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.
Those who continue to defend the aircraft carrier have an obvious solution: missile defenses can stop any incoming attacks and keep the carrier relevant for decades. That seems like a reasonable argument, except for one very basic problem: first-grade math tells us it’s flat-out wrong. As I have said on several occasions, U.S. naval planners in the future will face large missile forces aimed at their ships that could very well overwhelm their missile defense platforms. A great example comes from a 2011 report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, which shows it wouldn’t take much strategic sophistication to beat U.S. missile defenses—just some basic math:
Iran could deploy its land-based ASCMs (anti-ship cruise missiles) from camouflaged and hardened sites to firing positions along its coastline and on Iranian-occupied islands in the Strait of Hormuz while placing decoys at false firing positions to complicate U.S. counterstrikes. Hundreds of ASCMs may cover the Strait, awaiting target cueing data from coastal radars, UAVs, surface vessels, and submarines. Salvo and multiple axis attacks could enable these ASCMs to saturate U.S. defenses…salvos of less capable ASCMs might be used to exhaust U.S. defenses, paving the way for attacks by more advanced missiles.
Taking the above example to its logical extreme, could China, Russia, Iran, or even one day North Korea simply build enough missiles on the cheap and launch them close enough to exhaust the defenses of a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group? Considering that we are currently unable to reload such defenses with ease at sea, our forces would face an unpleasant choice if their missile interceptors were exhausted: withdraw or face down enemy missiles with no defenses.
This is a problem that will only get worse with time. And considering China is already in the process of developing an even longer-range anti-ship weapon—the DF-26, with a range that could attack our carriers as far out as Guam—simple logic suggests the problem will only get worse.
The best way to begin solving a problem is to admit that you have one. And let there be no doubt that if steps are not taken to redefine what an aircraft carrier does—essentially take bombs and attack enemies at long ranges—then the next war America fights against a formidable foe will truly be historic, and for all of the wrong reasons.
Harry J. Kazianis is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest and executive editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. Previously, he served as editor of The Diplomat, a fellow at CSIS, and on the 2016 Ted Cruz foreign policy team.