Thursday, February 3, 2011

Aircraft Carriers Face Growing Threats

On the American ballistic submarine USS Maine in waters off the Florida coast not too long ago, two submariners eyed a U.S. aircraft carrier through their periscope in the roiling sea. “I think it’s the Washington,” one submariner said. “It doesn’t matter — it doesn’t know we’re here,” the other replied, eyeing the carrier through the scope. “Bang,” he said. “You’re dead.”
In the submarine world, carriers, like other surface ships, represent targets. But lately U.S. aircraft carriers have appeared to be growing more vulnerable to threats deployed from under the sea and in the air.
And those threats have to be taken even more seriously, given recent U.S. government reports about the advancements made in some of those weapons and questioning the carrier fleet’s ability to protect itself.

For example, a report released this month by the Pentagon Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) calls into question development of the self-defense systems for carriers and other surface ships. If a missile or torpedo were to break through a carrier group’s other defenses, the carrier itself could be quite vulnerable (Aerospace DAILY, Jan. 25).
So, what are the chances of getting such a shot on a carrier? One of the biggest threats for carriers — and most other surface ships — is a submarine, and the old maxim says the best way to best a sub is with another sub. But the DOT&E report raises questions about the newest U.S. Virginia-class attack subs when they operate in the same waters as diesel-electric Kilo-class subs, one of the quietest and most popular submarines in the world.
One country that favors Kilos is China. “I have moved from being curious to being genuinely concerned,” Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, said last June about China’s growing military might.
During previous moments of potential conflicts with China, U.S. leaders were quick to send a carrier group to the Taiwan Straits. They might think twice about doing so now.
Not only might there be a Kilo lurking about, but as the Congressional Research Service (CRS) notes in a December report, the Chinese apparently are close to developing anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), “theater-range ballistic missiles equipped with maneuverable re-entry vehicles (MaRVs) capable of hitting moving ships at sea.”
Observers have expressed strong concern, CRS says, “because such missiles, in combination with broad-area maritime surveillance and targeting systems, would permit China to attack aircraft carriers, other U.S. Navy ships, or ships of allied or partner navies operating in the Western Pacific.”
To put this in perspective, the CRS report says, “The U.S. Navy has not previously faced a threat from highly accurate ballistic missiles capable of hitting moving ships at sea. Due to their ability to change course, the MaRVs on an ASBM would be more difficult to intercept than non-maneuvering ballistic missile re-entry vehicles.”
All of this gives carrier commanders a much bigger “bang” to worry about.
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