size on hostile radar scopes. But these are precisely the features that make a man-of-war look impressive to non-specialists.

The strategist Edward Luttwak points out even though laymen’s opinions may be uninformed from a military standpoint—they may rate the objectively stronger contender as weaker—their subjective views count all the same. To exploit that logic the PLA Navy may—and should—aim for style points should it build such a behemoth.

Even if such outward characteristics contributed little to combat capability, keeping them would be worthwhile from a diplomatic standpoint. Zumwalt might outmuscle a Chinese Kirov by a massive margin in combat yet lose out in the contest of perceptions. The look of a ship counts—today as in the heyday of the battleship. Zumwalt is a nondescript- if not otherworldly-looking vessel. To draw a contrast, the PLA Navy might pile weapons and sensors on topside decks with gusto.

And to wring military value out of such a hull, shipbuilders would pack it with as much innate defensive capacity and as capable an engineering plant as possible. Like battleship armor, a well-designed hull and innovative passive defenses could help the vessel absorb damage in a firefight along the first island chain, or elsewhere within range of shore-based defenses. The plant would generate power and services adequate to support an ambitious panoply of weapons, sensors, and computers.

Overbearing in size, glowering in outlook, stuffed with hardware—that’s what a PLA Navy battleship would be. Don’t put such a project beyond Beijing. We China-watchers ooh’d and aah’d a few years ago when word broke that Chinese shipyards were building a guided-missile destroyer that outweighed any destroyer or cruiser in the American inventory. Those reports morphed into the Type 055 DDG, in which Chinese officialdom takes palpable pride. Its bulk is part of the reason why.

Supersizing has worked for Beijing up to now, and it fits with China’s fortress-fleet strategy. Why wouldn’t fleet designers one-up themselves—and keep a good thing going?

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.