Since WW2, the American carriers have given the USN dominance over the world’s oceans. Indeed, the power of these ships is etched on the Chinese thought process after two such carrier groups combined and sailed through the Taiwan Strait in the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis and forced the Chinese to back down. Consequently, negating American carrier power has been a principal goal of the PLAN since that 1996.
The USN carrier battle groups currently have three layers of defence to counter air and missile attacks. The outer layer extends to 500 Nm and is provided by the 65 to 70 planes of the carrier air group which offer a forward defence. Although, the number of fighters in the air at any one time would be limited when operating in a sustained mode with combat air patrols to allow for 24-hour coverage. The next defensive layer extends out to 60 Nm and is provided by the missiles from the warship escort. Each battle group has a single cruiser and two destroyers as its escort. Each of the Arleigh Burke Flight II destroyes carries 96 missiles in its type 41 vertical launching system (VLS), whilst the single Ticonderoga class cruiser carries 122 missiles in its two type 41 vertical launching system (VLS). This is a total of 314 missiles per group assuming only surface-to-air missiles are carried and there are no surface-to-surface missiles for ship-to-ship defence (which is very unlikely). Then there is the last ditch close in layer of defence provided by sea-whiz and its radar controlled Gatling guns with a range of 3 Nm.
Thus, it would be safe to say that if the Chinese managed to launch a combined 500 missile strike of YJ-18 supersonic cruise missiles (with a 280 Nm range) and DF-21s/24s missiles at a carrier group, the attack would almost inevitably saturate the defence system and destroy the carrier. In terms of break-even cost analysis, a carrier group with its ships and planes costs about $10 billion. So as long as the Chinese can build missiles at average cost that is lower than $20 million per missile (which is entirely possible), then they will have a significant advantage.
The paradigm is not dissimilar to the Royal Navy’s experience in the Falklands where its fleet off the Falkland Islands became vulnerable to only a few Exocet sea-skimming missiles and massed air attacks, in an echo that went back to the loss of HMS Renown and HMS Prince of Wales to Japanese air attacks.
This vulnerability to air attacks came about as the Type 42 air defence destroyers were equipped with Sea Dart missiles that could extend out to 35 Nm and cope with not more than four aircraft simultaneously, making them vulnerable to saturation attacks. Furthermore, the Sea Dart was unable to cope with a very limited number of sea-skimming Exocet missiles bought from the French. The only ship that could counter the sea skimmers were the Type 22 frigates equipped with the Sea Wolf point-defence system. However, that required the frigate to be between the Exocet and its target. Thus, during this amphibious war, The Royal Navy learnt a very hard lesson as to the vulnerability of its ships during missile attacks. To the credit of the Royal Navy, the result was the Type 45 destroyer which is arguabley the best air defence destroyer in the world. However, it too has only a limited magazine capacity that would be exhausted after two minutes of firing some 100 missiles. Meanwhile, the USN Aegis System with its standard missiles was the answer to such mass USSR attacks, but today it too has become vulnerable to being overwhelmed. The potential solutions the USN could field to solve this threat are:
1. Increase the ratio of cruisers and destroyers to each carrier in a battle group.
2. Introduce an extra layer of defence with drone frigates positioned 100 Nm from the carrier, with weapons that can be remotely launched by the destroyers. These ships would operate in a passive mode as an outer picket line and launch platform with a limited point-defence capability.
3. Deploy greater numbers of ready to launch missiles across the battle group, at the carriers and aboard ships with sufficient internal volume to increase the number of missiles in a salvo. This concept is known as distributed lethality.
4. Convert a number of Independence-class littoral mission combat ships into battery ships with the Type 41 VLS System that can be added to the distributed lethality concept and then controlled by the destroyers and cruisers. The high speed of these ships would allow them to move to the optimum location in the fleet to maximise their function.
5. Deploy rail guns that can kill missiles quickly in the 25 to 45 km envelope, with a cheap and abundant ammunition supply. With their rapid-fire capability and hypersonic launch velocity, rail guns would be a very effective addition to the battle group's defence.
6. Deploy new lasers aboard all ships for close protection. Again these are cheap multi-shot solutions that balance the threat of saturation attacks.
All six solutions are very attainable in the near future, but they require either investment or innovation in some combination. In the case of the latter, the rail guns and lasers would provide a major technical advantage on the battlefield.
In the missile versus carrier example, the Chinese are using their advantage to weaken a core military carrier capability. However, if the USN turned the tables to submarine warfare that could allow them to constrict Chinese trade and deny access to the PLN in the China Sea and the cost-benefit analysis could be turned in the USN advantage. Submarine warfare is an area where America is an undisputed leader. Thus, the proposed 18 new attack subs planned are a step in the right direction, but perhaps with the new air-independent submarine technology, the USN navy should boost its numbers with a new conventional fleet that mirrors the kilo class fleet of the PLAN. Such subs are ideally suited to the confined waters around the islands of the South China Seas. This would then free up the SSNs to protect the carrier groups, as the current one or two allocated to a carrier group will inevitably have to be strengthened to four or five when facing the treat from large PLAN submarine fleet in the region.
Therefore, the key takeaway is that the USN will not only need a massive budget increase, but will have to be creative to maintain an advantage over the rising PLN who are themselves thinking creatively as to how to use asymmetry to their advantage. This could extend to small stealthy escort carriers that have fold back, covered flight decks which are able to launch the stealthy F-35Bs. Such a combination would allow operations in high-risk littoral zones as the vanguard of the main strike fleet that could work alongside the new stealthy Zumwalt destroyers. However, one thing is for sure, that whatever forms these new innovations take, it is not just the US Navy, but all arms of the US military that will have to become more creative and then keep the new innovations out of Chinese hands if the USA are to win this new arms race.