U.S. aircraft carriers still dominate the seas, but Russia and China both plan to change that


  • US Navy aircraft carriers have been a dominant force in the world’s oceans for decades.
  • But Russia and China, seen as America’s two main rivals in the years to come, are working hard on new weapons that could threaten that dominance.
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In August, China launched two ballistic missiles which, according to a Chinese military expert, struck a moving target ship in the South China Sea thousands of kilometers from their launch sites.

If this is true, the test – which took place a month after the United States deployed two aircraft carrier attack groups to the region and a day after an American U-2 spy plane observed a Chinese Navy live fire exercise – is the first known demonstration of the long range of anti-ship ballistic missiles against a moving target.

“We are doing this because of their provocation,” said Wang Xiangsui, former Chinese colonel and professor at Beihang University in Beijing, in reference to the deployments, calling the test “a warning to the United States”.

Not to be outdone, the Russian Navy carried out its third launch test of the Zircon anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile in the White Sea in December. Launched from a 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 US aircraft carriers, long regarded as kings of the seas, may soon face a real threat to their existence.

High priority targets

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and other US Navy ships during a transit exercise with the Indian Navy in 2012.
Photo de l’US Navy

American carriers have always been among rivals’ biggest targets. While the Soviets publicly criticized the carriers as “the oppressor of national liberation movements,” they recognized them as a dominant weapons platform.

This was especially the case after realizing that the air wings of American carriers included planes carrying nuclear payloads.

Declassified CIA documents reveal that in the 1980s, the Soviets rarely criticized carriers in internal discussions and even praised them for their “high combat stability.” A 1979 document stated that aircraft carriers would be “the highest priority in anti-ship attacks” in potential war scenarios, with amphibious assault ships likely close behind.

Plans to deal with the 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 placed emphasis on cruise missile technology and the missile carrying capability on all of its ships – even on its own aircraft carriers.

Soviet Navy class aircraft carrier Kiev Minsk, February 9, 1983.
US Air Force / Le s … Glenn Lindsey

The Soviet Navy’s Tu-16, Tu-95 and Tu-22 bombers were the main air carriers. Nuclear-powered Kynda, Kresta, Slava and Kirov-class cruisers were the main surface delivery platforms.

A multitude of nuclear and diesel-electric powered submarines, such as the Oscar II and Juliett classes, would fire these missiles underwater and on the surface.

But even that may not have been enough. American aircraft carrier defenses and air wings were deemed so powerful by the Soviets that no less than 100 bombers would be sent to attack an aircraft carrier, with losses of up to 50%. The Soviet pilots were not even given detailed flight paths for their return.

There were also concerns that the missiles could be shot down or intercepted, so the Soviets concluded that many must be armed with nuclear warheads.

Decrease in carrier dominance

Navy aircraft carrier USS Nimitz
USS Nimitz departs Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego, June 8, 2020.
US Navy / MCS 2e classe Natalie M. Byers

With the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union, the dominance of American carriers seemed more than assured. These carriers have played a key role in conflicts in which the United States has been involved since the 1990s.

But the post-Cold War order is slowly being challenged – mainly by the meteoric rise in China’s military might, which has implications for the carrier’s dominance.

US carriers are among Beijing’s biggest concerns. Their presence helped deter an invasion of Taiwan in the 1950s, and in 1996 two air battle groups embarrassed China by operating freely around Taiwan during a period of heightened tension, forcing Beijing to recognize U.S. military might.

Since then, China has invested heavily in anti-carrier capabilities. He initially bought a large number of weapons from Russia, including Su-30MKK multirole fighters, 12 Kilo-class attack submarines, and four Sovremenny-class guided missile destroyers.

China DF-26 ballistic missile Tiananmen Gate
DF-26 ballistic missiles pass through the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing during a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II on September 3, 2015.
Andy Wong / Piscine via REUTERS

But missiles have been China’s main target. It has amassed one of the largest and most advanced missile arsenals in the world, 95% of which are outside the limits of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which prohibited the United States and Russia from ” have missiles with a range of between 310 and 3,100 miles. The United States recently withdrew from the treaty and China has never been a party.

The two missiles tested in August were variants of the DF-21 and DF-26, which have ranges of up to 1,300 and 2,400 miles respectively.

Flying higher, faster, and further than Soviet cruise missiles, Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles could overwhelm the missile defenses of an aircraft carrier and its escorts, and force the aircraft carrier to stay far enough away. make his air wing useless.

A US Department of Defense report released this year said China’s missile development was an area where Beijing has “reached parity – if not surpassed – the United States.” ”

New threats

Russian Navy Zircon SS-N-33 hypersonic missile frigate
A Zircon hypersonic cruise missile is launched from the Russian frigate Admiral Groshkov in the White Sea in northern Russia on October 7, 2020.
Russian Defense Ministry press service via AP

Another serious threat is hypersonic missiles.

Capable of flying at speeds above Mach 5 (over 3800 mph), hypersonic missiles are too fast for anti-missile defenses to respond effectively. They can also change direction mid-flight, making interception virtually impossible.

China has two hypersonic weapons in service: the DF-17 and the DF-100. Russia has a number of hypersonic weapons in development, Zircon being the most promising. Russian officials have said they hope they can arm all new Russian Navy ships with hypersonic weapons.

British officials have already expressed concern about the threat Russian hypersonic weapons could pose to their carrier.

“Hypersonic missiles are virtually unstoppable,” a senior British naval source told the Daily Mirror. “In the absence of a method to protect against missiles like the Zircon, the aircraft carrier would have to remain out of range, hundreds of kilometers at sea.”

“Its planes would be useless and the entire base of a carrier 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 prove that the US Navy’s aircraft carriers may not enjoy undisputed dominance any longer.


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