With the tensions in the South China Sea rising, there's always a chance that things could explode into open warfare. But how would the first major naval battle between the United States and China go?
For starters, let's assume that China has deployed the Liaoning and one of its home-built copies of that carrier, and that each has a single Type 55 destroyer, two Luyang II-class destroyers, and a Lyuang I-class destroyer as escorts.
Figure China will also have some nuclear submarines, land-based H-6 "Badger" bombers, and a number of the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles. China will also have the use of island bases in the South China Sea, including Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef.
A H-6 Badger bomber. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
The United States would probably deploy the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), currently the forward-deployed carrier based in Japan, escorted by two Ticonderoga-class cruisers and four Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers, with a pair of Virginia-class submarines and a pair of Improved 688-class submarines in support, along with land-based bombers out of Andersen Air Force Base (eight B-1B Lancers, four B-2A Spirits, and eight B-52H Stratofortesses).
This first battle will possibly be fought after China makes an aggressive move against the Philippines in the South China Sea. China would then seek to consolidate the gains. The United States would hope to inflict a significant reverse on China, which would be putting all of its carriers eggs into the fight. The Type 001 Liaoning and Type 001A would each be able to carry a small air wing of roughly 18 J-15 Flankers and a dozen helicopters for anti-submarine warfare.
An F-35C takes off from the deck of the USS George Washinton. (Photo: U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kris R. Lindstrom)
By way of comparison, the Reagan will be operating 12 F-35C Lightings, 24 F/A-18E Super Hornets, 12 F/A-18F Super Hornets, and more importantly, support aircraft like EA-18G Growlers, E-2C Hawkeyes, and MQ-25 Stingray UAVs. Furthermore, this may not include Marine F-35Bs and Air Force F-16s, F-15s, and F-35s operating out of Okinawa.
China will try to get a targeting solution for the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles. However, both the length of time to target and send orders to fire the missiles mean that their biggest effect will be virtual attrition. However, the United States will make its own play – and inflict real attrition on the Chinese.
USS Hopper (DDG 70) fires a RIM-161 SM-3 missile in 2009. (US Navy photo)
First, the U.S. will use its edge in maritime patrol to locate the enemy groups. Then, the Reagan will launch what appears to be a massive Alpha Strike targeting the carriers. The Chinese carriers will scramble their ready planes… only to find out that the "strike" is really a sea-going version of Operation Bolo.
The Flankers will be shot out of the sky in a flurry of AMRAAMs.
Then, the Amercian submarines will target and sink the Chinese air-defense destroyers with torpedoes. Even though the Kuznetsov design has a lot of problems, at 65,000 tons, it will still take punishment. But killing some of the destroyers will set the stage for the B-1B bombers to launch AGM-158C Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles.
LRASM anti-ship missile. (Image courtesy of Lockheed Martin)
Each B-1B can carry up to 24 of those weapons, and soon, each carrier and its surviving escorts will be facing up to 96 of these stealthy missiles closing in. They might get some of the missiles, but enough will get through to sink or cripple the Chinese carriers.
With that, the United States would then proceed to take out the island bases.
In short, China's first major naval battle against America could very well be the last one.