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New Russian and Chinese high-precision weapons reduces the survivability of aircraft carriers

This post was published in VPK. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.


MOSCOW, (BM) – As soon as any weapon of significant impact power appears, it is immediately awarded the title of aircraft carrier assassin. However, neither the multicenter mass of the warhead, nor the significant flight speed or underwater movement, nor the ingenious maneuvering and electronic protection is far from always enough to let a floating airfield sink to the bottom. Or at least disable it for a long time. Because it is extremely difficult to get this potential killer to the right place and at the right time.

During World War II, it was much easier – five British aircraft carriers, five Japanese and five American carriers rested on the seabed. And that’s not counting the six “escort” AVNs, which are lighter than the main ones.

This arithmetic is explained primarily by two circumstances. Firstly, the then carrier-based aircraft were lighter than their modern counterparts. In this connection, the displacement of aircraft carriers was in the range of 15-25 thousand tons. This is at the level of modern cruisers. Now the displacement of each of the 11 American AVN reaches 100 thousand.

Secondly, there were no anti-aircraft missiles at that time. Well, the means of anti-submarine defense can hardly be considered sufficiently effective. Therefore, the killers of American aircraft carriers were quite primitive – massive Japanese air raids. If a bomb strike was not enough for the complete destruction of the AVN, then the destroyed ship was finally finished off by torpedoes fired from submarines.

Of the five sunk British aircraft carriers, German submarines coped with three, one was finished off by the artillery of German battleships and one was bombed by Japanese aircraft. The samurai had about the same story.

In general, 80 years ago, “carriers” served as consumables for the Navy.

Hypersound based on “Ronald Reagan”

Now the situation is different. Aircraft carrier strike groups (AUG) are essentially squadron fleets. They include escort ships that provide effective anti-aircraft, anti-missile, anti-submarine and anti-ship defense of the AVN. These are 8-10 cruisers and destroyers of guided missile weapons (URO), which also have means of detecting submarines and combating them.

The floating airbase is accompanied by up to two Virginia-class nuclear-powered multipurpose attack submarines. There are also a number of support vessels – supplying ammunition, fuels and lubricants, provisions, repair, fire fighting, cartographic, hospital and others. And this whole armada carefully monitors that nothing gets close to the aircraft carrier within the strike range.

We primarily call hypersonic maneuvering missiles as killers of aircraft carriers. This is logical, since the Aegis naval anti-missile system, based on URO cruisers, is unable to intercept such missiles. And its guidance system is too inertial to detect an attack and accompany the missile in real time, and the Standard SM-3 and SM-6 anti-missiles are not able to sufficiently adjust their flight path depending on the maneuvering of the hyper-missile.

However, the rocket still needs to be brought to the launch position. Very soon, the Zircon hypersonic anti-ship missile will enter service. During the tests, it was able to accelerate to Mach 8 (hypersonic speed starts from 5 M).

So far, not all information about Zircon has been disclosed, but it is quite possible to talk about the corridor where these characteristics are located. Warhead weight – 300-400 kilograms. It is quite enough, taking into account the kinetic energy of the hypersonic strike, to disable the aircraft carrier.

The maximum range is 400-600 kilometers. On a real carrier, the Zircon was initially tested on the new Project 22350 frigate Admiral Gorshkov. He is still the only carrier of the rocket. However, it is quite problematic for a surface ship to approach an aircraft carrier 600 kilometers in order to fire a hypersonic missile launcher.

Because on the way it will be found by the carrier-based AWACS plane “Hawkeye”. Aviation AUG will rise into the air. Actually, the planes will not even have to take off, because part of the aircraft wing performs constant patrolling flights. They will sink the Project 22350 frigate before it comes close to the AVN at the Zircon’s firing range.

Now this hypersonic anti-ship missile system is being “transplanted” onto the Yasen multipurpose nuclear attack submarine. And this is a completely different matter. The depth of the AUG anti-submarine defense is about 400 kilometers. This is quite enough to avoid torpedo attacks, because the torpedo range is much shorter. But for the “Ash” – “Zircon” ligament, such a distance is suitable so that the boat, being undetected, could fire a missile that the escort ships are unable to intercept.

There is talk that an airborne modification of the Zircon may be born. However, the carrier aircraft will have to enter the AUG air defense zone to launch the rocket. Unless, of course, the range of the missile is increased. Otherwise, the air patrols of the American AUG will shoot down Russian planes with hypersonic weapons before they reach the launch line.

In much the same way as the Yankees in 1944-1945 destroyed the Japanese Betty bombers, carrying the Oka cruise missiles, guided by suicide bombers. American carrier-based fighters knocked down the clumsy slow-moving Japanese, who were dragging large shells under their bellies.

The Russian Aerospace Forces has one more hypersonic missile – the Kh-47M2 “Dagger”. Its carrier is the MiG-31K supersonic fighter-interceptor.

The maximum rocket speed is Mach 10-12. Warhead weight – 500 kilograms. The range is 1500–2000 kilometers (actually – 1300 km. – Editor’s note).

The depth of the air defense of the AUG is 600-700 kilometers, this is the combat radius of the F / A-18E / F Super Hornet carrier-based fighter-bombers and attack aircraft. From which it follows that the MiG-31K is fired away from the AUG air defense borders. So the “Dagger” is an absolute killer of aircraft carriers (one thing is bad: the carrier of the “Dagger” has a ridiculous range of 720 kilometers, which does not allow the MiG-31K to meet American AUGs on distant approaches. with a radius of action of five – seven thousand kilometers for some reason they did not guess. – Approx.ed.).

The second birth of “Backfire”

However, non-hypersonic missiles may also pose a serious threat to aircraft carriers. And one of them appeared quite recently. This is the X-32, which entered service in 2016. Its carrier is a Tu-22M3 supersonic long-range aviation missile carrier.

This missile replaced the Soviet X-22, which became such a bogeyman for NATO: its version had a megaton thermonuclear warhead. However, there was also high-explosive fragmentation equipment. This missile, which was put into service at the end of the 60s, at the end of its operation was already worthless, because with low noise immunity, it could not withstand even the most primitive electronic warfare means.

It was impossible with this missile and to threaten aircraft carriers. Its flight range reached 600 kilometers. That is, for the attack, the missile carrier had to enter the AUG air defense zone. Well, fighters are not too problematic to cope with a massive, albeit very high-speed aircraft. Even if he flies out on a mission accompanied by fighters.

The Kh-32 has significantly increased noise immunity, and the flight range has been increased to thousands of kilometers. That is, the Tu-22M3 attacks the AUG from a safe distance.

It must be said that this missile carrier will become even more dangerous for the American aircraft carrier fleet when its modification, the Tu-22M3M, is put into service, which is being prepared for state tests. The updated aircraft has significantly improved avionics. It will return the ability to refuel in the air. The fact is that at the end of the 1980s, the United States insisted that the Backfire, as the plane in the West is called according to NATO classification, should be cut off the refueling bar – the Tu-22M3, even with an old missile, posed a serious threat to the US Navy. And in fact, the formidable strategic aircraft became a front-line bomber.

This is how the Tu-22M3M – X32 complex works against the AUG. The missile carrier, having approached the air defense zone of the AUG, but without entering it, launches a missile. After taking off, the Kh-32, reaching an altitude of 40 kilometers, makes a horizontal maneuvering flight. That makes it unattainable at this stage for the Aegis shipborne missile defense system, since the maximum height at which the RIM-174 SM-6 ERAM anti-missile missile can be controlled by aerodynamic rudders is 33 kilometers. In addition, it is capable of intercepting targets whose speed does not exceed 800 meters per second. And the Kh-32’s speed is almost twice as high – 1500 meters per second, which is almost at the border of hypersound.

The American missile defense system also uses another anti-missile – Standard SM-3, which is capable of intercepting not only ballistic missiles, but even satellites in orbits up to 500 kilometers. But it only hits targets whose trajectory is predictable, like satellites and ballistic missiles of previous generations. Of course, the SM-3 can adjust its flight. But within insufficient limits to track the “jumps” along the course and pitch of an almost hypersonic X-32 missile.

At the finish line of the trajectory, when the Kh-32 is already under the control of the seeker (target acquisition range – 200-300 km), the Russian missile dives almost vertically on the target. Due to the fact that it has gained tremendous speed and maneuvers with large overloads, the missile is unable to intercept neither the SM-6, let alone the “clumsy” SM-3. This is due to the fact that the SM-6 seeker will capture the Kh-32 missile at a distance of 8-12 kilometers. Which is clearly not enough to correct the flight, precisely bringing the anti-missile to the target. Because the missiles will converge at a total speed of 2200-2300 meters per second. That is, the convergence will occur in a maximum of four to five seconds. This is too little for accurate interception, because American interceptor missiles have kinetic warheads that hit the target through mechanical impact.

Of course, this refers to a duel between missiles and anti-missiles, that is, when one-on-one. But the Aegis system is capable of launching several interceptors in the event of an attack, which increases the chances of interception. However, several missile carriers will also be thrown into the attack on the AUG.

In one of his publications, Doctor of Military Sciences, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Missile and Artillery Sciences Konstantin Sivkov provides calculated data for various plots of repelling attacks on the AUG. Under the most favorable conditions for the defenders, when the target designation of the anti-missile is given by the launching ship, one SM-6 can intercept the X-32 with a probability of 0.05–0.08. If the target designation comes from another escort ship of an aircraft carrier or an AWACS aircraft, then the probability is reduced to 0.01–0.02. With satellite hovering, the result is even worse.

It turns out that in the most favorable scenario, at least 12 interceptor missiles will be required to intercept one missile. Two URO cruisers are capable of firing 40 interceptor missiles. That is, they will be able to intercept three Kh-32 missiles. One Tu-22M3M missile carrier carries so much – two missiles under the wing and one under the fuselage. However, it is clear that several missile carriers are being sent on such a crucial mission as the destruction of the AUG. Their salvo will certainly reach the targets at which they will be guided. So the Kh-32 can legally be considered an aircraft carrier killer.

However, it should be recognized that this situation will not persist indefinitely. The new American aircraft carriers will be equipped with F-35C carrier-based aircraft with a combat radius of up to 1,100 kilometers. That is, the depth of the air defense will increase to the point from which the Tu-22M3M will not be able to launch a missile. And therefore, he needs to enter the air defense zone. True, there is a mitigating circumstance here. The F-35C has low speed qualities, so that these fighter-bombers can reach strike positions when the aircraft carrier and escort ships are already perforated

China sends “East Wind” to the States

It must be said that not only Russia has an effective “anti-aircraft” weapon. The Chinese Navy is armed with the world’s only anti-ship ballistic missile. It is called DF-21D (East Wind). The complex is movable, based on a wheeled chassis. The rocket weighs about 16-18 tons. The large mass of the warhead (up to one and a half tons) is capable of inflicting “life-incompatible” damage on an aircraft carrier. And the hypersonic speed with which this colossus emerges from near space leaves no chance of intercepting it.

The uniqueness of this complex applies not only to the missile, but also to the target designation system. A constellation of optical-electronic and electronic reconnaissance satellites has been created to service the DF-21D. This allows the missile to hit not only stationary, but also moving targets, which include the AUG.

The missile’s range – 1500 kilometers – leaves American admirals in despondency, which is accompanied by a powerless gnashing of teeth. They have repeatedly stated that in the event of a conflict with China, the AUG will not be able to approach its shores closer than this distance. And accordingly, carrier-based aircraft will not be able to strike at the mainland of the PRC.

In conclusion, it must be said that despite the spectacularity and pomp of the strike aviation groups, in modern conditions they are not very effective in terms of shock. Thirty years ago, their contribution to Operation Desert Storm was not too great. Six aircraft carriers were then driven to the shores of Iraq. 450 carrier-based aircraft performed 600 sorties. At the same time, US and Allied ground aviation, numbering 1,700 aircraft, made 4,000 sorties. It turns out that when the mass of ground aircraft exceeds the deck aircraft by 3.8 times, the ratio for departures is almost twice as large – 6.7.

Well, now, when a new generation of anti-ship weapons has appeared, the role of the AUG is more and more approaching the psychological impact on a weak enemy. Acquire a couple of aircraft carriers, fly off the coast, and achieve significant political or economic concessions.


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