IMAGINE: China sinks one of the United States Navy’s aircraft carriers. The unlikely scenario would surely trigger panic, or worse, the beginning of the Third World War, wouldn’t it?

In recent years, China has undeniably made progress in advancing its military equipment into a more capable and, if I dare say, lethal—from improving its hypersonic missiles to developing hybrid torpedos. China could reportedly sink a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier in five ways: carrier ballistic missiles, hypersonic glide vehicles, anti-ship missiles, and hybrid cruise missiles or torpedoes. Let’s take a closer look at each of these methods.

Carrier-killing Missiles

Among the recent weapon development and addition to the Chinese military inventory are its carrier-killing missiles DF-21D (NATO reporting name CSS-5 Mod-4) and DF-26. Both mobile launchers are capable of hitting moving targets between 1,000 to 2,500 miles away.

Developed sometime between the late 1960s to mid-80s, a Dong Feng (DF)-21 is a medium- and/or intermediate-range ballistic missile (MRBM/IRBM). It is identified as China’s first solid-fuel land-based missile, intended initially as a strategic weapon. However, its current version, the DF-21D, was identified as designed to accommodate nuclear and conventional missions by the US National Air and Space Intelligence Center in 2009. Moreover became the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) with the capacity to be an anti-satellite weapon/anti-missile weapon carrier at a maximum range of more than 900 miles. In 2010, former US Pacific Command Chief Admiral Robert F. Willard “made an alarming but little-noticed disclosure” to the legislators regarding China’s development and testing of the DF-21D “designed specifically to target aircraft carriers,” which the US has “currently … no defense against it” and remain to pose a threat to US operations in the Pacific.

DF-21D missile
A DF-21D missile, as seen after the military parade in Beijing on September 3, 2015. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

DF-26, on the other hand, is an upgraded version of the DF-21 with a range of over 2,500 miles that was confirmed to exist in the mid-2010s and reported to have fired as a response to a US U-2 spy plane in August 2020 when it entered a no-fly zone during a Chinese live-fire naval drill.

China’s Hypersonic Glide Vehicles

The next potent missile China could threaten a US aircraft carrier with is its DF-17 which mounts the DF-ZF (WU-14) Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV). It made its public debut in 2019 and was said to be capable of flying from Mach 5 to Mach 10, with a maximum range of more than 1,500 miles. Like DF-21D and DF-26, the DF-17 can also carry a nuclear or conventional payload. Subsequently, a retired Japanese army general, Nozomu Yoshitomi, told Reuters that the HGV could cause existing defenses from the US and Japan to become obsolete, and “if we do not acquire a more sophisticated ballistic missile defense system, it will become impossible […] to respond,” Yoshitomi said.