With China now deploying hypersonic missiles, the aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales could be at a distinct risk. To address this, the UK should invest carefully in defences capable of defeating hypersonic missiles whose extreme speed may overwhelm missile defense systems.
HMS Queen Elizabeth currently serves with the Royal Navy as the latest and largest in a long line of UK aircraft carriers, which carry British jets at sea, enabling the UK to project power and protect its global interests. Announced in 2007, her entry into service was delayed until 2020 due to budget cuts announced in the 2010 UK Strategic Defence and Security Review, at a final cost of a little over £6bn. HMS Queen Elizabeth will be followed in front-line service by sister ship the HMS Prince of Wales in 2023.
Aircraft carriers are the best means of projecting UK naval power, enabling Britain to swiftly intervene in international crises and also to protect vital sea-based trade effectively.
There has been debate over how effectively carriers such as HMS Queen Elizabeth can continue to protect British interests. Two alternatives – missile carrying arsenal ships and submarines – cannot effectively replace them. Arsenal ships do not match the complexity of the aircraft carrier, which possess greater flexibility in striking power. Carrier-based aircraft can carry many different weapons for distinct targets and jet pilots can adapt to changing circumstances. Carriers also possess assets such as airborne early warning radars, which can scan the skies and seas for threats; these cannot operate on a smaller arsenal ship due to lack of space on board.
Submarines can deny enemy access to strategic waters. However their utility for sea control, dominating the waters in a given area, is limited by their need for stealth. Once detected, submarines are vulnerable. Submarines, such as the under-induction Astute class, can effectively supplement the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier but cannot replace it.
Enter hypersonic missiles
Hypersonic weapons move at over five times the speed of sound, leaving mere seconds for a ship’s defences to react.. However with adequate investment in defences, such as early warning and directed energy weapons, there is no reason the aircraft carrier cannot remain at the fore of Britain’s security strategy.
China has been claiming vast swathes of ocean in South-East Asia, denying ships from smaller nations the right of movement – freedom of navigation – on the seas. The so-called Asian Quad (India, Japan, the US, and Australia) is therefore stepping up military efforts to balance China’s challenge to regional freedom of navigation in the South China Seas. The Quad nations are now holding exercises in the Indian Ocean and deploying warships to waters in East Asia to balance Chinese power.
As a key US and Australian ally, and a beneficiary of open sea lanes, the UK would well become involved in any confrontation with China. China is now making concerted investment in hypersonic weapons as part of a package of offensive weapon systems, designed to deny access to and restrict movement in contested areas. Chinese hypersonic missiles pose a genuine threat to British aircraft carriers.
Investing in counter-measures
Counter-measures to hypersonic weapons do exist. Speeding up the induction of Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems such as the ‘Crowsnest’ – Airborne Early Warning (AEW) – helicopter by the end of 2020 enables early detection. A helicopter based radar like Crowsnest can scan over the horizon to detect an incoming hypersonic threat early enough for defences to be effective. Sophisticated infrared sensors on the F-35 jet, which the Queen Elizabeth class carry, can detect a hypersonic launch early, as will space based surveillance assets. Together, these multi-spectral, multi-platform sensors can make a deployment of aircraft carriers viable in a hypersonic weapon environment.
Laser weapons and railguns are potentially able to defend against emerging naval threats, because they can match high hypersonic speeds. The US Navy has begun deploying small scale laser weapons for missile defence. Railguns use electromagnetic force to fire projectiles at roughly six times the speed of sound. Research into railguns is actively focusing on their use in missile defence. Another such system could be Glide Breaker, a US project to develop anti-missile systems to neutralise hypersonic threats. Both could theoretically deal with the hypersonic threat, potentially intercepting them a few seconds before they hit the ship. The Royal Navy should increase cooperation with the US, which leads global research on railgun technology.
While hypersonic weapons will require a renewed focus on space and airborne early warning, they will not make the aircraft carrier obsolete. With multiple solutions emerging, a ‘hard-kill’ response that can protect carriers is imminent. The UK and the Royal Navy would be well served by continued investment in a modern carrier capability going forward.
Jeevan Vipinachandran holds an MSc in Comparative Politics: Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics.