Revealed: How the US Navy would destroy a Chinese aircraft carrier
By James Holmes
Ah, yes, the “carrier-killer.” China is forever touting the array of guided missiles its weaponeers have devised to pummel U.S. Navy nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (CVNs). Most prominent among them are its DF-21D and DF-26 antiship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), which the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has made a mainstay of China’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) defenses.
Beijing has made believers of important audiences, including the scribes who toil away at the Pentagon producing estimates of Chinese martial might. Indeed, the most recent annual report on Chinese military power states matter-of-factly that the PLA can now use DF-21Ds to “attack ships, including aircraft carriers,” more than nine hundred statute miles from China’s shorelines.
Scary. But the U.S. Navy has carrier-killers of its own. Or, more accurately, it has shipkillers of its own: what can disable or sink a flattop can make short work of lesser warships. And antiship weaponry is multiplying in numbers, range, and lethality as the navy reawakens from its post-Cold War holiday from history. Whose carrier-killer trumps whose will hinge in large part on where a sea fight takes place.
That carrier-killer imagery resonates with Western audiences comes as little surprise. It implies that Chinese rocketeers can send the pride of the U.S. Navy to the bottom from a distance, and sink U.S. efforts to succor Asian allies in the process. Worse, it implies that PLA commanders could pull off such a world-historical feat without deigning to send ships to sea or warplanes into the central blue. Close the firing key on the ASBM launcher, and presto!, it happens.
Well, maybe. Why obsess over technical minutiae like firing range? For one thing, the nine-hundred-mile range cited for the DF-21D far exceeds the reach of carrier-based aircraft. A carrier task force, consequently, could take a heckuva beating just arriving on Asian battlegrounds. And the range mismatch could get worse. Unveiled at the PLA’s military parade through Beijing last fall, the DF-26 will reportedly sport a maximum firing range of 1,800-2,500 miles.
If the technology pans out, PLA ballistic missiles could menace U.S. and allied warships plying the seas anywhere within Asia’s second island chain. The upper figure for DF-26 range, moreover, would extend ASBMs’ reach substantially beyond the island chain.
From an Atlantic perspective, striking a ship east of Guam from coastal China is like smiting a ship cruising east of Greenland from a missile battery in downtown Washington, DC. Reaching Guam would become a hazardous prospect for task forces steaming westward from Hawaii or the American west coast, while shipping based at Guam, Japan, or other Western Pacific outposts would live under the constant shadow of missile attack.
Now, it’s worth noting that the PLA has never tested the DF-21D over water, five-plus years after initially deploying it. Still less has the DF-26 undergone testing under battle conditions. That’s cause to pause and reflect. As the immortal Murphy might counsel, technology not perfected in peacetime tends to disappoint its user in wartime.
Still, an ASBM will be a useful piece of kit if Chinese engineers have made it work. The U.S. military boasts no counterpart to China’s family of ASBMs. Nor is it likely to. The United States is bound by treaty not to develop mid-range ballistic missiles comparable to the DF-21D or DF-26. Even if Washington canceled its treaty commitments today, it would take years if not decades for weapons engineers to design, test, and field a shipkilling ballistic missile from a cold start.
Still, the U.S. Navy isn’t without options in naval war. Far from it. How would American mariners would dispatch an enemy flattop in combat? The answer is the default answer we give in my department in Newport: it depends.
It would depend, that is, on where the encounter took place. A fleet duel involving carriers would take a far different trajectory on the open sea—remote from fire support from Fortress China, the PLA’s unsinkable aircraft carrier—than if it unfolded within range of ASBMs, cruise missiles, or aircraft emplaced along seacoasts or offshore islands.
The former would be a fleet-on-fleet affair: whatever firepower each force totes to the scene of action decides the outcome, seamanship, tactical acumen, and élan being equal. The latter would let PLA commanders hurl land-based weaponry into the fray. But at the same time, the U.S. Navy would probably fight alongside allied navies—from the likes of Japan, South Korea or Australia—in near-shore combat. And, like China, the allies could harness Asia’s congested offshore geography, using land-based armaments to augment their fleets’ innate combat punch.
In short, the two tactical arenas differ starkly from each other. The latter is messier and more prone to chance, uncertainty, and the fog of war—not to mention the derring-do of an enterprising foe.
Submarine warfare would constitute a common denominator in U.S. maritime strategy for oceanic and near-shore combat. Nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) such as U.S.Virginia– or Los Angeles-class boats can raid surface shipping on the high seas. Or they can slip underneath A2/AD defenses to assault enemy vessels, including flattops, in their coastal redoubts.
In short, SSNs are workhorses in U.S. naval operations. That’s why it’s a grave mistake for Congress to let the size of the SSN fleet dwindle from fifty-three today to forty-one in 2029. That’s a 23 percent drop in the number of hulls at a time when China is bulking up its fleet of nuclear- and conventionally propelled subs—to as many as 78 by 2020—and Russia is rejuvenating its silent-running sub force.
American submarines, then, are carrier-killers regardless of the tactical setting. Now, there’s a bit of a futurist feel to talk about battling Chinese carrier groups. At present the PLA Navy has just one flattop, a refitted Soviet vessel dubbed Liaoning. That vessel is and will probably remain a training carrier, grooming aviators and ship crews for the operational carriers—most likely improved versions of Liaoning—that are reportedly undergoing construction.
Let’s suppose Chinese shipyards complete the PLA’s second carrier—China’s first indigenously built carrier—at the same clip that Newport News Shipbuilding completed USS Forrestal, the nation’s first supercarrier and a conventionally propelled vessel with roughly the same dimensions and complexity as Liaoning. It took just over three years to build Forrestal, from the time shipbuilders laid her keel until she was placed in commission.
Let’s further suppose that the PLA Navy has made great strides in learning how to operate carrier task forces at sea. If so, the navy will integrate the new flattop seamlessly and speedily into operations, making it a battleworthy addition to China’s oceangoing fleet. Our hypothetical high-seas clash thus could take place circa 2020.
In 2020, as today, the carrier air wing will remain the surface U.S. Navy’s chief carrier-killer. U.S. CVNs can carry about 85 tactical aircraft. While estimates of the size of a future Chinese flattop’s air wing vary, let’s take a high-end estimate of 50 fixed-wing planes and helicopters. That means, conservatively speaking, that the U.S. CVN’s complement will be 70 percent larger than its PLA Navy opponent’s.
And in all likelihood, the American complement will be superior to the Chinese on a warbird-for-warbird basis. It appears future PLA Navy flattops will, like Liaoning, be outfitted with ski jumps on their bows to vault aircraft into the sky. That limits the weight—and thus the load of fuel and weapons—that a Chinese aircraft can haul while still getting off the flight deck.
U.S. CVNs, meanwhile, slingshot heavy-laden fighter/attack jets off their flight decks using steam or electromagnetic catapults. More armaments translates into a heavier-hitting naval air force, more fuel into greater range and time on station.
For example, F-18E/F Super Hornet fighter/attack jets can operate against targets around 400 nautical miles distant, not counting the additional distance their weapons travel after firing. That’s roughly comparable to the combat radius advertised for Chinese J-15 carrier planes—but again, a U.S. air wing will outnumber its Chinese counterpart while packing more punch per airframe. Advantage: U.S. Navy.
By 2020, moreover, promising antiship weaponry may have matured and joined the U.S. arsenal. At present the surface navy’s main antiship armament is the elderly Harpoon cruise missile, a “bird” of 1970s vintage with a range exceeding 60 miles. That pales in comparison with the latest PLA Navy birds—most notably the YJ-18, which boasts a range of 290 nautical miles.
Weaponeers are working at helter-skelter speed to remedy the U.S. Navy’s range shortfall. Boeing, the Harpoon’s manufacturer, is doubling the bird’s range. The Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office recently repurposed the SM-6 surface-to-air missile for antiship missions, doubling or tripling the surface fleet’s striking range against carrier or surface-action groups. And on it goes. Last year the navy tested an antiship variant of the Tomahawk cruise missile, reinventing a very—very—long-range capability that existed in the late Cold War. A new long-range antiship missile is undergoing development.
How the navy deploys new weaponry as it enters service is nearly as important as fielding the weapons themselves. Under a concept dubbed “distributed lethality,” naval officialdom wants to disperse firepower throughout the fleet while retaining the capacity to concentrate firepower on target. What that means in practical terms is arming more ships with anti-ship missiles, supplemented by gee-whiz technologies like electromagnetic railguns and shipboard lasers should they fulfill their promise.
The U.S. Navy, then, will deploy no single carrier-killer weapon. It will deploy many. Coupled with submarine warfare and naval aviation, newfangled surface-warfare implements will stand the U.S. Navy in good stead for blue-water engagements by 2020. Trouble is, an open-ocean engagement is the least likely scenario pitting America’s against China’s navy. What would they fight over in, say, the central Pacific? And what would prompt the PLA Navy to venture beyond range of shore fire support—surrendering its difference-maker in sea combat?
No. It’s far more likely any fleet action will take place within reach of PLA anti-access weaponry. The waters shoreward of the island chains are the waters Beijing cares about most. They’re also waters where the United States, the keeper of freedom of the sea and guarantor of Asian allies’ security, is steadfast about remaining the predominant sea power. Conflict is possible in offshore seas and skies should Beijing and Washington deadlock over some quarrel.
And waging it could prove troublesome in the extreme. Talk about distributed lethality! As U.S. forces close in on the Asian mainland, they must traverse an increasingly dense thicket of A2/AD defenses. Carrier-killer ASBMs could cut loose throughout the Western Pacific on day one of a naval war, peppering vessels already in the theater or lumbering westward from U.S. bases. Offshore sentinels—principally missile-armed small craft and diesel attack subs—could disgorge barrages of anti-ship cruise missiles.
As if that offshore picket line isn’t enough, there’s shore-based anti-ship weaponry, including not just ASBMs but cruise-missile batteries and missile-armed warplanes stationed along the Chinese seaboard. A nuclear-propelled carrier is a big ship but a small airfield—and it would face off against a host of land-based airfields and missile platforms. All in all, A2/AD poses a wicked tactical and operational problem for U.S. skippers.
The oceangoing PLA Navy fleet could fare far better in a Western Pacific trial of arms than in the open Pacific, the Indian Ocean, or some other faraway expanse. In short, the PLA Navy is a modern-day fortress fleet. Such a fleet shelters safely within range of shore-based defenses—supplementing its own firepower to make the difference in action against a stronger antagonist.
Fortress fleets often meet a grim fate in combat on the open sea, denuded of that protective umbrella. Closer to home—within reach of shore fire support—they can acquit themselves well. China is counting on it.
A quick history lesson in parting. The fortress-fleet concept had humble origins. Sea-power pundit Alfred Thayer Mahan coined it—I think—to describe Russian Navy commanders’ habit of staying within reach of a fort’s gunnery to fend off superior opponents. The fleet was ostensibly the fort’s forward defender against naval assault, but an outgunned fleet could use the fort’s artillery as a protective screen.
Mahan had the guns of Port Arthur, the maritime gateway to the Bohai Sea and thence to China’s capital city, in mind when writing about fortress fleets. The Russian squadron based at Port Arthur stayed mainly under the guns while confronting Admiral Heihachiro Tōgō’s Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) Combined Fleet during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.
The Port Arthur squadron was more or less safe so long as it remained within range of Port Arthur’s guns, but it accomplished little. Tōgō & Co. made short work of the fleet when Russian commanders offered battle on the high seas in August 1904. The debacle repeated itself in May 1905, when the Combined Fleet and the Russian Baltic Fleet met in action at Tsushima Strait.
Russian fleets, then, were simply outclassed by their IJN antagonists on amano-a-mano basis. But imagine what may have transpired had the gunners at Port Arthur been able to rain accurate fire on Japanese ships not just a few but scores or hundreds of miles distant. That would have extended Mahan’s fortress-fleet logic throughout the combat theater. With long-distance backup from the fort, Russian seafarers may have emerged the victors rather than suffering successive cataclysmic defeats. The weak would have won.
That’s a rough analogy to today. Fortress China is festooned with airfields and mobile anti-ship weaponry able to strike hundreds of miles out to sea. Yes, the U.S. Navy remains stronger than the PLA Navy in open-sea battle. A fleet-on-fleet engagement isolated from shore-based reinforcements would probably go America’s way. But that hypothetical result may not make much difference since the two navies are more likely to join battle in confined Asian waters than on the open ocean.
The U.S. Navy, it seems, is optimized for the blue-water conflagration that’s least likely to occur. Question marks surround who would prevail in the scenarios that are most menacing and most likely to occur. Carrier-killing munitions may make the fortress fleet a going concern at last, long after the age of Mahan. And that suits Beijing fine.
James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.
This story first appeared in The National Interest. It is republished here with permission.