Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Who Would Win a Pacific Naval Engagement?

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Naval warfare seems a thing of the past. When one thinks of great naval battles, one thinks WWII and the genius of Chester Nimitz and Raymond Spruance. They think of the battles at Midway and Leyte Gulf.

But since then, what major battles have occurred? Some skirmishes during the Korean War and the war in the Falklands maybe but nothing of any major consequence. The US became the baddest mofo's on the water and our supremacy has never been challenged except for attempts by Russia to keep up, which ultimately and spectacularly failed (although they are spending more money to get some of their past glory back with mixed results).

So naval warfare now has become the projection of power by the US as a means to prevent war. If China and Japan start getting antsy, we send a carrier battle group to the region to keep an eye on things and settle it down before they come to blows. If Iran threatens the straits of Hormuz, we station an LHD in the area to make them think twice. And if a natural disaster occurs anywhere in the world we can send help.

Until recently, the US was the only game in town.

But now China has joined the game and they expect to be admired as more than just a "brown water" navy, they want to be known as a "blue water" navy, capable of projecting power farther from their shores. They've built up their capabilities steadily over the years by buying older equipment with the jewel being the carrier Liaoning (formerly the Soviet carrier Riga). The capabilities of the carrier will be at least 20 years behind the newer US Nimitz Class (and more behind the forthcoming Ford Class)  models with less than 25 pilots actually qualified to land on her deck. 

Japan has built up their naval forces as well in recent years--doubtless because of the direct threat from China. China has some scores to settle with her eastern neighbor and memories last a long time in that region. Japan has a sizable submarine fleet but only can deploy helicopter carriers versus fixed wing on the surface.

Australia, South Korea and Canada can also bring some force to bear if needed. A breakdown of current and proposed carrier forces can be found here.

Here's a breakdown of what each nation has currently available:

Taking the information above and the actual threat we could expect, the US would have to match up against the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN). A conflict that could start over a direct threat to Taiwan, a battle with neighboring countries over disputed islands or a conflict over regional claims of territorial water rights. 

The Chinese have built mobile missiles including the HQ-7 that  could be a major threat to our carriers and have them deployed defensively and offensively all along their coast. Another major concern would be asymmetric warfare including disruption of our Internet and satellite communications, which the US Navy heavily relies on. China has deployed several missiles and possibly lasers with the major targets being command and control satellites in all orbits. For more on this I highly recommend this paper written by the good folks at the Heritage Institute.

Based on available information and using the chart above, the US could bring roughly 24 submarines to bear at any one time within the Pacific theater. Add to that two Canadian, and possibly 15 Japanese subs versus 46 Chinese vessels. I've used roughly 2/3 of the above total availability taking into account maintenance and stand downs. That's about an even number but the US would be forced to work with different partners while China would be working with their own forces using their own doctrine. Add to that that submarine warfare is generally not a team effort. Call it a slight US advantage since the PLAN have been training heavily for years and have made some progress (and haven't been shy about showing it according to some reports). The progress they have made is unknown at present.

But when it comes to actual naval superiority, it comes to aircraft carriers, the aircraft and armament they carry, their defensive capabilities and vessels accompanying them. Here the US has a vast advantage. In any engagement with the Chinese, the first thing they would attack would be our carriers and our first priority would be stopping them. Do we have the capabilities to do so? That is a question that has no answer at this point. The Chinese claim they've had great success with the DF-21D missile that is solely designed to take our carriers out. But in this world of new technology becoming obsolete due to improvements by the other side, we may now have a solution. Call this a major US advantage.

And finally, what about troop landing capabilities? 

The US LHD fleet including the WASP and Tarawa classes are highly-equipped troop transports with their own air wings. The air wing includes Harriers and Osprey's (and hopefully the USMC F-35) while also carrying anti-submarine helo's and additional troop transport aircraft. Tanks and Marine AmTracs can be put ashore quickly to project a large amount of power in a short time. The WASP class can carry and land a complete Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and supply that unit for extended periods while in battle. This is all contingent on the ability of air assets in locating and neutralizing Chinese missile batteries and aircraft that could harass any such landing. 

In conclusion; a large sea battle between the likely belligerents would result in a US win but potentially at heavy cost. The US would move assets from the Persian Gulf, Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic if needed but based on current readiness levels, the US would neutralize and beat any adversaries within a short period. 

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