When up against Chinese missiles, is a U.S. aircraft carrier obsolete?

The growing threat from Chinese anti-ship missiles has raised concerns about the viability of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. However, several less-recognized factors contribute to the overall threat equation.

Aircraft Carriers and the Chinese Threat

China’s DF-26 anti-ship missile poses a serious threat, with the ability to travel 2,000 miles and potentially destroy aircraft carriers. But it’s important to consider the U.S. Navy’s adaptations in response to China’s A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) strategy.

U.S. Navy leaders have made it clear that their aircraft carriers will sail “wherever” it takes to project their power. In the face of the Chinese threat, the Navy remains committed to the operational effectiveness of its Carrier Air Wings and Carrier Strike Groups.

Although specific details are not known for security reasons, the layered defenses of ships have undergone significant improvements in recent years.

When up against Chinese missiles

Electronic warfare and defense technologies

Electronic warfare technologies are essential for detecting and locating the signature of enemy cruise, air, or ballistic missiles. These technologies can also interfere with or disable the missile’s radio frequency signal or guidance system.

Additionally, many Navy surface ships, including aircraft carriers, are equipped with laser weapons that can perform optical functions and intercept incoming threats at light speed.

The People’s Liberation Army-Navy DF-21D and DF-26 are just two of China’s cutting-edge anti-ship missile systems. Many different names have been given to these missiles, but “carrier killer” and “anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD) weapons are the most common. Their intended targets are aircraft carriers and other large surface vessels, which they may destroy if they get close enough.

The DF-21D is an intermediate-range ballistic missile, whereas the DF-26 has a medium-range. Both of these weapons are tailored to engage mobile targets at sea, such as aircraft carriers. They have sophisticated guidance systems, including terminal guidance systems, that allow them to fine-tune their fly path immediately before they land.

It should be noted that military specialists are currently debating and analyzing the precise capabilities, range, and efficacy of various missile systems. However, China’s strategy to counter the power projection capabilities of aircraft carrier battle groups, especially those operated by the United States, includes developing these A2/AD systems.

If a Chinese anti-ship missile like the DF-21D or DF-26 were ever launched at a U.S. aircraft carrier, the carrier’s defenses would kick in. Long-range air defense systems, such as the Aegis Combat System, are just one example of the many layers of defense available on today’s aircraft carriers.

Interceptor missiles like the SM-6 Standard Missile and close-in weapon systems (CIWS) like the Phalanx and RAM (Rolling Airframe Missile) could be part of these defense networks. To add another line of protection, carrier strike groups frequently employ escort ships with their own air defense capabilities.

The success of the carrier’s strike group’s missile defense systems, the attacking missile’s capabilities, the carrier’s countermeasures, and the overall tactical situation would all affect the result of such an engagement.

 It’s worth mentioning that the U.S. Navy spends a lot of money on R&D for cutting-edge defense weapons like anti-ship missiles so it can keep up with the ever-evolving dangers it faces.

In sum, China’s development of sophisticated anti-ship missile systems has unquestionably raised the complexity and difficulty of U.S. aircraft carrier operations in the event of a confrontation. In order to keep its aircraft carriers and other assets safe, the United States Navy has a multi-layered defense strategy and is continually adjusting its tactics, technologies, and operational concepts.

When up against Chinese missiles, is a U.S. aircraft carrier obsolete?


Additional protection and Aegis systems

Aircraft carriers are regularly protected by destroyers and cruisers armed with Aegis Combat Systems for missile defense. These ships also feature Vertical Launch Systems to fire high-track interceptors against incoming enemy weapons, such as the SM-6, SM-3, or SM-2.


Chinese anti-ship missiles pose a growing threat to U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, but the Navy has made significant adaptations and developed layered defenses to meet these challenges. Electronic warfare, laser weapons, and Aegis systems are key examples of these improvements.