The Navy's forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan transits the San Bernardino Strait, crossing from the Philippine Sea into the South China Sea. Photo: US Navy / Jason Tarleton

We can sink you … if we wanted to.

That is the not-so-subtle message from China for the USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz, currently on dual carrier training operations in the South China Sea, Kris Osborn of The National Interest reported.

A Chinese-government backed newspaper is reporting that US carriers in the region are “fully within the grasp of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army … which has a wide selection of anti-aircraft carrier weapons like the DF-21D and DF-26 aircraft carrier missiles.”

However, the Chinese claim that US carriers are extremely vulnerable is a question open to debate. The missiles are reported to have ranges as far as 900 nautical miles and have been considered a significant threat to US carriers.

By significant threat, we mean that a direct hit would take out the carrier. In fact, so rapid are these weapons, that even if it didn’t have a warhead, it would pass through the ship, leaving it dead in the water.

Furthermore, it goes without saying, an intercept of a hypersonic weapon travelling in excess of Mach 5, would also be difficult. Not impossible, but difficult.

Technology in this area is rapidly advancing, and for every weapon, there is always a way of deflecting it or stopping it. Most, if not all, of these projects are highly classified.

In defense of the carriers, US drills involve efforts to prepare for the possibility of a coordinated, multi-carrier attack. The latter would deliver a massive advantage to maritime attack options by, essentially, doubling firepower, surveillance potential and weapons capability, National Interest reported. 

Not only would a dual-carrier attack option extend the Navy’s ability to hit inland targets to a larger extent, extend target-searching dwell time and enable coordinated multi-platform strikes, but they also greatly improve destroyer-and-cruiser launched missile attacks.

Keep in mind, each Carrier Strike Group consists of a carrier, cruiser and two destroyers, bringing a large, integrated combination of sea-launched assets, National Interest reported.

There are other factors to consider.

First, the reported range of these kinds of Chinese carrier killer missiles does not present as serious of a threat to closer-in carriers unless it has precision-guidance systems and an ability to track and hit moving targets. Any break in this so-called “kill chain” would render the weapon useless.

Also, while much is naturally not discussed for understandable security reasons, the US Navy continues to advance new technologies improving its multi-layered defense system, National Interest reported. 

Secondly, the Navy continues to make rapid strides arming its surface ships with new laser weapons and advanced EW systems likely to “jam” incoming missiles, stopping them, destroying their trajectory or simply throwing them off course. 

Cmdr. Joseph Hubley, executive officer of the “Royal Maces” of Fighter Attack Squadron (VFA) 27, conducts a passing exercise in an F/A-18E Super Hornet with Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) training squadron. VFA 27 are embarked on the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) and Carrier Air Wing 5 in the Indo-Pacific. Credit: US Navy.

Furthermore, the Navy’s layered defense system not only includes new longer-range aerial, space and ship-based sensors, but deck-fired interceptors that continue to receive software upgrades for improved accuracy, National Interest reported.

For instance, the Navy’s SM-6 missiles and Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile Block II are now engineered with software and sensor upgrades which enable them to better discern and destroy approaching “moving targets.”

SM-6 technical upgrades, for example, engineer a “dual-mode” seeker into the weapon itself which enables it to better distinguish moving targets and adjust in flight to destroy them. 

The ESSM Block II, also, has a sea-skimming mode which allows the interceptor to destroy approaching missiles flying parallel to the surface at lower altitudes, National Interest reported.

New aerial sensors as well, such as advanced drones and the ISR-capable F-35C stealth fighter are likely to be successful in proving an “aerial node” surveillance asset able to help cue surface commanders of approaching missiles.

What all of this means is that, despite Chinese claims that its carrier killer missiles make carriers “obsolete,” it seems reasonable that aircraft carrier battle groups remain a serious threat, and, to put it simply, would put up a hell of a fight.

Perhaps these factors may be part of why US Navy leaders continue to say its carriers can successfully operate wherever they need to.

An F/A-18E Super Hornet attached to the “Dambusters” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 195 lands on the flight deck of the Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Samantha Jetzer.

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