The Buzz

Would America Really Send an Aircraft Carrier to Fight Russia or China?

“One development that complicates efforts to determine the threat to the carrier air wing at various distances stems from China’s recent island-building campaign in the South China Sea. Beginning in early 2014, China accelerated its efforts to construct artificial landmasses capable of hosting an array of port facilities, airstrips, and other military structures in the contested Paracel and Spratly Islands. In the event of a conflict, China could deploy A2/AD capabilities from a number of islands in this region – two of which, Woody Island in the Paracels and Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys, feature runways that can accommodate UAVs, fighter aircraft, and bombers. Indeed, China has already demonstrated both the interest and the ability to deploy such capabilities on the islands, moving advanced J-11 fighter aircraft to Woody Island in late October 2015 and HQ-9 SAMs in February 2016.

While deploying A2/AD capabilities from the islands would significantly extend their reach – potentially enabling China to strike targets as far as Australia – it would additionally provide a clear targeting opportunity for U.S. forces and likely present only a brief threat to the carrier. If paired with the construction of hardened aircraft shelters and the permanent deployment of SAMs, however, these capabilities could present a more survivable and enduring threat.”

As the report notes, China’s new facilities are certainly open to attack, but that presumes Beijing has not already made the decision to fire first—something Chinese planners would be tempted to do considering the advantages in a crisis of making such a call.

But isn’t there a simple solution to all of this? Why not build an aircraft that can outrange Chinese, Russian or Iranian missiles? The ideal would be an aircraft that can travel at least 2500 miles, hit its targets, loiter at least for a short amount of time, and come back to the carrier. Why 2500 miles you ask? That is the possible maximum range of China’s new DF-26, or second generation carrier-killer missile. However, when one considers the fact that America has already spent billions on a navalized version of the F-35 with a likely operational maximum range of 550 nautical miles and that it would take at least a decade to develop such a fighter—if the money and sheer political will could be found, a tall task for sure—at least in the short term to medium term, America’s carriers will be outranged and under a high degree of risk for years to come.

So is the era of carriers dominating the high-seas over? As Dave Majumdar reported recently, and has been said in this and other publications, thankfully hitting a carrier on the open seas travelling at a good rate of speed is not an easy task. But maybe the real question is this: Would a sitting U.S. President really risk thousands of American sailors lives knowing the threat? What does that say about the state of the deterrent value of an American carrier? Food for thought.

Image Credit: Creative Commons. 

This first appeared in June of last year.