The Era of Carriers Is Ending
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The mighty US Navy won’t say so publicly, but it’s increasingly worried by China’s development of new anti-ship missiles. The chief worry is China’s new DF-21D whose primary target is America’s huge aircraft carriers.
According to Chinese sources, the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) has recently become operational in limited numbers. Originally developed for submarines, the DF-21D is said to have a range of 2,700km and at least some capability to strike moving targets.
China’s military is hard at work on satellites, long-range backscatter radar, submarines, and drones that can identify moving naval targets up to 3,000 km distance. These overlapping sensors will provide accurate, real-time targeting data for the DF-21D and other shorter-ranged sea, air and land-based anti-ship missiles.
The US Navy insists its carriers are not threatened by any of China’s new missiles and retain their freedom of action off China. But the DF-21D can cover the entire South China Sea, including Taiwan.
This could be extremely bad news for the US Navy, which deploys 11 aircraft carrier groups that enable the US to project power around the globe.
Batteries of DF-21D’s based safely inland may keep the US Navy far off China’s coasts, isolate Taiwan, and threaten US bases in Japan, Okinawa and Guam. In fact, the mere existence of the DF-21D’s and their deployment in sizeable numbers may be enough to keep US carriers at least 2,000 km from China’s coasts, thus beyond the useful range of the carrier’s strike aircraft.
As a writer on naval affairs, I’ve long been convinced that big attack aircraft carriers are going the way of the battleship. At around 100,000 tons, they are huge targets, high in the water, easily detected at long range by radar and infrared sensors. Each US attack carrier carries close to one million gallons of aviation fuel plus hundreds of tons of munitions.
The US Navy made carrier operations into a high science during World War II. The USN was famed for its brilliant damage-control techniques that prevented the loss of many US warships during WWII.
But anti-ship missiles are lethal to carriers. Layered anti-ship missile defense can stop small number of attacking missiles. But if enough high-speed missiles are fired, and from different directions, at least one or two will permeate carrier and escort defenses.
Just one missile, filled with explosives and fuel, hitting a carrier will cause massive damage and fires that will put the great capital ship out of action. I have joined numerous naval warfare simulations: in almost every case, some anti-ship missiles fired by enemy aircraft and subs inevitably leaked through layered defenses and hit the carriers. Each carrier and its escorts costs over $25 billion (not including its aircraft). They simply cannot be risked against relatively inexpensive Chinese missiles.
Officially, the US Navy denies claims its beloved carriers are increasingly vulnerable. The Navy’s brass is dominated by former naval aviators, just as the pre-war US Navy was run by battleship admirals. There is huge institutional bias against abandoning big attack carriers, just as there is bitter Navy and Air Force opposition to abandoning manned fighter aircraft and relying on drones.
Which makes all the more amazing an article in the May 2011 issue of the US Naval Institute Proceedings (for which I’ve written) by two Pentagon strategists urging an immediate end to building aircraft carriers, “Proceedings” is the voice of the US naval establishment.
For this heresy to be printed is a bombshell. But a needed one. It’s time the US Navy face facts and plan for the obsolescence of its attack carriers. There will still be a role for smaller carriers carrying drones and helicopters, but in wartime, the days of the mighty flattop that won the epic WWII victories at Midway and the Marianas are over.
China has recognized this by deploying a mid-sized carrier this month that may be equipped with fixed-wing aircraft, drones, and helicopters.
It will be hugely expensive for the near bankrupt US to develop new systems that can counter China’s naval missiles. This means the US 7th Fleet will have to patrol far offshore where its influence will be sharply diminished, or even neutralized. The North Pacific will no longer be an American lake.
Eric Margolis [send him mail] is the author of War at the Top of the World and the new book, American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World. See his website.