A sea blockade can be implemented using satellite imaging and missiles

Monday, July 19th, 2021

ICEYE‘s network of synthetic aperture radar satellites promises information about every square meter on earth, updated every single hour, which leads Steve Hsu to mock aircraft carriers:

Duh… Let’s spend ~$10B each for new aircraft carriers that can be easily monitored from space and attacked using hypersonic missiles.

He has pointed out before that aircraft carriers will have to operate 1,000 miles offshore in a peer-to-peer conflict — because that’s the range of China’s PRC DF21 anti-ship ballistic missile — and that will require a new class of (perhaps unmanned) aircraft with greater range.

Chinese Missile Ranges

In this era a sea blockade can be implemented using satellite imaging and missiles or drones:

Japan imports ~60% of its food calories and essentially all of its oil. The situation is similar for S. Korea and Taiwan. It is important to note that blocking sea transport to Taiwan and Japan does not require PLAN blue water dominance. ASBM and cruise missiles which threaten aircraft carriers can also hold oil tankers and global shipping at risk from launch sites which are on or near the Asian mainland. Missile + drone + AI/ML technology completely alters the nature of sea blockade, but most strategic planners do not yet realize this.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    This is plain silly. The ignoramuses that drool over it are loons. Lots of them over at Cdr Salamander.

    The first island chain does present blockade possibilities, but only if you control the Philippines. If China can seize the Philippines, which is indeed possible, even likely, then no blockade is possible.

    And please note that the blockade not only shuts down China’s sea-borne trade (but not its land routes), it also shuts down Vietnam, Taiwan (if unoccupied), and South Korea.

    It also closes Walmart, Target, Apple, Ford, GMC, Chrysler-Jeep, …

    Then there is the issue our naval geniuses are not aware of. China has a fleet of nuclear submarines that can conduct submarine warfare from the Aleutians to the Panama Canal. That is a target rich environment. Some Chinese missiles (conventional) can reach Denver and Dallas; some might be able to reach Pittsburgh.

    What if every port on the west coast and the Panama Canal wer shut down? What then?

    And what about our allies? None of them will cooperate in a war against China, unless China actually attacks them. China won’t do that, and Japan et al. will not agree to shut down their biggest trading partner. This is a pure solo act by the US, and doomed to fail.

    And what about Russia? Are we prepared to fight a ground war in central Europe? Really?

    Our country is led by donkeys.

  2. Gavin Longmuir says:

    The point of the article is not about the US blockading China — it is about China blockading (or demonstrating the capability to blockade) Japan, South Korea, etc.

    But why would China blockade Japan etc when all they need to do is turn off the export tap and watch other countries flounder and then fall into line? Or do what China has done to the US — buy off the Biden family, politicians, academics, media to secure their whole-hearted support for whatever China wants.

    China is showing us that you don’t need bullets & bombs to win a war. Our country is indeed led by donkeys — greedily following the Chinese carrot.

  3. Goober says:

    So often in these articles, you read things like “they haven’t even thought about this yet” and “most strategic planners do not realize this yet” (to quote a line directly from the article).

    I’m going to press X to doubt. Just because they’re not talking about it, publicly, doesn’t mean they haven’t considered it. The information is likely beyond Top Secret, so of course they aren’t telling everyone the plan.

    I’m also going to suggest that a system that relies on essentially undefended satellites, which orbit the entire Earth, and are often on the opposite side of the globe from China, to function AT ALL (note, these ASBM missiles don’t experience reduced function and accuracy if they can’t get a satellite signal, like some cruise missiles, etc. Without the Sat signal they just don’t work, period), is probably not the existential threat to the United States that the article makes them out to be.

    The United States has demonstrated their ability to shoot down satellites (as has China and a few others). Why would we develop that ability if it never occurred to us that it might come in handy?

    If we ever went “weapons hot” against China, I’d hazard a guess that their ASBM system would be inoperable within the first few hours, long before any American CVN could get close enough to be at risk, and well before any satellite-missile blockade would cause anything but a minor inconvenience.

    I’m more with Gavin, here, in that MILITARILY, I’m not terribly concerned about containing China. It’s ECONOMICALLY, that they’ve got us all by the short hairs.

  4. Altitude Zero says:

    A Red Chinese invasion of Taiwan would very quickly devolve into a bloody mess, regardless of who “won”, which is why the CCP probably won’t try, at least not yet. The US is obviously in the early stages of a crisis, Taiwan has been letting their defenses run down for years, and so they have little to lose by waiting, ramping up the tensions, and letting events take their course. Of course, the CCP is also arrogant beyond belief, what with being both communist and Chinese, so they may make a mistake – such as the half- insane threat to nuke Japan; I mean, if you wanted Japan and SK to nuclearize, this is what you would do…

  5. Ezra says:

    Advanced naval sea mines are not even mentioned but can do the job much more effectively and far cheaper.

    Recall Operation Starvation at the end of WW2 in the Pacific. Naval sea mines, primitive to the current variety, blockaded the Japanese home waters with relative ease.

  6. Sam J. says:

    There’s another old strategic idea that we and most are still following,

    The World Island

    The geopolitical theory as the British did years ago, namely “The Geographical Pivot of History” by Halford John Mackinder in 1904. The idea being that the area in central Europe is a pivot to the super continent of Europe-Russia-Asia combined and anyone controlling all the super continent would control the World.


    Except this is no longer true. A good theory except presently it’s wrong. It used to be correct but technology changed. Now whoever controls space controls the world island.

    From low earth orbit you could drop steel rods,(they often say tungsten but why spend so much) and destroy all the Chinese silk road railroads, all tankers, everything.

    The Chinese are foolish to threaten the Japanese a long time ago the Japanese bought tons of plutonium from the French. They also have who knows how many tunnels and shelters under Japan. I bet the Japanese have every singe item needed for nukes they just don’t have them actually combined yet which would take a few minutes.

    I’ve seen pictures of immense water reservoirs under Japan(they say for flood control but wouldn’t it be cheaper to build walls around the flood areas than to build large underground water storage? Of course it would. Or just route the water around Tokyo.

    There was a article where some guy in Japan noticed all over the country the rail system has lots of tunnels going into mountains that are not a part of the published rail network. I expect these are so they can use their extensive train system to rapidly get everyone into shelters.

  7. Sam J. says:

    “…which leads Steve Hsu to mock aircraft carriers…”

    He’s wrong. I’m NOT in favor of spending so much on these carriers or making them bigger like they have been. At the same time they are very flexible. You can show power without triggering war right away. All the Chinese missiles if fired, there’s no going back. The idea that the Chinese can shut off all trade to Japan, Korea, etc. and there not be any consequences is silly.

    I have no inside knowledge but if an aircraft carrier is set up right and they have a strong fire protection and fire fighting capability I don’t think it will be easy to sink one.

  8. Sam J. says:

    Sam J.’s theory of the control of Earth: “Whoever controls low Earth orbit controls the planet.”

  9. Freddo says:

    The Chinese are clever enough to realize that they don’t need a couple of carrier groups. Allow the likes of Bloomberg and Disney to make some profit and the American establishment will self-censor. If they threaten to get out of line, yank their chain for a bit and they will shut up again.

  10. Alistair says:

    “Whoever controls low Earth orbit controls the planet.”

    Ha! Fools! Rather, whoever controls the Jovian system controls the Outer Solar system controls the Inner Solar system controls the Moon controls the Lagrange points controls LEO controls the World Island and controls the planet!

  11. Paul from Canada says:

    If the aircraft carrier is obsolete and so vulnerable, then why are the Chinese trying so hard to develop and field them? I imagine that the U.S. can develop or possibly already has hypersonic missiles…..

  12. Isegoria says:

    The US doesn’t have its own hypersonic missiles yet, but it has just tested the motor for the missile it has in development.

  13. Goober says:

    “A Red Chinese invasion of Taiwan would very quickly devolve into a bloody mess, regardless of who ‘won’, which is why the CCP probably won’t try, at least not yet”

    Altitude Zero is correct here. The ocean crossing, while technically only a few tens of miles, may as well be a few thousand, for the difficulty it would present to the Chinese (or really, anyone attempting it).

    Like the English Channel in WWII, the water barrier there presents a nearly insurmountable obstacle to any military that doesn’t have naval and air superiority. Any build up to prepare for such a thing would not go unnoticed, and everyone would be on high alert well before the Chinese actually launched their invasion.

    As long as the US is willing to throw it’s lot in with Taiwan, the Chinese aren’t likely to have either air or naval superiority.

    Until the Chinese have built their navy and airforce up to the point that they’re likely to achieve that, Taiwan is almost certainly off the table.

    If a war ever went hot between China and the US (or a US ally) I would expect the war to look an awful lot like the Battle of the Atlantic, at least early on. China knows that their power lies in economic warfare, so I agree with the author in that the preliminary “guns hot” phase is going to involve a lot of blockading, merchant raiding, and economic leveraging.

    It would rarely be direct engagement of military forces, at least at first. Neither side would be stupid enough (or even capable) of directly invading the other, so the war would not be land based for the most part.

    I think what we’d see is both sides doing their best to destroy the other’s merchant fleets, with limited direct naval clashes on occasion, and lots of attempts to leverage other countries to not trade with the opposition by throwing around lots of weight and money.

    But I also expect that the time between start of hostilities and “guns hot” will take a long time. The US doesn’t really seem all that willing to do much about Chinese aggression, and so I foresee years and years of “incidents” where the Chinese harrass or even outright damage US assets, while the US sort of dithers about doing anything about it.

    I’d wager that the Chinese could even sink a smaller US warship right now, and the US would just excuse it as an accident in order to avoid conflict.

    But all that is just my opinion.

  14. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Goober: “I’d wager that the Chinese could even sink a smaller US warship right now, and the US would just excuse it as an accident in order to avoid conflict.”

    I suspect you are correct. The big unknowable for the Chinese Communist Party has to be how the US would react to a major military loss. China probably has the capacity to sink a US aircraft carrier by missile or submarine, but then how would the US respond? Would Resident Biden* simply abandon Taiwan? Or would he push the button and nuke a Chinese city?

    Realistically, the US could not implement a conventional military response to a Chinese incident. The choice for the US would be Go Nuclear or Go Home.

    Given that uncertainty, the best option for the CCP is probably patience with respect to Taiwan — they will get what they want eventually.

    The risk in the meantime is escalation over some unplanned event. Wretchard at the Belmont Club once started writing a book in which an incident over a fishing dispute between the Philippines and China escalated and the CCP brought in their aircraft carrier. To their own surprise, the Philippine air force managed to sink the aircraft carrier. China responded by nuking Manila.

  15. Space Nookie says:

    This guy does a pretty good takedown of the hypervelocity missiles stuff.


  16. Anonymous Decentralist says:

    It will take only ONE nuclear weapon to eliminate the CCP.

    Nuke Beijing. The outlying leaders will then become warlords fighting to hold what they want.

    That is the true danger for an extremely centralized government. You decapitate the top guy and his support system…then chaos.

    Alexander The Great dies. And The Successors fight over the pieces.

  17. Sam J. says:

    Isegoria says, “The US doesn’t have its own hypersonic missiles yet…”

    Yeah well it’s just the defense companies ripping us off. They’re building some absurd hydrogen fueled missile. Dumb. All they have to do is dust the plans off of this beast.


    “Sprint accelerated at 100 g, reaching a speed of Mach 10 in 5 seconds…”

    So we know 100% that we can make this.

  18. Isegoria says:

    By the way, the War Nerd has been saying that this is how the carriers will die for a dozen years.

  19. Goober says:


    The War Nerd seems to be pretty contemptuous of the officer corps in the Navy. It’s just dripping off of him. While I can definitely see how a person could use a study of history to determine that complacency and being stuck in a rut through organizational inertia is definitely an issue in military hierarchy, I don’t see where he’s provided any actual evidence of this, outside of assertions that “they are doing nothing” and “they have no defense”, both of which are not actually true statements.

    These statements that seem dubious, at best, include “ships have no defense against ballistic missiles”. That’s simply not true.


    The Harpoon does its “P” trajectory thing for a couple of reasons, but neither of them is because a ship cannot defend against a ballistic trajectory.

    The first is that warships, especially older, armored warships — such as General Belgrano during the Falklands war, previously the USS Phoenix, a WWII-era cruiser — have armor belts at wave height that may stop or reduce the effectiveness of a missile strike in that location. Additionally, at lower levels, they have anti-torpedo defense systems that could accomplish the same. However, from a “top down” trajectory, these same ships generally were designed to stop bombs falling at terminal velocity and not much more, so a missile traveling at supersonic speeds can get through the deck defenses much more easily. Additionally, a hit to the top of the ship, even one stopped by an armor scheme, would be more apt to kill leadership on the bridge, destroy radar and fire control sets, and also destroy anti-missile defensive systems and AA defenses, making it easier to follow up with subsequent attacks.

    Essentially, I’m of the opinion that War Nerd kind of twisted facts to support his pre-ordained conclusions, and I don’t really agree with him.

    His entire thesis rests on the claim that “we have no defense against ballistic missiles”; this claim is just not true.

  20. Goober says:

    I suppose a good proof-read would have helped my previous post. Apologies for the typos.

    I also left out the second reason the Harpoon does its P trajectory, which is to make its flight path a bit more evasive to anti-missile defenses right at the last minute, to make it harder to track and hit — but not impossible, simply because it sort of tracks a ballistic arc. It’s more of a “shuck, juke and jive to avoid being tackled” than it is a “ships can’t hit missiles on a ballistic trajectory”.

  21. Goober says:

    One more point:

    The carrier still provides an important function that has yet to be replaced, and so carriers are still necessary.

    Since WWII, the folly of moving a fleet around without at minimum a CAP to protect against air strikes has been clear. Look at what happened to Prince of Wales and Repulse during the Force Z mission, or, for that matter, the fates of both Yamato and Musashi. You absolutely must have at minimum air cover, but preferably at least local air superiority to move your fleet in hostile territory.

    Anyone stating that carriers are obsolete is completely missing this, and is also acting as if the carrier is acting alone in a vacuum. While the carrier, as the largest ship in the fleet, is generally the flagship and seen as the base of the fleet’s strength, the Carrier is not the be-all end-all of naval strategy. It is just a brick in the wall, another aspect of the composite naval force.

    They allow CAP, they allow force projection of air power that you cannot have if you don’t happen to have an air base nearby, and neither of those functions cannot be “replaced” by another technology, or disregarded as “obsolete”.

    My one quibble with our current carriers was mentioned earlier, which is that we’re not prepared to lose them. Any war with an on-par opponent is going to result in carrier and ship losses. There is no avoiding that. With that in mind, I believe that we would be much better off with more, smaller carriers that we could afford to lose if need be. THese massive super carriers with 5000 man crews are seen as “unkillable” and honestly, that’s hubris. If we do join a war with a peer opponent ever, we need to be prepared to lose carriers, and I truly don’t see how we could possibly stomach the loss of one of these behemoths and her entire crew.

  22. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Goober: “I truly don’t see how we could possibly stomach the loss of one of these behemoths and her entire crew.”

    That is the key point. If some identified enemy sinks a carrier (eg China in the Taiwan straits), the only choices for the US would be to Go Nuclear or Go Home. Even with sock puppet Biden* in the loop, China would have to think long & hard before taking that risk.

    Aircraft carriers are certainly a key asset for any country which wants to act as the world policeman, and deal with non-peer adversaries who would not have the capability to sink a large naval vessel. But why would US citizens want to pay for being the world’s policeman?

  23. VXXC says:

    “His entire thesis rests on the claim that ‘we have no defense against ballistic missiles’; this claim is just not true.”

    Very correct, there are a variety of defenses from CIWS to missiles to electronic.

    Luttwak goes into this extensively in The Logic of Strategy, which I am reading. A great example is The Torpedo Boat, debut 1870s. That was supposed to be the end of the Behemoths…but given small guns to shoot the boats and anti-torpedo boats combined with small fast boats to chase the torpedo boats and later submarines.

    The same story since 1870, and frankly since the advent of the technological age, the wonder weapons etc. A mix of weapons and forces will always be needed, any advantage of a wonder weapon — and it happens — is always transitory and countered.

    On land: the anti-tank missile and the shoulder fired SAM mean THE END of armored warfare and close air support !! EEEKS!!

    But OTOH just buy lots of these cheap solutions!

    IF IF the enemy just sends tanks and planes [planes without countermeasures yet] and forgets artillery, mortars, supporting infantry…this being the story of 1973 Sinai until the Israeli reserves came up.

    Now once there’s artillery prep and other support ground and air the advantage of the wonder weapons missiles magic evaporated.

    Not that missiles aren’t very useful, you just can’t put all your eggs in one basket. The Marines are already missing their tanks…
    …and already blaming the Army which has all the tanks…

    The Marines are going all high tech now you see, I’m sure the War Nerd loves the new Commandant.

    Who will I tell you now ruin their reputation for generations. It’s not his mistakes, it’s character.

  24. Goober says:

    “Aircraft carriers are certainly a key asset for any country which wants to act as the world policeman, and deal with non-peer adversaries who would not have the capability to sink a large naval vessel.”

    I would argue that they are a key asset, period, even and especially against a peer opponent. It’s just that against a peer opponent, you need to go into the war prepared to lose a few of them, and therein lies my only issue with the US carrier strategy. Any ship that is “too valuable to lose” is a ship that cannot be used against a peer opponent, and our super carriers definitely fit that bill. I think that we should seriously consider building three smaller carriers instead of one big one, with the composite capability and air groups of all three adding up to one big one.

    The US and Britain both lost several carriers in WWII. Each carrier loss resulted in the loss of 1000 men, including trained pilots, averaged out. Each hurt, badly.

    Losing a super carrier would be roughly equivalent to losing 5 of those carriers. It’s too much “eggs in one basket”, and doesn’t seem to recognize the very real possibility that one might be sunk.

  25. Goober says:


    You make excellent points. Warfare, starting in the early 20th century, was punctuated by all sorts of “massive technological advances via Wunderwaffe” that would render the old ways obsolete.

    Most of them panned out to be roughly equivalent to a flash in the pan. It’s the old folly of assuming a compliant enemy.

    Torpedos were supposed to obsolete battleships. The French Juene Ecole was the natural response to this assumption, and it turned out to be complete folly.

    Like you said, SAMS and ATGMs, likewise.

    Magnetic mines, VT fuses, machine guns, and I could go on, were all touted to make warfare obsolete.

    All they ever did was cause the enemy to develop countermeasures. You simply cannot assume a compliant enemy.

    The author of this article is presuming that the US is a compliant enemy. This is folly.

  26. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Goober: “It’s too much “eggs in one basket”, and doesn’t seem to recognize the very real possibility that one might be sunk.”

    Definitely agree with you there. However –
    “I would argue that they [aircraft carriers] are a key asset, period, even and especially against a peer opponent.”

    Good for posturing against a peer opponent, yes. But a peer opponent is going to be a nuclear power, just like China and Russia. Even the old apartheid South Africa developed a nuclear capability despite UN sanctions. Heaven knows why Iran is taking so long to build a bomb — or are they just play-acting to hide an existing capability?

    The point is that any conflict with a peer or near-peer would involve two nuclear-armed powers. That risks one side or the other going nuclear when it suffers a loss or a set-back. And then all bets would be off.

    Recommended solution for the US — Stop playing world policeman. Tell Apple that if they choose to build their iPhones in China instead of the US, they are on their own — don’t come crying to FedGov if China screws them. Tell the Euros it is time for them to man up — or to prostrate themselves before Moscow; what they choose is not our business.

    Put the US Army on the southern border, and rescind the No First Use policy for nuclear weapons. Mess with us and you die. I don’t know if there would be a place for aircraft carriers in that kind of world in which the US avoids foreign entanglements.

  27. Altitude Zero says:

    It’s good to have a mix of weapons systems, if only because it’s often very difficult to tell exactly what new weapons are going to be effective under the circumstances existing. In hindsight, it’s obvious that in WWII, Aircraft carriers, tanks, and submarines were going to be the decisive weapons, but it was far from obvious in, say, 1938. Almost nobody (not even the Japanese, despite Pearl Harbor) thought that aircraft carriers would be used in the way that they were, the Germans were actually very light in submarines despite the experience of WWI, light tanks (which proved to be almost useless) were thought to be superior to heavies based on the experience of the Spanish Civil War, horizontal heavy bombing, while ultimately useful, proved to not be nearly as fearsome or accurate as anticipated, and so on. Yes there were people who saw these things, but they had nothing to distinguish them from others who advocated the opposite policies. Adaptability and willingness to learn is often the most important factor in warfare. Almost nobody ever get to fight the war that they actually prepare for.

  28. Goober says:


    I’ve never figured out why historians always seem to almost lament previous isolationist phases of US history. They snootily describe them as short-sighted, selfish, provincial, and so forth.

    However, I couldn’t help but notice, even as a boy in grade school, that these isolationist times of US history also seemed to be the most prosperous times for people inside the US. And really, shouldn’t that be the goal?

    People act like the US was super selfish to want to avoid involvement in both World Wars, being dragged into both only after overt acts of aggression to us, directly, forced our hand.

    I wonder: what’s so wrong with that?

    I’d argue that an isolationist US would never have experienced 9/11, for instance. And if we had, our expedition to Afghanistan would have involved nothing more than going in, killing anyone that got in our way, searching every hidey-hole for Osama, and then telling whoever was left in charge to not give us reason to come back as we left. The whole thing would’ve taken 6 months, tops, and been far less destructive.

    We’ve expended trillions of dollars, gallons upon gallons of blood, and for what? So the entire world can shit on us?

    Screw that.

    That being said, I don’t think that having the force projection of carriers necessarily precludes an Isolationist stance, and I’d argue that having that force projection capability could actually serve to protect our isolationist stance, if used correctly.

    Essentially, “leave us alone, or we will bring the fight to your doorstep and you won’t like it”.

    As for what you said about nukes, in a world where the consequences of going nuclear are so severe, I’d say that no rational country would ever use them until all other hopes are lost, and the Reds are at the gates of Berlin. Up to that point, carriers are useful. The message should be clear: If you nuke a US Navy fleet, you’ll be reduced to glass in seconds.

  29. VXXC says:

    “Losing a super carrier would be roughly equivalent to losing 5 of those carriers.”

    Agree, and frankly for all their considerable utility and considerable protection…still.

    Note; we also have about 13 Wasp/America class “Amphibious assault ships” that are about the size of WW2 carriers and can carry up 10 20 VTOL aircraft, Harrier or F35 VTOL.

    Mix of weapons Goober et al: Agree.

    Gavin, et al: Agree on Splendid isolation for USA. Put troops on the border, well yes. This would have to happen after we have a government that doesn’t hate 60% of the population, which is the government we’ve got.

    We don’t need foreign wars, and soon enough I suspect we’ll have all the war we can handle and then some.

    These alliances have gone on too long and moved past dangerous. The love of foreign wars moved the Pentagon out of the President’s column into the permanent government/post Republic American Empire column. No wonder no one ever tried to pull us out of war since Eisenhower. DOD stood by while the Republic fell in January, the Hell with them.

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