Unthinkable: How Might China Sink an American Aircraft Carrier
China would be far from the first to underrate American power and resolve.
Here's What You Need to Remember: Whether the PLA could sink two carriers thus depends on its ability to detect, track, and engage vessels operating from opposite sides of the Pacific, and it depends on how U.S. carrier-group commanders handle fleet operations at sea. It remains to be seen (except perhaps in the spooky realm of classified intelligence) whether China’s array of satellites, sensors and other surveillance assets can find and track moving task forces in the vast emptiness that is the Pacific Ocean with any real precision.
Last year, firebrand People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Admiral Luo Yang declared that sinking two U.S. Navy supercarriers and killing 10,000 sailors is a splendid idea because Americans can’t stand battle casualties and will abandon the Western Pacific if struck a hammerblow. He posits a military cause and a strategic and political effect: land a heavy military blow and your antagonist will make the political decision to quit the battlefield.
Gee. You usually have to consult the likes of Osama bin Laden or Hideki Tojo for that caliber of strategic foresight and insight. They too knew that America always flees shrieking after suffering a sneak attack. The idea that the United States is irresolute appears graven on many foreign strategists’ minds.
Keep talking, admiral. Fighting words make it easier politically for us ‘Mercans to don our game face. Threats help us rally. The United States took a strategic holiday it never should have taken after the Cold War, letting its readiness for major combat slip. The armed forces are now scrambling to make up for lost time. But that’s a separate problem from political moxie. No one from any U.S. political party countenances an assault on American fighting men and women—let alone one that claims more lives in an afternoon than the combined figure from seventeen years of the Global War on Terror.
Yet the fact that strategic masterminds within the PLA establishment talk openly about executing surprise attacks and mass slaughter warrants asking whether the PLAN could actually make good on Luo’s saber-rattling. Could China sink a couple of U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and stun the United States into abandoning the Western Pacific?
Short answer: maybe, but don’t bet on it. It is conceivable though doubtful that the PLAN could inflict the material damage Luo espouses. Whether that would induce the United States to leave the Western Pacific and abrogate its alliance commitments is a political question whose probable answer is “no.” In other words, it’s dubious whether the military stimulus would yield the desired political effect. Luo’s theory could well backfire.
Start with the military and technical side of Luo’s master plan, and with the trivial case: an attack on a ship sitting at its moorings. First the basics: it is never easy to sink an American carrier. These behemoths are ruggedly built, on the same philosophy as dreadnought battleships of old. Their innards are sheathed in a bulky armored box, for instance, while their hulls are stoutly built. Redundant systems allow crews to reroute around damaged equipment or piping systems. And on and on. These are masterpieces of naval architecture, and their purpose is to withstand hard knocks and fight on.
Most retired carriers are mothballed or towed off to the shipbreaker. We witnessed an elegy of sorts not long ago when ex-USS Forrestal and Saratoga, the world’s first two supercarriers, were hauled away from Newport after years in mothballs to be broken up.
In 2005, though, the U.S. Navy leadership decided to conduct a “SINKEX” against ex-USS America to test the durability of supercarrier design under massive fire. As the redoubtable defense gadfly Tyler Rogoway tells it, America withstood nearly four weeks of pounding before having to be scuttled. Explosives were detonated above and below the flattop’s waterline to furnish the best possible data about what the U.S. Navy could expect in battle and how crews could recover from damage. A ship that can ride out weeks of pummeling with no crew on board and no way to defend itself or maneuver to elude attack is one tough ship.
Let’s use the America SINKEX to gauge the prospects of Luo’s stratagem. To make his scheme work PLA seamen, airmen, and rocketeers would need to deliver a SINKEX level of firepower against two U.S. carriers simultaneously or nearly so.
Suppose China’s military caught a carrier berthed at a pier or at anchor. The U.S. Seventh Fleet, centered around the nuclear-powered carrier Ronald Reagan, is permanently based in Japan—mainly at Yokosuka and Sasebo—alongside its Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force allies. Vessels moor in the open in Japan (and in U.S. seaports as well), not beneath hardened shelters or other passive defenses. See for yourself courtesy of Google Earth; PLAN strategists have.
Sinking Reagan pierside would get China halfway to fulfilling Luo’s threat. Is that possible? Yes. A ship sitting pierside is a building, and about as easy for missiles to hit as a building. A ship at anchor is a building that drifts around lazily in a “swing circle” centered on the anchor. It verges on being a stationary target as well. If Chinese intelligence confirmed Reagan was in port, it could be targeted for a missile barrage.
And Yokosuka lies within reach of a panoply of Chinese weaponry, including hundreds of ballistic missiles fielded by the PLA Rocket Force. Pearl Harbor anchored the U.S. naval position in the Pacific Ocean prior to World War II. In 1941 the Kidō Butai, or Imperial Japanese Navy carrier striking force, had to steam across thousands of miles of storm-tossed sea to get at the U.S. Pacific Fleet battle line. This represented a massive undertaking replete with risk.
The Seventh Fleet anchors the U.S. naval position in the Western Pacific and constitutes a rough counterpart to Pearl Harbor in 1941. (A closer analogy would be the Philippines had Washington split the Pacific Fleet between there and Hawaii.) Except China’s military could launch its version of “Pearl Harbor” without incurring the operational dangers Tokyo incurred three-quarters of a century ago. For Beijing it would be a matter of giving the word to send missiles and warplanes skyward from sites on the mainland.
If Beijing were willing to endure the international opprobrium from striking U.S. vessels based in a neighboring country for the equivalent of four weeks solid, then sure: it is possible to sink an American supercarrier in China’s backyard. And many lesser vessels besides. Seventh Fleet is in peril when in port.
What about less-than-trivial cases, though? What if, say, allied intelligence gets wind of a Chinese assault and the Seventh Fleet puts to sea? And what about that second carrier Luo hopes to sink?
Mobility changes things. A carrier group able to maneuver and defend itself with its embarked aircraft and its escort cruisers and destroyers is far better positioned to withstand a preemptive attack. If we use the America standard for punishment, it’s an open question whether the PLA mete out four weeks’ worth of constant bombardment under such conditions.
Many Chinese analysts and officers have come to believe the answer to that question is “Yes.” They believe they can saturate American defenses with attacks from all points of the compass as well as from above and below. If so they could conceivably approximate the results of the America SINKEX.
Whether the true answer is “Yes” or “No” is a matter for U.S. naval officers, specialists in weaponry and naval architecture, and wargame designers to settle. It is worth pointing out, however, that what Americans think about these matters is of secondary importance to a Chinese decision to proceed with Operation Luo Yang.
If Beijing believes—rightly or wrongly—that a sudden strike would work, and that it would elicit the desired political effect, then the leadership might roll the iron dice. Again, Chinese magnates could be wrong. They might fail. Or they might be right in the narrow military sense in that they put paid to the carriers, but wrong about the political impact of an assault. Imperial Japan sank U.S. Navy battleships and carriers, and look what befell it in the end.
China would be far from the first to underrate American power and resolve.
Now, if the PLA were ordered to sink two U.S. carriers, one would presumably be the Seventh Fleet flagship. The other likely candidate would be a flattop from the San Diego-based Third Fleet. The Third Fleet has traditionally acted as a force provider for forward-deployed forces in the Western Pacific, Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. In other words, it equips and trains forces for duty under regional combatant commanders such as the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and Central Command proconsuls.
In recent years, though, the navy leadership has taken to employing the San Diego fleet as an operational force. In other words, the Third Fleet commander acts as an operational commander for naval forces in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean rather than transferring control to commanders in the field. That makes U.S.-based ships a fighting force in their own right without overburdening the Seventh Fleet apparatus.