Last week, for three days running, the Washington Times carried front-page stories about the interception of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, the Kitty Hawk, by a Chinese submarine. The submarine, a Song-class diesel-electric boat, popped up undetected in the middle of a carrier battle group, which was operating in deep water off Okinawa. Armed with Russian-made wake-homing torpedo’s that can ruin a carrier’s day, the sub was well within range of the Kitty Hawk when it surfaced.
While the Washington Times headline read "Admiral says sub risked a shootout," the incident meant little in itself. Navies play these kinds of "Gotcha!" games with each other all the time; both U.S. and Soviet subs were quite good at it during the Cold War. Since neither the U.S. nor China is seeking war, there was no danger of a naval Marco Polo Bridge Incident. The paper quoted an unidentified U.S. Navy official as saying, correctly, "We were operating in international waters, and they were operating in international waters. From that standpoint, nobody was endangering anybody. Nobody felt threatened."
There are, still, some lessons here. One is that, contrary to the U.S. Navy’s fervent belief, the aircraft carrier is no longer the capital ship. It ceded that role long ago to the submarine. In one naval exercise after another, the sub sinks the carriers. The carriers just pretend it didn’t happen and carry on with the rest of the exercise.
About thirty years ago, my first boss, Senator Robert Taft Jr. of Ohio, asked Admiral Hyman Rickover how long he thought the U.S. aircraft carriers would last in the war with the Soviet navy, which was largely a submarine navy. Rickover’s answer, on the record in a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was, "About two days." The Committee, needless to say, went on to approve buying more carriers.
Another lesson is that diesel-electric subs can be as effective or more effective than nuclear boats in the same situations. The U.S. Navy hates the very idea of non-nuclear submarines and therefore pretends they don’t count for much. You can buy four to eight modern diesel-electric submarines for the cost of a single American "U-cruiser" nuke boat.
At this point, the Chinese sub’s successful interception of our carrier does raise an interesting question: how was that sub in the right position to make an interception? What a nuclear submarine can do but a diesel-electric sub cannot is undertake a along, high-speed chase. Was it just dumb luck the Chinese sub was where we were in effect ran into it? Or were the Chinese able to coordinate the sub’s movement over time with successful tracking of our carrier battle group? If the latter is the case, the Chinese Navy may be starting to become a real navy instead of just a collection of ships. That transformation is far more important than whether China has this or that piece of equipment. It won’t happen fast, but it bears watching.
Or does it? The somewhat regrettable message from the world of real war, Fourth Generation war, is that deep-water battles or prospective battles between navies mean little if anything. Speculating about the balance between U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and Chinese submarines is like wondering what would happen at Trafalgar if Villeneuve’s van had responded immediately to his signal to wear and support the center of the Allies’ line, or Admiral Gravina had led his Squadron of Observation straight for Collingwood’s column. It’s fun to think about — personally, I enjoyed it immensely — but c’est ne pas la guerre. Control of coastal and inland waters may play highly important roles in Fourth Generation war, but deep water naval battles like the Glorious First of June, if they occur, will be jousting contests, with broomsticks. In real war, the U.S. Coast Guard may be more useful than the U.S. Navy.
That is the real lesson of the Chinese sub incident: the U.S. navy, like the U.S. Air Force, without a torpedo fired or a single dogfight, is on its way to Davy Jones’s Locker through sheer intellectual inanition. Preparing endlessly for another carrier war in the Pacific against the Imperial Japanese navy, it has become a historical artifact.
In the late 19th century, the Chinese people, outraged by repeated foreign humiliations of China, took up a sizeable collection of money to build China a modern navy. The Dowager Empress used the funds to build a marble pleasure boat for herself in the lake near her summer palace. The U.S. Navy’s carrier battle groups are the marble pleasure boats of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees of the U.S. Congress.
William Lind [send him mail] is an analyst based in Washington, DC.