The argument that Chinese “carrier-killer” anti-ship missiles make U.S. Navy aircraft carriers obsolete is so familiar it is almost cliche, given some of the often less recognized context or collection of variables that contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the overall threat equation.
China’s DF-26, an anti-ship missile tested and “demonstrated” by the People’s Liberation Army reportedly able to travel 2,000 miles to destroy carriers, does present a credible threat to be taken seriously.
Yet much of the hype seems to leave out certain critical comments made by senior U.S. Navy leaders and various adaptations the modern Navy has made to respond to or “counter” China’s often-discussed A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) strategy.
Ship Defenses, Electronic Warfare (EW) & Aegis
What might this mean? In the face of China’s “carrier-killer” anti-ship missile threat, the U.S. Navy continues a firm resolve to sustain the operational effectiveness of its Carrier Air Wings and Carrier Strike Groups.
Why? There are many relevant elements of layered ship defenses, of which details are likely not available for security reasons, yet senior Navy leaders, innovators, and weapons developers have been very clear about a wide range of enhancements to carrier security.
Generally speaking, many of these details fall within the realm of electronic warfare technologies able to find and locate a “line-of-bearing” or signature of an approaching enemy ballistic, air, and cruise missiles and “jam” or “disable” the RF signal or guidance system.
Many Navy surface ships, likely including carriers, are being armed with laser weapons able to both perform optical functions and incinerate or intercept incoming threats at the speed of light.
Naturally, a carrier is regularly protected or flanked by destroyers and cruisers armed with Aegis Combat Systems for missile defense as well as Vertical Launch Systems to fire fast-paced interceptors at incoming enemy weapons such as the SM-6, SM-3, or SM-2.
Carrier strike groups also operate with upgraded deck-fired interceptor missiles such as the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile Block II, which can operate with a sea-skimming mode to destroy an incoming cruise missile flying parallel to the surface.
Perhaps the rapid arrival of hundreds of Medium and Low-Earth Orbit satellites forming a “mesh” surveillance network can identify mobile launchers for the carrier-killer missiles and cue weapons able to destroy them at or during launch. There are simply far too many variables of great relevance to maritime ship defenses to instantly assume that carriers are obsolete or simply “cannot” operate in high-threat areas.
Aircraft Carriers and Multi-Domain Networking
Multi-domain networking and unmanned systems are also fundamental to carrier defense, as they can operate as both a surface and aerial “node” within a larger meshed system to identify approaching threats early, often from beyond the radar horizon of surface ships. Drones, and even some manned aircraft such as an F-35 or Hawkeye, can relay threat data to ship-based fire control to launch interceptors.
Armed drones and fighter jets might even be able to fire interceptor weapons and incoming Chinese missiles themselves. Sensor range, weapons range, and secure multi-domain networking are consistently changing the paradigm when it comes to ship defenses, a reality that at least raises questions about the true extent of the threat posed by China’s “carrier killers.”
While the Chinese newspapers have often cited various tests and demonstrations of their carrier-killer missiles, there are likely many unanswered questions.
These would include unknowns such as just how precise is the targeting and guidance systems on these missiles.
Are they networked to the point where they can track and hit moving targets? Do they operate with electronic countermeasures such as frequency hopping which can overcome “jamming” attempts?
Putting all of these unknowns aside, there is yet another compelling reason why even less defended carriers might succeed in projecting power from the sea in this kind of high-threat environment. The answer is the MQ-25 Stingray, a first-of-its-kind carrier-launched drone refueler that can, in effect, double the combat radius of carrier-launched aircraft.
An F-35C or F/A-18 Super Hornet, for instance, may have a combat radius of several hundred miles. A large manned tanker might be too vulnerable to operate even a few hundred miles from an enemy coast, but an unmanned MQ-25 drone, by contrast, can refuel the jets without risk, essentially “doubling” the ranges at which they can project power and attack.
This means carriers could hold enemy territories under threat while being twice as far away and therefore less vulnerable to shore-launched anti-ship missiles such as China’s carrier killers.
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.