China Tracks Navy Aircraft Carriers in Real-Time and Plans to Sink Them

U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier USS Nimitz

China Tracks Navy Aircraft Carriers in Real-Time and Plans to Sink Them

Countries like China, which are near-peer rivals to the United States and possess a robust scientific and technological innovation base—as well as an increasingly modern military—are threatening American aircraft carriers as never before.

Summary: Despite the U.S. Navy's heavy investment in its aircraft carrier fleet, including the advanced Gerald R. Ford-class, their vulnerability to Chinese anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities poses a significant threat.

Aircraft Carrier

-China's military, using inexpensive technologies and advanced artificial intelligence, has demonstrated the ability to track and potentially target these carriers with precision. Incidents like tracking the USS Ronald Reagan and USS Harry S. Truman highlight the inefficacy of current U.S. strategies against China's growing military technology.

-Critics argue for a shift in focus from surface warships to more stealthy and less vulnerable submarines to maintain U.S. maritime superiority.

U.S. Navy's Top Aircraft Carriers at Risk: China’s Advanced Tracking and A2/AD Threaten American Maritime Dominance

The United States Navy prizes its fleet of 11 aircraft carriers (10 Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carriers and the newest nuclear-powered Gerald R. Ford-class). The Navy is pouring billions of dollars into building more of the newer Gerald R. Ford-class carriers. These warships travel at around 30 knots and their proponents argue that the Gerald R. Ford-class carriers are insanely difficult for anti-ship weapons to track and hit. 

But this is inaccurate. 

Countries like China, that are near-peer rivals to the United States, possessing a robust scientific and technological innovation base—as well as an increasingly modern military—are threatening American flat tops as never before.

For years, China has built their anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities. These systems are serious threat to any US surface warship, including the mighty American aircraft carriers, that dares to get close to regions where the A2/AD systems are set up. The Navy understands this. Congress knows this. 

Aircraft Carrier

Yet, no one in Washington is taking the time to either develop meaningful countermeasures to protect the surface fleet or to switch the focus of the Navy away from trackable, easily destroyable, surface warships to something stealthier (like submarines).

One key threat to the aircraft carrier is the ability for China to track these systems, despite their relative speed. The better that China can track carriers, the more likely they can land direct hits on the carrier with their various anti-ship weapons. 

China Stalks US Carriers with Cheap Kilo-class Subs

As Harrison Kass recently outlined, back in 2015, China’s military was able to track the USS Ronald Reagan,one America’s Nimitz-class carriers as it transited through the Sea of Japan. With a far less expensive and sophisticated system, a diesel-powered Kilo-class submarine, the Chinese Navy was able to stalk the massive American carrier for about half a day.

This incident, in October 2015, occurred at a time when there were increasingly hostile encounters between US Navy and Chinese Navy warships throughout the region as well as dangerous intercepts between Chinese military aircraft and US military aircraft. 

China Has Artificial Intelligence-Powered Satellites Tracking US Carriers

In June 2021, China’s government claims that it used one of its so-called “smart” satellites (a satellite that is powered by artificial intelligence) to track the US flat top, USS Harry S. Truman, while it was conducting training exercises off the coast of Long Island, New York. 

According to China’s military, their satellite, which was tasked with tracking the American carrier in real-time, immediately began feeding Beijing with precise coordinates of the carrier. One can assume that the Chinese military has tasked their “smart” satellites to track not just the USS Harry S. Truman, but to keep a close eye on all eleven of America’s carriers.

U.S. Navy

That this satellite system can monitor carriers operating all the way in the Atlantic, near the US east coast, means that America’s carriers will have no quarter if they approach territories covered by China’s growing A2/AD systems (most Chinese A2/AD missiles have a range of 1,000 kilometers). 

This “smart” satellite system is relatively new. It coincides with the great strides that Beijing has made in developing artificial intelligence in general (despite what the naysayers in the West claim). 

Whereas before, China’s military had to analyze large quantities of data on the whereabouts of America’s carriers, China’s AI systems were able to sift through those reams of data so quickly and efficiently that the coordinates and movements of the American carrier were live streamed to Beijing’s naval war planners. 

China is so dedicated to destroying American carriers (first, by tracking them), that President Xi Jinping formed a specialized unit in 2015 known as the “Strategic Support Force” (SSF). The Pentagon believes the SSF is responsible for using advanced means to track US carriers, including the AI. 

But there’s more. 

China Uses Balloons to Track US Aircraft Carriers

On the lower-end technology-side of the spectrum, the SSF is believed to be running the most sophisticated balloon-based surveillance operation in the world. 

Last year, the dreaded balloons terrorized the otherwise friendly skies of the United States. But the balloons that breached American airspace were part of a larger program that the SSF has been running in the skies above the South China Sea. 

These low-cost, low-tech balloons float silently in the skies above the region and track the various wakes of the ships passing through the crowded region. Intelligence analysts then identify what class of ship made the wake and determine if it was a US warship—specifically, an aircraft carrier.

There is simply nowhere for the aircraft carrier to hide once it gets within range of territories in the Indo-Pacific that China covets. The better the ability of China’s military track US carriers in real-time, the greater the likelihood is that Chinese A2/AD systems will find and destroy US carriers in combat. 

Build Submarines

If those carriers are damaged or lost, then America’s power projection is seriously negated. What’s more, the psychological impact on the West of the US losing carriers to Chinese A2/AD systems will be greatly damaging. It may even force the Americans into a conciliatory stance vis-à-vis China. 

In all, it boggles the mind that Washington, despite knowing these threats, continues doubling-down on building expensive, frankly, antiquated systems, like the aircraft carrier while refusing to enhance its submarine fleet. 

Unless a radical change is made to prioritize submarines over flat tops, the Americans will lose a conflict with China on the High Seas. 

About the Author 

Brandon J. Weichert, a National Interest national security analyst, is a former Congressional staffer and geopolitical analyst who is a contributor at The Washington Times, the Asia Times, and The-Pipeline. He is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower, Biohacked: China’s Race to Control Life, and The Shadow War: Iran’s Quest for Supremacy. His next book, A Disaster of Our Own Making: How the West Lost Ukraine, is due October 22 from Encounter Books. Weichert can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.

Image Credit: DoD Flickr.