In February, Vice Admiral Joseph Mulloy admitted that China had more diesel- and nuclear-powered submarines than the United States. The U.S. Navy currently has 71 submarines. Santa Clara-based think tank Rand Corp said in its latest report that the U.S. should reduce its focus on giant aircraft carriers in the Pacific Ocean and instead focus on submarines and space warfare.
Two scenarios that could lead to a China vs. U.S. conflict
Rand Corp studied the military capabilities of China and the United States. They compared two countries using ten “scorecards” in maritime, cyber, space, nuclear, and air strengths. The think tank projected capabilities of China and the U.S. through 2017. According to Military.com, two scenarios could lead to a major conflict between the two countries: Beijing invading Taiwan, and second, forcibly occupying the Spratly Islands.
China is currently building a third airstrip in the Spratly Islands even as Washington has denounced Chinese militarization of the archipelago. China is nowhere close to the United States in terms of military capability. But it doesn’t need to match the U.S. to take control of the South China Sea, which is at the doorstep of China and thousands of miles away from the U.S.
Can U.S. challenge China in the South China Sea?
Lead author of the report, Eric Heginbotham, said neither country wants war, but the balance of power will directly affect calculations of each country. China’s ability to challenge the U.S. Navy’s surface fleet has grown manifold in the last two decades. Beijing has deployed sophisticated cruise missiles, developed long-range surveillance systems, built stealth submarines equipped with cruise missiles, and acquired strike aircraft with long ranges.
China could seriously damage U.S. aircraft carriers, especially in the first stages of a conflict. In the event China invades Taiwan in 2017, the U.S. carriers would be at high risk. They will also face a lesser degree of risk in case of a conflict in the Spratly Islands. The number of diesel submarines in Chinese Navy (PLAN) rose from just four in 1996 to 37 today. And almost all of them are armed with cruise missiles and torpedoes.