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5 Ways China Could Sink a U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier

Aircraft Carrier
Image Credit: Creative Commons.

What if the United States lost an aircraft carrier to China in a critical naval battle?

This would be a shot heard around the world and instill panic in the White House, Pentagon, Congress, and the general public.

China has numerous ways it could take out a carrier: using carrier killing missiles, hypersonic missiles, conventional stand-off missiles from airplanes, or torpedoes and cruise missiles from submarines, including a new ship-launched “hybrid missile-torpedo.”

Below, let us explore some of these concepts which also serves as a defacto primer showing how lethal China’s military has become over the last several decades:

DF-21D and DF-26: Let’s Start with the Carrier Killer Ballistic Missiles

The DF-21D and the DF-26 carrier-killing missiles can hit a moving target from 1,000 to 2,500 miles away.

The DF-26 is a road-mobile solid-fueled intermediate-range ballistic missile.

It is dual-use with conventional and nuclear warheads that can weigh up to 4,000 pounds.

The DF-26 has a range of 2,500 miles which could help China with its anti-access area denial operations against U.S. carriers.

The DF-21D is a dedicated anti-ship missile. It is also solid-fueled and road-mobile. Its range is 1,335 miles. The DF-21D is 36 feet long, weighing 32,407 pounds with a payload of 1,322 pounds.

The Age of the Hypersonic Glide Vehicle Is Here

The DF-17 missile with its hypersonic glide vehicle could also destroy an aircraft carrier.

China showed this missile off in 2019. The missile can fly from MACH 5 to MACH 10. Its maximum range is over 1,500 miles. It also can carry a nuclear or conventional payload.

Its speed and maneuverability allow it to outfox enemy air defense systems. Military Today described its potency and survivability. “If its initial attack fails, it can even reengage the target. Alternatively, the glide vehicle can descend to a very low altitude just before reaching its target.”

Anti-ship Missile Launches form Bombers

The Xian H-6K bomber is formidable, and it can carry the YJ-12 anti-ship cruise missile. This missile flies at MACH 3 and can operate with in-air maneuvers.

It can carry nuclear or conventional payloads with a 1,100 pound warhead and multi-stage booster.

Its range after launching from the H-6 bomber is 248 miles.

H-6 Bomber

H-6 Bomber. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The YJ-12 is dangerous because this is outside the range of the American ballistic missile defenses for its ships – the Aegis Combat Systems and SM-2 surface-to-air missiles. The Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance says “protection against the YJ-12 is even more difficult due to its cork-screw-like turns which allow it to evade final defenses.”

Submarine Torpedoes and a New Hybrid Missile/ Torpedo Weapon

China’s Type0938 Shang II-class is arguably China’s best submarine. It can fire the YJ-82 anti-ship missile and the Yu-6 wire-guided torpedo.

The Yu-6 can be compared to the American Mk48, the most advanced torpedo in the navy’s arsenal. Electric torpedoes can also be carried.

Of more significant concern is that China has just tested a hybrid missile-torpedo weapon. This anti-ship weapon begins as a ship-launched ballistic missile that then changes into a torpedo on its terminal phase. The missile flies at MACH 2.5 at 32,000 feet. This phase lasts for 124 miles. Then it swoops down to skim the water before it changes into a torpedo.

Carrier Obsolete? 

These are indeed some scary ways a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier could be destroyed. All methods are potent. The American AEGIS Combat System is good, but it may not be good enough, especially if the YJ-12 is fired outside its range. That leaves the ships’ Phalanx close-in weapon system as the last ditch effort to destroy these incoming munitions.

Hypersonics are obviously a concern and much tougher to defend against. The DF-21D and DF-26 will keep flat-tops from operating where they want. The Americans will have to focus their anti-submarine efforts to ensure enemy subs do not close enough to fire anti-ship missiles or torpedoes.

Aircraft Carrier

(Jan. 25, 2020) The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) transits the Pacific Ocean Jan. 25, 2020. The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group is on a scheduled deployment to the Indo-Pacific. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Kaylianna Genier)

The new hybrid missile-torpedo is something that many in the U.S. Navy have probably never pondered and it will take a new effort of detection if it is ever deployed in numbers.

All in all, the Americans will be challenged and may have to stay out of range and depend on its fighters to take the fight to the Chinese before they can launch a strike. Naval intelligence will have its hands full tracking all of these weapons.

Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.



  1. Steven

    September 17, 2022 at 12:01 pm

    Energy weapons are coming my friend….

  2. GhostTomahawk

    September 17, 2022 at 12:01 pm

    Gotta see them first. At high speed no munitions are “manuverable”. A missile moving at Mach 5 is going to make huge sweeping turns to evade contact. Not worried about China. Beating them is a easy as turning off their shipping. They fully rely on the world to feed them. They know it and we know it. All this is posturing.

  3. xheavy

    September 17, 2022 at 1:08 pm

    If I wanted to sink a full up carrier battle group with four Ticonderoga VLS Cruisers, 6 Burke Ships and 4 to 6 frigates and Spruances (Do we still use these?) and all of the ships are networked together with about 700 missiles for air defense, a few hundred more for point defenses and traditional BARCAP based on the cold war doctrine etc backed by the Carrier Air Wing….

    I would have called upon about 1000 missiles deployed by the airforce. All of them will go straight towards the carrier group and try to get close enough to launch into a area of water where the Carrier is roughly. The missiles could be anything, provided they have the range to reach that far out and be a valid threat. But these are no the true intent to kill. Its designed to absorb most if not all of the Carrier Groups Missiles in its own defense.

    The second wave will consist of 1000 missiles. These will be targeted from whatever platforms that can fire them. Intent is the Carrier Kill. The Group will have no choice but to follow through. This is the second half hour period. That means the air wing will be in the process of refueling, reorganizing or launching replacement aircraft etc. Basically full of things to do and everything needing done now.

    20 minutes after that the actual kill shots will be launched before the Carrier group gets out of range. The platforms used will depend on the range and so on as it develops. Everything will be committed to the group.

    Which should by now have no air defense to speak of. By the end of the second hour the surviving American Warships will need reloading and repairs along with medical and so on across the board in the worst way, essentially Hors De Combat. Subject to various Chinese Military Units to try and pick them off on their escape.

    Saturation is my strategy as China. The Carrier Group having survived one round that emptied their air defense will not survive another or third rounds carefully spaced over two hours. Even if they did they will need to rearm in the urgent situation and cannot do so.

    Years ago, the USA had a oppertunity to consider building what was called Arsenal Ships, they go with the Carrier Battle Group or Marine Amphibious Groups and carry thousands of missiles able to be networked as far down as individual fire support assets or people with the right ability to network with such a ship. With the thousands of missiles on hand and a variety of then stealth construction with a Battle Group at sea it will be quite difficult to kill a carrier group who will have the time they need to degrade and defang any enemy in range up to 1000 miles radius to keep the Carrier or group safe.

    Sadly the Arsenal Ship concept was laughed off as too expensive. In a future war with China we will find that two hours attack by three thousand inbound chinese missiles will kill the entire battle group.

    Tears at that point and probably a nuclear strike that turns China into a parking lot. And there lies the problem.

    China has been building 200 Silo Blocks. All of them individually two miles apart. They have at least a thousand built already with 4000 more planned. And the room to do it in a couple of years or less. Once these things are finished many will be full of nuclear missiles.

    The problem for anyone is to play a game of go fish. Which silos have missiles. Do you want to bet the future existance of your people on a correct choice of silos to target? No one has 5000 nuclear warheads to take them all out. But when left alone, China will have 5000 to 10000 missiles ready to go in either Conventional in VLS Packs and in Ballistic nuclear form to ensure the World kowtows to them in 100 years.

    Fortunately Chinese is a People by the billion. All of which need food and energy. To fight them is to interdict and deny them all of this food. Then wait a while. We can sell them more after they capitulate.

  4. xheavy

    September 17, 2022 at 3:42 pm

    Obviously the 1945 People are careful what they moderate.

    If China wants to remove Carriers from the seas around their Nation, it can be done in a couple of hours by Saturation of Missiles numbering much more than the availible US Defensive Missiles and systems.

    Asian Nations do not value life individually as we do in the West. Their Doctrine in Infantry, Naval or Air war is to impose a cost by numbers way in excess of available ammunition to US Defending forces whatever they may be. Once USA is out of ammo, the real attacks come in carefully targeted to eliminate the problem.

    USA will not be able to regenerate the lost forces in due time enough to prevail in a long conflict. They will have to learn to kill Chinese systems indirectly by way of food and materials that China needs to maintain a war.

    On Land, China can put 1 million boots on the ground and into the field in less than one day’s callup and orders. We dont have a million of anyone in our entire World. It will take 6 months to train draftees to basic. Thats how China wins if we are foolish enough to invade. (Which we wont.)

  5. xheavy

    September 17, 2022 at 5:41 pm

    Another reason to consider the Chinese vs US Carriers…

    Some time ago there was a US Navy Exercise off the West Coast. Involving one of our Carriers specifically.

    A Chinese Submarine surfaced a couple of miles away INSIDE the Group’s anti Sub screen and aircraft looking for subs that were playing enemy.

    The Chinese Sub Captain indicated the carrier was “Sunk” some time ago as part of a Chinese Exercise to sink Carriers at sea in near real world exercise as possible. So the Chinese Sub was able to evade the Group’s layers of defenses and get to the Carrier itself and sink it. outright on paper.

    There was quite a noise when that emerged in the media back then. But eventually overlooked and forgotten. Those of us who carry a interest in the subject generally do not forget.

    There is a arcade game called World of Warships which sink carriers routinely online. Its not difficult for a sub to get to the enemy Carrier or Carriers Plural and sink the lot inspite of human enemies interested in defending same. Its a simple game. With none of the mechanics of a simulation so it really does not apply with the exception of the Human behavior when focused on the goal of eliminating a Carrier.

  6. Jack

    September 17, 2022 at 6:34 pm

    Just put out a notice that anyone that sinks one of our carriers gets 20 Nukes 60 minutes later..

  7. Karl R. Maier

    September 17, 2022 at 6:55 pm

    Surface warships are obsolete. At some point spending more on defending carriers (3-4 Aegis warships, Attack sub, defending combat aircraft, CIWS) becomes a waste. A carrier’s offensive combat power can now be cheaply replaced with long range attritable UCAVs, which require no wasteful defenses.

    For the price of an Aircraft Carrier Battle Group ($50 billion) 10,000 UCAVs could be fielded, compared to the carrier’s meager 60-90 short range (600 mile combat range) fighters. This would be a 100+ fold improvement in Combat Power, while removing 6+ thousand sailors from risk.

    The fact is putting all your eggs in one basket is a Strategic mistake. In the age of smart weapons Dispersion/Stealth is a Strategic necessity, which Surface Warships violate.

    Combat Power rule of thumb: 1 smart weapon = 500 dumb weapons

  8. Rich

    September 18, 2022 at 11:41 am

    Measures lead to countermeasures. Such has been the nature of warfare since the beginning of organized force. Thus the evolution of warfare has bread countless methods of destruction always to be countered and leapfrogged by the next counter advancement. It will always be thus. The current state of missile and hypersonic technology has temporarily put conventional naval forces at risk. The advancement of energy/laser weapons will overcome this disadvantage in short order. The efficacy of directed energy weapons depends only on two things: targeting and joules/cm on that target. Assuming both of these challenges are mastered, which they inevitably will be, extremely short pulses of accurately directed energy can destroy scores of targets within seconds. Measure/Countermeasure.

  9. Daniel shaver

    September 18, 2022 at 1:27 pm

    Very hard to sink any modern air craft carrier, disable it yes.
    Once disabled if it were not for it’s defensive and offensive and support fleet capabilities. Enemy Aircraft could eventually sink it.

  10. cobo

    September 18, 2022 at 2:57 pm

    Thank you xheavy and the commenters above. What concerns me is the concern trolling in the very nature of the article at hand.

    “What if the United States lost an aircraft carrier to China in a critical naval battle?
    This would be a shot heard around the world and instill panic in the White House, Pentagon, Congress, and the general public.”

    The US better be prepared to lose more than one carrier group in a real war. And if the entire US leadership is expected to be in panic, then they all need to be replaced, and the sooner the better…

  11. Scott P Graves

    September 18, 2022 at 2:58 pm

    The question is how much do these carrier killers cost in terms of resources and labor. China is reaching a point where they won’t have the workers to gather resources, process those resources into the technology and man the facilities to keep these missiles at the ready all while maintaining a force that can take advantage of having sunk a carrier.

  12. Nsalba

    September 18, 2022 at 7:29 pm

    It’s ostrich like GhostTomahawak that has allowed China to leapfrog over the US in all manners of weaponry.

  13. David Coe

    September 20, 2022 at 11:03 pm

    The comment towards the end of the writer’s opinion is wrong. If they can fly 1000 to 2500 miles then we can’t fly interception missions because the carrier aircraft don’t fly that far. Also the missile that hits the ship doesn’t even have to explode the kinetic energy of a missile traveling at 26 Mach will destroy any catapults.

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