Why China’s ’carrier killer’ missiles may not scare US anymore

  • Shock trials validate a ship’s shock hardness and ability to sustain operations in a simulated combat environment using live ordnance

Written By Saurabh Sharma
First Published13 Aug 2021
US Navy's aircraft carrier Gerald R Ford
US Navy’s aircraft carrier Gerald R Ford

Amid rising tension in disputed South China Sea, the US Navy has announced successful shock trials of its nuclear powered-aircraft carrier Gerald R Ford. This, military experts believe, would send a message that America does not fear China's ‘carrier killer’ missiles, which Beijing claims could hit moving aircraft carriers from a distance of 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles). 

On 8 August, the US Navy announced that its aircraft carrier Gerald R Ford has successfully conducted a third explosive test, marking the completion of the Full Ship Shock Trials (FSSTs). Shock trials validate a ship’s shock hardness and ability to sustain operations in a simulated combat environment using live ordnance. 

During the four-month testing evolution, the aircraft carrier withstood the impact of three 40,000-pound (20 tonnes) underwater blasts, released at distances progressively closer to the ship.

“The Navy designed the Ford-class carrier using advanced computer modeling methods, testing, and analysis to ensure the ships are hardened to withstand harsh battle conditions,” said Capt. Brian Metcalf, manager for the Navy’s future aircraft carrier program office.

Metcalf further said “the tests demonstrated — and proved to the crew, fairly dramatically — that the ship will be able to withstand formidable shocks and continue to operate under extreme conditions”.

Former Chinese military instructor Song Zhongping believes that besides collecting data, another reason to announce the successful shock trial of Ford "was to send a message to China and Russia that the US aircraft carriers have super resilience and they are not worried about Chinese or Russian conventional anti-ship weapons".

"The 40,000lbs explosive blast was much bigger than any single warhead of a conventional missile or torpedo…the trial proved the Ford-class aircraft carriers could withstand some water mines or nearby missile strikes, but did not show their resistance against a direct hit,” Song told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.

The military expert, however, said that ballistic missiles or hypersonic missiles could also carry electromagnetic pulse weapons that are detonated at high altitude and cause damage to the aircraft carrier, or even take it completely out of combat. 

China has two ballistic missiles — (Dong-Feng) DF-21D and DF-26, also known as 'carrier killers' — which could hit the moving aircraft carriers from a distance of 5,000 kilometers. The military officials say the DF-26 can conduct precision nuclear or conventional strikes against ground and naval targets.

Song's observation on China and Russia is not off the mark as a top serving US Navy official has said that America is building aircraft carriers to sail in some of the “world’s most contested security environments”. 

“We’re designing and building these aircraft carriers to sail in some of the world’s most contested security environments. So when you think about the threats to warships posed by non-contact blasts and the number of sea mines in the inventories of navies around the world, the gravity and consequence of these shock trials really come into focus," said Rear Adm. James P Downey, program executive officer for aircraft carriers. 

Downey may not be explicit but currently the most disputed area where the US is involved is the South China Sea, where America has been challenging the sovereignty of China. 

Service officials described the shock trial testing – where the Navy detonates 40,000 pounds of ordnance in the water near the hull to test both the ship and its systems – as a success, with no major injuries, no fires and no flooding. 

“We had zero catastrophic failures on the ship, zero situations where we had flooding or anything, and zero fires. All that is pretty significant,” Capt. Paul Lanzilotta, Ford’s commanding officer, said while speaking to reporters.

USS Gerald R Ford is the newest and most advanced aircraft carrier in the US Navy. The US Navy has conducted FSSTs over several decades, most recently for the Littoral Combat Ships USS Jackson and USS Milwaukee in 2016; as well as on the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock USS Mesa Verde in 2008, the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp in 1990, and the guided missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay in 1987. 

The last aircraft carrier to execute FSST was USS Theodore Roosevelt in 1987.

(With inputs from PTI)

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