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One picture shows why Beijing's 'carrier killer' missiles won't win the South China Sea in a fight

Alex Lockie
  • The US military just did a drill in the Pacific that brought together nuclear bombers, next-generation stealth fighters, an aircraft carrier, and ballistic missile defence.
  • These represent what a real war against Beijing in the South China Sea would require.
  • China has built a larger navy than the US and missiles specifically designed to sink aircraft carriers, but there's no indication it can actually operate as expected in a combat environment.

Beijing's navy has grown to outnumber the US as it focuses on locking down the South China Sea with increasingly aggressive deployments of missiles, fighter jets, and even nuclear-capable bombers, but a picture from a recent US military exercise shows that the US still has the edge.

China has turned out new warships at a blinding speed the US can't currently hope to match as well as a massive arsenal of "carrier killer" missiles with US aircraft carrier's names all but written on them. Meanwhile, the US fleet has dwindled and aged.

US allies have started to openly question whether the US can defend against the rising Beijing, but while China holds major advantages on paper, wars don't get fought on paper.

The US military recently pulled together Valiant Shield 18, the US-only follow-up to the multi-national RIMPAC naval drill, which is the biggest in the world. The drill saw the US's forward-deployed USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, 15 surface ships, and 160 aircraft coordinate joint operations - something China sorely lacks.

China's navy poses a threat with its massive size and long range missiles, but it's unclear if China can combine operations seamlessly with its air force, army, or rocket force. The US regularly trains towards that goal and has firmed up those skills in real war fighting.

And while China has cooked up new "carrier killer" missiles that no doubt can deliver a knockout blow to US aircraft carriers, everyone has a plan until they get hit. On paper, China's missiles outrange US aircraft carriers highest-endurance fighters, but this concept of A2/AD (anti-access/area-denial) hasn't been tested.

"A2/AD is sort of an aspiration. In actual execution, it's much more difficult," US Chief of Naval Operations, Adm.John Richardson said in 2016. "Our response would be to inject a lot of friction into that system at every step of the way [and] look to make that much more difficult."

In the above picture, the Reagan leads a carrier strike group full of guided-missile destroyers, supply ships for long hauls, and a B-52 nuclear capable bomber flying overhead.

B-52s with cruise missiles can reach out and touch China from standoff ranges. US F-15 fighter jets in South Korea could launch long-range munitions at missile launch sites before the carriers even got close. US Marine Corps F-35Bs, which made their debut at this year's exercise, can slip in under the radar and squash any threats.

For the missiles that do make it through the US's fingers, each US carrier sails with guided-missile destroyers purposely built to take down ballistic missiles.

The US recently completed a missile interception test with Japan, where a Japanese destroyer with US technology shot down a ballistic missile in flight. The US can also count on South Korea, Australia, and increasingly India to take a stand against Beijing.

In a brief but illuminating interview, US Navy Vice Adm. Tom Rowden, the then-head of the US Navy's Surface Forces, told Defence News the difference between a US Navy ship and a Chinese navy ship:

"One of them couldn't fight their way out of a wet paper bag and the other one will rock anything that it comes up against."