How I Lost the Battle of the South China Sea
We gamed out a clash between the U.S. Navy’s latest ships and the Chinese navy—guess who won
The year is 2016, and two of the U.S. Navy’s latest ships are backing a key ally in the tinderbox of the South China Sea. They’re facing down the Chinese navy halfway across the world with the latest weapons and systems the United States can get its hands on. But is it enough?
For more than a hundred years, the U.S. Navy has been using naval wargames to test ships, tactics and strategy. Today, thanks to the ability of computers to process massive amounts of data, sharply accurate, procedural “hard” simulations are possible.
One such sim is Command: Modern Naval/Air Operations, a new game that attempts to model modern sea and air warfare as closely as a game for civilians can.
Command is particularly suited for attempting a high-fidelity simulation of modern naval combat — it included an admiral and staff from the U.S. Naval War College in the game’s beta testing — and we’re going to take a page from the Navy and put America’s latest fighting ship to the test.
The result isn’t good — and a harrowing lesson to be cautious about how we equip the U.S. military.
The post 9/11 ship
Today, we’re sending the Littoral Combat Ship into the fray — a new class of warships developed following the 9/11 attacks.
The LCS was designed to fight close to shore, a characteristic that opens the vessel up to more missions — and challenges — than most Navy ships. For one, they have to be both versatile and agile. The vessels are lightly armed, and rely on swappable “mission modules” to increase firepower and other special capabilities such as surface warfare, minesweeping and anti-submarine warfare.
A normal LCS has a rapid-fire 57-millimeter gun, a pair of 30-millimeter cannons and heavy machine guns. The ship also has Rolling Airframe anti-aircraft missiles to defend against enemy jets and incoming missiles.
But compared to larger surface ships, the LCS lacks firepower — something critics of the LCS have seized upon. These critics contend the LCS should have a larger gun, longer-range self-defense missiles, and anti-ship missiles capable of taking on enemy vessels its own size.
Our scenario takes place in the South China Sea at a cluster of reefs and rocks called the Scarborough Shoal, roughly 137 miles west of the Philippines. In real life, China and The Philippines both claim the shoal as part of their territory, and tensions between the two nations have been growing.
In 2012, this dispute almost came to blows when the Philippine navy dispatched the ex-U.S. Coast Guard cutter BRP Gregorio del Pilar to inspect Chinese fishing boats near the shoal. Gregorio del Pilar was forced to withdraw when confronted by two ships of the Chinese coast guard.
The potential for a shooting war is very high.
Note — we’re not using this scenario to make a statement about the ambitions of Beijing and Manila, or what we think will happen in the real-life Scarborough Shoal. The scenario just makes a good backdrop for our test of systems on the Littoral Combat Ship.
The U.S. Navy is backing up its Philippine allies — two LCSs, USS Freedom and USS Fort Worth, are both about 30 miles south of the Emilio Jacinto and Artemio Ricarde. The USS Halsey, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, is behind them at an equal distance.
The ships of the Philippine navy have comparatively crude sensors — basically amounting to eyeballs and navigational radars — and are having a difficult time identifying all of the ship traffic in and around the shoal. There are a lot of surface contacts. Some are fishing boats, and some may be … something else.
If Emilio Jacinto and Artemio Ricarde really knew what was out there, they’d turn tail and run.
I’m playing the forces of both the U.S. and The Philippines, and fortunately I have an MQ-4C Triton in the area — the naval version of the Air Force’s Global Hawk drone. I send the Triton over the shoal to get an idea of what’s down there.
The Triton identifies plenty of Chinese fishing boats, but also a wolf in the fold — a Chinese Jianghu-class destroyer named the Changde. Twenty miles to the west is the Qinzhou, a new Type 056 corvette.
Changde heads directly toward Emilio Jacinto. Uh-oh.
At 09:46:31, Changde opens fire on the Emilio Jacinto with her 100-millimeter deck gun. Emilio Jacinto immediately returns fire with her 76-millimeter gun and scores a lucky hit, starting a minor fire on Changde. A gunfight rages for more than three minutes, during which time Changde is struck several times.
Emilio Jacinto reports she is under missile attack from the west. That would make the attacker the corvette Qinzhou. Without air defense radars and advanced weapons, Emilio Jacinto is a sitting duck. Seconds later, she is hit by several Chinese YJ-83 “Eagle Strike” anti-ship missiles, screaming in less than 30 feet above the ocean.
Emilio Jacinto disappears from the command screen.
Another brace of YJ-83s streaks towards BRP Artemio Ricarde. Despite the roughly 60-mile distance, Halsey attempts to intervene, launching SM-6 surface to air missiles to knock down the Chinese missiles. But the distance is too much and Artemio Ricarde is struck. The damage is catastrophic.
Freedom and Fort Worth are steaming north at flank speed. I am ordering them to engage Qinzhou and the wounded Changde, now fleeing north away from the battle zone.
It’s a gamble because Littoral Combat Ships are not well-protected against anti-ship missiles, having only their 57-millimeter guns and Rolling Airframe missile launcher mounts. I believe Qinzhou is out of anti-ship missiles. Changde might still have all of her missiles, but she’s also taken serious damage trading shots with Emilio Jacinto.
Moving at more than 40 knots, Fort Worth and Freedom begin closing the gap. Qinzhou and Changde both turn to face Fort Worth. Apparently they want to fight. I’ll oblige them. Both LCSs are under orders to engage the enemy as soon as they come close enough to fire their Griffin surface-to-surface missiles. Between the two of them, they have 30 Griffins.
At four miles, Fort Worth opens up on Qinzhou with her 57-millimeter gun. Qinzhou immediately returns fire with her 76-millimeter gun, lightly damaging Fort Worth. Unfortunately, Fort Worth’s Rolling Airframe missile launcher is destroyed early on, meaning she is out of active anti-missile defenses.
Then the Griffin missile launcher is put out of action, meaning Fort Worth’s sole armament is a single 57-millimeter gun. Within moments, that too is destroyed.
Fort Worth is hurt, with a bad fire and severe flooding. She’s defenseless at this range. It’s time to leave. Fort Worth turns to race south at maximum speed, but it continues to be pummeled by Qinzhou’s 76-millimeter gun. Laser rangefinders, gun directing radar, 30-millimeter Bushmaster guns all knocked out … the damage reports keep coming in.
Fort Worth is doomed.
As if that weren’t bad enough, Halsey detects two anti-ship missiles launched to the south, halfway between her and Fort Worth and right in the vicinity of the Scarborough Shoal. Could they be from a submarine?
Whatever they are, they’re moving at 520 knots. The two mystery missiles streak north, towards Fort Worth. Not good. Halsey again tries to intervene, launching a salvo of four SM-6 air defense missiles that within moments are traveling at 2,400 knots. Will they reach the threats in time?
Suddenly, it no longer matters. Fort Worth capsizes.
Last man standing
The only thing left for Freedom to do is attack. Freedom has the only anti-ship missiles within a thousand miles. Halsey has none except for a MH-60R Seahawk helicopter armed with Hellfire air-to-surface missiles, but I’m afraid of losing it to Qinzhou’s air defenses. If Freedom wants out, she has to fight her way out.
At 5.7 miles, Freedom reports there is light damage and major flooding on the already wounded Changde. She opens fire with the 57-millimeter gun, quickly scoring several hits. Changde’s gun must be damaged, because it is not opening fire.
Changde takes a lot of hits but is not going down, likely because of the small size of the 57-millimeter shell. Freedom is charging ahead at more than 40 knots, blazing away with her gun.
I’m waiting for my Griffin missiles to launch. What’s the range on those things? What’s taking so long?
At a distance of three miles, the Griffin missiles launch. It’s about time, because the 57-millimeter gun jams. Changde already has a medium-sized fire and major flooding. Several Griffins malfunction but most score hits on Changde.
Still, they don’t do any appreciable damage to the already damaged ship — Griffin missiles have a warhead that weighs as much as two laptop computers. The next largest anti-ship missile in the American inventory, Harpoon, has a warhead that weighs 488 pounds. But there aren’t any Harpoons within hundreds of miles.
Finally, with the last of Freedom’s missiles expended, Changde goes down. But Quinzhou, the Type 056 corvette, has arrived at the shoal and engages Freedom with its 76-millimeter gun. Due to the short range of the 57-millimeter gun, Freedom can’t return fire.
I’m faced with a serious dilemma — at the edge of the range envelope of the Chinese gun, do I run and get away, or do I close with the enemy and destroy him?
At this point I release Halsey’s Hellfire-armed helicopter. It’s at risk of being shot down, but I have no choice if I want to save Freedom. It can’t sink Quinzhou, but it might inflict enough damage that would allow Freedom to get away.
I waffle, and Quinzhou and Freedom are now locked in a gun battle and only one is going to sail away. Freedom has a rapid firing gun and likely better fire control, but Quinzhou’s shells are larger.
Freedom catches fire. The ship begins flooding. Her gun are destroyed. I’m pulling her away, speed 41 knots, and praying Halsey’s helicopter arrives in time to cover her withdraw.
The game crashes. Instead of frustration, I feel relief. The ass-kicking has ended.
I was tempted to restart the entire scenario, but I quickly realized that no matter how many times I played it, the result was just going to be the same. The Littoral Combat Ships as configured were completely outclassed by their Chinese counterparts.
The worst part — the Chinese didn’t even have to use missiles to defeat the Americans.
Although small for their size, the Chinese ships packed a significant punch. Changde’s design dates back at least 20 years and weighs 1,000 tons less than the LCS, but it has eight anti-ship missiles and a 100-millimeter gun. The corvette Quinzhou weighs less than half as much as LCS, but had four YJ-83 anti-ship missiles and a 76-millimeter gun.
The Littoral Combat Ships had plenty of firepower … theoretically. Each had a 57-millimeter main gun, but these were woefully underpowered for attacking surface ships.
Each had 15 Griffin missiles, but the Griffins had a range even shorter than the gun. The missiles’ 13-pound warheads, while probably useful against Iranian speedboats practicing swarm tactics, were practically worthless against the Chinese.
Worst of all, in order to bring what meager firepower each had to bear against the enemy, the LCS had to bring itself within range of multiple Chinese weapon systems.
In our simulation, the Littoral Combat Ships were defeated. Is this an indictment of the LCS? It’s not that simple.
The LCS as we configured them — as U.S. Navy currently plans to configure them — were defeated. But the LCS is modular in nature, and the loadout of the anti-surface warfare module they carried could be changed.
If I had, for example, a mix of Griffin and Norwegian-made Naval Strike Missiles, I could have quickly destroyed both Chinese ships without things degenerating into a sword fight — where I had only a knife.
The 57-millimeter gun wasn’t really a problem, because I wasn’t supposed to be using it to engage other ships anyway. The decision that led me to use it in desperation against other ships was the problem.
The speed of LCS was useful, as I was able to push both ships forward at more than 40 knots. But as I was doing so, I couldn’t help but think that the gain of moving an extra 10 miles an hour was not really all that useful when a Chinese YJ-83 missile had a range of 186 miles.
I would have gladly traded the speed advantage of the LCS for the ability to sense and destroy Chinese ships at 187 miles.
There’s an inherent danger in reading too much out of commercial wargame simulations. As much as the game designers try to model modern air and naval warfare as accurately as possible, and that is exactly what Command’s designers did, the unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld would probably put it, could tip the scenario either way.
Warfare is tragic and unpredictable. Any difference in training, maintenance or secret capabilities of both navies — things we wouldn’t know until the shooting starts — could have decisively impacted the scenario.
Still, as the U.S. defense budget grows smaller and hard choices are being made, the dismal performance of the LCS’s anti-surface warfare module in our simulation is food for thought.
Do we want the Littoral Combat Ship to be able to tackle ships less than half its size, and if so, how do we get there? Because we’re certainly not there yet.
The LCS is the Navy’s handyman, capable of doing all sorts of jobs with its mission module system. Like all handymen, it has its toolboxes to get the job done. And few handymen are really, really good at everything you might expect them to do.
With all the potential missions for the Littoral Combat Ship and a limited pool of money, what do we expect it to do really well?
One things for certain — the handyman’s hammer is too small.