What China’s New Missiles Mean for the Future of the Aircraft Carrier

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Two F-35C Lightning II warplanes prepare to launch from the USS Nimitz. The U.S. Navy plans to buy dozens of the F-35C fighters, but their range is no more than 650 miles.Dane Wiedmann/Lockheed Martin/U.S. Navy

 

 

In late 1995, escalating Chinese threats against Taiwan prompted President Bill Clinton to stage a show of American support for the beleaguered island that Beijing’s leaders couldn’t ignore. Clinton sent two aircraft carrier battle groups steaming into the conflict zone, their heavily armed fighter jets poised on deck for takeoff. One battle group, led by the carrier USS Nimitz, sailed down the middle of the Taiwan Strait, less than 50 miles from the Chinese mainland, while the second stood in reserve off Taiwan’s eastern coast. Chinese officials decried what they called “foreign intervention” in their long-standing claim to Taiwan. But lacking the weapons to deter the American warships, they had little choice but to heed Clinton’s show of force and back away.

China’s loss of face in the Taiwan crisis spurred its development of a long-anticipated family of anti-ship missiles unveiled at a military parade in September. One of the missiles, the Dongfeng-21D, has a maneuverable warhead that can seek and close in on its target at 10 times the speed of sound, making it almost impossible to intercept. According to U.S. naval intelligence, the missile can disable and possibly sink American carriers. Another anti-ship missile in the parade, the YJ-12, skims the surface of the water and then accelerates to more than twice the speed of sound as it homes in on its target.

With Chinese military officials warning their American counterparts of possible clashes in the contested waters of the South China Sea, some military experts are now seriously questioning whether Beijing’s new missiles have rendered the aircraft carriers and their air wings ineffective in the event of a major conflict with China. With the Navy planning to order a new fleet of expensive carriers, key lawmakers are questioning whether that is wisest investment. “We simply cannot afford to pay $12.9 billion for a single ship,” says Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Navy doesn’t like any suggestion that its carriers may be going the way of the tall ship. There is no piece of military hardware more emblematic of American power than the aircraft carrier. While China, Russia and a few other countries have one or two smaller carriers, none approaches the size or capabilities of America’s fleet of 10 so-called supercarriers. These nuclear-powered behemoths, longer than three football fields, and carrying up to 90 warplanes and a crew of 5,000, are seagoing airbases that have projected American power to the farthest corners of the globe since the end of World War II. They are the symbol of American naval power, and the Navy reaffirmed its commitment to the carrier force earlier this month with a request for continued funding of three new Ford-class aircraft carriers in the Pentagon’s $583 billion fiscal 2017 budget proposal.

“The loss of an aircraft carrier, with images of a thousand American dead, or just having it disabled, with all its airplanes and radars knocked out and huge gaping holes in it, is such a heavy political blow that we probably wouldn’t risk it unless it was for the actual defense of the continental United States,” he says. “So we’ve created an asset that we cannot afford to lose because it’s become such an iconic symbol of American power that to have that symbol damaged or destroyed would undermine the legitimacy of America’s role in the world.” And that, he says, is “the calculus that no one in uniform will talk to you about.”

Full article: What China’s New Missiles Mean for the Future of the Aircraft Carrier (Newsweek)

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