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Face It, The Mighty U.S. Aircraft Carrier is Finished

The U.S. Navy (and to be frank, the whole U.S. military) is living in a state of total denial. In the next great powers war, or perhaps even in a conflict with a mid-tier power like Iran, at least one of our aircraft carriers will sink to the bottom of the sea. That means thousands of lives could be lost—and there would be very little we could do to stop it.

We need to get used to a very simple reality: the decades-old age of the aircraft carrier, that great symbol of U.S. power projection, has now passed. We can deny the evidence that is right before our eyes, but innovations in anti-ship missiles over many decades—combined with advanced but short-range carrier-based U.S. fighter aircraft and missile defenses that can be easily defeated—have conspired to doom one of the most powerful weapons ever devised.

[1]If the aircraft carrier is a symbol, an expression of U.S. military dominance stretching from World War II to today, then there’s another symbol that perfectly encapsulates its demise: China’s DF-21D, what many experts describe as a “carrier-killer” ballistic missile.

How the missile works is key to understanding what modern-day U.S. aircraft carriers face. The missile is mobile and can travel anywhere via a truck, making its detection difficult. When launched, the weapon is guided using over-the-horizon radars, new satellite networks, and possibly even drones or commercial vessels being used as scouts. The system also has a maneuverable warhead to help defeat missile-defense systems. When it does find its target, it can descend from the sky and strike at speeds approaching Mach 12. Worst of all, the missile has a range of 1,000 miles. A Pentagon source tells me that Beijing has already deployed “many of them—perhaps in the hundreds,” and is “fully operational and ready for action.”

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With one report [2] claiming China could build 1,227 DF-21Ds for every carrier the U.S. military sends to sea, Beijing and other nations will have ample budgetary room to challenge our mighty carriers for decades to come.

Now, to be fair, many nations already have various types of missile platforms that could attack carriers and do damage—even send them to the bottom of the sea. The solution seems obvious: Why not park your carriers out of range and attack from afar?

Great idea—except we can’t. Right now, if we tried to strike targets in, say, China or Russia, we would be unable to do it safely because, thanks to our short-range aircraft, we would have to be parked right in range of those countries’ own powerful missile batteries.

Despite all their amazing capabilities, the latest generation of attack planes onboard U.S. aircraft carriers, the F/A-18 and soon-to-be F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, are not long-range strike aircraft, as they’re only able to fly 500 and 550 nautical miles respectively. In a stand-off with a nation like China, this would put our most expensive weapon of war—and, more importantly, thousands of sailors, airmen, and marines—in harm’s way. Since American aircraft carriers sail in large groupings of ships, there exists the possibility of multiple U.S. naval vessels meeting fiery deaths, as they would have to travel close to the shores of other nations that have similar weapons.

Those who continue to defend the aircraft carrier have an obvious solution: missile defenses can stop any incoming attacks and keep the carrier relevant for decades. That seems like a reasonable argument, except for one very basic problem: first-grade math tells us it’s flat-out wrong. As I have said on several occasions, U.S. naval planners in the future will face large missile forces aimed at their ships that could very well overwhelm their missile defense platforms. A great example comes from a 2011 report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis [3], which shows it wouldn’t take much strategic sophistication to beat U.S. missile defenses—just some basic math:

Iran could deploy its land-based ASCMs (anti-ship cruise missiles) from camouflaged and hardened sites to firing positions along its coastline and on Iranian-occupied islands in the Strait of Hormuz while placing decoys at false firing positions to complicate U.S. counterstrikes. Hundreds of ASCMs may cover the Strait, awaiting target cueing data from coastal radars, UAVs, surface vessels, and submarines. Salvo and multiple axis attacks could enable these ASCMs to saturate U.S. defenses…salvos of less capable ASCMs might be used to exhaust U.S. defenses, paving the way for attacks by more advanced missiles.

Taking the above example to its logical extreme, could China, Russia, Iran, or even one day North Korea simply build enough missiles on the cheap and launch them close enough to exhaust the defenses of a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group? Considering that we are currently unable to reload such defenses with ease at sea, our forces would face an unpleasant choice if their missile interceptors were exhausted: withdraw or face down enemy missiles with no defenses.

This is a problem that will only get worse with time. And considering China is already in the process of developing an even longer-range anti-ship weapon—the DF-26 [4], with a range that could attack our carriers as far out as Guam—simple logic suggests the problem will only get worse.

The best way to begin solving a problem is to admit that you have one. And let there be no doubt that if steps are not taken to redefine what an aircraft carrier does—essentially take bombs and attack enemies at long ranges—then the next war America fights against a formidable foe will truly be historic, and for all of the wrong reasons.

Harry J. Kazianis is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest and executive editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. Previously, he served as editor of The Diplomat, a fellow at CSIS, and on the 2016 Ted Cruz foreign policy team.

104 Comments (Open | Close)

104 Comments To "Face It, The Mighty U.S. Aircraft Carrier is Finished"

#1 Comment By Scott Free On December 5, 2017 @ 8:17 pm

Nations that want to be naval powers see the carrier as a prestige object. Carriers are big, expensive targets. China can overwhelm a carrier battlegroup with hundreds of cruise missiles that would force a carrier’s escorting cruisers and destroyers to exhaust all their weaponry in knocking those missiles out. Simple mathematics.

Submarines are the queen of the seas now.

#2 Comment By Robert Nelson On December 9, 2017 @ 10:28 am

Missiles, not manned aircraft, are now the weapon of choice, almost everywhere. Missile-launching submarines will probably be the way to go for some years into the future.
An even bigger practical problem is the military bureaucracy – all those people that hate change because it might affect their positions, salaries and retirement plans.

#3 Comment By Robert Harbord-Hamond On March 12, 2018 @ 11:03 am

The biggest threat to aircraft carrier defense systems in addition to the subjects raised here is swarm drones to over whelm. In theory they can be knocked out by some form of EMP or blinded by laser, but there are many difference guidance systems as used by the cruise missiles, that can mitigate defense systems.

#4 Comment By Tostik On June 1, 2018 @ 11:52 pm

Simply finding an aircraft carrier at a particular moment in time won’t satisfy an attacker’s targeting requirements. Once the
carrier is spotted, the attacker must make a series of command decisions leading to the launch of weapons, and then the weapons must
transit the space between their point of origin and the carrier. While all this is occurring, the carrier is moving. During a 30-minute
period, it may have maneuvered anywhere within a circle measuring 700 square miles. Over 90 minutes, the area grows to 6000 square miles. In a day if it is cruising in a straight line at high speed it can move over 700 nm from where it was first sighted.

A targeting system on a reentry vehicle would not be able to acquire a moving target at that range on its own without information from an external source. The target ship could travel several miles in any direction between the time of launch to impact so there would be a very large area to search. The time period from when the RV enters the atmosphere until it reaches the surface is likely less than 10 seconds. Most of the time period would be much too high in the atmosphere to track targets on the surface with a small on-board radar. There would only be a couple of seconds of time to acquire the target and maneuver to line up with it which would be impossible. It would also need to classify the target and be sure it was hitting the right ship. Obviously, this would be impossible for a small radar on board an RV to do all this and then maneuver to hit a target in a couple of seconds. Some sort of on-board sensor might be useful for terminal guidance just before impact but an external source would have to track the target and use a datalink to the RV to guide it until it was very close to the target. Like I’ve said before, this whole process is much too complicated, unwieldy, vulnerable and expensive. A few dozen cruise missiles would be much cheaper and much more reliable.

In order to keep up with the carrier’s movements, an attacker must establish a continuous track of the vessel using some combination of land-based, sea-based, space-based and airborne sensors. Moreover, the track must be sufficiently precise so that it can provide targeting coordinates to weapons when they arrive in the carrier’s vicinity. As of today, even the United States has difficulty accomplishing such a feat, and no other nation is close to having the requisite capabilities.