By David Crane
defrev at gmail dot com
April 6, 2009
I’ve been writing about the vulnerability of U.S. Navy surface ships, particularly large expensive aircraft carriers, against other countries’ anti-ship cruise missiles and torpedoes for awhile, now. Specifically, I’ve focused on the latest crop of supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles and supercavitating torpedoes, even though some argue that long-range wake-homing torpedos pose a greater threat to our warships than the supercavitating variety.
Well, that debate may be a moot point due to China’s development of an advanced long-range anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) “kill weapon” that can reportedly target, track, and destroy U.S. surface ships, including aircraft carriers, in a single strike without being nuclear tipped, due to its size. This makes the ASBM “kill weapon” the…
first ballistic misssile to be successfully developed specifically to attack surface ships. According to a U.S. Naval Institute (USNI) report, the missile has range of 2000 kilometers (2000km) (approximately 1,240 miles) and can reach an aircraft carrier or any other surface ship within 12 minutes at that range.
USNI also reports that the Chinese ASBM “kill weapon” employs a complex guidance system, low radar signature (i.e. low-observability, or “stealth” aspects), and “maneuverability that makes its flight path unpredictable, and thus better able to evade tracking and interception.
The news of this new ship-killing weapon has, according to USNI, caused “panic inside the [U.S. Navy leadership] bubble”, causing a major sea change (excuse the pun) in U.S. Navy focus strategy away from an emphasis on littoral combat ships designed to operate in shallow water near coastlines and toward improving the capabilities of deap-sea war ships and “developing anti-ballistic defenses”. The U.S. Navy’s reaction to the Chinese ASBM threat leads the USNI believe it’s indeed a legitimate and serious threat.
At this moment in time, DefenseReview isn’t aware of any viable U.S. ship-borne defense system that can effectively deal with the Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile. If one of our readers is aware of one, please don’t hesitate to contact us. If the U.S. Navy indeed doesn’t have a viable defense agains the Chinese ASBM, the first three obvious questions are “why not”, “how long will it take to develop one”, and “how much will it cost”. Defense Review doesn’t doubt for a second that we (the United States) can do it, it’s just a question of “how long” and “how much”.
However, instead of just spending a ton money on really expensive surface-ship defense systems, perhaps it’s time to explore the idea of submarine aircraft carriers for the U.S. Navy, as well as submarine destroyers and cruisers, if possible. Combat Reform has an interesting page on this concept. A mostly submarine (or, at least, sub-surface) force with submarine aircraft carriers, cruisers, and destroyers would provide an organic passive defense system against wake-homing and supercavitating torpedoes and anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles. If you want to add non-organic active anti-torpedo and anti-missile defense systems to the submarine and/or sub-surface ships, that’s fine. At least you’re not starting with huge, expensive, slow-moving above-the-surface targets that are easy to find and see, easy to hit/kill, and difficult and costly to protect.
Remember, low-observability, or “stealth”, is its own protection and doesn’t require an entire fleet of other ships with sophisticated defense hardware to protect you from ballistic threats. If the enemy can’t see you or find you, he can’t hit and kill you.
A submarine aircraft carrier fleet coud conceivably use the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) aircraft to great effect, assuming the F-35B STOVL JSF works as advertised. If the ships can employ launch ramps, perhaps they could also carry and deploy two-seat A-10 Thunderbolt II “Sea Hogs” (OA-10B-type) for augmented ship defense, including anti-submarine a.k.a. sub-hunting operations.
Related Articles and Links:
PLAN ASBM development (Information Dissemination)
Aircraft Carrier (In)Vulnerability: What it takes to successfully attack an American Aircraft carrier (PDF Format) (Lexington Institute)