On May 31, 2017, the U.S. Navy accepted into service USS Gerald Ford, the first of up to four new fleet carriers. The massive 1,100-foot-long vessel will eventually embark around sixty aircraft, including twenty-four F-35 Lightning stealth fighters and another twenty to twenty-four FA-18 Super Hornets. It features a faster elevator for loading munitions, and new electromagnetic launch catapults (EMALS) and arresting hooks to increase the tempo of flight operations while reducing maintenance costs. All of these new perks come at roughly a $13 billion price tag—more than twice the cost of the preceding USS George H. W. Bush.
The United States’ nuclear-powered fleet carriers are currently without rival in the world, and their onboard Carrier Air Wings can unleash tremendous sustained firepower. They serve as potent symbols of American military power, and floating air bases for campaigns in Libya, Iraq and the Balkans.
But how would the supercarriers fare when taking on something tougher than a third-world despot? Advances in missile and submarine technology put in question whether such large and expensive ships are survivable when operating within striking distance of an enemy coastline.
That striking distance is dictated by the roughly seven-hundred-mile combat radius of the carrier’s F-35C stealth fighters, with a shorter range for the Super Hornets. Inflight refueling may extend that distance a bit, though one should bear in mind that a carrier air wing has only a modest ability to refuel itself with its Super Hornet tankers without resorting to larger land-based tanker support. However, sailing a carrier strike group close enough for its fighters to attack coastal targets also places the carrier well within harm’s way of a variety of nasty new weapons.
Long Littoral Reach
One of the newer threats comes from ground-based ballistic missiles—normally a weapon we think of as exclusively used for striking land targets. However, the new Chinese DF-21D Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM) possess a high degree of accuracy and the capability to adjust course midflight. Both traits enable the rocket to hit a moving target like an aircraft carrier.
The DF-21D “East Wind” IRBM has a range of nine hundred miles, and can adjust its flight path using targeting data fed to it by other platforms, including a series of Yaogan satellites put into space over the last several years. The U.S. Naval Institute claimed the massive kinetic energy of a descending DF-21D, combined with the explosive payload, could potentially destroy a carrier in one hit.
It’s important to note that the East Wind is a mobile weapons system, and could thus prove difficult to preemptively strike.
Until recently IRBMs were nearly impossible to shoot down. Today, U.S. cruisers and destroyers carry SM-3 air-defense missiles, which supposedly might be able to swat down an incoming IRBM—although it’s not expected to be easy. There also a number of potential methods for messing up an IRBM’s guidance systems.
Stealthy Submarines—or Subs with Big Missiles
Torpedo-launching submarines sank several aircraft carriers during World War II—though both land- and carrier-based aircraft played a major role in countering the submarine threat. At the time, submarines were especially vulnerable to patrol planes because they had to surface a couple of times a day to keep their batteries charged. Even when lurking underwater, they relied on noisy air-breathing diesel engines that made them easier to pick up on sonar.
During the 1950s and ’60s, new nuclear-powered submarines increased the underwater endurance of subs from hours or a few days at best to months at a time. Nuclear propulsion also enabled them to become far faster and quieter than diesel submarines. Other innovations, such as anechoic tiles and teardrop-shaped hulls reinforced the sonar stealth trend. The quieting technology had reached such a peak by the end of the Cold War that nuclear submarines obliviously collided with each other in 1992, 1993 and as recently as 2009, due to their inability to detect each other.
Of course, carriers are always escorted by destroyers or frigates specialized in antisubmarine warfare. Furthermore, long-distance maritime patrol planes and shipboard helicopters also assist in sweeping the seas for enemy subs. However, while Russian submarines were initially much noisier than their Western counterparts during most of that period, later Cold War designs, such as the nuclear-powered Akula class, were nearly peers to their Western counterparts in quietness.
Nuclear submarines, however, cost well over $2 billion apiece in modern times, so noisier diesel submarines remain more common across the world. However, in the 1990s Sweden deployed the first submarine to use Air Independent Propulsion (AIP), the Gotland. A variety of AIP technologies allow for a new generation of very quiet and very cheap ship-hunting submarines that cost as little as roughly one-sixth the price of a nuclear submarine, and can operate up to two to four weeks underwater, albeit at fairly slow speeds.
China now possesses fifteen Type 41 submarines, employing the same Stirling AIP system as the Gotland, with another fifteen planned, while dozens of German-made Type 212, 214 and 218 AIP submarines are entering service across Europe and Asia. In fact, the Pacific in particular has become the site of a veritable submarine arms race.
Both nuclear and AIP submarines, including the Gotland, have repeatedly succeeded in sinking aircraft carriers during NATO naval exercises. This is even more alarming considering how cheap the latter type of submarines are to build. In addition to being quiet, AIP submarines possess the range and endurance to hunt for carriers across regional waters, even if most aren’t suitable for deep-ocean operations. Another limitation is that they are significantly slower than the carriers they are hunting, especially while attempting to maximize battery life, forcing them to rely more on ambush tactics.
Still, creeping up to within torpedo range of a carrier strike group is a risky business. Some submarines are designed to hunt their targets from afar. The Russian Oscar-class cruise missile submarine, for example, is not especially stealthy, but it does not have to get close to a carrier group’s surface escorts, thanks to the four-hundred-mile range of its P-700 Granit missiles, which it can launch while underwater. The ten-meter-long missiles travel at supersonic speeds, and are designed to network together to overwhelm defensive countermeasures.
Cruise Missile Defense
This brings us into the realm of missile defense, a long-established threat that carrier strike groups have evolved to counter. While carriers carry short-range antiaircraft missiles and Phalanx CIWS guns for self-defense, their escorting Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke–class destroyers are armed with a diverse array of medium- and long-range air antiaircraft missiles, designed to thin out incoming missile barrages from hundreds of miles away. These defenses are backed up by networked radars and coordinated by the sophisticated Aegis defense system.
The challenge facing carrier strike groups today is that new antiship missiles are becoming faster, longer-range and more widespread, and can be deployed from platforms including long-distance patrol planes and bombers, small and stealthy fast-attack boats, and even shipping containers concealed in a harbor.
The greater range means new missiles can be more safely lobbed at the carrier without necessarily entering within range for easy retaliation. The greater speed means they are harder to shoot down. And the ability to deploy them from a variety of platforms means the missile-launching units might prove difficult to detect and comprehensively eradicate preemptively.
Take, for example, the Russian Kalibr cruise missile, the “Sizzler” antiship variant of which can strike naval targets up to four hundred miles away. The missile skims just above the sea, making it difficult to detect at a distance, before leaping up to three times the speed of sound on the terminal approach—offering a challenging target for missile-defense systems. The Kalibr can be fired not only from underwater by submarines, but also by relatively small and cheap corvettes.
The heavier but shorter-range BrahMos missile entering use on sea, land and air platforms in the Indian military approaches the target at Mach 2.8, and is designed to perform an L-shaped evasive maneuver to fool a ship’s missile defenses. And China, needless to say, has developed its own range of similar antiship missiles, including both clones of Russian weapons as well as truly indigenous designs.
Even more troubling for a carrier’s air defenses are a new generation of hypersonic missiles—weapons exceeding five times the speed of sound. On June 3, Russia claimed to have successfully tested the hypersonic Zircon missile, with a reported speed of 4,600 miles per hour.
If a carrier tasks forces defense’s function properly—not something to take for granted when both the attacking and defensive systems have scant operational records—then they should be able to handle a few incoming missiles. However, an attacker would seek to “saturate” the defender’s defenses by launching large volleys of the missiles all at once, and it may only take a few getting through to wreak considerable havoc.
This, however, brings us to the major critique common to all these carrier-killing tactics: they often require a high degree of coordination, operational planning and networking.
Breaking the Kill Chain
Set aside the air-defense missiles for a moment—a carrier’s first defense is that its thousand-foot-long flight deck is still nothing more than a tiny pinprick measured against the millions of square miles that make up the ocean. A tiny moving pinprick. Not just locating but also tracking a carrier across all that space relies on having a maritime observation apparatus coordinating long-distance patrol planes, submarines, over-the-horizon radars and satellites—many of which are vulnerable in turn to a carrier strike group’s aircraft and missiles.
Once that apparatus identifies a carrier’s position, the targeting data needs to make it back in a timely fashion to air, land or naval units to put them in position for an attack. This sort of “cueing” is also very important in submarine operations. In many cases, a separate platform will have to network targeting data on the carrier, as the launch platforms may be too far away to acquire them on their own radars. Of course, that targeting data may also be disrupted by electronic warfare and defensive countermeasures. Just as likely, the observers may lose track of the carrier task force’s position before elements can get into place to make the strike.
These considerations lead National Interest contributor Rob Farley to argue that China and Russia lack adequate the maritime intelligence assets and operational experience to mount a well-coordinated maritime search-and-destroy campaign against a carrier task force, even if they possess armaments that could theoretically prove effective against one.
The Operational Track Record—Such As It Is
It’s important to stress that nobody really knows how effective both the offensive and defensive naval technologies will prove against each other, as there have fortunately been no large-scale naval wars since World War II.
However, the smaller-scale naval conflicts that have occurred in the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea and the South Atlantic all suggest long-range antiship missiles pose a substantial threat.
Consider the two British ships sunk by air-launched Exocet missiles in the Falkland War, with a third damaged by a ground-launched weapon. The first attack was not detected until seconds before the moment of impact. Argentina’s possession of just a few of the missiles nearly led London to dispatch a suicidal commando raid on Argentine soil to negate the threat.
During the same conflict, an Argentine diesel-electric submarine twice managed to launch torpedo attacks on British vessels without being detected—though, fortunately for the Royal Navy, the torpedoes all malfunctioned! Meanwhile, Argentina’s own carrier did not participate in the conflict due to the threat posed by British submarines, one of which had sunk cruiser General Belgrano.
On the other hand, antiship missiles liberally employed during the Iran-Iraq War generally failed to sink large tanker vessels—which may imply that supercarriers will also prove similarly resilient.
Obviously, these decades-old incidents should not be over-extrapolated into applying to current technology—but their lessons shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
One should also recall how many navies continued to invest in battleships in between the world wars, skeptical that then-new aircraft carriers could seriously challenge them. Surely, early carrier-based aircraft must not have seemed nearly as dependable as the sixteen-inch guns on a battleship turret. But those primitive warplanes and the operational doctrine for their use matured to the point where their ability to search for and destroy targets across hundreds of miles rendered the battleship obsolete.
Actual combat in World War II proved revelatory. In the December 7 raid on Pearl Harbor, Japanese warplanes sank three U.S. battleships and severely damaged several more. Shortly afterward, land-based bombers sank the British battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse in a few of frenetic hours of action. To cap it off, the subsequent decisive naval battles of the Coral Sea and Midway were fought entirely by carrier air strikes and submarine attacks. It took these brutal encounters with reality to finally sweep away many navies’ long-held devotion to a weapon system that no longer provided results commensurate with the expense of building them.
Today’s supercarriers will likely serve on for decades. However, the new threats arrayed against them, combined with the limited range of the current generation of carrier-based aircraft, suggest they may prove too vulnerable to operate within striking distance of near-peer opponents.
It would make sense to plan future naval strategy around these new adversary capabilities, rather than simply doubling down on the supercarrier model because it has worked so far in permissive environments. Solutions that have been suggested to meet the new challenges posed by operating in littoral waters include using long-range carrier-based drones that will allow carriers to operate further afield from dangerous coastlines, relying on stealthy submarines to deliver cruise-missile attacks and distributing firepower across a larger fleet of individually less expensive ships. Above all, planners should seriously consider whether supercarriers loaded with relatively short-range warplanes remain a survivable and cost-efficient linchpin of U.S. naval strategy.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China.