Given the high degree of potential for armed conflict in the South China and East China Seas, let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the primary players:
United States of America
Any actual armed confrontation that occurs in the SCS will be directed at the US Navy Primarily. With the 3rd Fleet currently tasking the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) with its attached battle group, and the new Littoral Combat Ship, USS Coronado (LCS-4) to FONOPS (Freedom of Navigation Operations) as well as the probable deployment of nuclear attack submarines (SSN) to the South China Sea, the United States is well represented. Throw in the probable Air Force assets tasked with Signals Intelligence gathering (SIGINT) and gathering of intelligence data in regards to electronic capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, e.g. Radar frequencies, characteristics, targeting abilities, response times, etc. As well as anything else that comes under the blanket of Electronics Intelligence (ELINT).
The US Navy is the undisputed expert on modern naval warfare. Their forces are based on the wealth of experience gained in the Pacific Theatre during WW2 as well as the endless games of brinkmanship that followed with the Soviet Navy throughout the cold war as well as continuation of the same ‘games’ that continue to the present day.
Backing the 3rd Fleet is the 7th fleet, based in Japan. Possibly America’s largest forward-deployed asset. Upwards of 60 ships are available as well as an estimated 300 aircraft of various types plus the manpower needed to support them.
The fast majority of US assets in the region are tried, tested designs backed up by proven technologies. They are also run by a military and government with a very large amount of current experience in waging war. As far as 1st hand combat experience goes, the United States Military would have to outstrip any other nation on Earth.
On top of all of those capabilities, the US has been theorizing and preparing for a large-scale conflict between itself and a similarly armed and equipped adversary for more than half a century and has had a blue water Navy since the late 1700s.
All of this impressive capability is backed up by the lesser in numbers and aircraft carriers (but not technology) navies of the many allies of the United States.
What about the PLA Navy?
On paper, the naval capabilities of the Chinese South Sea Fleet are quite impressive. Many of their vessels are quite new, even with limited information on their capabilities it is notable that many are now sporting flat panel phased radar arrays similar to the US AEGIS cruisers and destroyers, indicating an emerging ability to electronically scan and own significant amounts of airspace as well as large areas of the sea without much risk of being caught significantly off guard.
These newer vessels are accompanied by a large number of smaller, older vessels. Many missiles armed. During the Korean War, Chinese commanders showed little to no hesitation towards the idea of sending wave after wave of troops to the slaughter simply to overwhelm the ability of US and allied soldiers ability to kill them fast enough. Same applies here. Defence saturation is still a prominent and difficult to overcome threat in any theatre of war.
Most weapons systems in the PRC arsenal are totally untested in combat. The same goes for the people that operate them as well as their military leaders. China’s last significant military engagement was the Korean War. It did not go well. Whilst it was ultimately a stalemate in regards to territory, China’s losses were catastrophic compared to those of allied forces. Without the arms and equipment to engage allied troops force on force, Chinese commanders utilized human wave tactics that, whilst ultimately effective, were a crass and needless loss of human life.
The Plan-single-aircraft carrier is not a significant threat. It has repeatedly and consistently been plagued with reliability issues and without any sort of catapult launch system for its aircraft, range and weapons carriage will be severely reduced compared to their land-based aircraft.
This is where China’s new islands come into the equation. When Gen. Douglas MacArthur referred to Taiwan as an unsinkable aircraft carrier, someone in the PRC must have been paying attention. One of the most significant threats in the region is the artificial islands that have been constructed and are now being armed and reinforced. The Island at Fiery Cross Reef was described in a CNN report as having a runway large enough to operate all aircraft in the PRC military arsenal. It is worth mentioning, however, that defending these islands is made most difficult because of their immovable nature. There is a saying in military circles: ‘If you can see it, you can hit it. If you can hit it, you can kill it.’
Until such time as the islands are neutralized, they will remain highly valuable for ELINT, SIGINT, early warning, over the horizon targeting, as well as a point of rearm and refuel for many airborne assets such as fighters, strike aircraft and bombers. As combat capable airfields, their most apparent weakness is the lack of multiple runways, limiting the ability to recover aircraft. This could be of particular significance if aircraft are operating on long-range missions from the runway on Fiery Cross Reef or any similar artificial islands of similar design. Without the redundancy of multiple runways, taxiways capable of recovering aircraft and/or other nearby airstrips, any aircraft airborne when the single runway is significantly damaged would be highly unlikely to be able to make it back to mainland airfields. Needless to say, the US military has plenty of experience in airfield denial. They have a number of weapon systems particularly suited to the task.
The great unknown is internal political motivations inside the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China. Numerous unconfirmed reports have indicated that the current leader, Xi Jinping is under assault from rival factions within the party. This could limit his ability to stand down if any action that could be perceived as weakness has the potential to undermine his current position of power in the party.
Of course, none of this takes into account the nuclear equation. In mid to late January, reports started surfacing about a potential deployment of the PRC-latest generation Inter Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), the Dong Feng (East Wind) 41. According to the Global Times, one of China’s state run media outlets, unconfirmed reports put multiple DF-41 brigades in Heilongjiang Province in the Far North East of mainland China. Given the Trump administration’s stance towards China and the Russian Governments lack of concern over the possible deployment, the move is likely intended to directly threaten the US mainland. Launched from this area, the DF-41 with its theoretical range of approximately 15,000 km (9320 miles), could reach anywhere in the United States. Given a reported ability to carry 10 Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles (MIRV), the threat is significant. This is on top of the PRCs already considerable nuclear arsenal.
There are quite a number of parallels in this case with the beginnings of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. In that case, leaders were wise enough to see where the naval blockade was leading and both sides backed away. The USSR became convinced that the United States would not back down and that the only avenue to avoid nuclear war was to remove nuclear weapons from the island of Cuba.
It is unknown at this time, at least according to publicly available information, if the PRC has stationed nuclear weapons on these islands, yet the potential is there. It could also be strategically beneficial to China to house nuclear weapons there, especially nuclear tipped anti-ship missiles.
The US may have the edge in a nuclear exchange. With the combined efforts of THAAD batteries and SM-3 equipped naval vessels, any nuclear first strike on either the US mainland or assets/allies in the South and East China seas have a low chance of success and will most likely lead to a significant mitigation of the Chinese launch which would leave the US significantly injured, but nowhere near injured enough to stop a full scale nuclear retaliation.
With this high stakes game playing out in front of the eyes of the world and after nearly three decades of relative peace (i.e. Minimal threat of nuclear destruction), are we headed for another Cold War?
It remains to be seen.