From the day China test launched a hypersonic missile in earth’s orbit and steered it to pre-designated target on the surface of the earth, it has generated a hot debate worldwide regarding the relevance of aircraft carriers in the age of hypersonic missiles. It appears that aircraft carriers can write their epitaph now. Carrier skeptics have found a reason to demonise this new weapon of war which can be used in the event of a war erupting between China and the United States (US) or its partner nations that operate aircraft carriers. It is, perhaps, assumed that the aircraft carrier is floating still, defenseless and the adversary has fed the GPS location on the missile and all it has to do is to penetrate every air defence system meant to protect the aircraft carrier and with one hit destroy the vessel. Is that the reality today?
Air Defence for Aircraft Carriers
Indeed, it is a threat of concern which calls for new operating philosophy which would entail the creation of a new defensive and offensive umbrella and improvements in shipbuilding standards which can make these ships capable of absorbing detonation shocks. Whenever a new offensive weapon system or tactics evolves, it threatens the survival of existing platforms. That does not necessarily imply doing away with the existing platforms or locations from where these offensive weapons can be deployed. Tactics of “counter air operations” in land warfare did not prevent any further aircraft operations from airfields but led to the invention of new methods of protecting the airfields by shooting down the incoming aircraft or missiles by developing more capable surface to air missiles. Similarly, Japanese Kamikaze air attacks on US Aircraft Carriers in the Second World War did not stop the US from fielding these powerful ships at sea nearly as follow on. During the Cold War era, the Soviet Union frequently dispatched long range bombers equipped with anti-ship missiles. However, did that dispatch US Aircraft Carriers to Devi John’s Locker?
Countries that operate aircraft carriers would certainly take this new development seriously and bounce back with credible countermeasures. The advantages of a floating airfield at sea which can move over 600 kilometres in a day, is far too important to be ignored. As far as vulnerability is concerned, every warrior is vulnerable to enemy action. However, countries have not stopped fighting wars for this reason. A true fighter rises with better preparation the next time around.
Operating the Hypersonic Missiles
Let us examine the operating process of these hypersonic missiles closely. These are most significant developments in missile technology post the invention of Inter Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). The missile itself is a combination of cruise missile and glide bomb. In the glide phase they lose energy due to atmospheric drag. Thereafter, every manoeuver saps its energy further. As a result, the actual impact goes below Mach 5. It imposes some restriction on its maneuverability and, therefore, puts suspicion regarding reliance on kinetic energy impact. As per a Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) paper written by Dominika Kunertova, there is a question on accuracy. The high speed and friction heat, the surfaces of hypersonic vehicles often exceeds 20000 centigrade and produces a line of ionised gas that can disrupt navigation signals. Also, the resulting plasma can be visible on radars, space based sensors and even to large surveillance drones more than the visibility of vehicle itself. While it is not to underestimate the ability of the weapon, it must be borne in mind that physical limitations imposed by low altitude atmospheric flights could expose hypersonic weapons hiding from surface radars behind the curvature of the earth. China’s DF 41 that has multiple gliders seem to be second strike response to China’s apprehension of preemptive strike by the US which could disable its nuclear arsenal and deprive it of its ability to retaliate.
In order to prepare for any future hypersonic war, a number of developments are in the pipeline. The aircraft carrier Gerald Ford of the US Navy has now been tested for blast shock created by 40,000 pound charge which registered a 3.9-magnitude earthquake. However, even a small charge penetration at hypersonic speeds could be more damaging. While supervising a live supersonic missile attack on a decommissioned ship target, it was observed that the missile had penetrated the hull well above the waterline and passed through the ship. The damage was a big hole through the ship which was repairable. The damage being above the waterline prevented any flooding and as a result, the ship remained afloat though damaged to some extent.
Defence of Aircraft Carriers Against Hypersonic Missiles
In the context of hypersonic weapons, the aircraft carrier will have to be better prepared by extensive space-based and surface surveillance to locate potential hypersonic launch platforms and take it out before it is put to use. It will also need the pilots operating from aircraft carriers to adapt to this new circumstance. There are Directed Energy Weapons which are good point defence systems. For the purpose of surveillance, the existing ‘Crowsnest’ system can scan over the horizon and warn the air defence systems to assume readiness. Both the space based surveillance systems and the F35 fighter jets that are fitted with infrared systems, are capable of detecting hypersonic missiles. At present, laser weapons and rail guns have the potential to defend against emerging threats at sea. Rail guns use electromagnetic force to fire projectiles at approximately Mach 6. The research is going on to use these as standard air defence weapons. Anti Missile System Glide Breaker is also being developed by the US, which is capable of neutralising hypersonic threats seconds before it can hit the ship.
It is true that hypersonic weapons, that are still under trial by China though they have claimed to have been operationalised, will require renewed focus on air defence at sea. It will call for utilisation of space-based and airborne early warning systems. There are multiple hard kill measures in service and under development in advanced countries such as the US, Russia, China and the United Kingdom. For India to join these developmental projects, agreements of QUAD on cooperation in emerging technologies must be put to use. It is not the time to assume that the game is over and we are done. The Air Defence problem will become harder with the arrival of hypersonic weapons, but it is not insurmountable. India needs to join in on the developments.
It is not doomsday for aircraft carriers as yet. Its utility in transforming the character of war far outweighs the effort needed to join development projects for defence not only of ships at sea, but assets on land as well such as strategic airfields, nuclear missile silos including the ones meant for second strike. Countries must declare hypersonic weapon attack akin to nuclear strike and respond as per the existing policy. These weapons need to be listed in the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties.
Countering Hypersonic Missiles
As far as deployment of hypersonic missiles is concerned, Russia has already deployed these missiles. China has ongoing hypersonic missile projects and recently, it launched the missile on a proven ballistic missile vehicle which placed it in the orbital hyperbolic trajectory around the earth. Thereafter, it was controlled to enter the atmosphere of the earth and directed on a target. In all probability, these are a part of the trials, though China has publicly exhibited DF 17 which has scramjet power plant. The philosophy of the development is to ward off the US aircraft carriers out of their aircraft operational radius. The research glide vehicle DF-ZF is short to medium range hypersonic missile glide vehicle which would mitigate the US aircraft carrier threat. This is in line with China’s broader policy of winning a war without fighting. This affords China the ability to deter the US Navy without having to compete with the latter’s overall fighting ability. This may even lead China to capping its own aircraft carrier programme as and when hypersonic missiles are proven and deployed against the enemy in the Pacific. China’s break out is to its East where there is much room to manoeuvre due to unhindered open seas. Aircraft carriers of the US Navy have always taken the routes through the Pacific Ocean to bottle China in the East Sea and South China Sea. China’s offensive and assertive behaviour along with its rapid ship-building and hypersonic missile development may have prompted the US to enter into AUKUS agreement with Australia and the UK for arming the Australian Navy with nuclear submarines. This is purely a military and transfer of advanced technology alliance. Should the Chinese hypersonic missiles ultimately get deployed to deter US aircraft carriers from closing in on to the Chinese mainland, submarines offer a good alternative to launch SLBM offensive in case of a hot war.
In the overall analysis, hypersonic missiles are bound to trigger another arms race in order to obtain strategic superiority. Russia is way ahead in this technology. It is possible that it may proliferate refining technology to China, US being their common adversary. The bigger challenge will be its proliferation amongst regional and middle powers. For example, Iran may develop the missile to target Israel in the absence of its nuclear weapons. India too could expedite its hypersonic research work which has been underway for some time. The world could be staring at a new, undeclared Cold War and restless peace.
Countermeasures are being developed to defend against hypersonic missiles. Ones under development are Directed Energy Weapons, particle beam weapons and other non-kinetic weapons. It is the short reaction time in which the targets have to use their countermeasures. A network of space-based satellites and sensors possibly can track such hypersonic glide vehicles globally. Some commentaries suggest that work has commenced in this field. For early detection of supersonic and hypersonic vehicles, this network seems to be the first step. Also, use of supersonic or hypersonic missiles to destroy launch sites or platforms and degrading operational efficiency of hypersonic missiles by cyber or electronic attacks, is also being considered. In the mid-term, Directed Energy Weapons and electromagnetic rail guns could provide area or point defence against these missiles. The US Navy has operationalised and fitted 150 kilowatt laser guns on warships which can target missiles, drones and possibly hypersonic missiles.
The Potential of Hypersonic Missiles
Hypersonic weapons could become a geo-political tool in the hands of the three big powers, the US, Russia and China and a few middle level powers as well. As the development of this weapons system progresses, even the middle level powers could arm themselves with this missile to overcome their otherwise weaker conventional military power. The world could be looking at a weapon system that will define the foreign policy of a nation. It is time that the hypersonic missiles are categorised in the Non Proliferation list and prevent its spread beyond these three countries. Also, a country not having hypersonic missiles, but in possession of nuclear weapons, could categorise these missiles as nuclear weapons and justify usage of second strike doctrine.
At the present stage of development, there are several imponderables, one being the power of its impact. The Chinese hypersonic missiles use re-entry vehicles. Initially, the missile is launched into space in parabolic or hyperbolic trajectory. When the warhead is released, it rides on the glide vehicle to which it is fixed. The vehicle has aero-dynamic shape to overcome the shock waves created by hypersonic speeds and atmospheric drag. The atmospheric drag is significant which reduces the velocity to approximately five to six Mach. The controls are driven by aerodynamic forces in the earth’s atmosphere between 40km to 100km.
In conclusion, one can state that hypersonic missiles will become a threat not only for aircraft carriers and other warships at sea, but virtually for every VA/VPs over land – Command and Control Communication Centres, airfields, as well as nuclear weapon launch sites. It will be a strategic weapon which could intensify cold peace or result in a major confrontation. China’s DF 17 is nearing readiness for deployment. It is said to have a range of 1,800km to 2,500 km. Warheads could be dual use. On the other hand, Starry Sky 2 (XingKong 2) carries nuclear warhead on a wave rider or hypersonic glide vehicle. It is expected to enter service by 2025. Seen in a strategic perspective, these missiles will be the mainstay against the US Navy from the Pacific front. As far as India is concerned, with its range of 1,800km to 2,500km, the land-based VAs and VPs could be targeted. Warships at sea could be deployed beyond the maximum range of land-based hypersonic missiles and yet perform their task in the Indian Ocean. The timeframe for countermeasures must begin now unless the retaliatory measure invites sea-based second strike. However, sea-based launch of such missiles seems unlikely at present.