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A Confrontation of Super Powers– Part II

June 8, 2020 | Expert Insights

Compulsions of Electoral Politics

In the build-up to the US Presidential Elections, the Democratic Party launches a vicious campaign against the Republican Party incumbent. The President is lambasted for, mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic, giving-up on world leadership, undermining American institutions and failing to hold the PRC accountable for the death & destruction, wrecked by the coronavirus. The Republican Party is on the defensive, the President unable to find a positive message and there even appears to be significant drop in popularity, amongst the Evangelical and Jewish support bases.

In September, 2020, the President announces that he has credible intelligence that COVID-19 was indeed created in the Wuhan laboratory and there were indications to suggest that the PRC were in possession of a vaccine, all along. The Chinese spokesperson was prompt to deny the allegations, pointing out that no proof had been provided. Two days later, while addressing a political campaign, the President said he believed that the PRC was directly responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic and should be held accountable for the same. He demanded that the PRC should apologize to the world for the pandemic, President Xi Jinping should resign accepting moral responsibility and that the PRC should wipe out US outstanding debit for US$ 3T, in view of the loss of life and economic damages.

The Chinese government’s spokespersons were quick to denounce the President’s statements; adding that the allegations were completely false and the demands ridiculous. However, the President’s aggressive posture received support from domestic US audiences, cutting across party lines.

Bleeding the Adversary

Since the (US) recognition of the PRC, in 1979, the US has adopted a policy of deliberate ambiguity with Taiwan. This policy draws legitimacy from Congress-approved TRA (Taiwan Relations Act), 1979. Thus, while US does not have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, they still threaten the use of military force, if the PRC were to invade Taiwan. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, who won re-election in January, 2020, has rejected China’s sovereignty over Taiwan (One Country – Two Systems). At her inauguration, she issued a statement saying, Taiwan is an independent state, called the Republic of China; and, does not want to be a part of the PRC, governed by Beijing. China responded by announcing an 11-week military exercise, near Taiwan; involving fighter aircraft flying into the island’s airspaces and warships sailing around the islands.

As tensions between the Taiwan and PRC escalate, Pentagon orders the deployment of additional assets, to China’s Eastern seaboard. The assets mainly from the US Indo-Pacific Command at Hawaii, are placed under the operational command of the US 7th Fleet, at Yokosuka, Japan. They comprise at least two aircraft carrier groups, including the USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Ronald Regan, B1 and B2 bombers squadrons and the Amphibious Assault Ship USS America, amongst others. The immediate operational assignment is to increase FONOPS (Freedom of Navigation Operations) in the vicinity of Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands and the Taiwan Straits. As US military assets enter PRC claimed areas, they are met by PLAN air and surface units, who seek verification, identification and issue warnings to steer away from territorial waters.

The Trigger

On 01 October, 2020, USS Barry, a 9,000T guided missile destroyer is deployed for FONOPS, in the South China Sea. As the US ship neared the Paracel (Xisha) Islands, she was remotely and independently hailed by PLAN Taiyuan, 7,500T, Type 52D multi-role destroyer and PLAN Jingzhou, 4,000T, Type 054A multi-role frigate. However, paying no heed to radio-warnings of the Chinese ships, the USS Barry continues with its mission of patrolling the islands. Barely 45 minutes later, the Jingzhou approaches the Barry from the port-side. Drawing up alongside, the Chinese ship hails, both on radio and loudspeaker that the US ship should steer clear of the territorial waters of the PRC. After several futile attempts to draw a response from the US ship, the Chinese vessel increases speed and adopts a collision course. The Chinese frigate barely clears the bow of the US destroyer, clearly demonstrating provocative maneuver. The same maneuver is repeated a second time, this time drawing a warning response from USS Barry, both on radio and loudspeaker. The warning clearly states that the US warship will respond with force, if the Chinese ship came within 100 meters. As the Chinese ship approaches a third time, it is struck with a Tomahawk BGM-109 anti-ship missile. Fired from the US destroyer, at close range, the missile hits the Chinese frigate at midship, searing a hole into the engine room. As secondary explosions rock the ship, it rapidly sinks into the water. Suddenly, the USS Barry’s sirens sound; indicating an air attack. As US sailors bring their attention back to their weapons platforms, six YJ-18 anti-ship missiles stream across the open water, at the US ship. The US ship’s anti-missile defence systems are able to neutralize three of the incoming missiles but one missile hits the forecastle and another the engine room. A huge orange ball of fire erupts skywards, from the ship. 15 minutes later the USS Barry has sunk and a motley group of sailors are scrambling for life boats. The PLAN destroyer Taiyuan cautiously approaches the debris strewn waters.

The Escalation Matrix

The Liaoning, is China’s first aircraft carrier; retrofitted from the soviet Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier Riga. A second aircraft carrier, the Shandong, formally entered PLAN service in Dec, 2019. On the morning of 01 Oct, 2020, the Liaoning emerged from its home-port of Qingdao, with an escort of five ships and was sailing out of the Yellow Sea, into the Western Pacific. There had been some news about a skirmish with a US warship in the South China Sea but details were still sketchy. Suddenly, sirens began to wail; indicating imminent airstrike. Minutes later, 12 sea-skimming, over-the-horizon, long-range anti-ship missiles hit the flotilla. Launched from F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters, at ranges beyond 60 nautical miles, the assault aircraft were not even visible to the target ships. PLAN’s automatic anti-missile defence systems were able to neutralize some of the incoming missiles but four of the missiles struck the Liaoning forcing the Captain to abandon ship. While rescue operations were in progress, torpedoes from two SSN attack submarines, USS Virginia and USS Los Angeles attacked the escort ships, sinking the entire flotilla. More than 6,000 PLAN sailors lost their lives and only a few thousand survived the ordeal, in life boats.

The main task force of the 7th Fleet, comprising more than 40 vessels and including the aircraft carriers USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Ronald Regan, are operating in the central Pacific, West of Gaum Island. The combat operations on China’s Eastern seaboard are controlled from the on-board fleet command operations center. After sinking the Chinese aircraft carrier and escort ships, in the Yellow Sea, the fleet is on high alert. Chinese response is expected and all battle stations are manned. At 2345h on 01 October, 2020, almost simultaneously, 24 ballistic missiles lift of from different bases in mainland China. The lift-offs are picked up by US military satellites but the targets of the missiles and the type of war heads are not known. At altitude of 90,000 ft, 12 of the projectiles alter their trajectories and transform to hyper-sonic glide paths. The projectiles gain speed exceeding Mach-5, and then split into independent maneuvering war heads. The high-speed kinetic warheads are difficult to track but it is soon apparent that they are headed for the US 7th Fleet. Many of the guided missiles are intercepted by the fleet’s anti-missile shields but one missile hits the Theodore Roosevelt and two of them impact the Ronald Regan. Both the aircraft carriers survive the attack but operations on both ships are temporarily halted. 

Note: In the next part of this series, the author describes two possible end-states and concludes with a recommendation for an international institution for Impartial Intelligence.


Author: Maj. Gen. Moni Chandi (retd)