Diplomatic tensions between the United States and China have risen throughout the developing nuclear predicament on the Korean peninsula, but in the nearby South China Sea, American and Chinese forces have long been staring one another down from either side of the horizon.
The People’s Liberation Army’s massive modernization and reorganization effort, which has included the launch of nearly twenty new warships in the past two years, hasn’t gone on in a vacuum. It could be reasonably argued that China’s new military strategy echoes their diplomatic one: to replace the United States as the premier global military, diplomatic, and economic power. The expansion of both their claims of sovereignty and military presence throughout the heavily trafficked South China Sea is one facet of that broader concept, with the opening of the nation’s first overseas military base in Djibouti, Africa serving as further support for the theory.
Of course, the United States hasn’t been taking this possibility lying down. Since President Trump took office in January, the U.S. Navy has been increasing their Freedom of Navigation operations (FONOP) throughout the region, sailing to within the internationally recognized 12 nautical mile limit of land masses China has laid claim to as a symbol of America’s unwillingness to recognize the Asian state’s claim over what has long been considered international waters beyond that barrier.
If these tensions were to ever boil over into actual conflict, however, the United States could find themselves at a significant disadvantage in the Pacific. Despite having a larger and more powerful military, the U.S.’ global footprint likely would not permit bringing the full weight of the American war machine to bear in the region. Further, China’s massive stockpile of anti-ship cruise missiles, with estimated ranges that exceed 800 miles, would hinder the use of America’s most powerful military assets: the nation’s fleet of eleven super-carrier strike groups.
Most carrier launched aircraft in the U.S. arsenal have an outer range of around 550 miles, meaning sailing close enough to launch attacks on Chinese territory would put the nation’s Nimitz and Ford class carriers well within the range of their anti-ship arsenal. Although the U.S. Navy employs the Aegis missile defense system, China’s hypersonic anti-ship missiles would follow a nearly horizontal flight path at speeds in excess of Mach 5, rendering most traditional missile defenses nearly useless. However, retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Berke, a former F-35 squadron commander, believes the United States is already developing a capability that could circumvent this capability gap: building what amounts to pit stops for the Marine Corps’ F-35 variant within areas denied to carrier groups by China’s anti-ship missiles.
“You can fly the F-35B literally anywhere,” Berke said. “If your traditional places of operation are unavailable, the F-35B can be there.”