From military illiterates in Congress and political generals in the Five-Sided Wind Tunnel of the Potomac we hear noises about an upcoming war with China. This war, it is thought, will be chiefly naval with America’s carrier battle groups doing the heavy lifting. The carriers, it is further thought, will strike terror into the Chinese. Perhaps Better thinking would help.
A bit of history:
Wikipedia: In 1967aboard the carrier USS Forrestal, an anomaly caused a Zuni rocket on an F-4B Phantom to fire accidentally, striking an external fuel tank of an A-4 Skyhawk. The flammable jet fuel spilled across the flight deck, ignited, and triggered a chain reaction of explosions that killed 134 sailors and injured 161. At the time, Forrestal was engaged in combat operations in the Gulf of Tonkin, during the Vietnam War. The ship survived, but with damage exceeding US$72 million, not including the damage to aircraft.
The Zuni is a small five-inch ground-attack rocket suitable for such things as destroying trucks. This trivial weapon, all by itself, caused damage that rendered the carrier useless for over a year in the repair yards. The warhead was roughly the size of the suicide-drone warheads used in the Ukraine. That’s all it took.
Washington, looking to start a war with China, which has vast numbers of antiship missiles, many of them hypersonic, might reflect on this.
We could say that the disaster on the Forrestal was a freak accident. It was. An “anomaly” means that the circuitry was badly designed, badly maintained, or badly employed. It is not likely to recur. However, almost any missile,or naval gunfire, can burst an aircraft’s fuel tanks. An aircraft carrier is a large bladder of jet fuel wrapped around high explosives. This is worth remembering.
The provincial lawyers in Congress who want a war with a country about which they know little might bear in mind a few things about China. It is not a primitive country of goatherds of the sort the American military likes to fight. It is a huge technological and industrial power with massive financial resources, universities of high quality, large numbers of excellent engineers, and an efficient government. It sent an automated sample-return mission to the Moon and a combination orbiter, lander, and rover to Mars, successful on its first try. It has a space station. America tries desperately to crush its AI program. Chinese students dominate America’s best tech universities. It isn’t Guatemala. It very, very isn’t.
For decades China has been designing its military for almost the sole purpose of fighting America in the waters off its coast. It has developed hypersonic antiship missiles. America has not. It has a larger navy than the US, in hulls if not in tonnage. It has a formidable air force. Many of China’s large and varied missiles are specifically designed as carrier killers. Military enthusiasts can argue whether the Chengdu J-20 is a better plane than the aging FA-18 or the F-35, a notorious dog. It doesn’t matter. The Chinese air force is right there, a hundred miles from Taiwan
Americans have an almost mystical faith in the superiority of their technology. What they seem not to have is the almost mystical technology. America suffers both from complacency and a tendency to regard weapons programs chiefly as a means of funneling money to the arms industry. Washington talks of sending F-16s to the Ukraine as if this were a fearsome bird. No. While it is not actually a biplane, it first flew in 1976. The Russian Su-57 is new and intended actually to fight. Kiev has 31 M1 Abrams tanks, touted as irresistible. The Pentagon, presumably noticing that Russia has destroyed the best tanks that England and Germany could sent, has kept the Abrams off the battlefield.
Unknowns come into play. Would the Russians side with Beijing and send their fleet? Mysteriously the Russian general staff has not communicated with me on this matter, but the Kremlin would have strong geopolitical incentives to do so. Washington would then be at war with Russia, not just around Taiwan but everywhere. Then what? How much war does Washington really think it wants? The Pentagon might send strategic bombers to attack the Chinese mainland. Two can play this game. Russia and China have submarine-launched cruise missiles, of which several, hitting the Pentagon, would be something of a shock. What then?
The greatest unknown arises because no one has ever seen a battle involving a carrier-based navy on the WWII model versus satellite-guided weapons and antiship missiles, and so on. The American fleet hasn’t been in a war since 1945, the Air Force since 1973. Nobody knows what would happen. How would Washington respond to several carriers irreparably in flames Forrestal-style, with several thousand dead per each?
Times change and, often, militaries don’t. Unused forces become mired in outdated doctrine and suffer grave astonishment come war. In the Russo-Japanese conflict of 1904-05 Europe was shocked when those funny little yellow people with the squinty eyes destroyed the Russian fleet. In World War One, there were army officers who sincerely thought that cavalry would matter, utterly misunderstanding the effects of machine guns, and the armies had no idea that the conflict would consist of long years of murderous attrition war.
Over and over and over, wars do not happen as expected. Few had any idea that Vietnam would go as it did. The Viet Cong, those funny little yellow people in the south, didn’t even have supersonic fighter planes. They won.
The American fleet of today is just an up-weaponed version of the fleet of 1945, carriers surrounded by escort vessels. These latter are fragile, unarmored. The battleships of the Second World War had sixteen-inch belt armor and were designed to take multiple hits and keep fighting. Today’s Tico class cruisers and Arleigh Burke destroyers have thin hulls and rely heavily on delicate phased-array radars.
Military history buffs will remember what a couple of French Exocet missiles, fired from Iraqui Mirages, did to the USS Stark, or what a missile did to the Israeli Eilat, or what a speedboat of explosives did to the USS Cole. Wrecked them. This bodes not well for a naval war in Asia. Check Wikipedia.
Never underestimate the effect of ravening vanity on international affairs. Biden suffered humiliation in his botched retreat from Afghanistan. More humiliation threatens in the Ukraine. “”Losing China” is something he cannot relish having hung around his neck. Washington is on the raw edge of losing its international supremacy, and is likely to do anything at all to avoid this. China delenda est.
Further, a military is a state of mind as much as a practical organization. In my years of covering the armed forces those within them often seemed to me to be testosteronal twelve-year olds in the grip of pathological optimism. Officers tell themselves and, particularly, the enlisted men that all is well, that they are the best armed, best trained, etc., when they are not. Today’s military, unable to meet recruiting goals, rotted by social engineering, not meeting physical or mental standards, poorly led by an affirmative-action officer corps, is unlikely to fare well in a real war. Then what?
And of course if the war goes badly the United States will just go home and leave Taiwan, a hundred miles from the mainland, at war with China andwith nowhere to go, as happens in all of America’s wars.
Or else. We know where you sleep.