Although the military threat posed by China’s growing and rapidly re-organizing armed forces remains a largely regional one, no facet of the People’s Liberation Army is developing as quickly or adding more combat capabilities than its navy. It’s difficult to say how many new vessels the Chinese navy has launched in recent years, particularly because its state media has stopped covering the events, but estimates suggest the count is in the dozens. Among those new vessels are two home-built aircraft carriers in varied stages of completion and a new class of destroyers that is largely believed to be a match for America’s Arleigh Burke-class of ships.
China may boast a massive land army, but the nation lacks the infrastructure required to move such a large force to any foreign territory in a fight. That means war with China would undoubtedly take place in the Pacific, where modern anti-ship missiles would find their place among some classic warfare strategies like attacking ships with aircraft and, of course, ship-mounted weapons systems.
The weapons employed today are far more advanced than those seen in the great Pacific naval battles of World War II. Still, it pays to revisit that form of warfare from time to time to gain an appreciable understanding of just how different naval warfare against a near-peer opponent is when compared to nearly two straight decades of combat operations against terrorist cells and insurgent groups. America’s Navy may be the largest and most capable in the world, but so many years have passed that there is no longer a single active duty sailor with experience in large-scale naval combat operations like those seen in WWII. That means, no matter how extensive the training, war on the high seas would undoubtedly be costly and difficult for even America’s large naval force.
Naval warfare today would certainly involve greater distances, more accurate weapons, and likely a larger emphasis on submarine operations–thanks to decades of advancement in how to be sneaky beneath the waves (even for China’s notably noisy sub force). However, the intensity, the anxiety that pervades these massive battles full of flying ordnance and decorative tracer rounds offers a small glimpse into just how different a slug match on the open ocean is, as compared to the patrols and air strikes we’ve grown accustomed to seeing out of combat footage in the Middle East.
In fact, when you watch this footage and try to put yourself in the middle of it, the most apt word to describe this sort of fight might be terrifying. Firing frantically at a darkened sky full of inbound combat aircraft may not represent the most formidable threats to modern naval ships in the era of increasingly-accurate, long-range missiles, but then, it’s difficult to say just how mature China’s anti-ship missile targeting apparatus really is. These videos may even be a bit more accurate than Chinese officials would prefer you to believe.
Predicting exactly how the warfare of the future will unfold tends to be an exercise in futility. Undoubtedly, declarative assertions about how wars will play out have been consistently proven wrong in conflict after conflict. Yet, it pays to look back to the past if for no other reason than to gain some important perspective into the intensity, the brutality, and the scale of such a war.
For an added bit of realism, here’s an amazing, colorized collection of naval battles in World War II to keep you busy for another hour: