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NavWeek: Ballistic Bombast


China may be able to take out an American aircraft carrier with its feared DF-21 antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) without even taking a shot.

For years the U.S. Navy has been warning of the potential of the DF-21 to strike a carrier as part of the justification for updating the systems and networks of shielding that protect the country’s most visible – and some say most vulnerable – military icons.

The Navy brass did a good job making its case. Maybe too good. Now some powerful people in DC are looking to reduce the fleet by a carrier or two in the belief that the DF-21 will make it too dangerous for the ships even to get close to Chinese territorial waters. Indeed, the thinking goes, the Navy won’t even be willing to risk a multibillion-dollar carrier and its air wing to get close enough to China to be operationally, tactically or strategically effective.

This would be Navy failure in an anti-access aerial denial (A2AD) scenario writ large. Cutting out a carrier from the shipbuilding or overhaul plan because of such concerns would strike at the heart of the nation’s forward-presence strategy, especially in the great maritime expanses of the Asia-Pacific.

The Navy is now doing a carrier study for lawmakers to analyze the cost and operations for the biggest U.S. ships. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee, says he wants to look hard at carriers and their air wings.

It certainly makes sense to do so – and often. When ships alone start to cost $12.9 billion for a new model, the Navy and the nation need to make sure the vessels are worth the investment, especially if the DF-21 can do all that some fear it can do.

There’s something else to keep in mind as well.  U.S. carriers would have more to worry about than one or two DF-21s descending from the sky. The Chinese have quivers full of missiles to fire from shore, sea and air – more, in theory, than the American ship shields could handle.

But the U.S. Navy has quite a few points in its favor, too. Carriers do not sail alone and unafraid anywhere. They are protected from missile attacks by Aegis combat systems on cruisers and, and from torpedoes by frigates and submarines. Navy officials have touted their “system of systems” for years now – it’s become a cliché. But that does not mean it’s ineffective.

The truth is that this is not the first missile rodeo the U.S. has had to face down. Aegis was developed and perfected in no small part to counter the threat of the Soviet Union on the high-seas. True, the American-Soviet missile minuet never played out, but the U.S. became very adept at gaming and developing strategies and tactics for such scenarios.

China has the benefit now of more money and better technology than the Soviets. But the U.S.S.R. had experience. They had proven their military mettle through the years. That’s what the U.S. Navy has going for it now as well: experience, history and training that provide an intangible but very real edge in a conflict with Chinese forces that have yet to step into a real ring, at least not like this. There’s little doubt that both sides would get bloody, especially in the early rounds. Veteran fighters – like the U.S. – know how to survive.

But one mustn’t forget that the Chinese are ancient masters of winning fights without even climbing through the ropes. This could prove to be the case with the DF-21, which has yet to track its first U.S. carrier.

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What's Ares?

Aviation Week editors blog their personal views on the defense industry.

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