by Austin Bay
September 14, 2022
My last column argued China has a 3-to-5-year window of opportunity to deal America a strategic defeat giving the dictatorship uncontested global economic and diplomatic clout and regional military dominance lasting for decades.
China's modernized military, prolific warship building and new South China Sea bases give it a military edge on the Asian littoral. The U.S. Navy doesn't have enough ships to maintain a global presence and fight a dispersed, high-intensity Pacific battle with China.
Focusing on the western Pacific, since 1996 China has made military and diplomatic preparations to break the "first island chain" (Japan-Taiwan-Philippines). China seeks bases beyond the chain where missiles and planes can quickly hit Hawaii. In April China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands. In August the Solomons denied a U.S. Coast Guard cutter port access. Micro tiff? No -- China shapes the battlespace.
America and its allies have responded to China's threat. Marine "littoral regiments" will fight fast-moving, dispersed operations. The Army and Navy are fielding new precision long-range weapons. Taiwan is rearming to fight a Ukraine-type peoples war. The Navy thinks autonomous vessels may solve its "hull deficit" problem. But the robots are untested. Chinese cyber-electronic warfare may disable them. Mining China's coast is a must. But U.S. and allied air and sea forces will face intense Chinese fire and mining the coast won't stop Chinese ships in the Solomons.
A U.S. response to the Navy's ship shortage must be fielded fast, when it can still deter. It must be able to fight in forward areas, defending allies and supporting marines and soldiers.
But Congress and the Pentagon act slowly. Big warships take years to build and are big targets. China plans to sink U.S. Navy carrier battle groups approaching Asia or force wary admirals to keep the carriers east of Honolulu. Beijing calls it anti-access/area denial using "carrier killer" missiles and subs.
My last column asked this question: Can anything be done to counter China's moment of advantage? I answered yes.
Here's a specific solution to the hull deficit. In May 2021 I received a detailed briefing on a remarkable 96-foot-long warship, the H96. At first glance it's a 21st-century PT boat, the Navy's WWII king of speed and combat punch per pound and per dollar. Quick and cheap to build, the PT deployed in narrow seas to blunt post-Pearl Harbor Japanese naval might.
The H96 is designed to fight a Pacific Ocean war against China -- providing multi-mission firepower and surveillance in forward area battles for air-sea-space supremacy and islands. The H96 has 40-plus knot speed but its fuel capacity, beam and shrewd hull design give it long-range transit capability. It can deploy friendly air and sea drones in an electronic-cyber warfare environment.
Impressed by the briefing, on my own initiative I wrote a Net Assessment-type operational study. I thought the ship has the speed and stealth to survive in forward areas. Shallow draft means it can move troops. Cheap to build, with a crew of 15, U.S. Navy capital ships aren't risked in early battles. Configure it to carry long-range missiles and it can strike Chinese land targets. Its tactical weapons are proven systems, two manned quad-fifty stations (cyber won't affect them) and eight 30 mm remote-controlled chain guns. Its engines are proven and available, not theoretical, and hull design tested. Given its speed and handling, the H96 could conduct escort, anti-smuggling and anti-piracy missions.
This September I met the designer for an update. How fast can you build the H96? Quickly. A year or so from the "Go." The price of one nuclear carrier and air wing the gets Pentagon up to 500 H96s sporting six to eight long-range precision missiles.
China's threat has no one single answer. The H96, however, definitely complicates China's war plans built on defeating big carriers and static bases. Now 500 lethal targets vex Beijing and alter the balance of power in the forward battle area.
The great Chinese strategic theorist Sun Tzu said the acme of strategy is to defeat the enemy's strategy. The H96 is a weapon capable of giving China an American dose of Sun Tzu's enlightenment.