Expertise about technology, markets, economics and politics

Four Hours for a Superpower to Die

Seth Cropsey, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy under both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, recently argued in the Wall Street Journal that we are not ready for war with China.

This is certainly true, which to us seems like a very good argument for not going to war with China. Helpful in this regard would be:

  • curbing our rhetoric, which increasingly portrays China not as a rival but an enemy
  • stopping the U.S. assault on China’s economy and especially its most impressive tech firms
  • ending the U.S. government’s assault on U.S. and allied firms that sell to China, now the world’s largest buyer by far of semiconductor devices
  • and perhaps most of all, come up with incentives for China to continue to accept the status quo on Taiwan rather than have a procession of bellicose Congressmen stick their thumbs in Chairman Xi’s eye.

Since we are unlikely to do any of those things, however, let’s think about what would happen if we went to war with China tomorrow.

Today, our principal battle platform would have to be our carrier fleet, since we could not count on any of our regional allies to allow us to attack China from bases in their territory. With the carriers we would hope to destroy the Chinese air force and missile launching sites, crippling their ability to invade Taiwan.

How long would that take?

About four hours.

Not four hours to win but four hours–at most–to lose our carrier fleet, in which we have invested nearly half a trillion dollars.

That four-hour lifespan is based on experience. There has not been a fleet carrier battle since 1945. In WWII there were only five: Pearl Harbor; Coral Sea, Midway, the Solomon Islands Campaign, and Philippines Sea. In those battles, any carrier sighted by an enemy likely had less than four hours to live.

In each of the first three battles, the only thing either side needed to do to destroy or cripple an opposition carrier was to find it. Every single carrier in those battles was either sunk or put out of action within less than four hours of being sighted by the enemy. The results in the Solomon Islands and the Philippines Sea, where we faced a vastly weakened Japanese carrier fleet, were similar at least for the Japanese.

All carrier tactics came down to hide and seek; concealment was the only defense, to be discovered was to be destroyed.

On Dec 7, 1941, the Japanese carrier task force sank five U.S. battleships in two hours. Yet the Japanese attack was a failure. The Japanese did no harm to their primary target–the three U.S. carriers expected to be at Pearl–because they weren’t there. Enterprise, Lexington, and Saratoga were all at sea, saved because not sighted. If the carriers had been at Pearl Harbor, there is no reason to think they would have escaped the fate of the battleships.

The first major battle to which the carriers of both sides actually showed up was the Coral Sea. On the U.S. side were the Yorktown and the Lexington. On the Japanese side were the light carrier Shoho and the fleet carriers Zuikaku and Shokaku.

The carrier battle began on May 4, 1942, when the Japanese and U.S. carrier groups each became aware that the other was somewhere in the area. For the next three days, each nation’s carrier group frantically searched for the other, each launching scout planes, mostly in the wrong direction.

Finally on the morning of May 7 at 7:22 a.m., two Japanese scout planes reported they had spotted US carriers and escort ships to the south of the Japanese carrier group.  The cooperating Japanese Admirals Takagi and Hara immediately sent most of their available strike force–78 fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo planes–in pursuit. The American ships turned out to be an oiler and a destroyer. Both were bombed and eventually sank.

An hour after this first sighting, another Japanese scout plane did find the two U.S. carriers to the north of the Japanese carrier group and reported this. But because of the first sighting to the south, the Japanese admirals decided the United States must have divided its forces in half. They decided to continue with the southward strike on what turned out to be the oiler and destroyer.

At almost the same time, 8:15 that morning, a U.S. scout plane reported sighting the Japanese task force, including the fleet carriers. Wrong again: the pilot had sighted a screening force that included the light carrier Shoho.

Still, it was a carrier and it had lost the game of hide and seek. By 10:40 Shoho was under attack, by 11:35, three hours and twenty minutes after Shoho was first sighted, it was sunk. Three and a half days of hide and seek, 55 minutes of combat, one dead carrier.

That afternoon, the Japanese again sighted what they believed was the U.S. carrier group, again they were wrong: it was a detachment of surface warships trying to cut off a Japanese invasion fleet headed for Port Moresby. Even after realizing this force was not the carriers, the Japanese again sent out a large strike force. They believed the ships they had sighted must be covering the carriers, which therefor must be nearby.

This was true, but before the Japanese planes could find the American carriers, the U.S. picked up the Japanese planes on radar and sent out a fighter group to intercept them, successfully downing most of the Japanese planes. The U.S. carriers remained hidden and survived.

Finally, the next morning, May 8, the two carrier groups found each other at almost exactly the same moment. A U.S. scout plane sighted the Japanese carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, glimpsing the ships through thick cloud cover, at 8:22. Just two minutes later, a Japanese pilot sighted the U.S. carriers, alas in the bright sunshine.

Within an hour, both sides had launched air strikes. By 11 a.m., two and a half hours after being sighted by the U.S. strike force, the Shokaku was crippled, putting it out of action for months. Zuikaku escaped unscathed–because it disappeared beneath the cloud cover. It won the game of hide and seek.

Meanwhile at almost the exact same time US forces were crippling the Shokaku, a Japanese combined force of torpedo bombers and dive bombers were attacking Yorktown and Lexington. Lexington was hit repeatedly, disabled, and scuttled that evening.  Yorktown was hit hard and rendered unfit for combat. It was repaired sufficiently to play a critical role at Midway.

Every carrier on both sides that was kept in sight by the enemy was crippled or destroyed.  The Zuikaku survived because it disappeared beneath the clouds.

We will not try your patience by refighting Midway–the movie is terrific–but skip to the bottom line. In that battle, waged June 4, 1942, the Japanese sighted only one of three U.S. carriers, the Yorktown. Hit repeatedly, it sank three days later.

The United States found all four Japanese carriers. All four were destroyed within hours.

During the extended Solomon Islands campaign, the results were not as clear cut, though in most cases, carriers sighted were destroyed or heavily damaged.

By the time of the battle of the Philippines Sea, Japanese flight crews consisted mostly of new, relatively untrained pilots, and American fighters had long since outclassed the Japanese Zeros.  In that battle, the Japanese launched more than 300 planes at U.S. carriers. More than 200 were shot down before reaching their targets. The handful that arrived over U.S. carriers were insufficient to mount serious attacks.

During the same battle, the United States located six Japanese carriers and sank three. Three more were damaged but, with U.S. planes running short of fuel, escaped into the darkness as night fell.

We think of our carriers as fearsome weapons of force projection. But in the Pacific campaign, they had but one purpose: to “hop” the outlying Pacific Islands until the United States could get close enough to Japan to launch land-based air strikes against the home islands. The whole point of the carrier was to make the carrier unnecessary where it would be too vulnerable to prevail.

Even in the outlying islands, the U.S. carriers were replaced by land-based airstrips as soon as feasible.

It is not the aircraft carrier but the aircraft that wields the power, operating from the high ground, and even in WW II traveling 20 times as fast as their seaborne targets.

Today, hypersonic missiles travel hundreds of times as fast as their targets. In WWII, most torpedoes and bombs launched from the air missed their targets. Still, carriers were most likely doomed if discovered. Contemporary hypersonic missiles are not only guided to their targets, they can take evasive action if attacked. We have found no source that maintains the Navy’s Aegis anti-missile cruisers could reliably destroy an incoming hypersonic weapon.

Most devastating of all, the game of hide and seek is over

With more than 500 Chinese satellites in orbit, there is nowhere for a U.S. carrier to hide. In an all-out war, their lifespans could be measured in minutes, not hours.

The first time our carriers face an enemy that can contest the air, our carriers will be swept from the sea. Overnight, the perception of America’s power will be eviscerated. And then Taiwan will fall.

Let’s make peace.

P.S. Come join our Eagle colleagues on an incredible cruise! We set sail on Dec. 4 for 16 days, embarking on a memorable journey that combines fascinating history, vibrant culture and picturesque scenery. Enjoy seminars on the days we are cruising from one destination to another, as well as dinners with members of the Eagle team. Just some of the places we’ll visit are Mexico, Belize, Panama, Ecuador and more! Click here now for all the details.

Log In

Forgot Password