The National Interest
Date: March 6, 2019
By: Salvatore Babones
A future battleship could respond to Chinese provocations by disabling Chinese seabed sensors or cutting Chinese undersea cables. It could survive being rammed by enemy ships—a favorite tactic of the Chinese and North Koreans. And if A2/AD did escalate into a shooting war, it could operate in the danger zone while U.S. offensive actions turned the tables.
In World War II, the Japanese super-battleships Yamato and Musahi each mounted nine 18.1-inch guns, the largest naval guns ever deployed, but they never sank a single American ship. In a conflict decided by naval aviation, Yamato and Musahi were used mainly as flagships and troop transports. Despite their huge armaments, they were steel dinosaurs from an earlier strategic age.
But how do you sink a steel dinosaur? The answer is: “with difficulty.” It took eleven torpedoes and six bombs to sink the Yamato. The Musahi took nineteen torpedoes and seventeen bombs. And at the time they were sunk, both ships were already limping along on patch-up repairs from earlier torpedo strikes. They may have been strategically useless, but the Yamato and Musahi were almost (if not quite) indestructible.
Naval construction requires decades of advance planning, and naval planners are always at risk of fighting the last war. Since the end of World War II, U.S. naval planning has revolved around the aircraft carrier. But world wars are few and far between, and other missions abound. When it comes to countering the rise of China, some of the most frequent missions are freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) requiring no fighting at all.
Over the last several years China has become increasingly aggressive in asserting illegal maritime claims in the South China Sea. In response, the United States regularly conducts FONOPs, sailing destroyers within twelve nautical miles of China’s artificial islands to repudiate Beijing’s claims to sovereign territorial waters. So far, China has been sensible enough not to challenge any of these operations.
But a destroyer is a fragile fish. In June last year the USS Fitzgerald was put out of action by a collision with a container ship, with the loss of seven lives—on the destroyer. Then in August the USS John S. McCain was nearly sunk by an oil tanker. Ten sailors lost their lives. The tanker suffered no injuries. Leaving aside the issue of poor seamanship, these two collisions illustrated a potentially more serious shortcoming of today’s naval ships: poor survivability. Navy ships used to threaten oil tankers, not the other way around. [FULL STORY]