The Buzz

All the Ways America Would Try to Sink China's Aircraft Carriers in a War

How the navy deploys new weaponry as it enters service is nearly as important as fielding the weapons themselves. Under a concept dubbed “distributed lethality,” naval officialdom wants to disperse firepower throughout the fleet while retaining the capacity to concentrate firepower on target. What that means in practical terms is arming more ships with antiship missiles, supplemented by gee-whiz technologies like electromagnetic railguns and shipboard lasers should they fulfill their promise.

The U.S. Navy, then, will deploy no single carrier-killer weapon. It will deploy many. Coupled with submarine warfare and naval aviation, newfangled surface-warfare implements will stand the U.S. Navy in good stead for blue-water engagements by 2020. Trouble is, an open-ocean engagement is the least likely scenario pitting America’s against China’s navy. What would they fight over in, say, the central Pacific? And what would prompt the PLA Navy to venture beyond range of shore fire support—surrendering its difference-maker in sea combat?

Ah, yes, the “carrier-killer.” China is forever touting the array of guided missiles its weaponeers have devised to pummel U.S. Navy nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (CVNs). Most prominent among them are its DF-21D and DF-26 antiship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), which the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has made a mainstay of China’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) defenses.

Beijing has made believers of important audiences, including the scribes who toil away at the Pentagon producing estimates of Chinese martial might. Indeed, the most recent annual report on Chinese military power states matter-of-factly that the PLA can now use DF-21Ds to “attack ships, including aircraft carriers,” more than nine hundred statute miles from China’s shorelines.

Scary. But the U.S. Navy has carrier-killers of its own. Or, more accurately, it has shipkillers of its own: what can disable or sink a flattop can make short work of lesser warships. And antiship weaponry is multiplying in numbers, range, and lethality as the navy reawakens from its post-Cold War holiday from history. Whose carrier-killer trumps whose will hinge in large part on where a sea fight takes place.

That carrier-killer imagery resonates with Western audiences comes as little surprise. It implies that Chinese rocketeers can send the pride of the U.S. Navy to the bottom from a distance, and sink U.S. efforts to succor Asian allies in the process. Worse, it implies that PLA commanders could pull off such a world-historical feat without deigning to send ships to sea or warplanes into the central blue. Close the firing key on the ASBM launcher, and presto!, it happens.

Well, maybe. Why obsess over technical minutiae like firing range? For one thing, the nine-hundred-mile range cited for the DF-21D far exceeds the reach of carrier-based aircraft. A carrier task force, consequently, could take a heckuva beating just arriving on Asian battlegrounds. And the range mismatch could get worse. Unveiled at the PLA’s military parade through Beijing last fall, the DF-26 will reportedly sport a maximum firing range of 1,800-2,500 miles.

If the technology pans out, PLA ballistic missiles could menace U.S. and allied warships plying the seas anywhere within Asia’s second island chain. The upper figure for DF-26 range, moreover, would extend ASBMs’ reach substantially beyond the island chain.

From an Atlantic perspective, striking a ship east of Guam from coastal China is like smiting a ship cruising east of Greenland from a missile battery in downtown Washington, DC. Reaching Guam would become a hazardous prospect for task forces steaming westward from Hawaii or the American west coast, while shipping based at Guam, Japan, or other Western Pacific outposts would live under the constant shadow of missile attack.

Now, it’s worth noting that the PLA has never tested the DF-21D over water, five-plus years after initially deploying it. Still less has the DF-26 undergone testing under battle conditions. That’s cause to pause and reflect. As the immortal Murphy might counsel, technology not perfected in peacetime tends to disappoint its user in wartime.