The question as to whether long-range precision Chinese and Iranian anti-ship missiles make aircraft carriers obsolete and simply too vulnerable to operate is cited so often that it has almost become somewhat of a cliche.
However, the claim is as commonly mentioned as it is inaccurate.
The suggestion that carriers are too vulnerable to operate in that kind of threat environment lacks critical context and arguably ignores impactful variables.
Anti-Ship Missile Threat
Yes, the existence of anti-access/area-denial weapons with range and precision sufficient to threaten carriers 1,000 or 2,000 miles offshore presents a dilemma the Pentagon has likely been taking quite seriously. Upon initial examination, it might appear that such threats would potentially force carriers to operate beyond the ranges from which the vessel’s aircraft can project power and attack land targets, yet there are other essential elements to this equation.
There are several lesser or underrecognized elements of aircraft carrier survivability, which have been evolving quickly with US Navy weapons developers, scientists, and innovators, such as new “layered” carrier defenses and the emergence of the unmanned MQ-25 Stingray carrier-launched refueler drone. The carrier-launched Stingray drone can enable deck-launched aircraft to essentially double their combat radius and be refueled in flight to extend air attack ranges.
Without having to risk a large, non-stealthy manned tanker aircraft, jets can be refueled in flight such that they can have much longer dwell time over targets or are simply able to reach targets from much greater distances. In a tactical sense, what this means is carriers can operate and still project power from safer standoff ranges beyond where Chinese and Iranian missiles can reach.
The existence of the MQ-25 Stingray offers a way that the U.S. Navy can respond to and potentially overcome China or Iran’s often-discussed anti-access/area-denial strategy.
The other reason for continued carrier relevance relates to the fact that, beneath the clamor of discussion about China’s anti-ship “carrier killer” missiles, the US Navy has – if somewhat quietly – been breaking through with advanced carrier and ship defenses.
Much of the details of this are likely not available for security reasons, yet senior service leaders regularly talk about the fast-growing advantages of ship-integrated EW, laser weapons and enhanced radar detection systems.
Ships in a Carrier Strike Group, such as destroyers and cruisers, now offer new dimensions of protection to carriers through technologies such as the Aegis 10 Combat System which combines ballistic and cruise missile radar into a single system able to cue fire control and launch defensive interceptors. An SM-6 can, now due to software upgrades, track and destroy moving targets by adjusting course in flight.
US Navy destroyers are increasingly being armed with scalable lasers able to operate as both optical sensors and weapons to incinerate or simply disable an enemy aircraft, drone, or incoming missile. There have also been breakthroughs with electronic warfare weapons able to find and “jam” or disable enemy communications or weapons guidance systems. Early warning (EW) technologies are increasingly capable of deconflicting a cluttered spectrum to “frequency hop” to counter enemy “jamming,” identify hostile versus friendly electronic signals or launch a series of difficult-to-detect narrow “pencil beam” kind of electronic beams to disable or jam an enemy system.
There are also upgraded close-in ship defenses increasingly able to track and intercept threats much more quickly, often using AI-enabled advanced algorithms to identify and destroy threats at exponentially greater speeds.
All of this is made possible by breakthrough levels of multi-domain networking wherein surface ships connect with aircraft, drones, satellites, and aerial gateway platforms to identify and relay threat information from unprecedented distances beyond the horizon.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.