The U.S. Navy's Aircraft Carriers: $13 Billion Floating Targets for China or Russia?
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. On the other hand, while dozens of the missiles have been deployed to PLA units, it doesn’t appear that the weapon has ever been tested against a moving naval target.
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.