by Austin Bay
May 20, 2020
For at least two decades, U.S. military strategists and planners have pondered this complex question: how to lower the physical risks to ships and crews a U.S. Navy carrier battle group and other surface forces face as they approach a hostile Chinese coast.
In 1996, as Beijing threatened Taiwan with a rain of missiles, a Navy nuclear carrier battle group sailed toward the island -- with impunity.
However, communist China's military modernization program has developed and deployed weapon systems that increase the peril U.S. and allied fleets confront. Some Chinese air and missile systems may be able to successfully attack U.S. surface vessels 1,200 miles away. The threat to allied submarines has also increased.
In the last week, defense writers have published sensational reports regarding a recent U.S. defense establishment war game (conflict simulation) set in the year 2030.
Some pertinent background: For four years I served as a special consultant in war gaming in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. War games are at best informative explorations of possible future events and potential outcomes based on player decisions made during the game.
The most useful games force difficult decisions that, if recorded and analyzed, may inform future diplomatic initiatives; future economic initiatives; future military plans; future technology research and development programs; and -- a real payoff -- future crunch-time decisions by political leaders and military commanders.
Unfortunately, major media tend to portray these simulations as either frightening "models" predicting eventual American defeat or dismiss them as Pentagon bang-bang fantasies whose goal is a bigger budget for weapons that don't work.
But back to the recent reports. The scenario was set in 2030. Communist China possessed modernized naval, air and missile forces that threatened every U.S. naval surface task force and base in the Pacific and eastern Indian Oceans. According to a report that appeared in The Australian, Guam was "totally at risk."
Time for some old news circa 2017: North Korea already threatens Guam. That's why the Pentagon deployed a THAAD anti-missile battery to the island.
In the game's 2030, China possesses hypersonic strike missiles, aircraft carriers and long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles. Well, for years, China has claimed to have a "carrier killer" ballistic missile, the DF-21D. The Pentagon believes China began deploying it in 2013. It may have a range of 2,000 miles, but no one knows for sure. Can it hit a maneuvering U.S. carrier?
No one knows. It has never been tested against a maneuvering carrier battle group.
But in the game's posited 2030, The Australian reports U.S. carrier groups could not engage Chinese forces "without suffering capital losses." Translation: The U.S. Navy lost carriers, a catastrophic defeat.
Ah, but. The U.S.-China military competition is dynamic, and has been for 20 years. The diplomatic and economic competition is increasingly dynamic, given China's lies vis-a-vis the COVID-19/Wuhan virus pandemic.
The Pentagon has explored numerous hostile-China scenarios where U.S. sea, air and land forces reinforce Japan and South Korea or move to deter an invasion of Taiwan.
American and Japanese submarines can severely damage Chinese naval forces and pin them behind the western Pacific's "first island chain" of Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines.
However, mines may be the weapon of choice. Right, sea mines, delivered by subs, aircraft (manned and drone) and perhaps missiles. Unmanned, robotic (autonomous) surface vessels can also mine China's littoral.
Sub and aircraft mine laying is an old but effective method. A mine-laying campaign along China's coast not only hinders China's navy; it embargoes its economy. China now depends on natural resources shipped from Africa and southwest Asia. It is no longer a self-sufficient continental power.
The Navy is developing several inexpensive Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) and unmanned semi-submersibles that can lay mines, launch attacks and provide intelligence. Don't snicker. Crude semi-submersibles built by narcotics cartels have sailed from South America to Spain. Did the Navy deploy 200 USVs in the recent war game? Did the Navy mine the Chinese coast?
Here's another scenario: The Navy's robot pawns sacrifice themselves so Navy carriers -- the power projectors on the Pacific chess board -- can deliver a devastating counterpunch.