Why the U.S. Navy Needs a Stealth Battleship to Take on China

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October 20, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: BattleshipAmericaU.S. NavyChinaModern Battleship

Why the U.S. Navy Needs a Stealth Battleship to Take on China

It could be stealthy, heavily armored, and armed with high-tech weapons.

A new kind of capital ship, a battleship for the twenty-first-century, could be needed to counter the increasing threat from China’s naval buildup. It could be a centerpiece of Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s proposed 500-ship navy, operating in conjunction with a proposed fleet of autonomous missile ships. China’s strategy requires a rethink of twenty-first-century naval warfare. 

Chinese anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles make operating inside the first island chain that goes from Japan in the north to the Philippines in the south hazardous. While carriers are unlikely to become obsolete anytime soon, such considerations hamper their utility. Fleet design should account for the threats posed by the likely enemy.

By 2035, China could boast the world’s largest navy by tonnage and become a dominant force in the vital East China Sea and South China Sea waterways. This buildup gives China additional leverage over the estimated $5.3 trillion worth of commercial shipping passing through these sea lanes annually.  

Carrier air wings could be forced to launch attacks from more than 1,000 nautical miles away due to the increased threat from anti-ship missile batteries, a 2019 study by the Center for Strategic and Budget Analysis (CSBA) found, putting them at their maximum operational range. 

The U.S. needs a viable first-strike weapon system to clear the way for carrier battlegroups to operate with reduced threat from shore or seaborne missile batteries, such as that posed by any engagement with China.

A capital ship combining stealth, armor and firepower against land, sea and air targets could fill the strategic vacuum created by the threat to carrier battlegroups by massed missile attacks from China, Russia or other adversaries. Such a capital ship could be integrated into the force structure with manned and unmanned escorts and would be able to coordinate its battlegroup’s firepower.

The Ohio-class guided missile boats offer considerable offensive firepower with their Tomahawk cruise missiles, but they lack the psychological power-projection value of the Iowas or Russia’s Kirovs. Besides, the advancement of China’s anti-submarine warfare puts them at risk in the shallow seas off the Chinese coast.

Reagan deployed the U.S.S. Missouri to the Persian Gulf in September 1987 in a show of force against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The Iowas also appeared as force-projection assets in 1983 and 1984 off the coast of Lebanon and again during the 1991 Gulf War. Only a battleship can rival an aircraft carrier when it comes to power projection. Russia currently uses behemoth Kirov-class battlecruisers in a similar power-projection role. 

U.S. naval planners brought the Iowa-class battleships back in the 1980s in reaction to the threat posed by the Kirovs’ ability to carry out massed anti-ship cruise missile attacks because of their thick armor and firepower.

The Kirovs are the largest warships, other than aircraft carriers, built since World War II. The Kirov-class Admiral Nakhimov is in the process of reactivation and allegedly will carry 32M22 Zircon hypersonic anti-ship missiles when it returns to service in 2022. 

In the 1980s, French-made Exocet missiles sank the H.M.S. Sheffield during the Falklands War and severely damaged the U.S.S. Stark in May 1987 during the Tanker War in the Persian Gulf. The U.S.S. Missouri’s deployment to the Persian Gulf, partly came about in reaction to the attack on the Stark, due to its armor. The 2000 U.S.S. Cole incident also reminds us of the vulnerability of today’s tin-can Navy made up of unarmored warships.

“The Navy’s Iowa (BB-61)-class battle­ships provide a vestigial reminder that armor is the ultimate warship defense. The armor around the New Jersey’s … conning tower is 17.3 inches, for example. New armor technologies should be exploited before the BBs are gone and the lessons forgotten,” an article that appeared in the October 1988 edition of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine said.

A well-built armored warship could stay in the fight longer than unarmored elements of the fleet including aircraft carriers and be more resilient against the Chinese threat. Such armor could be along the lines of the Iowas or be akin to composite or reactive armor similar to that found in tanks. Several issues of Proceedings recommended looking at tank armor in the 1980s and 1990s. 

The battleship debate has largely focused around the World War II battlewagons ever since instead of on the creation of a new class tailored to the needs of the twenty-first-century battlespace. Dr. Robert Farley of the University of Kentucky proposed such a concept in a 2017 article in which he asked what a twenty-first-century battleship would look like.

In terms of firepower, Farley suggested building upon the arsenal ship concept from the 1990s that proposed floating a ship with between 300 and 500 vertical launch cells for space-, sea- and land-based threats; long-range, larger-caliber guns with high rates of fire. Projectiles offer the advantage of not being able to be jammed or shot down by the enemy, which could make a difference in the heat of battle.  

It also could be nuclear powered, which would provide a high rate of speed through the water and power advanced weapons systems and sensors. 

Microwave or laser weapons could destroy incoming anti-ship missiles at the speed of light in conjunction with the rest of the fleet.

Stealth could give the ship a much-reduced radar signature and allow it to blend in with the escorts in its battlegroup on radar.

Modern technology on a modern capital ship could allow it to operate with a considerably smaller crew than the 1,900 men that helped make the Iowas too expensive to maintain.

All of these elements when combined could help be the tip of the spear for the U.S. Navy and its allies to deploy its carrier battlegroups in places like the South China Sea and East China Sea, or in the Strait of Hormuz, should they be threatened.

John Rossomando is a Senior Analyst for Defense Policy and served as Senior Analyst for Counterterrorism at The Investigative Project on Terrorism for eight years. His work has been featured in numerous publications such as The American Thinker, Daily Wire, Red Alert Politics, CNSNews.com, The Daily Caller, Human Events, Newsmax, The American Spectator, TownHall.com and Crisis Magazine. He also served as senior managing editor of The Bulletin, a 100,000-circulation daily newspaper in Philadelphia and received the Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors first-place award in 2008 for his reporting.

Image: Reuters