This week, both China and the United States sailed aircraft carriers into troubled waters in the East and South China seas. But quietly tagging along is a new warship that puts America’s best to shame and could redefine war at sea.
China’s training aircraft carrier Liaoning and five escort vessels were observed passing through a critical maritime “choke point” south of Japan at the weekend. About the same time, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and two escorts were making their way through the narrow Malacca Strait, past Singapore and into the South China Sea.
Since World War II, aircraft carriers have replaced big-gunned battleships as status symbols and gunboat diplomacy flag bearers.
On the surface, the US-Chinese battle groups are not evenly matched.
The 110,000-ton, nuclear-powered Roosevelt can operate some 90 heavy aircraft and helicopters.
The 55,000-ton, diesel-powered Liaoning can carry up to 40 light fighters and helicopters.
But that balance shifts dramatically once the low-profile escort vessels are taken into account.
Aircraft carriers aren’t the source of overwhelming force they used to be.
Fast, stealthy missiles have negated their one overwhelming advantage – long-range strike.
And China’s new Type 055 “Renhai” class missile destroyer carries an awful lot of them.
Naval arms race
The pace of change has accelerated. Governments worldwide are struggling to come to grips with issues of privacy, data economics and digital security decades after their emergence.
And shedding old ideas, definitions and standards prove to be just as much an issue for the world’s militaries.
A new Type 055 “Destroyer” is sailing alongside the Liaoning. The PLAN Nanchang carries 112 Vertical Launch System (VLS) cells. Eight ships of this class have been launched. Another six are at various points of assembly.
Meanwhile, a 38-year-old Ticonderoga class “Cruiser” is protecting the USS Theodore Roosevelt. The USS Bunker Hill also carries 112 VLS cells. But the US navy is struggling to keep these ships functional as more and more are retired. No comparable replacements are being built.
The point of comparison, apart from their age, is the number of VLS cells.
These are the “big guns” of modern warships.
Each cell can hold a large missile, or sometimes several smaller ones. The mix of anti-surface, anti-shore, anti-air or antimissile warheads depends on the mission.
They are designed to put as many missiles as possible into the air, as fast as possible.
The idea is to overwhelm the defences of any opponent through speed, stealth – and sheer numbers.
But even as Beijing is sending more and more VLS cells to sea, the US is withdrawing them.
And it has no firm plans to replace them.
Japan responded to the PLAN Liaoning battle group’s passage through the Miyako Strait between Okinawa Island and Miyako Island by sending one of its own destroyers and a surveillance aircraft to “shadow” the force.
The Type 055 Nanchang will have been the centre of attention.
It is about 180m long and 22m wide. Its smooth sides deflect radar, and the large square panels betray the advanced nature of its sensor systems.
Liaoning’s two other heavy escorts, Type 052D “Luyang III” class destroyers, are only a little less modern. And they carry 64 VLS cells, giving them less potential firepower to their 33-year-old US “Arleigh Burke” class counterparts which hold between 90 and 96.
But it’s the potential of Type 055 that has the US Navy on edge.
Chinese Communist Party-controlled media claims its dual-band radars can detect stealth aircraft and track low-Earth orbit satellites. Its VLS cells can carry 9m-long missiles powerful enough to reach them. Not only does this put crucial surveillance and communications satellites at risk, it also indicates the potential to intercept ballistic rockets – whether they carry hypersonic or nuclear warheads or not.
Some US Ticonderoga and Arleigh-Burke class ships also have this capability.
Now Beijing-controlled media reports the Type 055s are fitted with 20-megawatt generators capable of powering high-energy weapons such as lasers and electromagnetic rail guns. Prototypes of such weapons are already being tested at sea.
What’s in a name?
The PLAN Nanchang weighs 13,000 tons. That’s the equivalent of a World War II heavy cruiser. But it’s called a Guided Missile Destroyer.
The USS Bunker Hill weighs 9800 tons. It’s designation is Guided Missile Cruiser.
The Royal Australian Navy recently accepted the “Air-Warfare Destroyer” HMAS Sydney. It’s the third and final of a batch of three modern 7000-ton warships based on a Spanish F-100 “frigate” design. All are bigger than World War II cruisers. All carry 48-cell Vertical Launch Systems (VLS) and an assortment of short-range and point-defence weapons.
These designations – cruiser, destroyer or frigate – appear meaningless in the context of their size and firepower.
Yet the outmoded World War II gun-based language still shapes the thoughts and opinions of politicians, the general public – and military personnel.
But the raw numbers show a 48-cell “Air Warfare Destroyer” has little chance of protecting itself – yet alone the troop transports it is tasked to guard – against even a single 112-cell “Guided Missile Destroyer”.
And the US Pentagon is accelerating plans to retire its expensive-to-maintain Ticonderoga Cruiser fleet, despite plans for its replacement – DDG (X) – appearing to have stalled. An earlier replacement program, the USS Zumwalt class, was abandoned due to excessive costs and a failure to produce its advanced weapon systems on time.
The upshot has severe implications for the balance of power in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
“We’re going to have to have a much larger fleet than we have today, if we’re serious about great power competition and deterring great power war, and if we’re serious about dominant capability over something like China or some other power that has significant capability,” chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley recently warned.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel