Could a Chinese-fired hypersonic weapon sink or destroy a U.S. aircraft carrier with a single shot, before ship commanders have an opportunity to defend against it?
The exact extent to which the Chinese DF-17 hypersonic missile can do damage, and the state of its progress toward possible operational service, is still somewhat unknown. However, saying the U.S. Navy is likely to take the threat very seriously, could probably qualify as an understatement.
Carrier defenses are increasingly layered, multi-domain, and equipped with new avenues of protection to include electronic warfare (EW), laser interceptors, and aerial nodes able to network threat information to surface ships. The question is, just how much could some of these new defensive innovations succeed in finding, tracking, and destroying an approaching hypersonic weapon. An interesting report in The Drive’s Warzone, claims that the DF-17 “carrier killer” can hit speeds of Mach 10 or 7,600 mph. While the DF-17’s guidance system or ultimate range are not specified by the report, The Drive does say that the weapon is capable of “advanced maneuvers,” and posits that a single shot of the weapon could likely disable, sink or destroy a U.S. Ford-class carrier.
Could advanced carrier defenses stop the weapon? Maybe, but any kind of defense would first and foremost rely upon an ability to discover, identify, track or simply find the approaching weapon. Is the weapon simply too fast for any integrated ship defense system to perform any kind of functional response? Maybe, or maybe not.
Depending upon speed and distance of detection, there are several variables that might offer ship-defenses an opportunity to avoid destruction. Even weapons traveling at Mach 10 will rely upon some kind of guidance system in order to be effective, a factor which introduces the question as to just how precise a weapon moving at that speed could be? That's unknown, and the fastest weapon of all time, while not useless, is unlikely to accomplish much without advanced guidance and the ability to hit moving targets. The missile will likely emit some kind of electronic signal, at some point in its flight, even its launch point, something which might make it “jammable” or susceptible to some kind of EW defense. Also, laser-armed ships are no longer a future contingency — they are here. There are many advantages to lasers, a major one simply being that they are offensive or defensive weapons that travel at the speed of light. Therefore, should a hypersonic missile launch be detected in any capacity, a well-positioned and accurately aimed laser might be able to get there and incinerate or derail the flight path of the DF-17. This is particularly relevant as a possible interceptor because even if a hypersonic weapon is seen or found in some capacity at some stage of its flight, any interceptor has to be fast enough to get to it in time prior to impact. Yet another key area of focus when it comes to hypersonic defense pertains to efforts to disrupt the airflow surrounding the flight path of a hypersonic weapon traveling through space. Due to the aerodynamics and temperatures of hypersonic flight, a disruption in its airflow could derail its flight, according to U.S. military and industry experts tracking this.
Perhaps most of all, hypersonic weapons generate a massive amount of heat, making proper thermal management a necessary condition of successful flight. Perhaps at launch, during a booster or launch phase or simply traveling through the air, heat sensors might be able to get a track on the weapon.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.