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The End of the Aircraft Carrier?

Or just one more threat to counter?

1:33 PM, Aug 12, 2010 • By STUART KOEHL
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Assuming that a missile does acquire the carrier, there are a variety of active and passive countermeasures the carrier battle group can employ:  electronic and infrared jamming; decoy deployment; maneuvering; and, of course, shooting back.  The Standard Missile SM-3 now deployed on Ticonderoga class cruisers and Improved Arleigh Burke class destroyers was designed specifically to engage theater ballistic missiles in their midcourse (free-fall) phase; they have proven very effective in tests.  The Navy is also developing a shorter-range missile based on the Army's Patriot PAC-3 for "terminal defense."  Each cruiser and destroyer will, presumably, carry a dozen or more of these missiles for the defense of the carrier.  The AEGIS fire control system's Cooperative Engagement Capability will allow the netting of all the sensors in the battle group with external sensors (satellites, reconnaissance aircraft, land-based tracking radar, etc.) to obtain an early and optimal firing solution on any incoming missiles.  Assuming two SM-3s and two short-range missiles are aimed at each incoming DF-21, a kill probability in excess of 90 percent is likely.

But, assuming that a missile did penetrate all the defenses of the battle group, what damage could it do?  If it has a conventional warhead, probably not enough to sink the ship, though it might do serious damage.  A lot depends on how large its explosive payload is, how fast it is moving when it hits, and where on the ship it impacts.

The only way to ensure a carrier kill is to use a nuclear warhead--and if the Chinese do that, all bets are off.  Would the Mandarins of Beijing risk a massive U.S. nuclear retaliatory strike?  I am thinking not, though the Obama administration's headlong run towards nuclear disarmament is not reassuring.

In any case, if the DF-21 becomes a real threat, the U.S. most likely would move towards "pre-launch intercept" (i.e., destroying the missiles on the ground, before they are launched).  Though the use of mobile launchers increases the difficulty of targeting them, the advent of persistent surveillance systems--whether space-based or aerial--will eventually allow us to locate, identify, and destroy these missiles on the ground using a combination of cruise missiles, UAVs, and stealth aircraft equipped with tactical standoff missiles.

At the end of the day, the large platform or system with broad-based operational capabilities has the inherent resilience and robustness to defeat a technically clever but operationally narrow threat.

Stuart Koehl is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.

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