The US Defense Department made a controversial decision in its latest budget, retiring one of its 11 aircraft carriers decades earlier than scheduled. The surprise move raised a series of questions, but a report this week sheds new light on the motivations.

When the decision to end the USS Harry S Truman’s career was first reported late last month, The Washington Post characterized it as a compromise to pave the way for the purchase of two new carriers. Such a defense of the plan might help console a Congress that has enshrined in law the maintenance of at least 11 flattops. Lawmakers want even more, despite the fact that no other country has more than two.

But one Defense Department official said, according to a report on Tuesday, that the decision was made not in preparation for adding new carriers, but rather to fund the development of new weapons that could better face Chinese military advancements.

Because of the potential vulnerability of massive aircraft carriers to China’s precision-guided missiles, the official told Breaking Defense, the US Navy needed to invest in new options.

Those options include larger numbers of smaller unmanned surface and submersible vessels that might be better able to engage Chinese land-based missile assets. The ships would not only be harder for China to target but would be less costly if lost.

This change in strategy reflects some degree of acknowledgment that one vocal Chinese academic’s analysis of US vulnerabilities has merit.

Hawkish Chinese military commentator Rear Admiral Luo Yuan made headlines, and drew ridicule, when he suggested last December that China could vanquish the US simply by sinking two carriers, a blow that could theoretically kill as many as 10,000 crew members.

“What the United States fears the most is taking casualties,” Luo said in a public address. “We’ll see how frightened America is.”

There is clearly no consensus that Luo’s scenario accounts for the full complexity of what would transpire should the US and China find themselves in the midst of a full-blown armed conflict.

Nonetheless, in the event that does happen, large fleets of US drone ships may in the future be poised to replace giant supercarriers.