The age of aircraft carriers could be coming to an end

Aircraft carrierUS Navy PhotoTwo F-18’s flow over the USS Carl Vinson.

Since World War II, flat-topped aircraft carriers have been the backbone of US power projection and military might at sea, but a new generation of long-range missiles being developed by the US’s adversaries could push these mechanical marvels off the front lines.

The US’s massive aircraft carriers have a problem. The F-18s aboard US aircraft carriers have a range of about 500 nautical miles, as Ben Ho Wan Beng notes at the US Naval Institute.

The incoming F-35Cs are expected to have a marginally better range of about 550 nautical miles.

Meanwhile, China’s aptly named DF-21 “Carrier Killer” anti-ship ballistic missile is said to have a range of 810 nautical miles, and is capable of sinking an entire 1,100 foot carrier with 70 aircraft and 6,000 sailors on board.

Such long-range anti-ship missiles create anti-access/area denial areas (also established in the Baltics by Russia) wherein the US can’t position it’s most powerful assets, the aircraft carriers.

Thusly, aircraft carriers, which have been the star of the show since their emergence during World War II, may end up taking a back seat to smaller vessels.

The US Navy has long been working towards achieving “distributed lethality,” or a strategy that entails arming even the smallest ship with long-range missiles capable of knocking out enemy defences from far away. Engaging enemies with smaller ships also helps to keep extraordinarily valuable targets like carriers out of harm’s way.

Dong feng 21d DF 21d china military paradeWilliam Ide via Wikimedia CommonsThe DF-21D rolls through China’s 2015 military parade.

In fact, the Navy plans to have at least 40 Littoral Combat Ships with a “full suite of anti-ship and anti-submarine sensors and weapons … Plus such improvements as a medium-range ‘over the horizon’ missile to sink enemy ships,” as Breaking Defence notes.

So instead of putting a carrier in harm’s way, the Navy would likely look to use longer ranged platforms, like cruiser-destroyers that carry the Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile, which have a range of about 900 nautical miles.

USS William P. Lawrence guided missile destroyerUS Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nathan BurkeThe guided-missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence (DDG 110) steams toward San Diego Harbour.

In the end, a Carrier Strike Group would no longer lead with the carrier.

Instead, Destroyers firing Tomahawk missiles would initiate the attacks, softening up enemy anti-access/area-denial capabilities before the big carriers moved in closer to shore.

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