China's Submarines Track U.S. Navy Aircraft Carriers to Sink Them

Nimitz-Class U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier
June 21, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: U.S. NavyAircraft CarriersChinaSubmarinesMilitaryDefense

China's Submarines Track U.S. Navy Aircraft Carriers to Sink Them

The U.S. maintains carrier superiority over adversaries, including China, in fleet size and capabilities. However, China’s ability to track U.S. carriers, as seen with a Kilo-class submarine shadowing USS Ronald Reagan in 2015, is concerning. The goal would be to sink those carriers in case war breaks out. 

 

Summary and Key Points: The U.S. maintains carrier superiority over adversaries, including China, in fleet size and capabilities. However, China’s ability to track U.S. carriers, as seen with a Kilo-class submarine shadowing USS Ronald Reagan in 2015, is concerning. The goal would be to sink those carriers in case war breaks out. 

Kilo-Class Submarine

 

-Despite China's advancements, American Virginia-class submarines and multi-layered defense systems significantly outclass Chinese counterparts.

-This layered defense reduces the likelihood of a successful attack on a U.S. carrier, ensuring that even if tracked, carriers remain well-protected and unlikely to be sunk.

U.S. Aircraft Carrier Superiority: A Look at China's Tracking Capabilities

The U.S. retains carrier superiority over its adversaries, both in the size and capabilities of its fleet. 

But while China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy may not currently have a carrier fleet that can compete with the U.S., it has demonstrated the ability to track American carriers. Indeed, Beijing’s ability and its willingness to track the exact locations of U.S. naval carriers is concerning – these powerful warships are not invulnerable to certain sophisticated weapons.

A Chinese Sub Has Tracked a U.S. Aircraft Carrier Before

Back in 2015, a Chinese submarine closely tracked an American aircraft carrier near the coast of Japan. The Chinese Kilo-class fast attack sub shadowed USS Ronald Reagan for more than 12 hours in what was considered to be “more than a brief encounter,” according to officials.

Beijing claimed that the American vessel was sailing in Chinese waters. The incident was reminiscent of an encounter in 2006, when a Song-class submarine surfaced undetected within torpedo range of the Kitty Hawk carrier.

While more recent Chinese provocations over the South China Sea have involved fighter jets harassing American aircraft, Beijing has been further developing its submarine capabilities in order to track American ships more diligently. 

Aircraft Carrier

In the past, Chinese submarines were considered to be a generation behind the U.S. in terms of specs and capabilities. They were quite loud, making them easier for U.S. warships to spot. But China has allocated a lot of resources and funds to modernizing its naval assets over the last decade, and its submarines could be far more capable now.

American Subs Remain Superior

Despite this growing threat, American submarines remain superior to their Chinese counterparts. 

As explained by Forbes, “If the threat is from undersea warships, the carrier can rely on Virginia-class submarines that greatly outclass their Chinese counterparts, plus antisubmarine sensors and rotorcraft deployed on both destroyers and the carrier itself. The architecture of the defensive perimeter dictates that if an enemy penetrates one layer of protection, it will then face another, and another. So even if the adversary can find a carrier in the vastness of the Western Pacific, the likelihood its weapons will reach the carrier and do serious damage is not great. The likelihood the carrier could actually be sunk is minimal, given its design features.”

Ford-Class Aircraft Carrier

Essentially, even if a Chinese submarine is successful in tracking a U.S. carrier for a period of time, it would not necessarily be able to carry out an actual attack.

About the Author: Defense Expert Maya Carlin 

Maya Carlin, National Security Writer with The National Interest, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin

All images are Creative Commons. 

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