By Gary Brecher
The War Nerd / September 18, 2011
By Gary Brecher
When we lived in Long Beach, my dad used to say the same thing every time we saw the sign to the yacht club: “You know what a boat is?”
He’d ask the car that, then wait for somebody to answer him—he was a master of timing, except nobody ever answered him no matter how long he waited, because my mom and sisters were always mad at him about something and I was too busy remembering that the Yacht Club was on some subdivision street that had the balls to call itself “Appian Way,” and I’d be furious in the back seat thinking no goddamn Roman legion ever marched down that stupid street, just those selfish Hot Wheels Merc sports models with seats for two people, selfish rich bastards. “Appian Way”! The nerve of those developers.
So while the car was enjoying a nice long sullen silence, he’d have to answer himself: “A boat is a hole in the water that you throw money in.”
It cracked him up every time, and probably made him feel better about the fact that we were as likely to be buying a boat anytime soon as we were to be running the Long Beach Marathon—I can just see us doing that, one of those funny “family run projects” where the whole fit bunch gets into a 20 ft caterpillar costume and trots along for 26 miles thinking they’re cute, the kind of local-news story that makes you wish you could see what an AK would do to a giant caterpillar.
Precious mem’ries, how they linger. I was remembering those drives down Highway 1 after reading the stories that China’s starting sea trials for its first aircraft carrier.
The weird thing about that story is that I grew up in California, so I have this prejudice that Chinese people are smart. And why would smart people build an aircraft carrier? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—I’ll say it as many times as my dad told that hole-in-the-water joke if I have to: Aircraft carriers are the worst weapons around, giant holes in the water that you throw hundreds of billions of dollars into.
Being the Chinese, they did it the smart way: Got the basic platform on the cheap, did some smart bargaining against their ex-rivals the Russians. When the Soviet paper tiger shredded, there were bargains galore, including all the military hardware any rising power could buy. The Soviet Black Sea fleet rusted at anchor in what was now the independent country of Ukraine. (They dropped the “The” along with the Soviet alliegance; it’s just “Ukraine” now, like those bands that get mad if you add “The” to their names.)
People were starving in Ukraine—the honest ones. The not-so-honest ones were getting rich selling off all the Soviet guns, tanks, missiles, ships and secrets they could to the highest bidder. Soviet ships were rusting in every harbor in the world. Not just military ones; every port in every country had one or two rusting Soviet fishing ships sinking a foot or two a year, sometimes with their crews stuck on board, drinking themselves to death and stabbing each other to relieve the boredom.
Most of the Black Sea fleet ended up as scrap steel. In fact there’s probably some of a Soviet missile cruiser in that Hyundai you drive to work. A certain Chinese scrap-metal company strolled over to have a look at one hulk in particular—a Soviet carrier started in the 1980s, the Varyag. Judging by the way Chinese housewives look for veggies, I’d imagine the scrap dealer did a lot of shaking his head and sniffing and grumbling in Mandarin about how spotty it looked, and wasn’t that a worm poking out of the hull, and it smelled funny (all of it probably true, too). In the end, this dealer said he had a buyer in Macau who wanted to turn the hulk of the Varyag into a floating casino. Whoever was selling the ship—some local politico’s son, I’d imagine—bought that story and sold it cheap. Sad to say—because I have a lot of respect for Russian forces, though not so much for the way they treat the poor bastards in the ranks—that story pretty much sums up relations between Communist Russia and China. The Chinese won that century hands down. (Imagine Russia without Stalin; no way it could’ve turned out worse. Now imagine China without Mao; no way it could’ve turned out this good.)
Well, it turned out there was no casino deal in Macau. Instead the scrap dealer was a patriotic associate of the PLA, and he towed the ship straight to Dalian harbor, where they started taking it apart and remaking it into China’s first carrier.
By the way, I’m not kidding when I say that double-dealing ship buyer was a real patriot. That’s the difference between the Chinese defense establishment and the DoD: They’re at the stage we were in about 1942, where sure, there was some profiteering from the contractors, but at least it wasn’t something to brag about, and when people got caught they had the decency to be ashamed. So maybe this ship buyer made a profit on the deal, but I bet he got a good deal for his country. Compare that with the disgusting crap that US defense contractors do now and you’ll see why we are so totally screwed. A month ago the Secretary of the Navy admitted to “systemic failure” when he admitted there were “multimillion dollar” scams in a procurement contract.
The Chinese are still dead serious about building up their navy. You read the stories about their excitement over this new carrier and it’s like being back in 1942, when everybody believed in this stuff—before Navy heroes turned into turds like Duke Cunningham.
In the first place, everybody knows there ain’t nobody can online war-nerd it like the Chinese. Just imagine 100 million sunken-chested or baby-fat Chinese war nerds hyperventilating garlic breath onto their monitors at the thought of their resurgent homeland breaking into the Carrier-owners club, the ultimate frat for countries with any military snobbery at all.
Well, that’s what’s happening right now in China.
There’s been this huge online survey to see what the new carrier should be named. See, this is the difference between a good healthy war-nerd country and a bunch of degenerates like Europe. In Europe they have these contests to name the baby polar bear at the Berlin Zoo (and then the damn thing dies anyway—sums it all up); in China every guy who can’t make the varsity is whacking the keyboard to chime in on what to call the new carrier:
“Recently, the aircraft carrier has become one of the hottest topics on Internet forums [in China]. About 80 percent of netizens say they would like to donate money to build the first Chinese aircraft carrier.According to a survey conducted by Chinese portal Sina, 45 percent of respondents are in favour of naming the aircraft carriers after historical Chinese figures such as Mao Zedong and Zheng He; only 12 percent think they should be named after major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. And 30 percent of respondents think the names of aircraft carriers should reflect the growing national strength of China.”
Read that, and hang yer heads in shame, fellow war nerds. Been a long time since “80 percent of netizens” in these parts cared about anything but how Chaz Bono’s gonna dance now that he’s got some weird ersatz dick tucked under his fat belly.
Four out of five of those poor 80-hour a week wage slaves in some filthy anthill city in China can’t wait to donate their own hard-earned money to build the carrier. We wouldn’t do that here, because we know goddamn well where the money would go: to buy Duke Cunningham another night on the yacht with some contractor-paid call girl. That’s right: Duke Cunningham lived on a yacht owned by his DoD contractor pimp buddy, Mitchell Wade. Wade named the boat the S.S. Duke Stir. And Duke wanted Wade to buy him girls and send them to the boat.
We’re supposed to think entrepreneurs outrank Alexander the Great now, supposed to consider the business dude just the crown of creation. But from what I see looking at DoD contractors, they’re scumbags, modern sutlers trailing after the army for a quick nickel. Sutlers and pimps. Sherman quarantined them, one to a corps; Grant would’ve had them shot if he could’ve. Those were the days.
These Chinese war nerds don’t buy all this crap about the glorious businessman (even though they’re the best businessmen in the world); you can see that from the way they appreciate Mao. To them, he’s not some commie bogeyman, he’s George frickin’ Washington. Which he was, like it or not. Mao unified a seriously messed-up country all split into gang turfs, gave the most cynical people in the world a new sense of patriotism, turned Chinese who didn’t care about anyone who wasn’t a blood relative into suicide commandos who marched into North Korea in midwinter with nothing but quilted-cloth pants, a bag of rice and ammo, and jumped up out of the snow to give the US Army the biggest surprise of its life.
Zheng He: That’s one big eunuch–good name for a carrier
Zheng’s another interesting choice, a little weird for my tastes but good solid patriotic stuff anyway. He (the pronoun, not the guy’s name) was this 7 ft tall eunuch who led the 15th-c. Chinese fleet that sailed around the world. There was some book about it a couple years ago.
I don’t take too much stock in these books. When ten books come out all at once with titles like “How the Irish Saved the World” or “How Indian Civilization Turned Us from Apes into Geniuses” or “How the Chinese Actually Taught the Italians to Make Pasta” what it really seems to mean is: The ethnic group in the title is finally getting some cash. Once they move up the demographic rankings, they generate all these third-generation kiddie profs who start diving into the shelves to prove that granddaddy’s granddaddy actually was the first hominid to do this or that. Soon they’ll prove that whatever tribe comes into money in 2020 or so (the Persians—my guess) actually invented money while developing the wheel while performing brain surgery while discovering compassion and picnics, and looked good doing it too.
And that’s the point about this Chinese carrier: It’s about national pride, not military usefulness. The Chinese are after both those things, and it’s actually incredibly cool the way they’ve managed to get both. First, since they’re smart, they came up with a real weapon that totally neutralizes the US carrier fleet, a weapon that could sink all 11 of the US carriers in a few minutes, without even having to bother with all the screening vessels and air cover and other useless “defenses” we’ve stacked around them. It’s not a glamorous weapon, it just works.
It’s a long-range ballistic missile specifically designed to kill carriers and other oversized surface targets. This missile, the DF-21, has a 900 mile range and drops down on the carrier from directly above.
“Equally intriguing has been the depiction of this capability in the Chinese media. A lengthy November 2009 program about anti-ship ballistic missiles broadcast on China Central Television Channel 7 (China’s official military channel) featured an unexplained — and rather badly animated — cartoon sequence. This curious ‘toon features a sailor who falsely assumes that his carrier’s Aegis defense systems can destroy a incoming ASBM as effectively as a cruise missile, with disastrous results.”
Read that and weep all over again. That’s our big consolation prize, the fact that the Chinese weapons video is “rather badly animated”—as in, “Ha ha, well at least they still can’t make good cartoons!”?
Never mind the animation, what about the plot? Cuz if you don’t see that that sailor who goes skipping along thinking that that phony-ass Aegis system is going to stop a warhead coming directly down at meteor speed is based on solid reality, you’re crazy. We have nothing, NO-thing, that will stop those missiles. Here’s a nice little quote on the reentry speed of an ICBM warhead. I’m not a physicist but I’d guess a warhead with a 900-mile range goes up enough to come down at roughly the same speed as this:
“The reentry speed of an ICBM is so great that the reentry vehicle can be filled with concrete for a fixed target, or metal rods for an area target; the kinetic energy of the warhead is so great that a conventional explosive filling would add no appreciable energy.”
We’re talking about man-made asteroids here. Remember the dinosaurs? You can add Carrier-o-saurus ex-Rex to your kid’s dino list. So if you’re into military maps, you can now put a red zone for 900 miles out from the coast of China and mark it off “US Carrier No-Go Zone.”
DF-21 (land-based) range: Carrier-free zone
I haven’t been able to see if this DF-21 can be fired from subs yet—I don’t think it can be at the moment—but nearly every missile can be adapted to sub use. If you can fire a Trident from a sub, this can go underwater too, sooner or later.
And when it does, well…that carrier that used to rule the waves will be exactly what those RMS This-or-That battleships were in WW II: Expensive statuary sitting in the harbor. The battleship got a fake “new lease on life” in the later stages of the Pacific War, thanks to total US air superiority, but if you want to see what happens to a WW II-era battleship in real combat, check out what happened to the pride of the British fleet, the battleship Prince of Wales and its teammate in Task Force Z (“Z”–good name, maybe they saw what was coming) Repulse. They ran into primitive Japanese dive bombers, stone-age tech with human pilots, flying low at a few hundred miles an hour, and yet they still hit the bottom in a few minutes.
Last above-water seconds of the P of W
Strange how not many naval warfare nerds want to talk much about that disaster. Might be because the Brits put on such a lousy performance in the Pacific War in general, so lousy they hushed the whole thing up and insisted on hanging a lot of Japanese naval officers in revenge, maybe just so they wouldn’t publish any memoirs with titles like “What was up with you losers skedaddling out of Singapore without even putting up a fight?”
Kinda sad: Brit diver flags P of W
They tagged along with what turned out to be the winning team and turned a lousy military record into a whole lotta braggin’. And in the meantime, nobody noticed that the rest of the battleships, theirs and everybody else’s battleships stayed in harbor until the admirals were absolutely certain of total, absolute air superiority—like, until the last coffee-grinder noise of an Me-109’s machine guns went all quiet on the Western Front.
And that’s where the carriers will spend their time if there’s anything like an all-out conventional war in the near future: In port.
Which brings us back to the big question: Why would smart military planners like the PLA spend so much money on a useless weapon like a carrier?
There are two possible reasons and I think we’ve got both, working together:
1. Decoy. This is a classic, and it lets the Chinese military tease the USN into wasting huge, unbelievably huge, money on a useless fleet of almost a dozen carriers and the incredibly expensive, over-engineered planes that fly from them. The US carrier fleet is a boondoggle at best, and one that costs a thousand times more than all the welfare cheats that your Congress-idiot loves to rant about put together. Even the USN, dumbest and sleaziest of all the services, knows that, but Congress just plain will not stop funding for carriers.
It’s easy and fun, if you’re Chinese—to tap into stupidity like that, especially when it’s mixed up with paranoid crap from the right and entrepreneurial sleaze from the sutlers. “China got carrier! Duh, we need more carrier!” Yeah, more cowbell, that’s the solution. You can’t fix stupid, but if you’re a potential enemy, why would you want to?
Aegis cruiser firing: Pure potlatch
The Chinese are polite most of the time, but they can’t help gloating about how they can use their undervalued Yuan to buy the makings of a carrier cheap off the dying Western economies:
“With a view to both marine security and economic factors, now is the right time for China to built [sic] its first aircraft carrier,” said Song Xiaojun, a military expert. “Current low prices of raw materials at home and abroad will offer the prospect of economies in procurement.”
Look at the cost comparisons to see how it works for China: They buy a platform for next to nothing from the dying Soviet empire; they refit it into a 300 meter carrier purposely designed to imitate US carrier design; they leak the info to the sleazoids who report on “Pentagon affairs” for the tame news services and committees; those committees pour another hundred billion dollars into a fleet arm that basically consists of floating monuments to the Battle of Midway. Cost comparison: For every yuan the Chinese spend, we spend thousands of dollars building gold-plated carriers from scratch, with huge profits sucked out by parasites at every stage. And when the war comes, neither side actually fields a surface navy because they know it’d be suicide.
2. Pride. Does anybody buy a yacht because they expect to make money on the resale? Or to put it in strictly naval-warfare terms, Why did the Germans and the Soviets invest in a surface navy when the USN had already overbuilt and overcommitted to dominating the surface? Maybe the Soviets did it as a decoy (see #1 above); there was a lot of speculation that way back in the 1970s. But probably not. Probably out of stupidity, or local sleaze, or pride–simple national pride. “We can build battleships as good as yours, you Brits”—that’s what the Nazis said in the 1930s. And in the 1970s, the Russians did the same with their ski-ramp carriers. Those never made sense, militarily; they were the same as buying a boat to sit in Long Beach Marina: A hole in the water that they threw money into—and then sold off cheap to the Chinese when it was their turn to play the nationalist pride game.
China can afford to build a carrier or two as display items, even aside from their decoy value. China is sitting pretty, on top of the world economy, right now—with a national currency undervalued by 40% against the poor old dollar.
China is also sitting on a huge chunk of the US national debt, which means that we’re actually funding that Chinese carrier, thanks to the miracle called compound interest.
Yuan vs. Euro (red); Yuan vs USD (blue, bluer, blown)
When you hit the point that your national biz is coasting like that, you start visiting boatyards, looking around for a 32-foot Bayliner with a parasail roll bar for some conspicuous consumption. Put that in the driveway and listen to the neighbor’s wife give him Hell: Sweet, sweet music to a nationalist’s ears.
And it’s good military strategy as well as a Gold Card Reward. I read the Injuns in Oregon and Washington used to have this custom they called “Potlatch,” which was about pure conspicuous consumption without even pretending it was for usefulness. They’d buy the most expensive things around, like copper plates with beads on them (don’t ask me, I ain’t Chief’s cuz) and throw them into a bonfire in front of their neighbors, just to show they could afford to.
Well, look, the Chinese are doing their carrier potlatch with a used chassis they got cheap off a Ukraine pawnbroker, and they’re only building one of them. If they can scare us into pouring more money into the carrier hole-inna-wadda with that one Quaker Gun of a carrier, they realize something like 100:1 force multiplier, to use DoD blabber. Not bad for conspicuous consumption.
It’s not hard to come up with quotes from the Chinese showing how much this carrier has to do with national pride instead of military usefulness:
“Building aircraft carriers is a symbol of an important nation. It is very necessary,” the China Daily paper quoted Admiral Hu Yanlin as saying earlier this month. “China has the capability to build aircraft carriers and should do so,” he said.
If you’re used to reading through DoD propaganda, no matter what country it’s coming from, you see what the admiral is saying here. Here’s my loose translation of what Admiral Hu is getting at: “We don’t actually need a carrier, but it’s part of being one of the big boys so we have to do it, like paying for your kid’s wedding. So we’ll turn out a few of them, but we’re only going to do it when it’s cheap and doesn’t interfere with production of real weapons like the DF-21.”
I’m telling you, they’re playing with us. Polite as they’re trying to be, the contempt seeps out from time to time—and I can’t blame them. With enemies like us, they literally cannot lose.Would you like to know more? Read “This Is How Carriers Will Die”.
Gary Brecher is the author of the War Nerd. Send your comments to gary dot brecher at gmail dot com. Read Gary Brecher’s first ever War Nerd column by clicking here.