A U.S. Navy Nightmare: What If China Built a 'Battleship'?

James Holmes

S’pose China built a battleship. What would such a sea creature look like, and how would it fare in the bare-knuckles world of naval diplomacy and warfare? This is no mere flight of fancy. No, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is not about to embrace a retrograde approach to fleet design, sinking finite resources into majestic but obsolescent ship types.

But it may refresh antiquarian ideas for modern times—as military folk have done throughout history. Martial concepts of old often find new life as technology advances and the strategic environment changes.

Master historian Julian Corbett foresaw the battleship’s demise over a century ago. During the age of sail ships of the line stood at the forefront of naval warfare, brushing aside lighter combatants. The advent of newfangled armaments such as the torpedo, though, upended that neat division of labor—superempowering small craft to strike heavy blows against capital ships that ventured within reach.

Technology turned seafarers’ world upside down.

Corbett concluded that “the whole naval art has suffered a revolution beyond all previous experience.” In this brave new world, battleship skippers had to fret about defending themselves from torpedo craft and rudimentary submarines. The onset of military aviation further upended the scheme of fleet operations. The destruction of the Japanese superbattleships Musashi and Yamato at U.S. aviators’ hands in 1944-1945 certified the dreadnought’s downfall as a capital ship, the fleet’s prime repository of battle power.

And yet.

Despite the apparent verdict of naval history, Beijing might see value in some sort of neo-battleship (or battlecruiser, or whatever the leadership might choose to brand it for diplomatic effect). Chinese naval architects need not turn back Corbett’s marine technological revolution. They can turn that revolution to advantage by harnessing gee-whiz technology of their own. That conceit constitutes the core of Chinese maritime strategy.

And it might supply a rationale for a PLA Navy battleship. A bulky surface combatant bristling with sensors and weapons might pay dividends in peacetime naval diplomacy, overawing audiences Chinese Communist grandees would like to overawe—foreign and domestic. Such a brawler might even make sense as a fighting ship provided commanders deployed it judiciously, as part of a “fortress fleet.”

A fortress fleet is a surface armada that operates within reach of shore-based fire support, supplementing its organic firepower with heavy-hitting armaments that reach out from land. A weaker fleet might defy a stronger using that great equalizer. A century ago eminent strategists such as Alfred Thayer Mahan sneered at the concept, pronouncing it a “radically erroneous” way of naval strategy.

But that criticism, though apt for the time, was largely a function of the crude weapons and fire-control technology of the day. Back then rudimentary guns represented the state of the art in marine weaponry, but a gun’s effective firing range was a few miles at most. That range formed the radius of an arc centered on the gun’s position. Stasis prevailed. Staying within the circle traced by shore gunnery’s reach confined the fleet to a cramped sea area. It could accomplish little with its mobility fettered. Dependence on external protection sapped derring-do from ship and fleet commanders.

Critiques of fortress-fleet strategy were spot-on, yet the ensuing century of technical ingenuity has ameliorated such qualms. PLA engineers have strewn airfields, anti-ship cruise missiles, and anti-ship ballistic missiles along the seacoasts of Fortress China. These are the descendants of primitive coastal gun batteries. Their effective firing range is measured in hundreds if not thousands of miles.

Swing an arc with that radius along the map of China and you encompass an enormous sea area. Furthermore, matters most to Beijing—Taiwan, the Senkakus, the nine-dashed line—lies within that waterspace. No longer are limits on weapons technology overly burdensome for fleet operations. No longer does a strategic concept drain the spirit of enterprise out of fleet or ship commanders. A fortress fleet is now a free-range fleet.

In the PLA Navy’s case, furthermore, the surface fleet cruises in company with “sea denial” platforms such as cruise-missile-armed patrol craft and submarines. That additional defensive layer only amplifies the logic of the fortress fleet. Beijing, in short, has carried the concept of coastal defense to its utmost degree. A latter-day battleship could fit into this amphibian strategic construct.

There’s ample precedent for acquiring battleships. During the 1980s, for example, the U.S. Navy recommissioned four World War II-era Iowa-class fast battleships. It did so to tap their visual majesty, impressing domestic and foreign audiences with American naval prowess.

Perversely, modern naval weaponry looks unimpressive. Vintage warships festooned with massive guns exuded physical might. The Iowa-class dreadnoughts helped the U.S. Navy counter backward but impressive-looking Soviet Navy behemoths such as Kirov-class battlecruisers and their predecessors. PLA Navy officials were long disciples of Soviet naval practices. They too grasp the diplomatic power that radiates from major warships. Beijing procured bulky Sovremenny-class destroyers from Russia after the Cold War and is constructing its own fleet of aircraft carriers.

Impressions matter. Why not a PLA Navy counterpart to the Iowa or Kirov?

Nor were battlewagons mere diplomatic ornaments for the U.S. Navy. They lent real fighting power to the fleet. Naval architects balance among armament, protection, and speed when designing ships of war. Physical size—and thus volume—helps shipwrights escape some of the tradeoffs among those three attributes. A vessel abundant in all three costs you, but Beijing might deem the expense worthwhile.

For one thing, large hulls furnish stable platforms for heavy armaments. No destroyer or cruiser could have mounted the Iowas’ 16-inch naval rifles. Each exceeded sixty feet in length and slung projectiles weighing the same as an old-school VW Beetle twenty miles downrange to bombard rival fleets or shore targets. Once upgraded, moreover, U.S. Navy dreadnoughts carried a massive complement of cruise missiles for their day.

Large surface combatants would offer the PLA Navy the space for new weapons that demand it. Long-range anti-ship or anti-air missiles, hypersonic vehicles, unmanned craft of various types, electromagnetic railguns, and exotic directed-energy weapons would make ideal candidates to go to sea on board a Chinese heavy hitter. A capacious hull could accommodate the latest—and physically biggest—in shipboard arms.

For another, battleships bore stout armor, in excess of a foot thick in places. Mahan defined a capital ship, in effect, as a fighting ship boasting the offensive wallop and defensive strength to dish out and take punishment in battle against its peers, namely enemy capital ships. The underlying assumption: it needed the staying power to withstand hits from its own main battery and battle on.

Battleship architects, accordingly, went to elaborate lengths to harden their creations against assault. They did not content themselves with sheathing vessels in stout armor. They honeycombed battleship hulls to confine the flooding should an enemy torpedo or gun round puncture the sides. They mounted torpedo nets or “bulges” on hulls in hopes of detonating hostile torpedoes at a distance. And on and on.

Nowadays U.S. Navy aircraft carriers are designed to absorb punishment, and with evident success. By contrast, lightly armored surface combatants are designed in hopes they will knock out threats—hostile firing platforms—before they can unleash their weapons against the fleet. To borrow a common U.S. Navy metaphor, American defenders smite down the archer before he looses his arrow.

PLA Navy fleet designers might prize surface warships constructed on the Mahanian assumption that the arrow will get through.

In certain circumstances, that is, Chinese ships might need to be rugged enough to take a pummeling and stay in the fight. If U.S. and allied forces sought to close the first island chain to PLA Navy and Air Force traffic, for example, a close-quarters slugfest would ensue within the China seas, in the straits that pierce the island chain, and in Western Pacific waters to the island chain’s east.

A resilient capital ship might make the difference between a PLA breakout into the open ocean and seeing antagonists imprison the force in home waters, with all the military, economic, and political hardship a blockade would entail. If Chinese shipbuilders could fashion some equivalent to battleship armor—either through advanced material science or some lightweight, imaginative substitute—why not avail themselves of it?

And lastly, we might redefine naval architects’ speed characteristic to mean propulsion. Speed is not the overriding concern it was during the age of Corbett and Mahan, when one battle line might prevail over another by occupying a commanding position relative to the foe. Aircraft and missiles are far swifter than any surface combatant. Dodging hostile munitions gets harder by the day.

And yet the propulsion plant’s capacity matters at least as much now as then. Weapons, fire control, and sensors—the attributes on which a vessel’s survival does depend—rely increasingly on electrical power generated by the black gang. The ship’s fighting power also depends on mundane but indispensable services such as cooling water to carry heat away from radars, computers, or, someday, railguns or directed-energy weapons.

The U.S. Navy collided headlong with these demands while pondering the latest version of its venerable DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. The “Flight III” Burke features a dramatic upgrade to the Aegis phased-array radar that shields the fleet against air and missile attack. The new hardware generates such heat, however, that designers concluded they have exhausted the physical volume of the DDG-51 design.

Future upgrades will demand electricity and hotel services beyond the DDG-51’s capacity. Hence the trend toward larger combatants such as the DDG-1000 Zumwalt class, a warship with half-again the tonnage of existing Aegis destroyers and cruisers. Zumwalt was built with excess engineering capacity to accommodate futuristic hardware now under development or on the drawing board.

Nor would a PLA Navy dreadnought necessarily be conventionally fired. Many navies, including China’s, operate compact nuclear reactors on board submarines. That’s more burdensome than powering a surface ship with a nuke. Indeed, the U.S. Navy once operated nuclear-powered cruisers, retiring them less because of technical rigors than their sheer expense.

The Russian Navy battlecruiser Kirov, furthermore, is nuclear-powered and still takes to the sea from time to time. There is precedent for an atomic-driven PLA Navy surface fleet. Beijing could go that route.

This survey yields clues into what a PLA Navy heavyweight might look like. Its physical dimensions would have to overshadow foreign surface combatants, much as battleships dwarfed destroyers and cruisers. The Iowa class weighed in at 58,000 tons when fully loaded. Sheer size imparted grandeur to American dreadnoughts, conferring diplomatic clout.

A Chinese battleship probably need not displace that much. It does need to be big enough to impress—which means big relative to foreign competitors such as U.S. Navy and allied Aegis destroyers. The Russian Kirov could provide a template for a PLA Navy capital ship. At just under 27,000 tons, Kirov displaces nearly as much as the battleship USS Arizona—more than older generations of battlewagons. Kirov could inspire a PLA Navy successor.

Like any scrapper, the ship would need a formidable mien, which means designers—unlike Zumwalt’s architects—would not put a premium on stealth. Stealth demands eliminating protuberances such as sensor arrays, missile launchers, and guns in order to reduce a ship’s radar cross-section, or size on hostile radar scopes. But these are precisely the features that make a man-of-war look impressive to non-specialists.

The strategist Edward Luttwak points out even though laymen’s opinions may be uninformed from a military standpoint—they may rate the objectively stronger contender as weaker—their subjective views count all the same. To exploit that logic the PLA Navy may—and should—aim for style points should it build such a behemoth.

Even if such outward characteristics contributed little to combat capability, keeping them would be worthwhile from a diplomatic standpoint. Zumwalt might outmuscle a Chinese Kirov by a massive margin in combat yet lose out in the contest of perceptions. The look of a ship counts—today as in the heyday of the battleship. Zumwalt is a nondescript- if not otherworldly-looking vessel. To draw a contrast, the PLA Navy might pile weapons and sensors on topside decks with gusto.

And to wring military value out of such a hull, shipbuilders would pack it with as much innate defensive capacity and as capable an engineering plant as possible. Like battleship armor, a well-designed hull and innovative passive defenses could help the vessel absorb damage in a firefight along the first island chain, or elsewhere within range of shore-based defenses. The plant would generate power and services adequate to support an ambitious panoply of weapons, sensors, and computers.

Overbearing in size, glowering in outlook, stuffed with hardware—that’s what a PLA Navy battleship would be. Don’t put such a project beyond Beijing. We China-watchers ooh’d and aah’d a few years ago when word broke that Chinese shipyards were building a guided-missile destroyer that outweighed any destroyer or cruiser in the American inventory. Those reports morphed into the Type 055 DDG, in which Chinese officialdom takes palpable pride. Its bulk is part of the reason why.

Supersizing has worked for Beijing up to now, and it fits with China’s fortress-fleet strategy. Why wouldn’t fleet designers one-up themselves—and keep a good thing going?

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.

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