The DF-26, which is now operational, has an estimated range of 2,500 km and can carry a 1,200-1,800 kg nuclear or conventional warhead. Credit: National Interest.

The missile came in fast and low, streaking across the sky at incredible speed — the carrier’s advanced radar picked it up, firing Sea Sparrow missiles, while laser weapons and rail guns scanned the sky seeking a fix.

By then, it was too late. The missile proved too smart, striking the rear of the big ship, which sent it rocking like a toy in a bathtub.

In minutes, the ship was ablaze and dead in the water. A sitting duck … a testament to man’s arrogance in the age of advanced weapons.

Pentagon analysts have played out this fictional scenario a thousand times, as they draw up plans for America’s new navy.

The US has already launched the US$13 billion Ford class nuclear supercarrier that will take it into the twenty-first century — the USS Gerald Ford, named after former President Gerald Ford, The National Interest reported.

Originally scheduled to deploy in 2018, the Ford is unlikely to deploy much before 2024 thanks to multiple issues with its propulsion system, launching technology, radar system and weapons elevators.

Many of those problems have been fixed, Navy officials insist, but years of testing and refining the first-in-class new technologies are critical to making sure they work on the following three Ford-class carriers, Breaking Defense reported.

“The ship is kickass,” the ship’s skipper said, extolling the new technologies that separate it from the current Nimitz-class carriers.

According to Popular Mechanics, the second Ford-class supercarrier, the USS John F. Kennedy, was christened by former first daughter Caroline Kennedy, on Dec. 7, 2019, the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Kennedy, of course, served heroically aboard PT-109 in the US Navy during the Second World War. Shipbuilders will spend the next few years fitting it out. After that it’s shipbuilder’s trials, with contractors taking the ship to sea to test major equipment.

The third carrier, Enterprise, is expected to begin construction next year at Newport News and will join the fleet in the early 2020s.

The current push by US President Donald Trump to a 350–355-ship fleet will likely include at least one additional Ford-class carrier in the near term, The National Interest reported.

However, taking all that into account — there is one small issue, and it keeps Pentagon planners up at night.

It’s called, the Dongfeng-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), also known as the “carrier killer.”

US Naval War College professor and TNI contributor Andrew Erickson wrote in September that the new missile might have a range as great as 2,500 miles.

Add the infamous DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile and Xian H-6K bomber armed with advanced air launched cruise missiles, and you have a formidable force in the Western Pacific, a region where the US Navy’s carrier fleet is increasingly challenged.

According to The National Interest, Washington is so concerned, it believes the solution to the problem is to increase the standoff range of the carrier air wing.

USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) conducts high-speed turns in the Atlantic Ocean. Credit: U.S. Navy/ Connor Loessin.

However, if China does have the means to locate a carrier strike group near the DF-26’s maximum range and the ability to feed accurate targeting data to the weapon, it means that even a naval unmanned combat aircraft with a mission radius of 1,500 nautical miles wouldn’t keep the carrier out of harm’s way.

Commissioned in April, 2019 by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), the massive 20,000 kg missile could not only target America’s fleet of Nimitz and Ford-class supercarriers, but also Guam.

It can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads, and features new guidance packages which helps its utilization.

What is it up against?

According to Yahoo News, Ford supercarriers are powered by two new-design AB1 nuclear reactors. The reactors are manufactured by Bechtel, which beat out longtime naval reactor giants General Electric and Westinghouse for the contract.

Together, the two reactors create six hundred megawatts of electricity, triple the two hundred megawatts of the Nimitz class. That’s enough electricity to power every home in Pasadena, California.

Ford is going to need that power, not only to reach its estimated top speed of thirty-plus knots but also the new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), which uses electric currents to generate strong magnetic fields that can accelerate an aircraft to takeoff speeds, Yahoo News reported.

The system is touted as easier on aircraft, extending their service lives, easier to maintain and capable of generating up to 25% more sorties than the much-maligned older steam catapult system.

Ford’s generous electrical capacity means that the ship could someday mount advanced laser self-defense weapons, The National Interest reported.

It will also have the new Dual Band Radar, which combines both the X-Band AN/SPY-3 Aegis radar and the S-Band Volume Surveillance Radar. 

DBR is capable of search, track and multiple missile illumination, detecting enemy aircraft and missiles and then guiding Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSM) to intercept.

For self-defense, Ford will have two Mk. 29 missile launchers with eight ESSM each, and two Rolling Airframe Missile launchers.

It will also have four Phalanx Close-In Weapon Systems for point defense against aircraft, missiles and small ships, and four M2 .50 caliber machine guns. 

A US Navy F-18A lands on the USS Gerald Ford supercarrier during tests held in the Pacific. Credit: US Navy.

Down the road, it will embark the MQ-25 Stingray refueling and intelligence collection drone, the eventual planned sixth-generation fighter to replace the Super Hornet, and, a new long-range strike drone, The National Interest reported.

Experts say there are probably ways to break the Chinese “kill chain” using electronic or cyber-warfare that would allow a carrier strike group to fight inside the DF-26’s range.

But once the missiles are enroute, the key might lie in the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) battle network combined with the firepower of the carriers’ escort vessels.

That might mean expanding the number of ships that can carry interceptor missiles under the distributed lethality concept or some sort of new ship that might be able to carry many more missiles than today’s warships.

That might eventually be combined with some sort of new naval interceptor aircraft to replace the now-retired Grumman F-14. Of course, interceptor missiles and aircraft are expensive. But, until railguns, lasers and some viable means to power those weapons are developed — that’s all the US Navy has.

According to Wikipedia, a railgun is a device — typically designed as a weapon — that uses electromagnetic force to launch high velocity projectiles. The projectile normally does not contain explosives, instead relying on the projectile’s high speed and kinetic energy to inflict damage.

A laser could hold several advantages over traditional weapons, The National Interest reported. For one, a laser does not need ammunition. As long as the ship has power, the laser can continue firing. A laser also could strike targets faster than, say, a missile could do.

But today’s lasers lack the power and range to destroy large targets or do any damage at all at ranges farther than a few miles.

To answer the question: Could China sink a carrier?

According to The National Interest, in the fourth week of October, 1944, the US Navy sank the Imperial Japanese fleet (Twenty-eight major surface combatants and more than 300 aircraft) in the four-day Battle of Leyte Gulf, fought off the east coast of the Philippines. Less well-known is the fact that it also marked the end of the carrier duel. 

Leyte Gulf was the last time that opposing fleets launched large numbers of carrier-based aircraft to seek out and destroy their opponents on the high seas.

These days an aircraft carrier is primarily a foreign policy tool, not a defense necessity. America doesn’t really need carriers.

However, the Navy has to prepare for all contingencies, and so it has to be ready to fight a sea battle that will never come, The National Interest reported. That’s why every American carrier goes to sea with a whole contingent of powerful auxiliary ships and submarines.

And despite its name, the purpose of the carrier strike group isn’t really to strike. It’s to seize and hold a substantial chunk of the Earth’s surface and control it — or at least deny its use to anyone else.

Aircraft carriers have a future as a means of presidential power projection, if not in battle.

Perhaps the question should be rephrased: Could a DF-26 sink a carrier.

Yes, it could … but first it has to get there.

According to naval experts interviewed by Forbes magazine, first, they would have to find the carrier; then they would have to fix its location; then they would have to establish a continuous track of its movements; then they would have to actually target the carrier with specific weapons; then they would have to penetrate the carrier’s multi-layered defenses to reach the target; and finally they would need to assess whether the resulting damage was sufficient to disable the carrier.

Because each step must be accomplished sequentially, if any “link” in the kill chain fails the whole process breaks down, Forbes reported. The Navy and its partners in the joint force have plans for disrupting potential attackers at each step in the process.

If China cannot first find, fix, track and target a carrier — the longer the range of an anti-ship missile, the more updates it needs in flight to successfully engage a moving target —without timely off-board sensor data and an agile command and control system, the weapon’s effectiveness remains in question.

Sources: The National Interest, Breaking Defense, Yahoo News, Forbes magazine, Popular Mechanics and Wikipedia