China Builds Missile Targets Shaped Like U.S. Aircraft Carrier, Destroyers in Remote Desert

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"This is from my series of articles on the conflict over the Taiwan Strait

The Naval Balance Sheet, or Why the US Navy Always Lose Wargames

There are two kinds of aircraft carriers: escort or "jump" carriers, and supercarriers. There are 20 escort carriers in the world, half are American. There are 11 supercarriers in the world, all are American. On the deep blue sea without land-based assets for air support, one supercarrier is worth 5 escort carriers. The Americans don't even consider their America and Wasp class escort carriers as proper carriers, they are known as amphibious assault ships. It is well known that surface ships without air cover does not survive very long when faced with aerial attacks. If the entire world's navies gathered together and decided to launch a coordinated assault on one US carrier battle group, the world would be extremely lucky if it came out with a win. The US maintains 11 such groups.

In contrast, the People's Liberation Army has two carriers, the Liaoning, a Cold War era design which was scrapped and bought from Ukraine as a floating casino, and the Shandong, a clone of the Liaoning. Both carriers are escort carriers, and both are diesel powered, not nuclear, which means they have a limited range and must be refueled with tankers.

Even by the numbers, it is no contest, but we must consider the human factor. After all, carriers are nothing without doctrine, morale and training. You may have heard of Midway. The decisive Battle of Midway, in which 3 American carriers faced down 4 Japanese carriers, is the second largest carrier engagement in history, and by extension the second largest naval engagement ever. The outnumbered American carriers sank all four Japanese flattops, dramatically halting the Japanese offensive despite the difference in force. Back when the US navy was outnumbered, it still managed to annihilate the opposing force through sophistication of command, advantages in communication, and pure grit. The largest carrier engagement in history is known as the Battle of the Philippine Sea, and if you're not a big WWII nerd you probably have never heard of that name, but you may have heard of it described in another way: the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot. 7 fleet and 8 escort American carriers faced off against 5 fleet and 4 escort Japanese carriers. Of the 750 land and sea-based aircrafts that the Japanese flew that day, about 600 were shot down, for a mere 123 US losses. Three Japanese fleet carriers sank as a result, and Japanese naval presence was effectively eliminated.

The Japanese did not have a chance when the US was an emerging sea power while equaling or almost matching the US in quantity and quality of naval assets. Today, the US Navy has 80 years of expeditionary, amphibious operational experience and institutional memory to draw on. The largest naval engagement ever fought by a Chinese navy was on a lake, in 1363. If the PLAN tries to sail beyond the First Island Chain the US Navy will have them arrested.

So why do you hear so much about how the US Navy is outnumbered and will lose the next war? Well, the Navy will measure Chinese naval strength by number of ships, which includes an armada of tiny coastal vessel incapable of operating away from the littoral. By this count, the Navy has 491 to the PLAN's 777*. This undercounts US naval strength by the 1400 vessels of the US Coast Guards, who are the ones who operate the littoral ships in the US system. Even ignoring the Coasties (as is tradition), the correct way of measuring naval strength is not by hulls, but displacement, and the count there is 4.6 million to 2 million tons.

You will also hear scaremongering in the form of wargames in which the US loses easily and badly, plus a note on how the hypersonic missiles in the Chinese and Russian arsenals will destroy a carrier in one shot. The reason this occurs is because wargames are usually done in weird constrained theatres where the US is deliberately put at a disadvantage, typically by forcing the US to be patrolling all the other sea lanes in the world as it does in peacetime, and by limiting the theatre of operation to within the enemy littoral, where the enemy could easily locate the fleet and utilize its carrier killer missiles. In reality, the US navy could easily step back, hide behind the first island chain and take out the missile battery from land-based airfields in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Guam. Even if the coastline proves too hot to engage, America possesses the ability to shutdown maritime trade in the Straits of Malacca, Hormuz, Suez and Panama in an instant, depriving China of its oil and food imports needed to power its military. Without maritime freedom of passage, the lights literally go out in China in a few months.

So why is it still news? Well, unlike the PLAN who gets as much money from the CCP as it wants, the US Navy's budget is in the hands of Congress, and there are constant calls to cut Navy budget. Every time the Navy loses wargame, it gets another carrier's worth of money to play with.

  • These numbers vary a fair bit depending which exact vessels you classify as "naval vessels". The cutoff is different every time they are counted. This article counts 355, which is not necessarily more or less correct. "

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