The United States’ aircraft carriers have long provided the Navy immeasurable primacy throughout the world's oceans, allowing Washington to project power, deter potential adversaries, and assure its allies around the globe.
This military advantage for the U.S. may be coming to a close, however, as some countries – most notably China, Russia, and, to a lesser extent, Iran – have been investing in military capabilities to effectively counter American aircraft carriers, according to a report published Monday by the Center for a New American Security, a national security think tank based in Washington, D.C.
The report, titled “Red Alert: The Growing Threat to U.S. Aircraft Carriers,” argues that the U.S. faces an ultimatum amid growing threats abroad: either “operate its carriers at ever-increasing ranges … or assume high levels of risk in both blood and treasure.”
The main threat to U.S. carriers, according to the report, is China's ongoing effort to bolster its anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD, capabilities.
A2/AD is a military strategy meant to deny the adversary freedom of movement on the battlefield, and while few militaries will ever be able to match the size and strength of the U.S. carrier fleet, they can strengthen their A2/AD tools to make it as inhospitable as possible for the U.S. military to operate in certain areas, including its aircraft carriers.
China is pursuing such a strategy by investing in advanced air defense systems, anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, submarines, and (less powerful) aircraft carriers to keep the U.S. out of the western Pacific, including the South and East China Seas. Of particular concern is China's growing focus on long-range anti-ship missiles, known as carrier killers.
“Beijing’s technological sophistication and emphasis on long-range anti-ship missile procurement qualify it as the pacing threat,” the report says.
But China is not the only country focusing on A2/AD to counter American carrier dominance. Russia has anti-ship missiles and air defense systems at its Kaliningrad naval base in the Baltics and has been building up A2/AD capabilities around Syria, where the Kremlin has deployed advanced anti-aircraft systems. Moreover, several Chinese weapons systems are Russian-made, indicating the technological capabilities that Moscow possesses.
As U.S. adversaries have acquired longer-range weapons, American carriers have reduced their ability to conduct long-range strikes, putting them more at risk.
The report explains how operating its carriers “in the face of increasingly lethal and precise munitions will thus require the United States to expose a multi-billion dollar asset to high levels of risk in the event of a conflict. Indeed, under such circumstances, an adversary with A2/AD capabilities would likely launch a saturation attack against the carrier from a variety of platforms and directions. Such an attack would be difficult – if not impossible – to defend against.”
To counter such threats, the report says one option for the U.S. is to increase the range of its carrier air wing. A second option is for the military to shift its focus from “supercarriers” to underwater sea assets like submarines to increase the survivability of the fleet and make it more difficult to detect its movements. The U.S. could also do some combination of the two.
Moreover, the report argues it is essential to invest in long-range anti-submarine capabilities and “emerging technologies, such as railguns, that hold the potential to shift the offense-defense balance in favor of the U.S. military.”
The relevance of this report was made evident last week when China deployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island, a disputed island in the South China Sea claimed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. These missiles could, according to the report, pose a “survivable and enduring threat” to the U.S. if combined with hardened aircraft shelters and the permanent deployment of surface-to-air missiles.
The report concludes with a warning that the U.S. “must re-examine the relevance of the carrier and its air wing and explore innovative options for future operations and force structure. If the United States is to maintain its military superiority well into the future, it cannot afford to do otherwise.”