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China's military has US aircraft carriers in its sights, but those flattops aren't 'little teacups,' their captains say

Christopher Woody   

China's military has US aircraft carriers in its sights, but those flattops aren't 'little teacups,' their captains say
  • China's development of advanced anti-ship weapons has renewed debate on aircraft carriers' future.
  • US officials say carriers aren't invulnerable but are well defended and won't be easy to attack.

In March 1922, the US Navy's first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley, entered service. A century later, some are questioning whether carriers can survive in the wars of the future.

The development of increasingly sophisticated anti-ship weapons by capable adversaries, namely Russia and China, has raised doubts about those ships.

The captains of two of those carriers discounted the concern, saying the US Navy's 11 flattops would be tough to find and hard to stop.

Questions about whether carriers are "obsolete" have come up before, including when Congress was debating whether to build the USS Enterprise, the Navy's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, in the late 1950s, Capt. Paul Campagna, the commanding officer of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, said.

"I think the aircraft carrier has shown itself to be very enduring. For anyone that's worried about the modern threat that's out there, I'll just say that the carrier is not on an island," Campagna said on April 5 at the Sea Air Space conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

"It deploys with the air wing. It deploys with the strike group. It deploys with a layered defense that goes from the bottom of the ocean and out to space, and anyone who thinks that we're fragile, little teacups out there or something like that is grossly mistaken," Campagna added.

The doubts about the carrier's future are driven in large part by China's military modernization, which has produced a variety of long-range weapons and more capable aircraft, ships, and submarines to launch them.

China's anti-ship missiles are the major concern, especially the DF-21D and DF-26B ballistic missiles, which are designed for naval targets and sometimes called "carrier killers."

The DF-21D was introduced in the mid-2000s, and the DF-26 was first seen in public in 2015. They have long been considered threats to US ships and bases.

China has built targets shaped like US aircraft carriers and destroyers, and hawkish Chinese officials have advocated using those missiles against the real things.

In August 2020, the Chinese military fired a DF-21D and a DF-26B into the South China Sea, in what was seen as a demonstration of its ability to deny access to the sea where Beijing has made sweeping but widely rejected territorial claims.

In an interview that December, Adm. Philip Davidson, then the head of US Indo-Pacific Command, confirmed the missiles were fired at "a moving target" and said US officials had "known for years" that China was pursuing that capability.

In written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2021, Davidson said "mid-range, anti-ship ballistic missiles" — specifically the DF-21 — "are capable of attacking aircraft carriers in the Western Pacific."

The use of the missiles in a large-scale exercise was meant to demonstrate the Chinese military's "focus on countering any potential third-party intervention during a regional crisis," Davidson wrote at the time.

China also has air- and sea-launched anti-ship cruise missiles that, when fired from new warships, submarines, and long-range bombers, can reach deep into the Pacific.

China and Russia are both developing hypersonic weapons that could use speed and maneuverability to evade missile defenses and strike a carrier thousands of miles from shore.

The Chinese are "pouring a lot of money in the ability to basically rim their coast in the South China Sea with anti-ship-missile capability," Vice Adm. Jeffrey Trussler, the director of naval intelligence, said in February 2021, adding: "It's a destabilizing effort in the South China Sea, the East China Sea — all of those areas."

'We're ready to go'

Current and former US Navy officials acknowledge that carriers are not invulnerable, but they stress that the ships are well defended and resilient and need to accept some risk to be effective.

"With the compartmentalization that we have, with our ability to man repair lockers throughout the ship — which are basically fire stations inside the ship — and our ability to seal it up and to absorb any kind of kinetic impact with 1,000 feet of steel, it's designed to take it. We're ready to go. We're lethal," Campagna said.

The Navy conducted "shock trials" on its newest carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, in summer 2021, detonating 40,000-pound explosive charges in the water around it.

The Ford was the first carrier to go through shock trials since 1987. The trials didn't simulate a direct hit, but Navy officials said the ship needed only a fraction of the repairs as the last carrier to go through them.

The trials were a demonstration of "super resilience" against conventional anti-ship weapons, a Chinese commentator said in August.

US carriers are "incredibly well built, as you saw with the shock trials on Ford," Campagna said. "These things will take it and continue to operate, so I'm very confident in the aircraft carrier, very confident taking it out to sea in any environment."

The layered defenses Campagna referred to include anti-ballistic-missile systems aboard the ships of the carrier strike group. The US Missile Defense Agency is also pursuing seaborne defenses for hypersonic threats.

The carrier itself has sensors and defenses, including surface-to-air missiles, radar-guided cannons, and "soft-kill" measures like decoys and electronic jamming. Chinese and Russian submarines are also a growing concern, and the US and allied navies have reemphasized anti-submarine warfare.

The risks of long-range missiles are forcing planners to reconsider combat operations to keep carriers and other ships out of range of those missiles until US bombers, submarines, and long-range missiles can knock them out. The US Navy is also pursuing longer-range aircraft and weaponry to continue operating in such a scenario. The MQ-25 carrier-based refueling drone, which will extend the range of carrier aircraft, was recently tested aboard a carrier for the first time.

Hitting US carriers also requires Chinese forces to find and track them.

Carriers can move while a missile is in flight, which means the missile needs to be able to locate them or receive updated guidance. Flying at thousands of miles an hour also produces friction that can affect the missile's accuracy and be spotted by radar.

The effectiveness of anti-ship ballistic missiles "hinges on a comprehensive reconnaissance and targeting architecture," which "remains a work in progress" for China, Andrew Erickson, a professor at the US Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute, said in a November 2020 interview.

Missile-guidance systems have existed for decades, and China could overcome deficiencies in its own guidance systems by firing more missiles at a specific area. Campagna and his counterparts emphasized that their carriers wouldn't wait for those missiles to arrive.

"Moving around at 30 knots, you can cover a lot of sea space and make it very challenging," Campagna said.

The carrier's speed and maneuverability mean "figuring out who actually is where is not a small thing," Capt. Paul Lanzilotta, the Ford's commanding officer, said.

"We're fast, we're maneuverable, and we will use all of those things to our advantage," Lanzilotta said. "If you don't have an appreciation for how big the actual ocean is, then you don't have an appreciation for what the problem set is."


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