No one in the American or British public realized in 1940 that battleships had become sitting ducks for aircraft-carrier attacks. But in fact that capability had been demonstrated 19 years earlier when U.S. biplanes commanded by the legendary Gen. Billy Mitchell sank the former Imperial German Navy battleship Ostfriesland in a trial attack off Hampton Roads, Va., on July 21, 1921. One of the eyewitnesses of that event was Capt. Osami Nagano of the Imperial Japanese Navy who went on to command the aircraft carrier strike that sank eight U.S. battleships at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. 1941.
Similarly, neither U.S. policymakers nor the American public realize the vulnerability of giant aircraft carriers to torpedo attacks from modern fast submarines was demonstrated in 1968 when a fast Soviet nuclear-powered attack submarine matched the USS Enterprise at top speed in the Pacific Ocean. That moment, vividly and thoroughly discussed in Patrick Tyler's "Running Critical," was as epochal a moment in the shift of the strategic balance at sea as Billy Mitchell's sinking of Ostfriesland.
Nor was this a freak, or isolated incident. Since 1968, U.S. submarines have routinely scored disabling hits on American carriers in U.S. Navy war games, and the hits, Navy insiders know, are routinely unacknowledged in the official assessments of the maneuvers.
The Russian Navy is now only a shadow of its former self, but China has emerged as the would-be challenger to U.S. naval supremacy in the 21st century. China has experienced repeated problems with building its ambitious and expensive nuclear submarines. These problems probably explain in large part China's reluctance to use its enormous shipbuilding capacity to try and build giant aircraft carriers to match the U.S. leviathans.
Instead, China is investing shrewdly in a "string of pearls" strategy: It is using its great financial clout to buy influence in nations suspicious of the United States and India across around and across the Indian Ocean, in order to be able to construct its own naval and air bases there. These bases have been built, are being built, or are being contemplated in Myanmar, in the Andaman Islands, in Mauritius, in Pakistan and even on the eastern coast of Africa.
Such bases would allow China to maintain or rapidly deploy fleets of combat aircraft and home-base their diesel-powered submarines, based on Russia's excellent Kilo-class at them.
Diesel powered, Kilo-type subs cannot stay at see indefinitely and they lack the range of the nuclear-powered subs of the U.S. British and Russian navies of sailing anywhere in the world without refueling and still having full operational capabilities. But given a base a few hundred or even a thousand miles form their operational areas they are formidable weapons and China has invested big in them. In 2006, China built 14 diesel-powered subs while the United States built only a single nuclear one.
The Chinese strategy in the event of any maritime war with the United States, most especially over Taiwan, in the foreseeable future, would clearly, therefore, be to use swarms of Kilo-type subs to overwhelm the anti-submarine warfare -- ASW -- defenses of U.S. carrier battle groups to torpedo the giant U.S carriers. Alternately, they could choose to surface briefly and even risk destruction in order to fire their formidable Hai Ying -- Sea Eagle -- HY2 anti-ship supersonic cruise missiles, copied with Moscow's approval from the Russian Moskit 3M80 Moskit -- NATO designation SS-N-22 Sunburn. These weapons were expressly designed to kill U.S. aircraft carriers.
Kilo subs would be no match for state-of-the-art, nuclear-powered U.S. undersea attack subs one on one. But they would not be deployed that way. Just as Nazi Kriegsmarine U-Boat -- wolf packs -- operating on the surface -- sought to overwhelm Allied convoys escort ships by their sheer weight of numbers during the long Battle of the Atlantic ion World War II, Chinese diesel subs, remaining underwater, would seek to overwhelm a carrier battle group's defenses by their numbers as well. The much smaller size of China;s diesel submarines -- as they do not have to carry any nuclear propulsion plant -- automatically gives them a great advantage in this regard.
Next: Why carriers need armor