Hypersonic Doom: What if a Carrier Was Sunk by a High-Speed Missile?

 In Sea, Russia, Air, Forces & Capabilities, Threats

Key point Superfast mis­siles would be hard to defend against. Can America’s Navy adapt to such a new threat?

Aircraft car­ri­ers have always faced seri­ous­ly deadly threats. In the past, it was sub­marines, which long posed the most danger to car­ri­ers. Modern anti-sub­ma­rine war­fare (ASW) has given the advan­tage back to the car­ri­er strike groups, which can better screen and pro­tect the cap­i­tal ship. While unmanned sub­marines could present a new prob­lem, the great­est danger could come from hyper­son­ic mis­siles.

The Russian Kinzhal is the world’s first hyper­son­ic avi­a­tion mis­sile system, and if the claims are to be believed it has a range of 3,000 kilometers when launched from an air­craft such as the Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfire super­son­ic bomber. Even if those ranges are exag­ger­at­ed the plat­form still presents a very seri­ous threat to U.S. war­ships, notably air­craft car­ri­ers.

Because of the speed at which hyper­son­ic mis­siles travel the force is so sig­nif­i­cant that these can inflict damage by sheer "kinetic" impact with­out need­ing explo­sives. Experts fear that the mis­siles could be impos­si­ble to defend against and could reshape war­fare. This is why some have sug­gest­ed that the U.S. mil­i­tary invests in the tech­nol­o­gy rather than mas­sive war­ships – in part because the weapons could quite easily destroy those war­ships.

The Japanese mil­i­tary is already explor­ing ways to devel­op and deploy hyper­son­ic weapons with a special warhead that could pen­e­trate the decks of an air­craft car­ri­er – and it is abun­dant­ly clear that Chinese car­ri­ers could pose a seri­ous risk to the waters around the Japanese home islands.

Carrier Killer

The Stalker Zone web­site recent­ly explored a hypothetical strike on a large car­ri­er – in this case the U.S. Navy’s USS George H. W. Bush, which has a dis­place­ment of 97,000 tons and a length of 333 meters. The car­ri­er, which has a crew of 3,200 plus 2,500 mil­i­tary per­son­nel that make up the avi­a­tion wing, is quite a size­able target for any weapon, but get­ting past its air defens­es includ­ing its screen of destroy­ers would be no easy task.

Here is where a hyper­son­ic mis­sile could be a truly dev­as­tat­ing game chang­er.

As the exer­cise sug­gest­ed, the cur­rent char­ac­ter­is­tics of the U.S. Navy’s car­ri­ers cannot coun­ter­act hyper­son­ic mis­sile weapons. While it might seem that a hit on the com­mand room would be the best place to aim, the deck of the car­ri­er may be the most effec­tive. The mass – 500kg – of the Kh-47M2 “Kinzhal” trav­el­ing at Mach 12 would do con­sid­er­able damage.

“Even if the car­ri­er can stay afloat for the first moments after the strike, the poten­tial of its air­craft wing will be reduced to zero by the damage caused to the deck,” the Stalker Zone noted. “In addi­tion, such a strike can lead to the defeat of at least one of the two naval Westinghouse A4W reac­tors. The total capac­i­ty of these reac­tors is 1,100 MW. A mis­sile with a half-ton war­head moving at high speed can not only destroy the coolant cir­cu­la­tion cir­cuits, but also lead to the explo­sion of the nuclear reac­tors them­selves during their active oper­a­tion when an air­craft car­ri­er per­forms a combat oper­a­tion.”

Such a strike from even a single hyper­son­ic “Kinshal” mis­sile could be enough to com­plete­ly destroy an air­craft car­ri­er but would have the poten­tial create a chain reac­tion that could take out an entire car­ri­er strike group!

Countering the Threat

Hitting the spe­cif­ic loca­tion of a car­ri­er at such dis­tance, even with a hyper­son­ic weapon, would­n’t be the eas­i­est thing to pull off. Current bal­lis­tic mis­siles that can achieve hyper­son­ic speed follow a predictable flight path, but a con­cern is that these mis­siles could be able maneu­ver in unex­pect­ed ways.

Yet, it is still easy to see why there is such con­cern.

This is why the mil­i­tary is work­ing as hard – possibly even harder – to devel­op counter sys­tems to stop a hyper­son­ic attack. Not doing so would be accept­ing that any nation that could acquire such weapons could dev­as­tate a fleet.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has con­tributed to more than four dozen mag­a­zines, news­pa­pers and web­sites. He is the author of sev­er­al books on mil­i­tary head­gear includ­ing A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is avail­able on Amazon.comThis first appeared ear­li­er and is being repost­ed due to reader inter­est.

Image: Reuters

National Interest source|articles

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