- U.S. naval aircraft have been the dominant force in the world’s oceans for decades.
- But Russia and China, considered the two main rivals of the United States in the coming years, are working hard on new weapons that could threaten that dominance.
- Visit the Business Insider homepage for more stories.
In August, China fired two ballistic missiles that, according to a Chinese military expert, struck a moving target ship in the South China Sea thousands of miles from their launch sites.
If true, the test, which came a month after the United States deployed two strike groups in the region and a day after a U.S. U-2 spy aircraft observed a live fleet training by the Chinese Navy, is the first known demonstration of China̵
“We are doing this because of their provocation,” said Wang Xiangsui, a former Chinese colonel and professor at Beijing’s Beihang University, about the deployment, calling the test a “warning to the United States.”
In order not to delay, the Russian fleet conducted its third test launch of a hypersonic anti-ship cruise missile “Zircon” in the White Sea in December. Launched by the frigate, the missile reached a speed of Mach 8 before hitting a “coastal target” more than 200 miles away.
The tests are just the latest indication that American aircraft carriers, long seen as sea kings, could soon face a real threat to their existence.
High priority goals
American carriers have always been among the biggest targets for rivals. While the Soviets publicly outraged the carriers as “oppressors of the national liberation movements,” they recognized them as the dominant arms platform.
This was especially the case after realizing that the air wings of American carriers included nuclear payload aircraft.
Declassified CIA documents reveal that in the 1980s, the Soviets rarely criticized carriers in internal discussions and even praised them for providing “high combat stability.” A 1979 document stated that carriers would be “the highest priority in anti-ship attacks” in potential military scenarios, with assault ships likely to be behind.
The plans for working with carriers were based almost entirely on anti-ship cruise missiles fired from submarines, bombers and surface ships – ideally all at once. To this end, the Soviet Navy emphasized cruise missile technology and the missile capacity of all its ships – even its own aircraft carriers.
Soviet naval bombers Tu-16, Tu-95 and Tu-22 were the main air delivery systems. Nuclear-powered cruisers of the Kynda, Kresta, Slava and Kirov classes were the main surface delivery platforms.
Many nuclear and diesel-electric submarines, such as the Oscar II and Juliet classes, would launch these missiles from underwater and to the surface.
But even that may not have been enough. The defense of American carriers and air wings was considered so strong by the Soviets that up to 100 bombers would be sent to attack one carrier, with losses expected to reach 50%. Soviet pilots were not even given detailed return routes.
He also feared that the missiles could be shot down or intercepted, so the Soviets concluded that many had to be armed with nuclear warheads.
Dominance of a declining carrier
With the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the dominance of American carriers seemed more than guaranteed. These carriers have played key roles in conflicts in which the United States has been involved since the 1990s.
But the order after the Cold War is slowly being challenged – mainly by the meteoric rise of Chinese military power, which has consequences for the carrier’s dominance.
US carriers are among the biggest concerns in Beijing. Their presence helped deter an invasion of Taiwan in the 1950s, and in 1996, two battle groups of carriers disturbed China by operating freely around Taiwan during heightened tensions, forcing Beijing to recognize US military power.
Since then, China has invested heavily in counter-carrier capabilities. He first purchased a number of weapons from Russia, including Su-30MKK multi-role fighters, 12 Kilo-class assault submarines and four Modern-class guided missile destroyers.
But missiles were China’s main focus. It has amassed one of the world’s largest and most modern missile arsenals, 95% of which is outside the scope of the Mid-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which prohibits the United States and Russia from having missiles between 310 miles and 3,100 miles. The United States recently withdrew from the treaty, and China has never been a party to it.
The two missiles tested in August are variants of the DF-21 and DF-26, which have a range of up to 1,300 and 2,400 miles, respectively.
Flying higher, faster and farther from Soviet cruise missiles, Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles can overcome the carrier’s and their companions’ missile defenses and force the carrier to stay far enough to make the air wing useless.
A U.S. Department of Defense report released this year said China’s missile development was one of areas in which Beijing “has achieved parity with – or even surpassed – the United States.”
Hypersonic missiles are another serious threat.
Capable of flying at speeds above Mach 5 (above 3,800 mph), hypersonic missiles are too fast for missile defenses to respond effectively. They can also change direction in the middle of the flight, making it virtually impossible to intercept them.
China has two hypersonic weapons in operation: the DF-17 and the DF-100. Russia has a number of hypersonic weapons under development, with Zircon being the most promising. Russian authorities have said they hope to be able to arm all new ships in the Russian navy with hypersonic weapons.
British officials have already expressed concern about the threat that Russian hypersonic weapons could pose to their carrier.
“Hypersonic missiles are virtually unstoppable,” a senior British naval source told The Daily Mirror. “Without a missile defense method like Zircon, the carrier will have to stay out of range hundreds of miles at sea.”
“His planes would be useless and the entire base of the carrier’s task force would be redundant,” the source said.
The true capabilities of Russia’s and China’s new anti-carrier weapons are still unknown, but recent tests show that the US Navy may not enjoy undisputed dominance for long.