The US Navy's aircraft carriers are the not only symbols of America's global undisputed naval power but in fact are one of the most important reasons that the US really is, in spite of all the talk about American decline, the only superpower on Earth. The airpower they provide can not only be used to strike land targets, but their aircraft can be used to sink any ships the the US government decides it wants to sink. This capability is the essence of seapower.
China, however is now working on a new weapon that could radically reduce the relative advantage the US Navy now enjoys. The Chinese military is developing a new type of missile : the Anti Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM), with an estimated range of 1500 kilometers. Unlike cruise missiles, these are launched vertically and attack from above, anywhere up to twenty times the speed of sound. Previously such weapons were thought to be impossible because they could not be made accurate enough to hit a moving target such as a ship. With new radar technology, however, ASBMs may soon become a reality.
America's enemies have long wanted to find a silver bullet with which to kill or cripple these ships and their escort vessels. Eliminating US seapower as a factor in world affairs would change the fundamental nature of geopolitics as we have known it since 1945. The former Soviet Union invested billions of rubles and a good portion of its scientific and engineering talent trying to find ways to attack and sink the American carriers. To that end the USSR developed cruise missiles launched from long range bombers. super torpedos and submarine launched missiles all of which were, in the end, vulnerable to the US Navy's protective array , including fighters, defensive missiles, anti-submarine systems, close-in defense radar guided machine guns and electronic counter measures.
In the long term, the least expensive and most effective solution to the threat would be to base a large number of interceptors in space. These were developed during the George H.W. Bush administration as the Brilliant Pebbles program. They are small satellites designed to detect the heat from a missile launch and to attack the missile while it is still firing its engine and thrusting upward against the Earth's gravity. The program was cancelled by the Clinton administration in 1993. Many studies by the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization showed that these weapons would be effective against both long-range and medium-range ballistic missiles.
The program, though, is controversial: as its foes point out, it would involve the "weaponization of space." In response, it should be pointed out that space is already a theater of war: satellites are constantly being attacked by jamming and by being "painted" with lasers. Additionally, the Chinese Anti Satellite(ASAT) weapon test that occurred in January 2007 is often considered to have Missile Defense applications as well as ASAT ones.
Arms Control advocates have long tried to prevent the US from deploying anti ballistic missile weapons. They have been particularly ferocious in their opposition to space-based missile defense systems. They seem to believe that the US must negotiate agreements or treaties that either maintain the balance of nuclear terror or replace it with some sort of universal disarmament.
Today, the US carriers and the rest of the US fleet are as safe from attack as they has ever been. There are a few new types of high-speed cruise missiles that might be dangerous to us, but new versions of the Navy's defensive missiles seem to be able to defeat them. In any event, the Navy is working hard to come up with an effective array of countermeasures.
The US Navy now needs to develop new ways to protect its ships against these weapons. Some of the countermeasures will simply involve improvements to existing defensive systems and procedures, including those of concealment and deception. America's admirals have long studied ways to hide their fleets from satellite and long-range radar observation. The new threat simply means that keeping US ships hidden, or at least difficult to detect, is an urgent task.
The Navy also has a number of Missile Defense options it can use to defend its ships. The sea-based anti-ballistic missiles, the SM-3, development of which began during the Reagan administration and is now in use by both the US and Japan, could be modified to intercept China's ASBM. The difficulty is that there are not many of these SM-3 missiles. The Chinese could build hundreds of ASBMs weapons and overwhelm the Navy's defenses.
The US Navy therefore should look for ways to supplement their defensive weapons with other non-Navy systems. In the short term, these could include long-range, land-based missiles, such as the Ground Based Interceptors (GBIs), that are now deployed in Alaska and California. These GBIs provide the US homeland with a limited defense against Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). A few of them, based on Guam or in Hawaii, could give the fleet an extra layer of protection; and their use would not give away the carriers' locations. Likewise, medium-range, land-based missile defense weapons might usefully supplement the Navy's self-protection systems in certain areas, such as the seas south of Okinawa.
Things have changed considerably since the end of the Cold War: the choice is no longer between arms control and a new arms race, but between having a Navy or not having one.