China sets the stage for a 'bloody nose' attack on US aircraft carriers, but it would backfire horribly

US Navy aircraft carrierF/A-18 Hornets demonstrate air power over the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74).US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Ignacio D. Perez/Released

  • China deployed "carrier killer" missiles after warning the US Navy to stay out of the South China Sea while releasing increasingly hot rhetoric that discusses killing US sailors.
  • China has a powerful military stronghold in the South China Sea and plenty of missiles that can outrange and overwhelm US aircraft carriers.
  • A prominent Chinese hawk suggested that sinking an aircraft carrier could break the US's will in a kind of "bloody nose" attack.
  • US experts agree that carriers are at risk to China's new missiles and that losing one would traumatize the nation.
  • But the US has lost carriers before and, if China is at all serious about its rhetoric, could "bring down the wrath of God" on Beijing in a fight they're not ready for, according to experts.

China responded to a recent challenge from the US Navy with the deployment of missiles purpose-built to sink aircraft carriers while increasingly hot rhetoric from Beijing suggests that the US's will to fight can be broken.

Chinese Rear Admiral Luo Yuan, an anti-US hawk who holds an academic rank shaping military theory, proposed a solution to the US and China's simmering tensions in the South China Sea in a December speech: Break the US's spirit by sinking an aircraft carrier or two.

Dai Xu, a People's Liberation Army Air Force colonel commandant and the president of China's Institute of Marine Safety and Cooperation, suggested in December that China's navy should ram US Navy ships sailing in the international waterway.

Zhang Junshe, a researcher at China's Naval Military Studies Research Institute, gave a speech in January saying that if any conflict does break out between the US and China in the South China Sea, no matter the context, the US bears the blame.

Read more: China moves 'ship killer' missiles into firing range as US warships infuriate Beijing in the South China Sea

Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project noted to Business Insider that these commentators, mainly researchers, didn't officially speak for China, but said they shouldn't be totally ignored.

9 Dash Line South China Sea SkitchedA map that depicts China's claim of ownership in the South China Sea.CSIS/David Choi/Business Insider

Following the hike in pro-war rhetoric from Beijing, official Chinese media announced the deployment DF-26 "carrier killer" missiles to northwestern China, where they could range US ships in the South China Sea. China previously tested missiles like these against mock-ups of US aircraft carriers, and has designed them to out range and overwhelm the ships.

China fiercely censors any speech that clashes with the Communist party's official ideology or goals, so it's meaningful that the Chinese researcher's open discussion of killing US Navy sailors was picked up by global media.

"The fact that these hawkish admirals have been let off the leash to make such dangerous statements is indicative of the nationalist's clamor for prestige that is driving Chinese policy in the region," John Hemmings, a China expert at the Henry Jackson Society told Business Insider.

Can China scare off the US with a 'bloody nose' attack?

DF-21D Carrier KillerSino Defence

A "bloody nose" attack means what it sounds like. Basically, it's a quick, isolated strike that demonstrates an aggressor does not fear a foe, and theoretically causes the foe to go off running scared.

"What the United States fears the most is taking casualties," Luo reportedly said at his speech at the 2018 Military Industry List summit on December 20, adding that sinking one carrier could kill 5,000 US service members.

"We'll see how frightened America is," he said. "Attack wherever the enemy is afraid of being hit. Wherever the enemy is weak."

In the US, some fear Luo may be right that the loss of an aircraft carrier could break the US's resolve.

Jerry Hendrix, a former captain in the US Navy, cautioned at a Heritage Foundation talk in December that aircraft carriers have become "mythical" symbols of national prestige and that the US may even fear deploying the ultra-valuable ships to a conflict with China.

Read more: Russia and China's new missiles could scare the US president away from deploying aircraft carriers

"There is, unfortunately, the heavy potential of conflict coming, but the nation is not ready for heavy battle damage to its navy and specifically not to its aircraft carriers," said Hendrix.

But the US has lost aircraft carriers before, and remained in the fight.

A great power war China won't win

aircraft carrier f 35cAircraft from the Freedom Fighters of Carrier Air Wing 7 fly in formation above the Nimitz-class aircraft carriers USS Abraham Lincoln and USS Harry S. Truman.US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Brian M. Brooks

"The decision to go after an aircraft carrier, short of the deployment of nuclear weapons, is the decision that a foreign power would take with the most reticence," Bryan McGrath, founding managing director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, a naval consultancy, told Business Insider. "The other guy knows that if that is their target, the wrath of god will come down on them."

McGrath emphasized that threats to US carriers are old news, but that the ships, despite currently struggling to address the threat from China's new missiles, still had merit.

"I would have been more surprised if we had seen former Chinese rear admiral say, 'The fact that we're building aircraft carriers is one of the dumbest moves of the 21st century given the Americans will wax them in the first three days of combat,'" said McGrath, dismissing Luo's comments as bogus scare tactics.

Hemmings shared McGrath's assessment of China's true military posture.

Navy Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier air defense Phalanx CIWSThe USS Ronald Reagan, Navy's only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, conducts a live-fire exercise of its Phalanx Close-in Weapons System, or CIWS, in the Philippine Sea, October 1, 2016.US Navy/Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Burke

"This Chinese posturing and threatening is about as counter-productive as one can be. The Chinese navy is simply not prepared for a real war, nor is its economy prepared for a war with Beijing's largest trade partner," said Hemmings.

While China's navy has surpassed the US's in ship count, and its military may one day surpass the US in absolute might, that day has not yet come. China's generals openly discuss their greatest weakness as inexperience in combat.

China may find it useful for domestic consumption or to garner media attention to discuss sinking US ships and carriers, but McGrath said he doubts China's military is really considering such a bold move.

"If China sinks a carrier, that would unleash the beast. I'm talking about the real s*** major power war," he said.

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