Magazine article Newsweek

What China's New Missiles Mean for the Future of the Aircraft Carrier; A New Chinese Missile Designed to Destroy an Aircraft Carrier from 900 Miles Away May Demand a Change in U.S. Military Strategy

Magazine article Newsweek

What China's New Missiles Mean for the Future of the Aircraft Carrier; A New Chinese Missile Designed to Destroy an Aircraft Carrier from 900 Miles Away May Demand a Change in U.S. Military Strategy

Article excerpt

Byline: Jonathan Broder

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.

Yet China's new missiles--and fresh intelligence that Russia, Iran and North Korea are working on similar weapons--are prompting an unprecedented debate over the future of carrier-based warfare. Some skeptics now argue these iconic ships and their attack aircraft are out of date. Today's carriers, they note, were built during the Cold War to stay far away from enemy territory yet accommodate heavy, long-range strategic bombers like the A-3 Skywarrior, which could fly up to 2,000 miles to strike targets deep inside the Soviet Union.

But after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, the Navy dropped its requirements for long-range aircraft. Under the assumption that its carriers could sail unchallenged across the world's oceans in a post-Cold War world, the Navy opted for lighter attack aircraft like the F-18 Super Hornet, with a range of no more than 500 miles. That approach worked well until a few years ago, when China fielded its Dongfeng-21D missile, with a range of 900 miles that puts U.S. carriers squarely within its kill zone. …

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