In recent years, both China and Russia have begun deploying ballistic missiles that were developed with one specific target in mind: America’s massive super carriers. As the most potent means of American force projection, Nimitz and Ford class super carriers provide the U.S. with a platform to launch air strikes from aircraft like the Super Hornet and forthcoming F-35C, serving as the nation’s “big stick” when engaging in diplomatic efforts like the pursuit of North Korean denuclearization.
China’s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, in particular, is a hypersonic platform that could easily circumvent the Navy’s existing missile defense apparatus and, provided it was fed with good targeting data, could sink an encroaching aircraft carrier nearly a thousand miles away from Chinese shores. America’s carrier-based aircraft, on the other hand, have an operational range of only about 500 miles – creating a significant capability gap that renders American carriers obsolete in a potential conflict with China.
As a result, the United States has launched a number of initiatives aimed as offsetting this capability gap and reasserting its carriers as the most formidable military presence on the globe.
American Defense Officials are finally taking their concerns about these missiles to lawmakers.
“China has fielded or can field … hypersonic delivery systems for conventional prompt strike than can reach out thousands of kilometers from the Chinese shore, and hold our carrier battle groups or our forward deployed forces … at risk,” Mike Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering told Congress earlier this month.
“We, today, do not have systems which can hold them at risk in a corresponding manner, and we don’t have defenses against those systems,” Griffin said, adding that “should they choose to deploy them we would be, today, at a disadvantage.
You can read more about Mike Griffin’s testimony regarding China’s hypersonic anti ship missiles in the story: Defense official to Congress on China’s carrier-killer missiles: ‘We will not see them coming’
The Navy plans to field carrier based refueler drones to extend aircraft ranges.
The U.S. Navy’s MQ-25 Stingray program intends to offset part of the capability gap presented by the range of China”s anti-ship missiles by deploying carrier-based drones that can refuel Super Hornets and F-35 mid-flight. Boeing, Lockheed Martin and General Atomics all have drones in the competition, and the Navy expects to come to a decision within the coming months.
The basic requirements Lockheed and other competitors need to fill in order to be selected for the Navy contract include the ability to deliver about 15,000 pounds of fuel to aircraft located 500 miles from the carrier. It is expected, however, that most of the entries will offer some level of modular upgradability, allowing the drone craft to be refit as time goes on to adapt to new mission requirements and potentially even fill the surveillance role the Sea Ghost once hoped to claim.
You can read more about how drones can extend the range of carrier based aircraft in the story: How an unarmed drone could help America regain the advantage in near-peer warfare
They’re also increasing fuel storage on upgraded super hornets.
This month, Boeing began work on upgrading the Navy’s fleet of F/1-18 Super Hornets to the Block III configuration. According to Boeing, the Block III conversation will include a number of upgrades aimed at making the updated Super Hornets among the most capable fighters and attack aircraft in the skies today.
Among the changes will be a new cockpit control system, a new suite communications systems, and improvements on the aircraft’s radar signature. The Block III’s will also be equipped with new conformal fuel tanks that hug the fuselage of the aircraft to limit any increase in radar signature while dramatically increasing the fighter’s range.
Aside from added capibilities, the upgrades are expected to keep the Navy’s Super Hornets operational for an additional 10-15 years.
You can learn more about the Block III upgrades underway on America’s fleet of Super Hornets in the story: Boeing set to begin Block III upgrades on the Navy’s fleet of Super Hornets
The Marines are training to “hot load” F-35s inside enemy controlled territory.
According to retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Berke, a former F-35 squadron commander, the F-35B’s short runway requirements make it uniquely suited for field-expedient resupplies akin to pit stops you might have seen in NASCAR and Formula 1 racing. Using V-22 Ospreys and CH-53 Sea Stallions, the U.S. could send support troops and equipment to any mostly flat stretch of territory, where F-35Bs could land vertically and be resupplied with the jet still running. Once fully equipped with fuel and munitions, the Joint Strike Fighter could take off on a short runway and get back in the fight, all without leaving China’s denied-access bubble created by their anti-ship missiles.
The Marine Corps has already tested the F-35Bs ability to land on sloped surfaces, and last year, the Marine Corps started training for both “hot loading” (loading new ordnance on a recently landed and still running F-35s) and “aviation-delivered ground refueling,” which is refueling the aircraft using fuel stores delivered by heavy payload helicopters.
You can read more about how “hot loading” could help keep F-35s in the fight without carriers close by in the article: War with China would mean ‘hot loading’ ordnance on F-35Bs in the field without returning to a carrier
Lockheed Martin is developing air launched hypersonic missiles that could take out anti-ship defenses.
This month, Lockheed Martin — developer of both of America’s 5th generation fighters and storied defense contractor — was announced as the winner of a massive $928 Million contract with its sights set on developing a hypersonic missile platform of our own. Specifically, an air-launched hypersonic platform that could help offset the operational gap presented Russian and Chinese missiles.
An aircraft launched hypersonic missile could allow American fighters an opportunity to engage anti-ship missile platforms from the air, without bringing the carriers themselves within range. Once the anti-ship defenses had been neutralized, carrier strike groups could close in for a more conventional assault.
This methodology would not be all that different from the strategy currently employed when conducting air campaigns over enemy nations: first take out the air defenses, then bring the pain in the form of less stealthy bombers and the like.
You can read more about Lockheed’s hypersonic missile program in the story: Lockheed Martin tasked with billion dollar initiative to develop American hypersonic missiles
But China is also broadening their efforts, mounting anti-ship missiles on heavy bombers.
China may already be working on a way to offset any progress the Navy might be making. New images have surfaced on Chinese social media that seem to show a People’s Liberation Air Force’s Xian H-6 bomber converted to carry one specific weapon: China’s formidable DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile. American initatives could be significantly hampered by the use of aircraft-launched DF-21Ds, which could fly within the existing area denial bubble created by land based platforms nearly continuously thanks to airborne refueling, and extend that bubble by as much as another 900 miles.
Perhaps most disconcerting of all, however, is the potential for this combination to be used as an offensive weapon rather than a defensive one. With a fuel range in excess of 3,700 miles, a modified H-6D bomber armed with a DF-21D missile could acquire targeting data from a network of drones, manned aircraft and satellite reconnaissance, pursue an American aircraft carrier and fire the missile all while remaining safely hundreds of miles outside of the carrier’s response range.
You can learn more about what this development means for American defenses in the article: New images suggest China is preparing to field a carrier-hunter we may not yet be able to defend against
Feature image courtesy of the U.S. Navy