Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Zachary Wheeler
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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven
(Washington, D.C.) The U.S. Navy is now operating three aircraft carriers in the Pacific in what appears to be a strong show of force following Chinese movements and comments regarding Taiwan and the South China Sea.
The move, which includes the USS Theodore Roosevelt, USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan, brings an usually strong U.S. presence. This kind of message has not been seen in recent years, and it signals the fast-increasing significance of U.S. deterrence efforts regarding China. A report in the International Business Times states that a three-carrier mission has not happened in about three years. The development clearly seems to relate to recently increasing tensions between the U.S. and China regarding the Coronavirus pandemic and Chinese maritime maneuvers regarding Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Chinese officials, according to a report in Beijing’s Global Times newspaper, cited China’s strong opposition to the movements, saying “China could counter it by holding military drills and showing its ability and determination to safeguard its territorial integrity.” The Global Times, a Chinese-backed paper, also makes specific reference to China’s well known “carrier killer” DF-21D and DF-26 anti-ship missiles. Much has been discussed regarding these weapons, as they are regularly reported to operate with a range of 900 miles, a distance which some say could force U.S. carriers to operate at much farther standoff ranges. However, while there is possibly not very much known about the technical maturity and guidance systems of these weapons, Navy leaders have been clear that its carriers will operate “anywhere” needed in international waters.
This kind of scenario regularly invites debates, speculation and strategic discussion regarding the sustained functional utility of aircraft carriers. Navy studies consistently explore alternative configurations for future carriers to follow the first three or four Ford-class ships now in development. Perhaps the service will engineer smaller, faster, more agile carriers or continue to expand the use of carrier-launched drones with greater ranges.
At the same time, carriers are unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon for a number of reasons. First, the reported range of these kinds of Chinese carrier killer missiles does not present as serious of a threat to closer-in carriers unless it has precision-guidance systems and an ability to hit moving targets. Also, while much is naturally not discussed for understandable security reasons, the U.S. Navy continues to rapidly advance new technologies improving its layered ship defense systems. Carriers regularly travel in strike groups, meaning they are defended by destroyers, cruisers and various airborne surveillance and attack assets. Secondly, the Navy continues to make rapid strides arming its surface ships with new laser weapons and advanced EW systems likely to “jam” incoming missiles, stopping them, destroying their trajectory or simply throwing them off course.
Furthermore, the Navy’s layered defense system not only includes new longer-range aerial, space and ship-based sensors, but deck-fired interceptors continue to receive software upgrades, making them far more accurate. For instance, the Navy’s SM-6 missiles and Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile Block II are now engineered with software and sensor upgrades which enable them to better discern and destroy approaching “moving targets.” SM-6 technical upgrades, for example, engineer a “dual-mode” seeker into the weapon itself which enables it to better distinguish moving targets and adjust in flight to destroy them. The ESSM Block II, also, has a sea-skimming mode which allows the interceptor to destroy approaching missiles flying parallel to the surface at lower altitudes. Some newer, advanced interceptors, by extension, no longer rely purely upon a ship-based illuminator but rather semi-autonomously receive electronic “pings” and make in-flight adjustments to destroy an approaching anti-ship missile.
New aerial sensors as well, such as advanced drones and the ISR-capable F-35C are likely to be successful in proving an “aerial node” surveillance asset able to help cue surface commanders of approaching missiles. They would also help ships attack and, in some instances, intercept or destroy an approaching anti-ship missile from the air. In fact, this very capability is already deployed by U.S. Navy destroyers; it is called Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air. This is a system that uses an aerial node such as a Hawkeye surveillance plane or even F-35 to detect approaching threats from beyond the horizon, network with ship-based command and control, and enable a well-guided SM-6 interceptor missile to take out the approaching missile at long ranges.
What all of this means is that, despite Chinese claims that its carrier killer missiles make carriers “obsolete,” there does not seem to be much assurance that carrier groups could not successfully defend against them. This would be particularly true should carriers be flanked by well-armed DDG 51 destroyers. Perhaps these factors may be part of why U.S. Navy leaders continue to say its carriers can successfully operate wherever they need to. Finally, successful intercept of 900-nautical mile anti-ship missiles may prove to be less pressing with the arrival of the carrier-launched MQ-25 Stingray refueler which, at very least, promises to nearly double the attack range of deck-launched fighters such as the F-35C and F/A-18 Super Hornet.
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As part of its operations in the Pacific, the U.S. Navy is preparing for expansive two-carrier attacks in the Pacific by connecting the USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Groups for combined operations near the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. .
The exercise, which is of course not planning any attacks or specific war moves, is intended to ensure that U.S. carrier power-projection is ready, capable and highly functional should it need to launch coordinated combat operations in the area..
Navy commanders are referring to this a specific effort to sustain “readiness” in a highly “pressurized region,” of course acknowledging the current U.S.-Chinese tension.
“This is a great opportunity for us to train together in a complex scenario,” Rear Adm. Doug Verissimo, commander of Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 9, said in a Navy report. “By working together in this environment, we’re improving our tactical skills and readiness in the face of an increasingly pressurized region and COVID-19.”
Thestrike groupswill support air defense drills, sea surveillance, replenishments at sea, defensive air combat training, long range strikes, coordinated maneuvers and other exercises, the Navy statement explained.
While not the first time the Navy has conducted dual-strike group operations in the Pacific, the maneuvers are not without technical and strategic challenges. Multi-carrier attack succeeds by virtue of elaborate networking, command and control and air-confliction efforts, while also delivering a massive advantage to maritime attack options by, essentially, doubling fire power, surveillance potential and weapons capability.
Not only do these types of operations extend the Navy’s ability to attack inland targets to a larger extent, extend target-searching dwell time and enable coordinated, multi-platform strikes, but they also greatly improve destroyer-and-cruiser launched missile attacks. Each Carrier Strike Group consists of a carrier, cruiser and two destroyers, bringing a large, integrated combination of sea-launched assets.
For instance, a destroyer could launch Tomahawk missiles at predetermined land targets from long distances to soften up or prepare a land target area for approaching F-18s or F-35Cs. Concurrently, destroyers could protect the carriers from ballistic missile attacks or even approaching enemy aircraft attacks with SM-3, SM-2 or SM-6 missiles fired from Vertical Launch Systems. Also as part of this kind of weapons-configuration, Navy destroyers and cruisers are armed with EW systems, lasers and a range of closer-in air defense systems as well, such as SeaRAM, Rolling Airframe, Close-in-weapons systems and Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles to fight off anti-ship missiles, small boats or approaching surface vessels.
Given this tactical equation, it seems self-evident that multi-ship networking and integrated command and control would be needed to optimize offensive and defensive combat options. One ship in the fleet might use radar to identify far away targets before passing information to another ship or carrier commander working on target coordination for air-launched attacks. These kinds of networked operations are increasingly possible as technology evolves, given that the Navy is in the process of deploying far-more sensitive radar, new attack systems, longer-range weapons and sensors and more precise missiles able to change-course in flight as needed. The Maritime Tomahawk, for instance, is an emerging weapon now able to destroy moving targets, a development which massively expands ship-commanders’ attack options. Not only can Tomahawks destroy fixed inland targets from distances as far as 900 miles, but the missiles can now take-out moving surface ships from similar distances. Also, an ability to hit moving surface and land targets is now possible with other deck-fired weapons as well, such as an ESSM II or SM-6. This changes the tactical equation as it offers commanders new options with which to conduct open, blue-water warfare on the open sea against moving surface ships, freeing up air fighters potentially more vulnerable to counterfire from enemy ships.
Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.