When the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis broke out in 1996, two aircraft carrier battle groups of the United States Navy quickly approached the coast of China in an attempt of showing force. The U.S. government responded by staging the biggest display of American military might in Asia since the Vietnam War. In July 1995, USS Belleau Wood (LHA-3) transited the Taiwan Strait, followed by the USS O’Brien (DD-975) and USS McClusky FFG-41 on December 11-12, 1995. Finally on December 19, 1995, the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) and her battle group passed through the straits.
President Clinton ordered additional ships into the region in March 1996. Two aircraft carrier battle groups, Carrier Group Five centered on USS Independence (CV-62) and Carrier Group Seven centered on Nimitz, were present in the region, as well as the amphibious assault ship Belleau Wood. Nimitz and her battle group, along with Belleau Wood, sailed through the Taiwan Strait, while Independence did not.
The crisis forced the Chinese leadership to acknowledge its inability to stop U.S. forces from coming to Taiwan’s assistance. But after carefully observing the current advancements in the People’s Liberation Army Navy, it seems China has improved its Navy a lot in the last 26 years.
PLA anti-ship combat capability in 1996 against the Carrier Strike Groups of the United States Navy
In 1996, the PLA relied on its fighting will and determination to maintain the territorial integrity of the China to make the U.S. military choose to retreat, but it is necessary to look at the performance of the main equipments of the PLA at that time, there is almost an overall generational difference with the main advanced equipments of the U.S. military. There were only dozens of Su-27 fighter jets in Chinese Air Force at that time, and the largest surface combat ships of the Navy were two Type 052 destroyers, the 112 “Harbin” and the 113 “Qingdao”. It was only commissioned at the end of the year. In addition to these two large ships, the Chinese Navy has the most type 051 destroyers and 053 series frigates.
The Su-27 fighter jets had excellent air superiority combat capabilities and could somehow manage to compete with the U.S. Navy’s highly advanced and capable F-14 and F/A-18 carrier-based aircrafts at that time, also the number of Su-27 fighter jets in the Chinese Air Force was less than 50 at that time. The US Navy’s two aircraft carrier battle groups near the coast of China carry more than 80 fixed-wing carrier-based fighters. In addition, the countermeasures against the aircraft carrier not only need to seize air supremacy with its carrier-based aircraft, but also have sufficient anti-ship combat capabilities to play a role in it. Also the Su-27 fighter does not have anti-ship combat capabilities.
At this point in 1996, the Chinese Air Force and the Chinese Naval Air Force mainly relied on a small number of JH-7 fighter-bombers to carry out anti-ship combat missions, while the Navy’s surface anti-ship operations relied on the 112 and 113 ships, but the ships has poor performance. The JH-7 has a combat radius of 1,600 kilometers. However, the JH-7 has attack capabilities but limited air superiority capabilities. If the JH-7 is dispatched alone, it will be very dangerous to face the interception of the U.S. Navy carrier-based aircrafts. Also the number of Su-27 fighter jets in the Chinese Air Force at that time was too small to be dispatched with the JH-7 on a large scale. So, clearly speaking China had no air superiority at sea at that time.
The combined fleet of the Chinese Air Force J-7 and J-8 had approximately 643 aircrafts at that time, although these numbers are not small, but the combined overall performance of these two aircrafts was of no match when compared with the powerful F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18 Hornet carrier-based aircrafts. As usual American aircrafts were far much more better and superior than the Chinese jets. The combat radius of the J-7 is only about 500 kilometers, and the maximum combat radius of the J-8 is only about 800 kilometers. Considering the increase in fuel consumption during high-intensity air battles and the fact that the J-7 takes off from an inland airbase and then flies to sea for combat, it is accompanied by the J-8. Overall the Chinese were completely unable to counter the American Carriers at that time.
The Chinese Navy’s early 051 destroyers were not equipped with anti-aircraft missiles, and several subsequent ships were equipped with eight-mounted missile launchers with a range of only 13 kilometers. The early 051 destroyers used anti-ship missiles with a range of 80 kilometers, several 051 destroyers and two 052 destroyers manufactured in the later period are equipped with YJ-83 anti-ship missiles with a range of 200 kilometers, and two 052 destroyers are also equipped with short-range air defense missiles with a range of 15 kilometers. Although the installation of the YJ-83 had greatly improved the PLA’s long-range anti-ship combat capabilities, but if China wants to launch an attack on an aircraft carrier battle group, they can only walk on the edge of the limit support range of land-based fighter jets, while the US Navy’s carrier-based aircrafts combat radius is more than 800 kilometers, and the combination of the US Navy F-14 “Tomcat” and AIM-54 “Phoenix” ultra-long-range air-to-air missiles plus the E-2 airborne early warning aircraft and EA-6B electronic fighters in cooperation, its long-range air strike capability is not comparable to that of the J-7 and J-8.
As for underwater anti-ship operations, the main submarine of the Chinese Navy at that time was a large number of Type 035. Although the first two Kilo-class submarines imported from Russia had been delivered at this time in 1996, they had not yet formed a mature combat capability, as for the domestically produced 039 “Song” class conventional submarines, it is also in the same situation. The Navy’s underwater anti-ship operations still need to use the wolf dog tactics of the 035 submarine, and then use the 091 attack nuclear submarine to find opportunities in the chaos, but the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier battle group already had an advanced three-dimensional anti-submarine combat system at that time, and it was difficult to conduct underwater operations by relying on the very noisy first-generation conventional submarines like 035. Overall, at this point in 1996, the effective combat distance and capabilities of the PLA’s anti-aircraft carrier combat system consisting of fighter jets, destroyers and submarines was only about 500 kilometers.
PLA Anti-ship combat capability in 2022 against the Carrier Strike Groups of the United States Navy
26 years has passed since the third Taiwan Strait, and the overall combat capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy has been increased a lot. During these 26 years, while the overall equipments and combat power have been greatly improved, China has also focused on strengthening anti-ship/anti-aircraft carrier combat capabilities and maritime area denial capabilities. Today’s PLA has formed a multi-level three-dimensional structure of near, medium and long distance, land, sea and air anti-ship combat system.
The current PLA’s first anti-ship/anti-aircraft carrier combat system is shore-based anti-ship cruise missiles plus dozens of light frigates and modern missile boats, such as YJ-62 shore-based anti-ship missiles. This anti-ship cruise has a maximum range of about 400 kilometers and can cruise at a speed of Mach 0.8. With the inertial and active radar guidance method on the missile, the cruise altitude will be reduced to less than 10 meters when approaching the target, and it has a 300 kg warhead. It has the power to destroy a 5,000-ton ship with one hit. Even an aircraft carrier is not comfortable with one hit.
China’s current medium and long-range anti-ship/anti-aircraft carrier combat equipment is a three-dimensional anti-ship combat system composed of submarines, surface ships, and land-based fighters. At present, China has more than 40 large air defense destroyers and dozens of advanced ocean-going frigates. These surface combat ships are equipped with a new generation of anti-ship missiles with a range of hundreds of kilometers. For example, the YJ-18 anti-ship missile carried by the 052D destroyer has a maximum range of about 500 kilometers, and the 052D has both air defense and anti-ship combat strength, powerful features, compared to the 051 and 052 destroyers in 1996, the 052D’s comprehensive combat strength has improved several levels!
Chinese Air Force and Naval Air Force are currently equipped with more than 500 heavy fighters with anti-ship combat capabilities. Fourth-generation fighter jets like the J-16 can simultaneously gain air supremacy and has anti-ship combat capabilities, while the Air Force’s J-20 fighter jets can be used against ships, carrier-based aircrafts, carrier-based early warning aircrafts, etc for accurate and efficient hunting! The Chinese Navy currently has dozens of conventional submarines and several new-generation attack nuclear submarines.
China’s third anti-ship/anti-aircraft carrier combat system is an ocean-going combat system composed of land-based anti-ship ballistic missiles, H-6K bombers and naval aircraft carrier battle groups. At present, China has officially commissioned two 60,000-ton aircraft carriers. These two aircraft carriers can carry about 45 carrier-based fighter jets. If only by virtue of the strength of these two aircraft carriers, they cannot compete with the nuclear power of the US Navy in ocean operations. A powered carrier fleet, then adding H-6K and land-based anti-ship ballistic missiles is another story.
China’s long-range anti-ship ballistic missile Dongfeng 26C has a range of about 3,500 kilometers, and another Dongfeng 21D has a range of 1500 kilometers. To describe it by chasing the aircraft carrier, anti-ship ballistic missiles are a kind of high-efficiency anti-ship combat equipment unique to any country. Such weapons are asymmetric combat equipments, which is simply a dimensionality reduction strike for aircraft carriers. In the face of ballistic missiles, the US Navy’s aircraft carrier battle group is not safe even in the waters near Guam, and the aircraft carrier battle group in the waters near Guam has actually lost its role. After all, the maximum combat radius of US carrier-based aircrafts is less than 1,000 kilometers.
China’s H-6K bombers has a combat radius of 3,500 kilometers, while the H-6N after one aerial refueling has a combat radius of up to 5,000 kilometers. Both bombers can carry 6 YJ-12 anti-ship missiles. In addition, the strongest “guard with knife” 055 destroyer of China can carry the YJ-21 hypersonic anti-ship missile with a range of more than 1,000 kilometers, which is another dimension-reducing strike-like equipment: its range exceeds that of the U.S. Navy carriers. The combat radius of this missile, the speed of up to Mach 10 takes only a few minutes from launch to hit the target, such a new anti-ship missile makes the US Navy’s Aegis air defense ships powerless! In the face of the naval aircraft carrier battle group with Type 055 destroyers bombing H-6K and other bombers, coupled with the integrated anti-ship/anti-aircraft carrier combat system of anti-ship ballistic missiles, the PLA has enough strength in the ocean waters 3,000 to 5,000 kilometers away from China and can now manage to compete with any carrier battle group!
From 500 kilometers to 5,000 kilometers, the increase in this distance not only represents the great progress made by the PLA in anti-ship/anti-aircraft carrier operations, but also represents the PLA’s strong strength in maintaining the territorial integrity of the China and the sovereignty and security of territorial waters. The two US Navy Gone are the days when an aircraft carrier battle group could go to the waters near our country to show off its power.
Overall, we can say that now the People’s Liberation Army Navy can manage to face the United States Navy Aircraft Carrier Strike Groups, a important capacity which China lacked 26 years ago. The Anti-ship Ballistic Missiles and the Anti-ship Hypersonic Missiles of China are the biggest threat for the United States Navy. These missiles fly at very high speeds of Mach 5+, and the current air defense missile systems or CIWS cannot destroy these threats.