Superior recon trumps hypersonic missiles

Saturday, September 21st, 2019

If U.S. and Chinese aircraft carriers were to clash, the U.S. Navy would win — according to a Russian expert:

Konstantin Sivkov, a member of the Russian Academy of Rocket and Artillery Sciences, argues that superior U.S. reconnaissance capabilities would trump China’s advantages in hypersonic missiles.

Sivkov lays out a sort of wargame for an America vs. China carrier clash that seems based on the World War II carrier battles between America and Japan, particularly the Battle of Midway. Those battles tended to be nail-biting, knife-edge affairs where victory or defeat rested on which side first spotted the other side’s carriers, and then dispatched an airstrike against the vulnerable flattops.

“The key role that determines the course and outcome of hostilities at sea in modern conditions is played not so much by the power and quantity of strike weapons, but by the capabilities of the reconnaissance system on an ocean theater of operations,” Sivkov writes in the Russian defense publication Military-Industrial Courier. “Surpassing the enemy in this respect, the U.S. Navy is able to significantly level the superiority of the Chinese in hypersonic anti-ship missiles.”

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The smaller Chinese carriers, about half the size of their U.S. counterparts and carrying about half the aircraft, would depend on submarines, land-based H-6K patrol aircraft and satellite surveillance to locate the American carrier force. In contrast, the U.S. carriers would have their own onboard E-2 Hawkeye airborne radar aircraft and EA-18 electronic warfare planes, as well as AWACS land-based radar aircraft. Sivkov believes that U.S. carrier group defenses would neutralize Chinese submarines and patrol planes, keeping them from fixing the task force’s location, while Chinese satellites would pass overhead too swiftly to maintain continuous contact. Meanwhile, U.S. aircraft and submarines, would find the Chinese force, while the American subs would attrit the Chinese fleet with anti-ship missiles.

[...]

Now comes the crux of the battle. In this scenario, Sivkov estimates that Chinese carrier could only attack with perhaps a half-dozen aircraft, while the rest are retained for defensive combat air patrol. These strike planes will launch anti-ship missiles that might disable or sink a couple of U.S. destroyers on the carrier group’s outer screen. But the U.S. carrier can muster a strike force of 30-plus aircraft, which will destroy some Chinese escorts. To destroy the Chinese carrier, the American flattop would need to launch as second strike.

Meanwhile, four or five Chinese destroyers will try to advance into missile range of the American task force, with each ship firing 16 YJ-18 missiles each, a 6-plus missile salvo that destroy the U.S. carrier. The U.S. will try to advance the carrier escorts to head this off, and use the carrier’s air wing to try and destroy the Chinese surface ship threat.

“Modeling the situation at this stage shows that the Chinese group has a good chance to reach the line of attack with a loss of up to 40 to 50 percent of its potential,” writes Sivkov. “A missile salvo of 30 to 40 YJ-18 anti-ship missiles, taking into account the possible weakening of the American defenses after the previous hostilities, will put the American aircraft carrier out of action with a probability of 20 to 30 percent. The effectiveness of the second strike by U.S. carrier-based fighter jets (about 24 aircraft) against a Chinese aircraft carrier is estimated at 40 to 50 percent.”

Sivkov assumes that at this stage, the Chinese force will withdraw, while the American force will pursue and try to mount one last air strike. “Bottom line: the Chinese aircraft carrier will be severely damaged and disabled, or even sunk, along with four to five guard ships, one or two submarines and more than half of the carrier-based aircraft,” Sivkov concludes. The U.S. carrier group will lose “two to three warships and 17 to 20 percent of the carrier-based aircraft. The American aircraft carrier will receive relatively little damage or none at all. In other words, the PLAN carrier group will be defeated and lose the ability to continue fighting. The U.S. carrier group will emerge from the collision only slightly weakened.”

Comments

  1. Bob Sykes says:

    The same point was made over at Cdr Salamander a little while ago. The strength of the Nimitz class is a large air wing that includes all sorts of support aircraft besides the strike force.

    The two ski-jump carriers the Chinese have are only interim designs. They are building Nimitz class (non-nuclear) carriers, which could carry the needed surveillance and AWACS aircraft.

    The Liaoning and Type 001A look more like amphibious assault support ships than sea-control carriers.

  2. CVLR says:

    How is it that the Chinese possess superiority in hypersonic anti-ship missiles?

  3. Adar says:

    It is often remarked that the USA has as many as twenty aircraft carriers if you include the Marine assault ships operating in the sea control mode.

    Those carriers too if carrying for instance a full complement of twenty or so F-35 VSTOL warplanes lack any sort of AEW, EW, tanker ASW organic. They too will be independent on land-based assets if again operating in the sea control mode.

  4. John Dougan says:

    “How is it that the Chinese possess superiority in hypersonic anti-ship missiles?”

    Doctrinal differences, mostly. I would also argue that it is actually the Russians who have the most experience in big and fast anti-ship missiles. They were a key part of the Soviet Navy’s plan to close the North Atlantic to NATO convoys during the Cold War. (eg. AS-4 ‘Kitchen’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kh-22 and it’s successors) Correspondingly the United States Navy formed its doctrines for dealing with these missiles at that time.

    The big and fast anti-ship missiles are only really suited for denying sea control to a competing power. They do not allow you to exert your own sea control by themselves. If you are primarily a land power like Russia and China, this is very attractive as full navies are expensive.

    From the perspective of a sea power, such as the US, the Navy has a number of other missions and thus needs a different mix of capabilities to carry out those missions. Accurately or not, the USN believes it can use these other capabilities to defeat enemy navies without using big and fast anti-ship missiles themselves. The US could build such missiles if they thought it would be useful. The cruise missiles they have are a large chunk of the way there.

  5. CVLR says:

    Thanks for the informative reply, John. Do you think it likely that the Chinese got much of the relevant technology from the Russians?

  6. John Dougan says:

    “Do you think it likely that the Chinese got much of the relevant technology from the Russians?”

    Could be. It doesn’t really matter though as most of the technology is 50+ years old. The USAF was flying Hound Dog supersonic stand off missiles on the B-52 force since ’61 or so. The AS-4 was debuted in 1962. The guidance systems are from a bit later, but the ’60s F-111 had an early automated terrain following radar.

    Probably the hardest part is building the scramjet engines which are needed to get both long range and high speed. The first known working scramjets were flown back in 1991 by the Russians and NASA participated in a some of the later development work.The Chinese could have bought it, they could have stole it, they could have independently developed it, or some combination of the above. There has been plenty of time, they are not stupid, and they have enough of an economy to afford to buy.

  7. Sam J. says:

    “…Probably the hardest part is building the scramjet engines which are needed to get both long range and high speed…:

    Are they even using scramjets????

    I thought they were using rockets shooting them high and then using gravity to get terminal speed. You could do this with ramjets to get the height then aim down to get terminal speed.

    It would seem to me that we could use a small .50 cal or so round fired very, very fast and with a horrendous volume of them shoot down these missiles. Anything, anything at all that hit one would blow it to pieces.

  8. John Dougan says:

    “Are they even using scramjets?”

    Both Russia and China have made noises about missiles that would. The DF-17 appears to be the development platform for the aerodynamics. As well, it makes sense as a development direction for the land powers. Given the question was about why CN was so advanced, I answered from that angle.

    https://jamestown.org/program/updated-chinese-hypersonic-weapons-development/
    https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3023972/chinas-hypersonic-df-17-missile-threatens-regional-stability

    “I thought they were using rockets shooting them high and then using gravity to get terminal speed. You could do this with ramjets to get the height then aim down to get terminal speed.”

    Depends on the missile system. The question was about hypersonic missiles, not supersonic. Ramjets top out at around Mach 6, but really work best at slower speeds and need to be boosted to operating velocity before you light them.

    You can get hypersonic with rockets, but then you have fuel mass issues. The current development target seems to be starting with a rocket first stage then switching to the hypersonic vehicle once you are fast enough to light the scramjet.

    I think the high speed glider approach of the DF-17 is almost certainly an interim design. I’m not sure a glider would have enough cross-range capability to ensue hits in modern adverse conditions.

    “It would seem to me that we could use a small .50 cal or so round fired very, very fast and with a horrendous volume of them shoot down these missiles. Anything, anything at all that hit one would blow it to pieces.”

    I wouldn’t use the .50 cal BMG for this, that has less impact energy and range than you would like. Also, the problem with the indiscriminate-hail-of-bullets technique is it uses a lot of ammo, too much for a ship that needs to carry other stuff.

    What has actually been done is similar, just more focused. eg. the US Phalanx and the NL Goalkeeper anti-missile close in weapon systems (CIWS). Phalanx uses the M61 Vulcan 20mm Gatling gun, often with depleted uranium sabot both for impact mass and so their tracking radar can more easily see where its bullets are going. Goalkeeper uses the 30mm GAU-8 Avenger Gatling gun from the A-10. Both of them have extensive sensor suites and fully automated targeting and firing capability along with very high rates of fire. Other modern navies have similar systems.

    For the USN and allied sea powers, these are all part of a layered missile defence strategy. You have fighter aircraft out far, AEGIS missile ships closer in, and CIWS, chaff, etc. for terminal defence. Currently, the USN and allied navies are looking at stealth(y) ships as another layer in their defences.

  9. CVLR says:

    Thanks, John, ever informative. Do you know the status of high-powered lasers or other directed energy weapons capable of effectively disabling a missile, and how much the relative speed of the missile likely matters, supposing that the weapon is located on an oceangoing vessel?

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