AIRCRAFT carrier battle groups are the mainstays of U.S. military supremacy. They serve as America’s chief instrument for global power projection and world dominance. In this category, the U.S. has no equal. At the moment, it maintains a total of 12 aircraft carrier battle groups, with another one about to be added. In comparison, China has none.
From June to August 2004, the U.S., for the first time in its naval history, conducted an exercise involving the simultaneous convergence of seven of its 12 aircraft carrier battle groups to within striking distance of China’s coast. Dubbed Operation Summer Pulse, it was the biggest and most massive show of force the world has ever seen. It was to remind China that if it uses force against Taiwan, China must contend with this kind of response.
China’s strategy in “defeating the superior by the inferior” is shashaojian or the “assassin’s mace”. Mace is not only a blinding spray, it is also a mean and deadly weapon, equivalent to a spiked war club in ancient times, that is used to knock out an adversary with one blow. The spikes of the modern Chinese mace may well spell the end for aircraft carriers. These comprise the second half of the feared “assassin’s mace”.
Spikes of the ‘Assassin’s Mace’
The first of these spikes consists of medium- and short-range ballistic missiles (modified and improved DF 21s/CSS-5 and DF 15s) with terminally guided maneuverable re-entry vehicles with circular error probability of less than 10 meters. DF 21C/D/Ms can hit slow-moving targets at sea up to 1,500 kilometers away. China’s latest development of anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) is the DF26, an intermediate range ballistic missile with a reach of 4,000 kilometers. A direct hit is not even necessary. Missiles armed with non-nuclear EMP or thermobaric warheads can put carrier battle groups out of action in a flash.
The second spike is an array of supersonic and highly accurate cruise missiles, some with a range of 300 kilometers or more, that can be delivered by submarines, aircraft, surface ships or even common trucks (ideal for use in terrain like that of Iran along the Persian Gulf). These supersonic cruise missiles travel at more than twice the speed of sound (mach 2.5), or faster than a rifle bullet. They can be armed with conventional, anti-radiation, thermobaric, or electro-magnetic pulse, or even nuclear warheads if need be. The Aegis missile defense system and the Phalanx close-in weapon system of the U.S. Navy are ineffective against these sea-skimming, end-maneuvering, supersonic cruise missiles. Examples of these deadly cruise missiles include Yakhonts, Klubs, Granits, Moskits (or Sunburn), Brahmos, C301s, YJ12s, YJ83s, YJ91s, KH31As/Ps, etc.
Defense analyst Richard D. Fisher had made an evaluation of the Sunburn. Fisher reported that the Sunburn is capable of a dive speed of nearly 3000 miles an hour, helping it evade U.S. naval defenses. “The Sunburn anti-ship missile is perhaps the most lethal anti-ship missile in the world,” wrote Fisher in a review of the Chinese navy. “The Sunburn combines a Mach 2.5 speed with a very low-level flight pattern that uses violent end maneuvers to throw off defenses. After detecting the Sunburn, the U.S. Navy Phalanx point defense system may have only 2.5 seconds to calculate a fire solution – not enough time before the devastating impact of a 750-lb. warhead.”
A barrage of these supersonic cruise missiles to destroy the Aegis and radar systems of the battle group as well as the main surface ships, followed by a second barrage of land-based intermediate- or medium-range ballistic missiles to finish off the remaining survivors of the first barrage, could wreak havoc on an aircraft carrier battle group. Whether there are seven or 10 carrier battle groups, it will not matter, for China has enough ballistic and cruise missiles to destroy them all. Unfortunately for the U.S. and British navies, they do not have the capacity to counter a barrage of supersonic cruise missile followed by a second barrage of ballistic missiles.
The first and second spikes of the “assassin’s mace” are sufficient to render the aircraft carrier battle groups obsolete. But there is a third spike which is equally dreadful. This is the deadly SHKVAL or “Squall” supercavitating rocket torpedo developed by Russia and passed on to China. It is like an underwater missile. It weighs 6,000 pounds and travels at 200 knots or 230 mph, with a range of 7,500 yards. It is guided by autopilot and with its high speed, it will be highly difficult for carriers or nuclear submarines to make evasive maneuvers. It is truly a submarine and carrier buster, and again, the U.S. and its allies have no known defense against such a supercavitating rocket torpedo.
The “assassin’s mace” has still more spikes. The fourth spike consists of extra-large, bottom-rising, rocket-propelled sea mines (EM52s) laid by submarines along the projected paths of advancing carrier battle groups. These sea mines are designed specifically for targeting aircraft carriers. Lying at the sea bottom, these mines are difficult to detect. They can be grouped in clusters to hit the carrier in barrages.
Completing the ‘Assassin’s Mace’ Picture
If we now combine the mace as a means of blinding an adversary and the mace as a spiked war club, one can see the complete picture of how China will use the “assassin’s mace” to send America’s aircraft carrier battle groups into the dustbin of naval history. Although China does not possess a single operational aircraft carrier, it has converted the entire Chinese mainland into a “virtual aircraft carrier” that is unsinkable and capable of destroying all the aircraft carrier battle groups that the U.S. and its allies can muster.
At this point, the question may be asked: How will China find the moving aircraft carriers in the vast expanse of the Pacific and guide its missiles to their targets? Lt. Col. Steven A. Smith, USAF, answers this question in detail: 
…China has launched and operated ELINT systems in the past. If they did acquire a space-based ELINT system, how would they use it and the rest of their suite of space capability against U.S. naval forces? Chinese discussions envision using space systems to track American naval forces and ELINT systems enable this. Space-based ELINT systems can be used to acquire maritime target location for Chinese naval forces. China’s improvements in satellite communication and space-based reconnaissance allow them to identify, target and track U.S. military activities deep into the Western Pacific providing maritime target locations directly to their forces.
In addition, ELINT systems can be used to provide general location of U.S. naval assets which the Chinese could then use to cue searches for U.S. naval forces using the Canadian RADARSAT and ESA’s ERS-2 and ENVISAT synthetic aperture radar systems with their wake detection capability. Using these systems, the Chinese could more precisely locate and determine heading and velocity of carrier battle groups. Once found, China could keep the carrier’s location current using its full imagery suite: ZY-2, RADARSAT, ENVISAT, ERS, JERS, Israeli and Russian commercial sources and any micro satellite experiments on orbit (e.g. the Beijing-1). Of course, the indigenous imagery sources would not have the time delay which can occur with commercial systems. However, the Chinese have ENVISAT, RADARSAT and ERS receiving stations in country for near real-time receipt of imagery thus minimizing the time delay between when the satellites obtain the imagery and when an analyst can process the data. Thus, this suite of space-based capability – ELINT systems used in conjunction with imagery systems with satellite communications disseminating the data – could provide excellent target information for Chinese anti-naval weapon systems.
Ultimately, some analysts believe the U.S. could lose a carrier or two during a Taiwan conflict. If this were to happen, Chinese space systems would have played a role, and this would be a clear example of the “prohibitive interference” required by the definition of space superiority. Thus, this scenario provides one example of the impact of one instance of Chinese space superiority.
We can add to this the GLONASS system of the Russians, since a U.S. conflict with China will surely involve Russia fighting on the side of the latter. Besides, it was Russia who provided most of those supersonic cruise missiles that need to be guided to their targets. And Russia’s electro-optical and synthetic aperture radar satellites, communication satellites, in addition to the GLONASS navigation constellation can supplement China’s own satellite-based C4ISTAR system to make sure that U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups are properly tracked and targeted when it is time to do so.
Satellite surveillance is just one of the methods for tracking down the carriers. Other methods include long-range unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), airborne early warning and airborne warning and control system aircrafts, nuclear submarines doing reconnaissance, and even Special Forces disguised as fishermen or merchant marines equipped with satellite phones and GPS. All of these, combined with satellite-based C4ISTAR, can direct those deadly precision- guided missiles to the carrier battle groups.
U.S. Stuck with Carriers
Sadly for the U.S. Navy, even if American leaders and naval theorists realize the horrible truth that aircraft carriers have been rendered obsolete in modern warfare by China’s “assassin’s mace”, it cannot just change strategy or discard its carriers. Tens of billions of dollars have been poured into those weapon systems and hundreds of thousands of jobs would be affected if such behemoths are turned into scrap. Besides, even if U.S. Navy authorities wanted to change strategy, the all-powerful military-industrial complex lobby would not allow it. So, when a major conflict between the U.S. and China occurs, say over the issue of Taiwan or Tibet, or the South China Sea maritime dispute, pity those thousands of American sailors who are unfortunate enough to be in one of those aircraft carrier battle groups. They won’t stand a chance.
China knew that aircraft carrier battle groups are highly vulnerable, with the advent of global reconnaissance systems and long-range, maneuverable, precision-guided ballistic and cruise missiles. This is why, despite China’s huge foreign exchange reserves ($3+trillion), it has built only one aircraft carrier of its own. Instead, it is busy enlarging and strengthening its submarine fleet which can better survive in the modern battlefield.
* The opinion of this author is his/hers alone. It is not necessarily the views of Beyond Deadlines.