The vaunted fleet of the U.S. Navy may not be ready for a conflict with China.
A recent analysis found that the U.S. would likely lose a vast number of ships in a war with China over Taiwan, thanks to a narrowing technological advantage. And experts say the U.S. fleet of over 490 ships is also losing its edge in numbers compared to China’s fleet of 661 vessels.
“We are nowhere near adequately prepared,” said William Toti, who led the Navy’s anti-submarine China strategy before his retirement. “I fear that we’ve awakened a sleeping giant. They have more ships than we do. They have more industrial capacity than we do.”
A Dwindling Advantage
A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies concluded that the U.S. Navy, which had a budget of about $220 billion last year, would likely suffer heavy losses if the U.S. seeks to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion. In the opening days of a conflict, Chinese missiles could destroy U.S. air bases in Japan and Guam and sink two American aircraft carriers and between 10 and 20 destroyers and cruisers.
“Such losses would damage the U.S. global position for many years,” the study’s authors wrote, although they suggested that the U.S. would likely prevail in the end. “While Taiwan’s military is unbroken, it is severely degraded and left to defend a damaged economy on an island without electricity and basic services.”.”The study found that the U.S. would still win by using its 50 attack submarines in combination with Air Force bombers.
The war games conducted for the study reflect the reality on the seas, said Toti in an interview with The Daily Beast. The U.S. is facing a rapid increase in Chinese military capabilities, including advanced anti-ship missiles. “Anything that floats is vulnerable, and that includes aircraft carriers and surface ships,” Toti said.
Paul van Hooft, an analyst at the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, said that China’s military has been successfully trying to catch up with the U.S. fleet by copying American designs for precision weapons. But, he said, China is having a harder time narrowing the gap in areas like stealth fighters and has tried to make up the gap by investing in artificial intelligence. He said that AI could help China in a future naval conflict by assisting its military more accurately target ships.
“You can think of artificial intelligence as improving certain things like jamming and other types of electronic warfare,” he added.
Another area where technology could play a role in a future conflict is the proliferation of precision-guided anti-ship missiles which threatens even the most advanced large naval ships in the U.S. fleet, said Brandon Tseng, a former navy officer. Such missiles are relatively cheap to produce and have the capacity to destroy very expensive warships.
The future of naval warfare may already be playing out in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Tseng, who is now president of the company Shield AI, which develops artificial intelligence-powered drones, aircraft, and software for the military,, pointed to the sinking of the Russian warship Moskva in April of 2022. The $750 million Moskva, which was armed with modern missile defenses, was sunk by two Ukrainian anti-ship missiles that each cost around $1 million.
China will have seen the sinking of the Moskva and is likely using the incident as a lesson for its own navy. Tseng said China’s current approach of investing heavily in smaller missile boats, each armed with eight anti-ship missiles, is an example of its strategy to threaten much more expensive American carrier battle groups with cheaper small ships armed with advanced anti-ship missiles just like those that sunk the Moskva. Advanced technology in satellites, aircraft, and submarines can locate, track, and target large surface ships much more easily and feed target data back to the missile boats.
Technological innovations work for, as well as against, surface ships, including aircraft carriers, pointed out Sam J. Tangredi, a retired Navy captain who now teaches at the U.S. Naval War College. He said that many of the assessments of missiles versus surface ships—such as the claim that China’s new anti-ship ballistic missiles make aircraft carriers obsolete—are inaccurate.
“Warships do not operate individually against an enemy; they operate as mutual-supportive battle groups or as an overall fleet (at least as the U.S. Navy operates). Thus an engagement does not consist of a weapon versus a ship, but a fleet (and joint force) against the enemy’s forces,” he said.
Satellites and advanced radars might detect a fleet at sea, Tangredi said. But the same systems can see the launch of land-based anti-ship missiles to warn the fleet of impending attacks.
“Since warships are (obviously) highly maneuverable, they are much more difficult to target
than land bases—for which one only needs to know the latitude/longitude or grid coordinates and then calculate and control a missile’s burn-time (amount of fuel consumed necessary to land in a particular location),” he added.
A war with China might involve keyboard warriors as much as missiles because ships are also vulnerable to cyber threats. Tangredi predicted the initial phase of a future naval battle would be electronic warfare in which both sides would struggle for control over the electromagnetic spectrum and cyberspace to blind or deceive the opponent’s sensors and targeting systems.
“Surface ships and weapons systems they house are million- and billion-dollar buoyant computers, yet they lack even the most basic digital defenses afforded to the smartphones in our pockets,” said Egon Rinderer, the chief technology officer of the defense company Shift5 and a former naval systems operator. “We are beginning to see the real-time impact of combining kinetic and cyber capabilities on the battlefield. These kinds of integrated tactics could lead to significant implications for the future of naval warfare and for the readiness and lethality of our own U.S. military.”
While the Department of Defense has invested heavily to protect against threats to its IT infrastructure, efforts to defend operational technology (OT) found within surface ships, combat vehicles, and weapon systems fall short, Rinderer said.
“We have relied upon “security through obscurity” to protect onboard OT technology, but its weaknesses result in exposures that, if exploited, allow adversaries to quickly gain asymmetric battlefield advantages,” he added.
Tseng said the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) struggles with incorporating AI into its acquisition processes and cyber infrastructure and fielding a force ready to develop and employ AI. “As always, technology is the greatest military differentiator and will ultimately determine whether large-scale global conflict can be deterred. We risk falling behind the PLA because of a lack of investment in these technologies,” he added.
To prevail in a future conflict with China, the U.S. needs to build more ships, particularly submarines, Toti said.
“Submarines are the one ship type that can stop the cross-Taiwan Strait invasion because they can get in there with relative impunity and take out the Chinese ships that are out to invade Taiwan. Surface ships are at great risk of being destroyed by Chinese missiles. The submarines don’t suffer that risk.”
Tangredi said that the U.S. fleet needs to be big enough to sustain losses in combat. “Unlike in World War II, we can’t build a destroyer in three months,” he added. “To be prepared, we need more than maintenance and training—we need more ships.”
But building more ships will take time and billions of dollars if it ever happens. In the meantime, some experts say the U.S. Navy may need to face up to its own limitations versus a growing Chinese fleet. “The U.S. complaint is, hey, we can no longer operate with impunity anywhere we want to,” said Erik A. Gartzke, a professor at the University of California San Diego, who studies the impact of information on war. “The easiest solution to this very complicated, expensive problem for the U.S. Navy is just to stop pretending that it can operate with impunity anywhere in the world. There might be certain areas that are no-go areas.”