American aircraft carriers are not “little cups of tea”, say their captains

  • China’s development of advanced anti-ship weapons has reignited debate over the future of aircraft carriers.
  • US officials say the carriers are not invulnerable, but they are well defended and won’t be easy to attack.
  • “Anyone who thinks we’re flimsy little teacups or something is grossly mistaken,” captain Paul Campagna said.

In March 1922, the first US Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Langley, entered service. A century later, some wonder if carriers can survive the wars of the future.

The development of increasingly sophisticated anti-ship weapons by capable adversaries, namely Russia and China, has raised new doubts about these ships.

The captains of two of these carriers ignore this concern, arguing that the 11 US Navy flattops would be hard to find and hard to stop.

Questions about whether aircraft carriers are “obsolete” have been raised before, including when Congress was debating whether to build the USS Enterprise, the Navy’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, at the late 1950s, said Captain Paul Campagna, commanding officer of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.

USS Dwight D. Eisenhower

The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) underway in the North Arabian Sea April 20, 2013.

US Navy

“I think the aircraft carrier has proven to be very tough. For anyone who is worried about the modern threat that exists, I will just say that the aircraft carrier is not on an island,” Campagna said on April 5 at Sea Air. Space Conference at National Harbor, Maryland.

“It deploys with the air wing. It deploys with the strike group. of tea there or something like that is a big mistake,” Campagna added.

Doubts over the carrier’s future are largely driven by China’s military modernization, which has produced a variety of long-range weapons and more capable planes, ships and submarines to launch them. .

Chinese anti-ship missiles are the main concern, especially the DF-21D and DF-26B ballistic missiles, which are designed for naval targets and sometimes referred to as “carrier killers”.

Chinese military DF-21 missile

A military vehicle carries a DF-21D missile past an image of the Great Wall of China in Beijing on September 3, 2015.

GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

The DF-21D was introduced in the mid-2000s and the DF-26 was first seen in public in 2015. They have long been considered a threat to US ships and bases.

China has built targets in the form of US aircraft carriers and destroyers, and warmongering Chinese officials have advocated using these missiles against reality.

In August 2020, the Chinese military fired a DF-21D and a DF-26B into the South China Sea in what was seen as a demonstration of its ability to deny access to the sea, where Beijing did sweeping but largely rejected land claims.

In a December interview, Admiral Philip Davidson, then head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, confirmed that the missiles had been fired at “a moving target” and said that US officials “have known for years” that the China was pursuing this capability.

In written testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2021, Davidson said that “medium-range anti-ship ballistic missiles” – specifically the DF-21 – “are capable of attacking aircraft carriers in the Western Pacific”.

aircraft carrier

USS Ronald Reagan, USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Nimitz in the Western Pacific, November 12, 2017.


The use of the missiles in a large-scale exercise was intended to demonstrate the “Chinese military’s focus on countering any potential third-party intervention in a regional crisis,” Davidson wrote at the time.

China also has air- and sea-launched anti-ship cruise missiles that, when fired from new warships, submarines and long-range bombers, can penetrate deep into the Pacific.

China and Russia are both developing hypersonic weapons that could use their speed and maneuverability to evade missile defenses, potentially hitting an aircraft carrier thousands of miles from shore.

The Chinese “are investing a lot of money in the ability to provide their South China Sea coast with an anti-ship missile capability. It’s a destabilizing effort in the South China Sea, the East China Sea – all of these areas,” Vice Admiral Jeffrey Trussler, Director of Naval Intelligence, said in February 2021.

“We are ready to go”

USS Gerald R. Ford

Newport News Shipbuilding begins flooding drydock 12 to float the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford.

US Navy

Current and former US Navy officials acknowledge that carriers are not invulnerable, but they stress that ships are well-defended and resilient and must accept certain risks to be effective.

“With the compartmentalization that we have, with our ability to repair lockers throughout the ship – which are essentially fire stations inside the ship – and our ability to seal it and absorb any type of kinetic impact with 1,000 feet of steel, it’s designed to take it. We’re ready to go. We’re lethal,” Campagna said.

The Navy conducted “shock tests” on its new aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, in the summer of 2021, detonating 40,000-pound explosive charges in the water surrounding it.

Ford was the first carrier to undergo crash testing since 1987. The tests did not simulate a direct hit, but Navy officials said Ford needed only a fraction of the repairs as last carrier to undergo them.

The tests were a demonstration of “super resilience” against conventional anti-ship weapons, a Chinese commentator said in August.

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald Ford during crash tests

USS Gerald R. Ford during crash tests in the Atlantic Ocean, June 18, 2021.

MCS Seaman Jackson Adkins/US Navy

The American transporters are “incredibly well built, as you’ve seen with the Ford crash tests,” Campagna said. “These things are going to take it and keep working, so I’m very confident in the aircraft carrier. [and] very confident to take it out to sea in any environment.”

The layered defenses Campagna refers to include anti-ballistic missile systems aboard carrier battle group ships. The US Missile Defense Agency is also pursuing maritime defenses against hypersonic threats.

The carrier itself has sensors and defenses including surface-to-air missiles, radar-guided guns and “soft kill” measures like decoys and electronic jamming. Chinese and Russian submarines are also a growing concern, and US and allied navies have re-emphasized anti-submarine warfare.

The risks of long-range missiles force planners to reconsider combat operations to keep aircraft carriers and other ships out of range of these missiles until US bombers, submarines and long-range missiles can knock them out. The US Navy is also pursuing longer range aircraft and weapons in order to continue operating in such a scenario. The MQ-25 on-board refueling drone, which will extend the range of carrier aircraft, was recently tested for the first time aboard an aircraft carrier.

USS Carl Vinson Aircraft Carrier Strike Group One

USS Carl Vinson and her strike group during an exercise with the Indian Navy in 2012.

Official United States Photograph – US Navy Newsstand

Hitting American aircraft carriers also requires Chinese forces to find and track them.

Carriers can move while a missile is in flight, which means the missile must be able to locate them or receive updated guidance. Flying at thousands of miles per hour also produces friction that can affect missile accuracy and be picked up by radar.

The effectiveness of anti-ship ballistic missiles “rely on a comprehensive reconnaissance and targeting architecture”, which for China “remains a work in progress”, said Andrew Erickson, a professor at the China Institute of Maritime Studies. from the US Naval War College. Interview 2020.

Missile guidance systems have been around for decades, and China could overcome shortcomings in its own guidance systems by firing more missiles at a specific area. Campanga and his counterparts stressed that their aircraft carriers would not wait for these missiles to arrive. “Moving at 30 knots, you can cover a lot of sea space and make it very challenging,” Campanga said.

The carrier’s speed and maneuverability mean “determining who really is where is no small feat,” said Captain Paul Lanzilotta, Ford’s commanding officer.

“We’re quick, we’re maneuverable and we’ll use all of those things to our advantage,” Lanzilotta said. “If you don’t have an idea of ​​the true size of the ocean, then you don’t have an idea of ​​the nature of the problem.”

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