The U.S. Navy (and to be frank, the whole U.S. military) is living in a state of total denial. In the next great powers war, or perhaps even in a conflict with a mid-tier power like Iran, at least one of our aircraft carriers will sink to the bottom of the sea. That means thousands of lives could be lost—and there would be very little we could do to stop it.
We need to get used to a very simple reality: the decades-old age of the aircraft carrier, that great symbol of U.S. power projection, has now passed. We can deny the evidence that is right before our eyes, but innovations in anti-ship missiles over many decades—combined with advanced but short-range carrier-based U.S. fighter aircraft and missile defenses that can be easily defeated—have conspired to doom one of the most powerful weapons ever devised.
If the aircraft carrier is a symbol, an expression of U.S. military dominance stretching from World War II to today, then there’s another symbol that perfectly encapsulates its demise: China’s DF-21D, what many experts describe as a “carrier-killer” ballistic missile.
How the missile works is key to understanding what modern-day U.S. aircraft carriers face. The missile is mobile and can travel anywhere via a truck, making its detection difficult. When launched, the weapon is guided using over-the-horizon radars, new satellite networks, and possibly even drones or commercial vessels being used as scouts. The system also has a maneuverable warhead to help defeat missile-defense systems. When it does find its target, it can descend from the sky and strike at speeds approaching Mach 12. Worst of all, the missile has a range of 1,000 miles. A Pentagon source tells me that Beijing has already deployed “many of them—perhaps in the hundreds,” and is “fully operational and ready for action.”
With one report claiming China could build 1,227 DF-21Ds for every carrier the U.S. military sends to sea, Beijing and other nations will have ample budgetary room to challenge our mighty carriers for decades to come.
Now, to be fair, many nations already have various types of missile platforms that could attack carriers and do damage—even send them to the bottom of the sea. The solution seems obvious: Why not park your carriers out of range and attack from afar?
Great idea—except we can’t. Right now, if we tried to strike targets in, say, China or Russia, we would be unable to do it safely because, thanks to our short-range aircraft, we would have to be parked right in range of those countries’ own powerful missile batteries.
Despite all their amazing capabilities, the latest generation of attack planes onboard U.S. aircraft carriers, the F/A-18 and soon-to-be F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, are not long-range strike aircraft, as they’re only able to fly 500 and 550 nautical miles respectively. In a stand-off with a nation like China, this would put our most expensive weapon of war—and, more importantly, thousands of sailors, airmen, and marines—in harm’s way. Since American aircraft carriers sail in large groupings of ships, there exists the possibility of multiple U.S. naval vessels meeting fiery deaths, as they would have to travel close to the shores of other nations that have similar weapons.