Sinking a Carrier: Precisification of Concept

7 January 2011


Beyond Proof of Concept…

There are several versions of the DF-21. This photograph has been identified as a DF-21D, but not enough is known about this most recent iteration to identify it for sure.

New Horizons in Naval Viability and Vulnerability

The Aircraft Carrier, taken in the material and doctrinal context of its Carrier Battle Group (CVBG), is today the preeminent instrument of force projection in the world. There are a mere nine (9) nation-states in the world at this time who possess one or more operational aircraft carriers. The carrier has done the state some service, and they know it. Enough of that.

Nation-states in blue above have operational aircraft carriers.

In several previous posts I have discussed the vulnerability of aircraft carriers, focusing on the unlikely possibility of an aircraft carrier being sunk by a torpedo from a speedboat. The posts concerned were Speedboat Diplomacy, The Political Context of Striking a Carrier, and Sinking a Carrier: Proof of Concept. Mike Burleson’s New Wars blog (sadly now no longer active; I hope Mr. Burleson returns) also addressed the same question in Can a speedboat sink a carrier? Part 1 and Can a speedboat sink a carrier? Part 2. Mike Burleson quoted my Speedboat Diplomacy piece in the second installment.

While the CVBG is a formidable weapons system, in Sinking a Carrier: Proof of Concept I argued that the fact that carriers were sunk during the naval engagements in the Pacific theater during World War Two proved that carriers can be sunk, and that developments in naval technology since that time have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary, meaning that change since that time has been a matter of degree rather than a matter of kind, meaning in turn that carriers today remain vulnerable despite their improved capabilities over the past sixty years. Proof of concept of sinking a carrier simply means this: it would be difficult, but also possible.

After proof of concept of carrier vulnerability, which I take be proved during World War Two, comes precisification of concept, that is to say, the making precise of the concept initially proved. The precisification of the concept of sinking (or simply striking) a carrier has no doubt been raised to the level of a highly refined science (or art, if you prefer) by those nation-states that see themselves in a potentially adversarial role in regard to the operators of carriers. We know, for example, that the Soviets developed hypersonic torpedoes (the VA-111 Shkval) and missiles (the P-270 Moskit) to counter NATO naval assets (the US, the UK, France, Italy, and Spain, all NATO member states, are among the nine nation-states operating carriers today). Torpedoes and missiles are cheap compared to carriers, and comparatively easy to field in large numbers. In so far as the missile/carrier confrontation is a mere numbers game, this remains a viable strategic counter to the CVBG today.

At the present time, the CVBG threat of greatest public concern is not the surface-skimming “Sunburn” (P270 Moskit, NATO reporting name SS-N-22, now superseded by the higher performance Yakhont P-800 Oniks, NATO reporting name SS-N-26) but the new and repeatedly heralded Chinese Dong Feng ballistic missile, specifically the DF21-D. Last week the DF21-D made headlines on several newspapers, since the US Navy made the announcement that the DF21-D was operational. The DF21-D takes the precisification of striking a carrier to a new level: it is, or is intended to be, a precision weapons system, and as such must be counted as part of a family of recently developed precision weapons systems. If the DF21-D is operational as claimed, and if it operates according to presumed specifications, then China has the capacity to sink capital ships (or other similarly large targets) within 2,000 km of their borders (though it is to be expected that the accuracy is inversely proportional to range).

While there are definite advantages to a supersonic torpedo or a surface-skimming missile, one of the most interesting things about the Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) is that its warhead comes almost straight down on its target. For this reason, among others, the DF21-D has been called a “game-changer” (On the Verge of a Game-Changer), and many of the superlatives once lavished on the Russian missiles, such as claims that the US Navy is “obsolete,” are now being applied to the DF21-D. A carrier has few defenses against an attack from a warhead coming straight down at supersonic (if not hypersonic) speeds, in comparison to the counter-measures it can bring to bear against incoming threats expected from other surface ships or aircraft. There are, to be sure, counter-measures, but not the kind of robust counter-measures that are available for other attack vectors.

Placing the potential of the DF21-D attack in historical perspective, it is interesting to note that during the Battle of Midway that none of the US torpedo bombers had any success against the Japanese carriers. It was the SBD Dauntless dive bombers that scored the hits that disabled the Japanese carriers. The ballistic missile warheads will come in many times faster than a bomb dropped by a dive bomber, and from much greater height, and existing counter-measures will of course be faster and more devastating than AAA, but the principle of vulnerability remains unchanged by improved technology. A carrier is by no means a sitting duck, but it is more vulnerable by some attack vectors than others, and it would be ridiculous not to expect an adversary to attempt to exploit what little vulnerability there remains.

The experience of a single battle is not decisive except in so far as its yields a proof of concept of some weapons system; the failure of a weapons system in a single battle must be taken in inductive context, which does not prove its inefficacy, though it certainly counts against it. Inductive evidence is always cumulative, and is not disproved by a single counter-example. For further historical background, it is interesting to note that it was an old biplane (a Fairey Swordfish) carrying a single torpedo, launched from the aging British carrier HMS Ark Royal (91), that disabled the rudder of the Bismark, thereby making it possible for the Bismark to be destroyed by the Royal Navy: the most hardened, high technology battleship of its day was disabled by an aging weapons system. Another engagement, another result. The torpedo bomber played an important role during the Second World War, but that role was not at Midway.

The Chinese DF21-D weapons system — and we must think of the DF21-D as a weapons system that integrates many elements into the system, which must operate as a whole or it cannot operate at all — has been in the news again because the Chinese are now believed to have a sufficient number of Beidou satellites (COMPASS-G2) in orbit to make precision tracking and targeting possible. While I noted just above that counter-measures for the weapons system are available, and more counter-measures will certainly be made available over time, these are not the robust counter-measures that one would like to see. However, since I have also pointed out that the weapons system must operate as a whole or not operate at all, it is most vulnerable to counter-measures that would not be based at the target. In other words, the weakest point of the weapons system is not the business end. A little hiccup in the software that allows communications between satellites, ground control, and the missile itself would be sufficient to spoil its aim, and if this hiccup could be supplied by a computer virus, a teenager with a laptop might be the most robust counter-measure available.

More than a year ago, back in December 2009, Craig Hooper of the Next Navy blog wrote about the Chinese ASBM threat in “With a conventional Trident within reach, why fear China’s anti-ship ballistic missile?” Dr. Hooper primarily made the point that US Trident missiles with a conventional warhead could quickly and stealthily complete a nuclear decapitation strike: “…while China’s ASBM-boosters might hope to target an aircraft carrier or two, we’ll have a stealthy conventional means to eliminate China’s tiny strategic nuclear strike capability.” Thus it would be China rather than the US that would be faced with a fait accompli of catastrophic strategic failure. Dr. Hooper writes that, “…the U.S. can convert Trident II D5′s into conventional missiles -– within two years. Maybe less.”

While China’s handful of missile boats might prove a little more difficult to eliminate than the rest of China’s “tiny strategic nuclear strike capability,” one suspects that the Chinese aren’t nearly at the level of submarine operations of the Soviet missile boat fleet during the Cold War, against which US submarines tested themselves, and were tested by, for almost fifty years. This points to one of the interesting characteristics of China’s ASBM program: it is almost a “pure physics” weapons system — in this regard, perhaps only nuclear weapons themselves are comparable. Physicists and technocrats can hand over “turn key” weapons systems like nuclear warheads or ASBM systems to the defense community, whose role is then reduced to target selection — if this latter function has not already been co-opted by civilian political authorities. Compared to the training, experience, and expertise that come with carrier operations or submarine operations or commando raids, turn key weapons systems require little or no training, and if they fail to perform, it is largely the fault of engineers and designers, not soldiers.

That China is able to create pure physics weapons systems is a credit to its educational system and the efforts of a few extraordinary men. Chinese primary education is a rigorous affair and involves drilling students in basic science. The Chinese educational system was devastated by the Cultural Revolution, during which the universities were closed, but the closure of the universities had a counter-intuitive, unintended consequence: when they were re-opened, competition for university enrollment was intense, and they had a population of about a billion from which to select the best and brightest. The first few classes that went through Chinese universities after they re-opened following the Cultural Revolution are still legendary. Furthermore, two Chinese physicists who received the Nobel Prize in 1957, Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee, returned to China in the 1980s and toured the country giving speeches and attempting to put Chinese physics research on a world-class footing. These personal efforts by Nobel Prize winning physicists inspired a generation of China’s best and brightest — already a select group for the aforementioned reasons — to go into physics research. One consequence of these historical accidents is China’s recent rapid progress in physics, hence China’s ability to build pure physics weapons systems at a time when the PLA, PLAN, and PLAAF don’t have the kind of depth of experience in conventional weapons systems possessed by active Cold War belligerents.

So, back to the DF21-D. More than six months ago, when the issue was being discovered by the popular press, Nerve Agent of the Dreams of Empire blog posted “What are we going to do about those Dong Feng’ed missiles?” Nerve Agent has since updated his analysis just a few days ago with “Dong Feng’ing in the new year.” I urge the reader to peruse these posts, as well as the Next Navy post cited above. Both Nerve Agent and Dr. Hooper are at one in calling for a deescalation of the hype and hyperbole surrounding the possible operational status of the DF21-D.

Because the Chinese ASBM is a strategic weapons system, the interesting questions about its deployment and usefulness are mostly political questions. I find it interesting to note in this connection that while my post Sinking a Carrier: Proof of Concept is one of my most accessed pieces, the companion piece to this, The Political Context of Striking a Carrier, is almost unread. Yet to intelligently discuss the Chinese ASBM we need to discuss it in the full context of social, political, economic, and diplomatic circumstances that surround both the weapons system and its presumed targets.

Let us suppose that the Chinese ASBM system is operational, and that it has a reasonably good chance of taking out a carrier — for example, lets say that if they fire twenty missiles, one of them will hit their target. There are a lot of technical questions that immediately come up: How many missiles can be produced in what kind of time frame? How quickly can their crews be trained to a reliable degree of expertise? Where will the mobile units be stationed? How quickly can they be in position to fire? Would the Chinese let fly with a barrage of fifty or a hundred missiles to make sure that the target is taken out? How quickly could the Chinese replace a hundred DF21-Ds? What next?

That last question is the big question, and is only matched by one other question: what would trigger such a barrage? These are strategic, diplomatic, and political questions. Would China ever fire at a US or other NATO aircraft carrier with the intent to destroy it? What could prompt such a desperate action? If China took out a carrier in the Taiwan Strait in an escalating confrontation over Taiwan, what would it do next? The US and its allies have other carriers. Would China attempt to sink all US carriers all over the world? Would China attempt to sink all NATO carriers? Would China sink a carrier in drydock (if its future missiles have the range to do this)? Is there a naval decapitation strike in our future?

What kind of retaliation would China expect from such a strike? This could be a conventional strike, and Dr. Hooper (quoted above) has suggested that the US could without great difficulty eliminate China’s nuclear arsenal with a conventional counter-strike, demoting China from the “nuclear club” in one fell swoop. Would the US, in the wake of a Chinese carrier strike, choose instead to take out China’s limited naval assets, or some other military asset? Could the US eliminate the PLA-Navy in one fell swoop? One response seems utterly obvious: in an escalating confrontation over Taiwan that resulted in the sinking of a US carrier, the US would surge all available military assets into the theater. Whatever retaliation was taken, what would China do in response to the surged assets brought into the Taiwan Strait? Would not a predictable US surge in the region defeat any Chinese hopes in regard to Taiwan that it might seek to accomplish by sinking a carrier? And would this not prove sufficient deterrence to an initial strike?

These questions do not have right or wrong, true or false answers. Any attempted answers are made (to borrow a Rawlsian phrase) behind a veil of ignorance: we do not know the enemies plans, or indeed the enemy’s exact capabilities, and the enemy does not know our plans and capabilities. The only true test is a battle, and even battles can be inconclusive. However, battles can also be decisive. This seems to me to be the most interesting strategic question posed by the DF21-D: in a short, sharp engagement, would the result be decisive or indecisive? My guess is that, at present, such an engagement would be decisively settled against the DF21-D and in favor of the carriers. However, as the technology improves (and time always passes more quickly than we realize), accuracy and range of the DF21-D or successor weapons systems can probably eventually be improved to the point that an engagement would prove indecisive, and simply to approach the neutralization of the world’s premier platform of power projection would be a notable accomplishment. The answer to a strategic question today will not necessarily be the same answer to the same question tomorrow.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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