Revealed: How the U.S. Navy Would Destroy a Chinese Aircraft Carrier

Image: US ships firing missiles. Wikimedia Commons/public domain.

America's answer to the 'carrier-killer missile.'

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.

Still, an ASBM will be a useful piece of kit if Chinese engineers have made it work. The U.S. military boasts no counterpart to China’s family of ASBMs. Nor is it likely to. The United States is bound by treaty not to develop mid-range ballistic missiles comparable to the DF-21D or DF-26. Even if Washington canceled its treaty commitments today, it would take years if not decades for weapons engineers to design, test, and field a shipkilling ballistic missile from a cold start.

Still, the U.S. Navy isn’t without options in naval war. Far from it. How would American mariners would dispatch an enemy flattop in combat? The answer is the default answer we give in my department in Newport: it depends.

It would depend, that is, on where the encounter took place. A fleet duel involving carriers would take a far different trajectory on the open sea—remote from fire support from Fortress China, the PLA’s unsinkable aircraft carrier—than if it unfolded within range of ASBMs, cruise missiles, or aircraft emplaced along seacoasts or offshore islands.