Monday, June 13, 2005

Killing a Carrier

There has been a lot of talk of China sinking an American aircraft carrier since Richard Fischer of the Jamestown Foundation set the China-watching community ablaze in 2002 with his article "To Take Taiwan, First Kill a Carrier" (Jamestown Foundations' China Brief, Volume 2 , Issue 14; only the introduction is available online). Would China sink a carrier? Can they do it? What would happen if they did?
America has twelve aircraft carriers with more sitting in mothballs awaiting reactivation. Taiwan is an "unsinkable carrier," as is Japan. America is not going to run out of platforms from which to launch its aircraft. So why all the talk of sinking a carrier? From the American Prospect, comes this:
China's strategists think they may have the key to overcoming the United States: sinking a U.S. aircraft carrier. Chinese Major General Huang Bin explained the reasoning: 'Once we decide to use force against Taiwan, we definitely will consider an intervention by the United States. The United States likes vain glory; if one of its aircraft carriers should be attacked and destroyed, people in the United States would begin to complain and quarrel loudly, and the U.S. president would find the going harder and harder.'
This same quote was in Fischer's original article and has played a large role in convincing Americans that this is something to worry about. It might be worthwhile to find out if this is actual policy or just one general running off at the mouth (Unrestricted Warfare (pdf) comes to mind, in which two PLA colonels go on and on about every possible way they can dream up to hurt the United States, international law and reality be damned). On what was presumably a different occasion, the same PLA general elaborated:
Once a military conflict occurs in the Taiwan Strait, the United States certainly will intervene, but the scale will be limited. The United States may send several aircraft-carrier battle groups, but they will never dare to sail to the Taiwan Strait [itself, as this would put them] into a dangerous position. Missiles, aircraft and submarines are all means that can be used to attack an aircraft carrier. [In 1996] U.S. aircraft carriers arrived but suddenly fell back by 200 nautical miles, because Chinese nuclear submarines were operating close to the U.S. aircraft carriers.... Once [the carriers are] threatened, [the United States] will run away.
It seems that this idea (that killing a carrier is enough to sink America's desire to defend Taiwan) is held by at least one general. To what degree this is institutionalized is unknown (at least to this blogger). It has been mentioned as one aspect of ShaShouJian research (eg: this article (PDF) by Michael Pillsbury). On the other hand, it didn't make the cut for one of the cut as one of the "three attacks & three defenses”. For more information on "three attacks & three defenses”, see this post on Chinese anti-stealth research, which did make the list. So maybe China has the desire (if a war arose) to sink a carrier, but can they do it?
The Russian-made Sovremenny destroyer is equipped with the Sunburn anti-ship missile (ASM), an air breathing version of the Moskit which travels up to Mach 3 and is three-times faster in the water than the American Harpoon (details here). The Sunburn-armed Sovremenny has been nicknamed the "Aegis Killer" or "Aircraft Carrier Killer" because its speed makes it so hard to defend against.
As if the situation weren't already worrying enough, "China's 'Tsushima' Anticarrier Strategy" reports:
Moscow recently agreed to sell China the supersonic SS-N-26 Yakhont missile, which is even more awe-inspiring than the Sunburn and, once launched, cannot be intercepted. (link added)
At the present, China has two Sovremennys (or is it Sovremennies, I don't know Russian grammar) and will take the delivery of two more before 2006 ends. Granted, in the event of a war, the Sovremennys would likely rank high on the American target list and certainly wouldn't be allowed in the vicinity of the USS Kitty Hawk and whatever other carrier(s) is called upon for the mission if America could help it.
Submarines are a trickier issue. Rather than diving straight into one of the most worrying trends in PLA modernization this deep in a post, I will refer you to a fantastic article on the subject by Lyle Goldstein and William Murray in International Security (Spring 2004) named "Undersea Dragons: China's Maturing Submarine Force" (8USD download). I hope the publishers of IS won't mind if I offer a little preview:
A Chinese appraisal of future naval warfare concludes, "The prospect for using submarines is good, because of their covertness and power... Submarines are menaces existing anywhere at any time." According to another Chinese analyst, "Submarines are the maritime weapons posing the greatest threat to an aircraft carrier formation. Submarines are also our navy's core force." (ellipses in original)

Effect of Sinking a Carrier
That leaves one major question remaining: How would an America that loses an aircraft carrier respond? Would it be reminiscent of Pearl Harbor or Somalia? Those on both sides find their answer in Iraq. The Pearl Harbor School claims that the current war in Iraq has disproven the myth of a Vietnam Syndome of casualty aversion. The Somali School claims that the United States is so tied up in the Middle East that it would have no choice but to cut its losses if challenged elsewhere in the world. I'll leave the answer up to you, but hopefully we will never know the answer to that question.