Former Navy intelligence specialist D.M. McCauley explores the Chinese threat to America’s largest ships.

As a result of extensive action in World War II, aircraft carriers are often seen as the capital ships of modern Navies. However as the geopolitical situation continues to evolve, their role in modern warfare is increasingly being questioned, writes McCauley for Task & Purpose.

Could China Wipe Out U.S. Aircraft Carriers?

China develops supersonic anti-aircraft carrier missile

Of particular concern is the progress being made by the Chinese armed forces. China has developed a ballistic missile known as the DF-21D, adapted to destroy aircraft carriers.

“China has expended vast time and resources determining how to kill US carriers, which suggests that the Chinese military takes carrier capabilities seriously,” wrote Robert Farley, assistant professor at Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. “The USN is very concerned about the DF-21D, which is one reason it’s working so hard on ship-borne anti-ballistic missile technology. The USN is also working on other countermeasures, including strikes on DF-21 launch sites at the onset of war (potentially delivered from nuclear cruise missile submarines), and electronic warfare.”

Some believe that the supersonic DF-21 could threaten aircraft carriers, just as torpedoes made heavy battleships vulnerable. As torpedoes eventually made battleships obsolete, the same may eventually be said of the DF-21 and aircraft carriers.

Can aircraft carriers be protected against China?

Some aircraft carrier detractors say that the DF-21 will prove almost impossible to counter, destroy or avoid, but that does not take into account the military hardware which escorts a carrier. A successful DF-21 launch relies on a number of steps, and disrupting one of them could avoid a strike.

To destroy an aircraft carrier, a huge amount of surveillance has to take place. Over-the-horizon radar can be inaccurate, and would not be sufficient to ensure a strike. Aircraft, drones and submarines are needed to provide more accurate assistance.

Perhaps the most likely location for a successful strike is the littorals, where carriers are vulnerable from land. However a successful strike from land also depends on the strength of coastal defenses.

If we consider maritime assets, the Chinese submarine fleet poses the greatest threat. Their capabilities, in addition to strike aircraft and anti-ship missiles, may push U.S. aircraft carriers further from the Chinese coast.

Greater integration and cooperation of armed forces

In response to this threat, a critical operational shift is occurring within the U.S. armed forces. Officials have realized that forces will be expected to operate across multiple domains in asymmetric ways, including disrupting missile strikes using electronic warfare.

The utility of the aircraft carrier in future warfare will depend on the integration of air, ground and naval forces to a point that has never been seen before. Moves towards greater cooperation and integration have already begun, with a joint forcible entry exercise that took place in August.

Joint-tactical networking is also necessary to improve communication and data links, and enable each military branch to use electromagnetic, kinetic and cyber weapons. One such example of this work are carrier-wing aircraft which transmit targeting data to submarine-launched missiles.

One piece of technology that could aid these efforts is the JLENS over-the-horizon sensor, which has been used to guide advanced surface-to-air missile to strike incoming anti-ship missiles. The key to the future of warfare is to ensure that all armed forces work together.

Military doctrines adapting to new technological threats

Existing doctrines are being adapted for use in multiple domains, including the use of fighter aircraft as surveillance platforms in support of submarines used to attack air defense positions, or drone operated from submarines in support of land-based forces.

Given the current evolution of military doctrines, it seems that the role of the aircraft carrier will also change. McCauley believes they will be “integrated platforms capable of regional deterrence, localized resupply, and long-range strike.”

Those who herald the death of the aircraft carrier are premature. As McCauley says: “No engagement will ever consist of a lone carrier against a swarm of carrier-killer missiles. They will operate as a staging ground for combined arms, supported by sea, land, and air assets.”

China looks set to build more DF-21D missiles, and it will certainly use them as a deterrent. For its part the U.S. will continue to consider the future of its aircraft carriers, and the forces that protect them.

There are ways in which aircraft carriers can continue to perform a meaningful role in modern warfare, but the existence of a weapon such as the DF-21D complicates the situation. Should China manage to successfully destroy a U.S. aircraft carrier, the reaction would surely lead catastrophic war.