Monday, January 14, 2008

Let's Not Get Ahead of Ourselves

The Chinese navy isn't ready to fight the US navy in a naval campaign for sea control of the western Pacific. Their submarines are their most potent naval threat, but while putting to sea more often, they still can't match us:

While the Chinese are modernizing their submarine force, half their boats are still basically obsolete diesel-electric designs. The U.S. nuclear submarine fleet contains more than half the nuclear boats in service worldwide.

But the major American problem is anti-submarine warfare, because even elderly diesel-electric boats have proved difficult to detect. So the U.S. Navy is rebuilding its anti-submarine capability. That may take a few more years, and the main goal is to keep ahead of Chinese developments. The biggest thing the Americans have going for them is that, while the Chinese are building more subs, they are not training with them. Why is that? Partly it's a matter of money, partly it's the poorly maintained equipment. But mostly it's fear of embarrassment. Over the last few years, there have been several disastrous accidents involving Chinese subs at sea. These were usually just the day trips for training. Boats broke down, sailors died (in one case, an entire crew). But the Chinese have to go to sea a lot more before they become a serious threat to the United States.

The problem is, I don't worry about their navy beating us--I worry about their navy slowing us down long enough for China to take Taiwan.

Obsolete subs can still lay mines to create a barrier across the Strait of Taiwan or in Taiwanese east coast ports. They could still sink merchant ships. Obsolete subs could still force our naval elements to advance cautiously in their approach to Taiwan. It will take time just to kill them. Those loud subs would also mask a smaller number of good subs that might get a shot at one of our big ships.

If at the end of the day, the Chinese have captured Taiwan at the price of 30 or so obsolete subs and a bunch of old surface ships that would be scrapped anyway while maybe putting a hole in a modern American carrier, I dare say the fleet would have served its purpose.

One day, the Chinese will want to challenge us in the deep waters of the western and middle Pacific. The current fleet is clearly insufficient for that role. Newer and more modern ships and subs are needed for that job. But first, China needs to pop the cork in the bottle that Taiwan represents. The current fleet China has could be good enough for that work. And once Taiwan is taken, any surviving ships of the Taiwan conquest would be scrapped anyway.

Yes, China can't match us yet. That's the good news. But the bad news is that China's first step doesn't require them to match us. Keep that in mind.