The U.S. Navy's Aircraft Carrier Nightmare Is Unfixable

USS Constellation Aircraft Carrier
May 13, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: U.S. NavyNavyMilitaryDefenseChinaAircraft Carriers

The U.S. Navy's Aircraft Carrier Nightmare Is Unfixable

US aircraft carriers can only defend themselves from a certain number of incoming missiles at once. American rivals, notably China, understand this fact. That’s why they’ve tailored their A2/AD systems to being able to overwhelm the Navy’s most sophisticated defensive systems

 

Summary: The US Navy faces significant challenges in missile defense against the complex anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) systems of adversaries like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.

Aircraft Carrier

 

-Despite possessing advanced defensive systems, the sheer volume of potential missile attacks can overwhelm US warships, especially aircraft carriers, rendering them liabilities.

-The theft of classified defense system designs by Chinese cyber spies exacerbates this vulnerability. To counter this growing threat, experts argue for a strategic shift towards long-range warfare, including the development of offensive drones, enhanced submarine capabilities, and US hypersonic weapons, to bypass A2/AD defenses and ensure effective power projection.

From Sea to Cyber: The Growing Challenge of Protecting US Warships and Aircraft Carriers 

The US Navy (indeed, Washington in general) seems to be averse to basic arithmetic.

Whether it be the massive deficit spending or even something as simple as protecting US warships from massive numbers of Chinese, Russian, Iranian, or North Korean missiles and hypersonic weapons associated with their increasingly complex arsenal of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) systems. 

For example, US Navy warships have some of the world’s most sophisticated defense systems meant to protect the ship from incoming antiship missiles. 

These systems are some of the most expensive and complex in the world. Yet, no amount of complexity can provide the kind of consistent and comprehensive shield that US warships require in the face of the growing A2/AD threat to their safety. This is especially true of US aircraft carriers which, if lost or seriously damaged, would quickly go from the Navy’s greatest power projection weapons platform to its greatest—most expensive—liability. 

Aircraft Carrier

A Simple Equation Long Forgotten

Basically, it’s a simple math equation.

US warships can only defend themselves from a certain number of incoming missiles at once. American rivals, notably China, understand this fact. That’s why they’ve tailored their A2/AD systems to being able to overwhelm the Navy’s most sophisticated defensive systems.

While the Navy certainly has defenses against a certain number of incoming ballistic missiles, there are no known defensive countermeasures available to Navy warships that will protect against Chinese or Russian hypersonic weapons. 

Staying with the mundane mathematics of missile defense, the Navy does not have limitless capabilities to defend their warships against attack once within range of A2/AD systems. What’s more, in 2013, the Washington Post revealed that the Pentagon had suffered a serious breach of its cybersecurity. Chinese cyber spies hacked into the Pentagon’s supposedly secure network and stole the classified designs for more than two dozen key US weapons systems. 

Among those systems were the designs behind the Navy’s Aegis-class Destroyer’s ballistic missile defense system. This system is one of the most advanced ballistic missile defense systems in the world. Aircraft carriers operate a similar, though, different system known as the Ship Self-Defense System (SSDS). China’s hacking of the schematics for the Navy’s Aegis defense system not only means that China can build their own versions of this system. It also means that they can develop capabilities to overcome the systems employed on countless American warships. China has likely already tested their A2/AD systems against the data they stole from the Pentagon on the Navy’s shipborne missile defense systems and believe that they can overcome whatever defenses US warships employ.

Aircraft Carrier

If the enemy can overwhelm your missile defenses by simply throwing too many missiles in one barrage, then your ship is sunk. At the very least, in the case of aircraft carriers, the flight deck is badly damaged basically making the flat top a wasting asset on the battlefield. At that point, it’d become a race to both keep the ship from getting more damaged and taking it out of the battlespace before it was sunk. 

Long-Range Warfare is the Future

The Navy has known for over a decade that China and its autocratic allies have had their number when it comes to stunting American power projection. Despite this fact, the Navy and the political class that oversees them have decided to continue operating as if the threat is nonexistent. Meanwhile, China and its autocratic allies have continued enhancing their ability to deny large portions of the world map to the US Navy when the inevitable great power war erupts. 

What should have been—and must now—be done is for the Navy and the rest of Washington to fundamentally rethink its force structure. Looking at China’s threat to the US Navy in places like the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait, the current paradigm will not yield victory for the US Navy. It will lead only to mass carnage, humiliation, and a bitter defeat at the hands of China’s advanced antiship and hypersonic missile forces. 

If the Navy is one of the key components of America’s power projection into contested environments, and America’s enemies have developed effective ways of stunting that power projection, then the Navy and the rest of the military must invest in new technologies and capabilities that circumvent these A2/AD defenses.

Notably, the US should expand its commitment to building large swarms of offensive drones, it must enhance its submarine fleet, and it needs to develop effective hypersonic weapons systems of its own. Warfare among great powers will increasingly be fought at a distance. The Navy and other branches could develop these long-range strike capabilities that could knock out known A2/AD emplacements. 

Once those are taken care of, then more conventional power projection methods can be resorted to. 

About the Author 

Brandon J. Weichert is a former Congressional staffer and geopolitical analyst who is a contributor at The Washington Times, as well as at American Greatness and the Asia Times. He is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower (Republic Book Publishers), Biohacked: China’s Race to Control Life, and The Shadow War: Iran’s Quest for Supremacy. Weichert can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.

Image Credit: U.S. Navy.