If China’s ‘carrier-killer’ missiles work, it’s making one of the dumbest moves of the century

J-15 fighters from China's Liaoning aircraft carrier conduct a drill in an area of South China Sea.

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J-15 fighters from China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier conduct a drill in an area of South China Sea.
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REUTERS/Stringer

  • China may be in the midst of one of the dumbest military moves of the 21st century if its own rhetoric on naval warfare is to be trusted.
  • China regularly threatens the US aircraft carriers with its “carrier-killer” missiles, but the US recently withdrew from an arms treaty that banned it from creating similar missiles.
  • China reportedly plans to try to catch up to the US by building a new fleet of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
  • The US has decades of experience on China in that department and could build “carrier killers” of its own.

China may be in the midst of one of the dumbest military moves of the 21st century if its own rhetoric on naval warfare is to be trusted.

China has been touting its ability to sink America’s carriers to negate the US’s military edge, leaving defense experts scratching their heads about why China is now talking about building its own carrier fleet that would be highly susceptible to the same kind of attack, but from the US.

Beijing is building and modernizing a navy to rival the US’s as tensions heat up over the South China Sea, but China falls far behind in one area: aircraft carriers.

To remedy this, China bought a Soviet-built aircraft carrier and its plans, and has built a second one borrowing from the old Soviet design.

But these carriers mostly make sense for coastal defense, not blue-water power projection like US aircraft carriers, which are nuclear-powered and can sail around the world indefinitely.

China's aircraft carrier Liaoning takes part in a military drill of Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy in the western Pacific Ocean.

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China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning takes part in a military drill of Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy in the western Pacific Ocean.
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REUTERS/Stringer

Recently, Wang Yunfei, a naval expert and retired naval officer in China’s People’s Liberation Army, told the South China Morning Post that Beijing would build four nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in addition to the two conventionally fueled carriers they’re building now in a bid to catch up with the US.

Read more: China may add a high-tech launch system to its first aircraft carrier

According to Wang, China would put the goal of catching up to the US military in carrier capability at almost any cost.

“The country needs to keep developing until it is at the same level as the United States,” he said.

But according to Bryan McGrath, the founding managing director of the FerryBridge Group LLC, a naval consultancy, China pushing for more carriers, by its own logic, represents one of the dumbest ideas he’s ever heard.

China frequently threatens to sink US aircraft carriers that approach its waters.

A Chinese rear admiral who holds an academic rank in shaping military theory, recently suggested that Beijing break the US’s spirit by sinking an aircraft carrier or two.

A People’s Liberation Army Air Force colonel commandant suggested in December that China’s navy should ram US warships sailing on international waters.

China backed up these threats by deploying the DF-26, a missile purpose-built to destroy US aircraft carriers, to its northwest region, where it’s safely out of US carrier striking range but still able to reach the ultra-valuable naval formations.

Read more: China sets the stage for a ‘bloody nose’ attack on US aircraft carriers, but it would backfire horribly

US aircraft carriers can launch aircraft with a combat radius of about 500 miles, but China has built a whole new class of missiles purpose-built to out-range them, with some reaching 800 or more than 1,000 miles. China’s anti-access area-denial defensive layers.

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China’s anti-access area-denial defensive layers.
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Office of Naval Intelligence Image

Responding to China’s recent threats on US aircraft carriers, McGrath, who is a retired US Navy officer, told Business Insider he wasn’t surprised.

“I would have been more surprised if we had seen former Chinese rear admiral say, ‘The fact that we’re building aircraft carriers is one of the dumbest moves of the 21st century given the Americans will wax them in the first three days of combat,'” he said.

The US unleashed

China's DF-26

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China’s DF-26 “carrier-killer” missile.
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CCTV via YouTube

China has long held an advantage over the US in what kinds of missiles it can build. The US for 30 years belonged to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. This treaty prohibited the US from building ground-launched missiles that can travel between 300 and 3,200 miles.

But in January, the US, with NATO’s backing, pulled out of the treaty, saying it had proof that Russia had built treaty-violating missiles.

Read more: China moves ‘ship killer’ missiles into firing range as US warships infuriate Beijing in the South China Sea

Now the US is free to build intermediate-range ground-launched missiles – the exact kind China is threatening the US with. Sailors conduct flight operations aboard the US Navy Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the western Pacific Ocean.

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Sailors conduct flight operations aboard the US Navy Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the western Pacific Ocean.
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Reuters/ U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sean M. Castellano/Handout

The US has considerable hurdles to clear if it wants to base the formerly banned missiles in the Pacific, where they would have the best shot at a Chinese carrier. But in the world of carrier-centric warfighting, the US holds massive advantages.

The US has decades more experience with power projection, carrier strike groups, naval aviation, and maneuvering the giant ships. Single-carrier air wings in the US Navy likely have more carrier landings and takeoffs than the entire Chinese navy has ever had.

So, if China really believes that intermediate-range ground-launched missiles can take down aircraft carriers, then it could be signing up to spend billions on floating targets.