President Donald Trump stood aboard the $13 billion USS Gerald R. Ford on March 2 to boast about his plans to increase military spending. Trump told the audience of sailors that more of them were coming and that they have no peers. One important note he forgot to add is that aircraft carriers, as bold and intimidating as they appear, are very susceptible to attack.
The problem with how the Pentagon spends money, and its outlook in general, is that it fails to build hardware for wars of today. The need for a massive number of carriers is hangover line of thinking from the World War II days, when the U.S. had considerable access to the world’s major waters and our adversaries could not defend themselves against the Navy’s superior nautical presence.
American aircraft carriers are extremely expensive, but they are also incredible vulnerable to a wide range of enemy fire. China and Russia, America’s most powerful adversaries, have been building precise and sophisticated anti-ship weapons for decades, such as the P-700 Granit supersonic cruise missile, which is specifically designed to break through American carrier group countermeasures.
Though in service since the 1980s, the P-700 consists more a system of multiple missiles rather than just one missile, fired one at a time. If P-700s are fired in a group of four to eight, they form a network that decide amongst themselves which missile will prioritize the main target (like a carrier).
The missile that designates the target flies at a higher altitude, guiding the others skimming the sea surface to their eventual endpoint. A missile flying at a higher altitude is easier to shoot down, however, and the P-700 system was designed with this fact in mind. So if the lead missile, flying high above the others, is knocked out of the sky, another one of the group immediately pops upwards to replace it.
Knocking out a group of eight missiles that conveniently offer themselves up for sacrifice one at a time sounds easy enough, until you realize that these things are moving at speeds of at least Mach 1.6, or 1,227 miles per hour at sea level. And the P-700s pack a big enough punch to do real damage, as defense reporter and occasional Foxtrot Alpha contributor Kyle Mizokami once pointed out at The National Interest:
The P-700 was a large missile designed to kill large ships. The P-700 was thirty-three feet long and nearly three feet wide. Each weighed 15,400 pounds each, most of which was fuel for the ramjet-powered engine which propelled the missile at speeds of Mach 1.6 to a range of 388 miles.
The missile packed either a 1,653-pound conventional high explosive warhead, enough to damage an aircraft carrier, or a five-hundred-kiloton nuclear warhead, enough to vaporize a carrier. The missiles would be fed targeting data from the Legenda space surveillance system, which would hunt fast-moving carrier battle groups from orbit.
And that’s just one missile system that the Russian Navy has been using for decades. Newer missile systems, like the BrahMos, move at double the speed with even more lethality.
But let’s assume for a second that the P-700, or even the BrahMos, wouldn’t be able to get past an American carrier battle group’s complex mix of countermeasures, such as RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles, RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missiles, decoys, and—if all else fails—Phalanx close-in weapons systems.
What you would really need to get through that tenacious net would be a torpedo, preferably fired by a submarine. But the U.S. Navy has made steady cuts to its anti-submarine capabilities for years now.
In October of 2015, a Project 636-class submarine managed to stalk the American aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan off the coast of Japan without getting caught “for at least half a day.” And a submarine doesn’t need that long to fire off its lethal package.
The Project 636 was likely following the Reagan to protest Freedom of Navigation exercises taking place at the time to challenge Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. As Foxtrot Alpha has reported, China has been asserting its power in the region by building artificial islands in the body of water that have violated other nation’s maritime borders. In any case, the move was a clear sign Beijing doesn’t fear the Navy’s mighty carrier fleet.
To be sure, any kind of carrier is vulnerable to attack because of its size and visibility.
America is the only country in the world that bases its naval strategy based on its carrier fleet. The Navy stands by the approach, despite its well-known vulnerabilities. Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said in an interview with Reuters last year that he would deploy aircraft carriers into close battle in a heartbeat, though he also admitted that the advancement of anti-ship weapons have made carriers less valuable than they were 15 years ago.
At a 2010 U.S. Navy symposium, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said “a Ford-class carrier plus its full complement of the latest aircraft would represent potentially $15 billion to $20 billion worth of hardware at risk.” Gates has never cared for expanding America’s already burgeoning fleet and made that clear to the audience:
“To be sure, the need to project power across the oceans will never go away,” he said. “But, consider the massive over-match the U.S. already enjoys. Consider, too, the growing anti-ship capabilities of adversaries. Do we really need eleven carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one? Any future plans must address these realities.”
The answer to whether we need eleven carriers—Trump wants 12—is clearly no.
But that hasn’t stopped the Navy and the Congress that backs them from spending billions of dollars on ships that stand a very high chance of being sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and Defense Department official, told Reuters that a major anti-ship missile offensive could pose grave dangers for a carrier.
For the cost of a single carrier, he calculates, a rival can deploy 1,227 anti-carrier missiles.
“The enemy can build a lot more missiles than we can carriers for equivalent investments,” Hendrix said, “and hence overwhelm our defensive capabilities.”
Take China, for example. The South China Sea is becoming a heavily contested body of water where Beijing’s expansionism is threatening security in the region. As we’ve noted previously, Steve Bannon, Trump’s top aide, has ranted on his Breitbart radio show of an eventual conflict between Washington and Beijing.
The Chinese would be more than prepared on several fronts. China’s Dong Feng-21 anti-ship ballistic missile reportedly has a range of 1,000 miles and can travel at 10 times the speed of sound, and may be nearly impossible to stop. And China’s Type 032 diesel sub can reportedly fire “ballistic missiles with the capacity to send a nuclear warhead across the ocean,” posing a possible danger to a carrier, especially if multiple missiles are fired.
The Navy has expressed confidence that the new Ford Class’s radar system can track the DF-21 and that its chain of defenses would stop the missile before it hits the carrier. While it is not clear whether the Ford can actually withstand such an attack, a combat exercise near Florida in 2015 revealed how vulnerable a top U.S. carrier is.
A small French nuclear sub, Saphir, snuck past several points of defense and sunk the U.S. carrier Theodore Roosevelt and half of its escort ships. News of the exercise results were not widely publicized but, as The National Interest notes, the Chinese were well aware of the Rubis-class submarine’s success against the U.S. carrier. The publication cited an interview in which Chinese Submarine Academy professor Chi Guocang was asked why the French sub was able to perform so well:
He observes that the Rubis-class submarine is the world’s smallest nuclear submarine (2,670 tons submerged) and that could make it more difficult to detect. According to this Chinese expert’s analysis, the Los Angeles-class submarines protecting the aircraft carrier have about three times the displacement—placing them at a disadvantage, especially in a circumstance where both crews have a similar level of training proficiency. This is not the first time that Chinese submarine experts have admired France’s small displacement nuclear submarines, which they seem to think could be particularly well suited for the shallow waters of the Western Pacific. It is argued in this Chinese analysis, moreover, that the French submarine’s comparatively slow maximum speed (25 knots) seems hardly to be a major deficiency.
And we haven’t even touched upon non-nuclear Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) subs, like the Chinese Type 039 or the Russian Project 677, which are generally regarded as nearly impossible to detect. Nor do you necessarily even need fancy missiles or fancy submarines if you’ve got enough tiny boats for a saturation attack.
Thing is, the USS Gerald Ford will go along as planned, despite its very real vulnerabilities. The carrier will undergo a battery of certification tests in the summer and is expected to be commissioned in the fall. Trump will get one step closer to the 12 carriers that he wants.
Whether they will sink or swim against a more powerful China or Russia in a possible conflict no one hopes will happen remains to be seen.
Correction: Obviously, aircraft carriers have been used in battle since World War II, and their use has continued from from the Korean War to Vietnam all the way up to and including the present conflict with the Islamic State Group. We meant to say direct action. Our apologies for the error. – M. B.