Can Aircraft Carriers Survive Hypersonic Weapons?

Author:Harper, Jon

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 tided, "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...

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