In a recent interview with National Interest, Dave Majumdar asked Adm. John Richardson point blank if US aircraft carriers could operate inside China or Russia’s supposed anti-access area denial (A2AD) zones.
The answer was clear — “Yes.”
“This A2/AD, well, it’s certainly a goal for some of our competitors, but achieving that goal is much different and much more complicated,” said Richardson in the interview.
Asked how the navy would protect carriers, Richardson declined to say exactly for security reasons, but answered generally:
“It’s really a suite of capabilities, but I actually think we’re talking too much in the open about some of the things we’re doing, so I want to be thoughtful about how we talk about things so we don’t give any of our competitors an advantage.”
The Chinese on the other hand, talk openly about the “carrier killer” DF-21D, an indigenously created, precision-guided missile capable of sinking a US aircraft carrier with a single shot, has a phenomenal range of up to 810 nautical miles, while US carriers’ longest-range missiles can travel only about 550 miles away.
Therefore, on paper, the Chinese can deny aircraft carriers the luxury of wading off of their shores and forcing them to operate outside of their effective range.
But Richardson contested that notion when speaking at a Center for a New American Security in June.
“I think there is this long-range precision-strike capability, certainly,” Richardson acknowledged. But “A2/AD is sort of an aspiration. In actual execution, it’s much more difficult.”
China’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities (ISR), bolstered by a massive modernisation push and advanced radar installations on the reclaimed islands in the South China Sea, have theoretically given them the ability to project power for hundreds of miles.
“The combination of ubiquitous ISR, long-range precision-strike weapons takes that to another level and demands a response,” said Richardson, adding that China’s extension into the Pacific created a “suite of capabilities” that were of “pressing concern.”
But the US Navy won’t be defeated or deterred by figures on paper.
“In the cleanest form, the uninterrupted, frictionless plane, you have the ability to sense a target much more capably and quickly around the world, you’ve got the ability, then, to transmit that information back to a weapon system that can reach out at a fairly long range and it is precision-guided … You’re talking about hundreds of miles now, so that raises a challenge.”
“Our response would be to inject a lot of friction into that system at every step of the way [and] look to make that much more difficult,” he continued.
Richardson was clear that China’s purported capabilities were only speculations.
“What you see often is a display of ‘Here’s this launcher, here’s a circle with a radius of 700 miles, and it’s solid-colour black inside’ … And that’s just not the reality of the situation,” he said.
“You’ve got this highly manoeuvrable force that has a suite of capabilities that the force can bring to bear to inject uncertainty,” Richardson continued.
So at the present moment, it seems the US Navy can still travel the globe in confidence, and with the adoption of the F-35C and the MQ-25 Stingray, which both bring their own game-changing technologies, the balance appears ready to tip even further in the US’ favour.
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