Although one missile might not sink a carrier, a single missile might cause sufficient damage to take it out of commission.
Further, the radar signature of a 100,000-ton ship is very large and the sensors used on the carrier’s current defense systems only increase that signature.
In such an attack, the fleet must be able to defend against a large number of incoming weapons approaching on evasive trajectories at greater than twice the speed of sound, while the attacker needs to only score a few hits. These new anti-ship missiles “put U.S. forces on the wrong side of physics,” the U.S. Naval War College’s Andrew Erickson warned.
Emerging anti-ship technology also places the aircraft carrier on the wrong side of basic arithmetic.
In its capacity as a force projection platform, the carrier operates by launching various types of attack and tactical fighter aircraft from its decks. The unrefueled radius of the Navy’s current F/A-18E Super Hornet falls within 390–450 nautical miles. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will have an unrefueled combat radius of 730 nautical miles.
The Department of Defense, however, estimates that the range of the DF-21D anti-ship missile to be 1,500–1,750 nautical miles and some speculate the range to be greater.
Recognizing the fact that these numbers will require placing the carrier strike groups well outside of their range, former Naval War College Dean Robert Rubel observed that “a successful defense of a carrier does no good if the carrier cannot in turn succeed in attacking enemy naval forces.”
Although a sustained attack from land-based ballistic missiles would be more than a challenge for the Navy’s current “hard kill” defense systems, the situation is potentially more serious.
The Navy’s plan to disrupt ballistic missile command-and-control systems with electronic measures would be inhibited by the same “range” arithmetic that keeps such craft far from shore.
“Even more ominous,” military analyst Robert Haddick wrote, “are the squadrons of maritime strike fighters capable of launching scores of long-range, high-speed anti-ship cruise missiles, in volumes that threaten to overwhelm the most modern fleet defenses.”
A reality-check exercise would be to conduct a theoretical battle with the rapidly developing People’s Liberation Army Navy. The Chinese have around 100 fast missile boats — primarily of the Hubei class with stealth catamaran hulls — that carry eight anti-ship cruise missiles with current ranges of 160 nautical miles.
A coordinated attack would also likely include aircraft and Sovremenny-class destroyers and, in the next decade, an estimated 75–80 submarines — both nuclear and diesel — armed with torpedoes and some with wave skimming, supersonic anti-ship missiles supplied by or copied from advanced Russian models.
Russia has been developing sea- and bomber-launched anti-ship missiles for decades. Russia is also a major arms merchant, making these anti-access systems potentially among its most attractive wares. In addition, those that are not purchased could also be reverse-engineered. Iran has, for obvious reasons, a very strong interest in and an unknown arsenal of such weapons.
As the costs of these weapons come down, the rate of proliferation will increase and place this technology in the hands of smaller states and potentially non-state groups. With such proliferation, the latitude of carrier task groups to own the coastlines along which they wish to operate in a power projection role will evaporate.
A troubling sign of things to come is a Russian firm that is reportedly selling a “Club-K” cruise missile concealable in shipping containers deployable on trucks, rail cars or merchant ships.
Although the saliency of this issue is now greater due to rapid advances in capabilities, there is nothing new in the vulnerability of aircraft carriers in specific and surface ships in general. Like the battleship admirals prior to Pearl Harbor, carrier advocates take solace from an unblemished record resulting from “the Cold War [having] ended without a Leyte Gulf,” Holmes noted.
A U.S. carrier group only came face-to-face with a Russian carrier task force during the Cold War once. During the tensions surrounding the Yom Kippur war, the presence of a “locally superior Russian force” resulted in the American ships having to reposition further west in the Mediterranean.
Soviet Adm. Sergei Gorchakov reportedly held the view that the U.S. had made a strategic miscalculation by relying on large and increasingly vulnerable aircraft carriers. The influential U.S. Adm. Hyman Rickover shared this view. In a 1982 congressional hearing, legislators asked him how long American carriers would survive in an actual war.
Rickover’s response? “Forty-eight hours,” he said.
Now let’s take a look at the unofficial record derived from war games. In 2002, the U.S. Navy held a large simulated war game, the Millennium Challenge, to test scenarios of attacks on the fleet by a hypothetical Gulf state — Iraq or possibly Iran.
The leader of the red team employed brilliant asymmetric tactics resulting in 16 U.S. ships, including two supercarriers, going to the bottom in a very short span of time. The Navy stopped the war game, prohibited the red team from using these tactics and then reran the exercise declaring victory on the second day.
As with Billy Mitchell and the Ostfriesland, according to the Navy the sinkings never happened. But, as Robert Gates noted in his memoirs, “the enemy always gets a vote.”
Ballistic missiles are just the most recent challenge to carrier vulnerability. “I would argue that you can put a ship out of action faster by putting a hole in the bottom [with a torpedo] than by putting a hole in the top [with a weapon like the DF-21],” former U.S. Naval Operations chief Gary Roughhead said.
This extends to diesel submarines. Although the number of simulated “sinkings” by ships of the Navy is officially unacknowledged, there are reports of around a dozen U.S. aircraft carriers being “sunk” in exercises with friendly countries including Canada, Denmark and Chile.
In 2005, the USS Ronald Reagan was “sunk” by the Gotland, an electric diesel sub that the U.S. Navy borrowed from Sweden between 2005 and 2007 and which was never detected in exercises by U.S. carrier groups during all that time.
Although it’s true that the Soviets and the Americans never faced off in an actual naval battle, there is every reason to believe that they would have had some success against the “invulnerable” carriers. As far back as 1968, a fast nuclear powered Russian submarine matched the Enterprise at top speed in the Pacific.
In 1995, Israeli Adm. Yedidia Ya’ri wrote in the 2005 Naval War College Review that the Russian SS-N-22 “Muskit” anti-ship missile “can probably penetrate any existing defense system, hard or soft-kill, especially when launched in salvos.”
In 2012, test of a slower and higher-flying surrogate of the Muski missile demonstrated that “the Aegis system could not be relied on for effective defense of itself or the aircraft carriers it was escorting,” Winslow Wheeler of the Straus Military Reform Project noted.
One carrier, the USS Kitty Hawk, used up three of its nine lives having been run into by an undetected Soviet sub in 1984, overflown by two undetected Russian planes — an Su-24 and an Su-27 — in 2000, and surprised by a Chinese Song-class attack submarine that surfaced undetected inside its perimeter and within torpedo range in 2006.
In March of this year, the French Navy reported that it had sunk the USSTheodore Roosevelt and half of its escorts in a war game, but hurriedly removed that information from its website.
The world, of course, is not standing still. Missile ranges and speeds will increase. Missiles will become more elusive and accurate — and could be nuclear-tipped. Sensors will see further and more accurately, significantly reducing the fog of war. Surface ships, no matter where located, will be increasingly vulnerable.
Supercavitating torpedoes — such as the Russian Shkval — already travel at 200 knots and can track ships for more than 1,000 kilometers. Above the surface, supersonic anti-ship missiles that currently travel at Mach 2 will be replaced by hypersonic missiles that will travel at Mach 5, and Mach 10 and Mach 25.
And well above the surface, newer electronic warfare weapons will reach into space and attack satellites and communications on which the modern information awareness of battle depends.
The future is drones and submarines
The modern aircraft carrier strike group stands at the very pinnacle in the history of warfare in terms of conventional lethality and sophistication. Unfortunately, in the modern context it resembles a Rube Goldberg device — the most complicated system that can be devised to perform a mission.
In order to deliver firepower on a target, the U.S. Navy fields an increasing unaffordable supercarrier which must be escorted by one Aegis cruiser, two destroyers, a nuclear attack submarine and a combined strike force crew of more than 6,000 to carry and launch an air wing of increasingly unaffordable airplanes with inadequate range.
The supercarrier requires an exponential and compounding set of very expensive investments. The total acquisition cost of a carrier strike group exceeds $25 billion, an air wing another $10 billion and the annual operating costs of perhaps $1 billion.