A Chinese bomber flying over the Western Pacific launches hypersonic anti-ship missiles. The weapons quickly surpass a speed of Mach 5 and maneuver unpredictably toward their target. Overwhelming U.S. defensive systems, they slam into the hull of the USS Gerald R. Ford, disabling the aircraft carrier and sending its crew scrambling for their lives.
That is a potential scenario the Navy could face in the coming years as Washington and Beijing are locked in great power competition in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
Aircraft carriers are viewed by many as the Navy’s crown jewels.
“Naval aviation has grown during the last century into the primary offensive arm of the U.S. Navy and the centerpiece of the American fleet,” noted a recent report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments titled, “Regaining the High Ground at Sea: Transforming the U.S. Navy’s Carrier Air Wing for Great Power Competition.”
Carrier battle groups include ships equipped with advanced air-and-missile defense systems such as Aegis. But hypersonics pose a unique threat compared to traditional ballistic and cruise missiles, analysts say.
Although today’s ballistic missiles can achieve hypersonic speeds, they tend to follow a predictable flight path that is easier to track.
“The big difference between a traditional ballistic missile and these hypersonic boost glides is the trajectory and the ability to maneuver,” said Tom Callender, senior research fellow for naval warfare and advanced technologies at the Heritage Foundation and a former Navy officer.
“You can’t predict from its initial boost necessarily where it’s going,” he added. “In theory, you … can maneuver off its initial ballistic track potentially several hundred miles, [and come in] a different way” than defenders are expecting.
Traditional cruise missiles can be highly maneuverable, but the air-breathing systems typically fly at subsonic speeds — a small fraction of the velocity that hypersonic boost glide and scramjet missiles could achieve. Defenders would therefore have much less time to intercept incoming hypersonic weapons, Callender noted.
The CSBA report warned that the new missiles would significantly lower or negate the effectiveness of U.S. air defenses even if the carrier strike group were operating as far as 1,000 nautical miles from the launch site. Anti-ship weapons may be able to speed past interceptors, while their flight paths could exploit seams between current high- and low-altitude U.S. air-and-missile defense systems, it explained.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson has downplayed the threat.
“Rather than talking about the vulnerability of the aircraft carrier … we should think about it as perhaps the most survivable airfield in the region,” he said at a recent Brookings Institution event when National Defense asked him about the new Chinese weapons and how the Navy plans to counter them.
The vessels are less vulnerable now than they have been since World War II, he said, noting the threat posed by the Soviet Union’s submarine fleet during the Cold War.
Richardson declined to go into specifics about how the Navy might thwart enemy hypersonics.
“As you can imagine, it gets very highly classified,” he said.
Through a combination of operational concepts and defensive systems “those carriers are able to have a big impact on the operational space and continue to survive,” he added.
But other Pentagon leaders are sounding the alarm.
The threat posed by hypersonics featured prominently in the Trump administration’s missile defense review that was released in January, and Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin has warned repeatedly that the Chinese weapons could hold carrier battle groups at risk.
The systems have already achieved initial operating capability, he said at a breakfast hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association. “We need to be able to defend against the threat,” he told reporters after the breakfast.
Callender said faster interceptors might be needed. The Pentagon is already exploring options.
The Missile Defense Agency has completed an analysis of alternatives for hypersonic defense, Air Force Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, the director of the agency, said during a recent Q&A session at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The study is “essentially assessing the current suite of available interceptors to see if they are fast enough to get to the target and win the tail chase, as you might say,” Greaves said.
The analysis is in final review within the Defense Department and should be released soon, he said in February.
“We have worked with industry to assess available interceptors as well as potential new interceptors to execute that mission,” Greaves said. “If it is determined after that coordinated review that the current suite will not meet the need, … we will need to develop something else.”
Directed energy weapons are another option being looked at, he noted.
Meanwhile, the Navy has been pursuing hypervelocity projectiles that could be launched from electromagnetic railguns or powder guns. They are smaller and cheaper than interceptor missiles, and a ship could carry more of them, Callender noted. The projectiles could contribute to point defense and increase the carrier battle group’s capacity to handle thick salvos of enemy hypersonic weapons, he said.
The CSBA report said shipboard lasers, high-powered microwaves and electronic warfare systems could also potentially contribute to the mission.
Callender said the military could use electronic jamming, decoys or other methods of spoofing to complicate the task of enemy shooters.
SM-3 interceptor (Navy)
“You have to be able to target and find that aircraft carrier … thousands of miles away,” he explained. In a high threat environment, the vessel would be maneuvering and changing its course and speed, he noted.
“You can be doing things to jam [enemy] comms so they can’t get that information back to the mainland, or wherever those launchers are,” he added. “Anything I can do to create doubt in or interrupt his being able to find, fix, target … increases my ability to survive any potential attack.”
The CSBA report said Navy aircraft performing combat air patrols could potentially shoot down incoming missiles before they reach the carrier strike group.
“Hypersonic [anti-ship cruise missile] intercepts will be challenging, but may be possible … using high-performance [air-to-air missiles] designed to intercept supersonic aircraft,” the report said.
However, interceptors are useless without sensors that can track threats and provide targeting information. That’s why defense officials are keen on developing a more robust sensor layer, including in space.
“With the newer threats, the maneuvering threats, the hypersonic threats, we need birth-to-death tracking,” Greaves said during a briefing with reporters at the Pentagon when the missile defense review was released.
“We need to know where it originated, where it’s going, what maneuvers it’s making so that we can position our intercept capability to interdict the target and defeat it,” he noted.
Griffin said Chinese and Russian regional hypersonic capabilities pose unique challenges in this regard.
“These are dimmer targets, more difficult to see,” he said. “We have to be closer to the action in order to do a good job of it. We also have to have a much broader range of coverage.
“In order to do that, we think the best approach is a network of satellites.”
How many spacecraft would be needed and what orbit they would be stationed in are still to be determined, he added.
Funding for the technology will be included in the fiscal year 2020 budget request, he noted.
Griffin said countering hypersonic weapons is a top priority and the Pentagon hopes to have a “workable” defensive capability by the mid-2020s.
But sometimes the best defense is a good offense, analysts noted.
“The most effective contribution [carrier-based] aircraft could make would be to destroy some or all enemy weapons platforms before they launch their weapons,” the CSBA report said. The tactic would be the modern day equivalent of “attacking the archers before they launch their arrows.”
To address the threat, carrier strike groups could implement a new “outer air battle” operating concept, which would use carrier air wings and escort ships to attack enemy vessels and bombers before they were able to fire their anti-ship missiles, the report said.
Callender said the Navy could use its own hypersonic weapons in the future to preemptively take out enemy systems including mobile launchers.
“Another advantage of hypersonics over a traditional cruise missile is I can get there much faster … if I don’t have much time to react,” he said.
If “I see the launcher, it’s setting up to be getting ready to shoot, I may not have an hour-plus that it would take a Tomahawk to get there” depending on the target distance, he added. “But if I can get a hypersonic missile there in … 10, 15, 20 minutes, that may be sufficient.”
The Navy — as well as the Air Force and Army — is already pursuing its own offensive hypersonics capability.
In January, Naval Air Systems Command put out a solicitation to industry for potential sources to upgrade and redesign the existing test complex at China Lake, California, to support air launch testing for a “conventional prompt strike” weapons program.
There is also a requirement for conceptual design and operation of an underwater test complex, the solicitation noted.
The air-launch and underwater-launch test complex “will not only aid in the conceptual design of a new weapons system through qualification of hardware, various components and systems, but will also provide risk mitigation for the testing of the new weapons system on a ship, submarine, aircraft and land to achieve the hypersonic capability,” the solicitation said.
Industry responses were due Jan. 30.
In addition to acquiring new missiles, the Navy also needs to adapt its carrier air wing to better protect its ships and operate more effectively in anti-access environments against peer adversaries, analysts say.
The Navy plans to deploy new unmanned MQ-25 Stingrays on carriers in the coming years, but their mission will be focused on aerial refueling. The service also needs survivable, long-endurance carrier-launched drones that can perform a variety of tasks including intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, targeting and combat air patrols, the CSBA report said. The unmanned aerial vehicles should have payloads on par with existing attack aircraft, it noted.
“If the Navy is unable to transform its [carrier air wings], Navy leaders should reconsider whether to continue investing in carrier aviation or shift the fleet’s resources to more relevant capabilities,” the report said.
However, Callender expects carrier battle groups and air wings to adapt to the emerging hypersonic threat, just as they did to Japanese kamikazes in World War II and Soviet bombers equipped with anti-ship missiles during the Cold War.
“I don’t think this is the end of the carrier,” he said.
“I don’t want people to throw in the towel … with China or Russia saying, ‘Oh, that’s it. Game over. We’re done,’” he added. “It makes the problem a little harder, but it’s not insurmountable and we’re already working ahead to adapt and overcome and regain advantages in there. It’s not going to be easy … but it’s not the doomsday that I think some people will have you believe.”