RIP: The One Thing That Could Send All Aircraft Carriers to the Scraper

Robert Farley

Key Point: Could hypersonic missiles do the job? 

We know how to kill aircraft carriers—or at least we know how best to try to kill aircraft carriers. Submarine-launched torpedoes, cruise missiles fired from a variety of platforms and ballistic missiles can all give an aircraft carrier a very bad day. Of course, modern carriers have ways of defending themselves from all of these avenues of attack, and we don’t yet have any good evidence of the real balance between offensive and defensive systems.

But what of the future? How will we plan to kill carriers thirty years from now? Here are five problems that the next generation of aircraft-carrier architects will need to worry about.

Undersea Unmanned Vehicles

Submarines have long posed the deadliest threat to aircraft carriers. In World War II, every major carrier fleet suffered losses to submarines; in the Cold War, the U.S. Navy viewed Soviet subs as a critical problem. Against modern antisubmarine warfare capabilities, the biggest difficulties faced by a submarine involve finding a carrier, then getting into firing position (with either missiles or torpedoes) before the carrier’s aircraft and escorts can detect and kill the sub. If the boat’s commander isn’t suicidal, finding a potential avenue for escape is also an issue.

Unmanned submarines solve several of these problems. They can wait indefinitely along the likely avenues of approach, only moving to attack after they detect the carrier. And robot submarines don’t worry too much about how their families will manage once they’re gone. Armed with only a few weapons, undersea unmanned vehicles, operating autonomously under preset conditions, could give future aircraft carriers a very serious headache.

Cyberattacks

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