In recent years, the world has witnessed the increasing role of drones in modern warfare. The Russia-Ukraine conflict serves as a clear example of how drones have become a major trend in future wars. Among the countries at the forefront of drone technology is China, which has not only made significant advancements in the drone industry but has also introduced the concept of “drone swarms.”
One area where Chinese drone swarms could have a significant impact is in challenging the air defense systems of American aircraft carriers. When people think of drone swarms, they often envision their use against the US air defense system. With their sheer numbers, drone swarms can potentially overwhelm the air defense missiles of the United States. Interestingly, the US itself has embraced a similar concept when developing its naval fleet.
The primary strategy of the US aircraft carrier battle group is to rely on carrier-based aircraft formations for launching continuous air offensives against enemy fleets. These aircraft carriers deploy advanced fighter jets like the F/A-18 Hornet armed with Harpoon missiles, which can strike enemy ships from a distance of up to 300 kilometers. Most modern shipboard air defense systems lack air defenses with such an extensive range.
A single US aircraft carrier can carry over 70 carrier-based aircraft, including interceptors and carrier-based early warning aircraft. During the Cold War, aircraft carriers even had around 40 F-14 interceptors, commonly known as “super aircraft.” Each “Super Bug” fighter can be equipped with four Harpoon missiles, and an aircraft carrier can have a maximum of 160 anti-ship missiles. When the US deploys a dual-carrier battle group consisting of two aircraft carriers, it demonstrates its capability to handle general military conflicts effectively.
The composition of a carrier-based aircraft brigade, supported by two aircraft carriers, is not something that ordinary countries can match. When the US deploys such a dual-carrier battle group, it sends a strong message that can deter many nations. However, swarm drones offer a comparable advantage to China—an industrial powerhouse. In a naval battle, China could potentially deploy over 300 swarm drones, outnumbering carrier-based aircraft significantly.
In addition to the cost and production time advantages over carrier-based aircraft, swarm drones excel in “machine-sea tactics.” For instance, the Shahed-136 UAV sold by Iran to Russia is priced at tens of thousands of dollars, making it a cost-effective option compared to high-precision missiles. Drones also have a quicker production time, as they can be mass-produced on assembly lines, unlike fighter jets which take months to produce.
Considering the production cost and time, China could dispatch tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of drones for the same resources the US would use to deploy an aircraft carrier-based aircraft. In an all-out war where productivity is crucial to combat effectiveness, the advantages of swarm drones become evident. Rather than sinking an aircraft carrier directly, swarm drones can focus on rendering combat ineffective.
The strategy involves equipping the drones with explosives to blow up the flight deck of the aircraft carrier, effectively disabling its ability to launch or recover carrier-based aircraft. Without these aircraft, the US aircraft carrier and the entire carrier strike group lose their naval and land strike capabilities for a considerable period, potentially disrupting their operations for several days.
While drones have a significant role in land warfare, they are better suited for attacking armies than aircraft carrier battle groups. The vast maritime combat radius often requires drones to reach combat distances.