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.

A US official previously reported at the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying, “We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us, so our response would be our deterrent force, which would be the triad and the nuclear capabilities that we have to respond to such a threat.”

By early 2020, the US Department of Defense has proposed to boost its development of conventional HGV and “match what our adversaries are doing.”

Look Out for Chinese Anti-ship Missiles

Another way China could take down a US aircraft carrier is by firing its supersonic anti-ship missile, YJ-12, via the Xian H-6K twin-engine jet bomber. It resembles a Russian Kh-31 and is in the corresponding shape to the North Grumman’s GQM-163 Coyote, which is capable of flying up to Mach 3. The air-launched missile can also carry nuclear or conventional payloads, with a 1,100-pound warhead and multi-stage booster.

Accordingly, the YJ-12 poses a threat to the US since it is “outside the range of its ballistic missile defenses for its ships,” including the Aegis Combat System and SM-12 surface-to-air missiles (SAM). In addition, building protection against it came with a challenge due to its “cork-screw-like turns” that allows the projectile to bypass final defenses.

Submarine Hybrid Missiles, Torpedoes

Lastly, China’s arguably best submarine currently in its arsenal, the Type 093 Shang-class submarine could pose a threat. It is a nuclear-powered attack submarine developed in early 1980 and commissioned into the Chinese Navy in the mid-2000s. It has an overall measurement of 107 m in length, 11 m in beam, and 7.5 m in draft, with a displacement of roughly 6,700 t when submerged. The latest variant has an armament of 6×553 mm (21.8 in) torpedo tubes which can also fire both the YJ-82 anti-ship missile and the Yu-6 wire-guided torpedo. The latter is often compared to Lockheed Martin’s MK 48, the US Navy’s most advanced heavyweight torpedo.

What calls for urgency is China’s hybrid missile-torpedo weapon that is said to be capable of traversing into targets without an advanced guidance system and “could cruise up to Mach 2.5 at 10,000 meters for 200 km before the transition to a supersonic sea-skimming mode for 20 km,” Asia Times reported. “Upon reaching the final 10 kilometers to the target, it shifts into supercavitating torpedo mode traveling at 100 meters per second.”

The Chinese lead scientist of the project claimed that no existing shipboard defense systems could protect nor prevent this highly lethal cross-medium attack. This, however, is still in its early stage and is yet to be determined if China will ever fare its *too good to be true* ballistic in actual use.

That being said, a US aircraft carrier is actually a very hard target to sink.  It has hundreds of watertight compartments to check flooding, trained damage control parties, and travels with a strike group armed with various anti-missile radars and missile interceptors. To attack one, China would have to launch enough missiles to overwhelm the long, medium, and short-range defenses of the carrier and her escorts. This is assuming the carrier would even come into range of such weapons. Her airborne early warning aircraft would give her notice of the approaching missiles and allow the carrier to employ its defensive measures.

China doesn’t actually have to sink a carrier to take it out of action though. While an aircraft can technically launch aircraft while stationary with her steam and now electromagnetic catapults, a missile hit that reduces her ability to make speed would hamper recovering those aircraft at landing.

While the US remains superior in naval warfare, there is no denying that adversaries are progressing along, particularly in developing powerful hypersonic missiles, which can be very challenging to defend against. And as the article suggested, anti-submarine counter measures should be considered a top priority before it’s too late.