Britain’s new aircraft carriers are sitting ducks for Russian anti-ship missiles, according to the worst fears of Western critics and the loudest boasts of Russian. If that’s true, then British warships don’t dare venture into northern European waters for fear of Russian weapons such as the hypersonic Khinzal and Zircon ship-killing missiles.
But Royal Navy carriers actually do have a fighting chance against Russian missiles, according to a new report by a British think tank. Because Russia can’t sink ships if it can’t find them.
“There is room for qualified near-to-medium-term optimism about the utility of aircraft carriers using the North Sea, Barents Sea and Norwegian Sea as a maneuver space,” writes Sidharth Kaushal, an analyst for the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) who mathematically modeled the potential impact of Russian anti-ship weapons.
The problem isn’t with Russia’s missiles, but rather with Russia’s lack of ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capabilities needed to locate a ship and guide the missile close enough to the target to use its onboard sensors. For example, Russia’s Kinzhal – a hypersonic Mach 10 anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) launched from MiG-31 fighters or Tu-22M3 bombers – has an estimated range of 1,500 kilometers (932 miles), which would enable Russian aircraft to threaten U.S. and British carriers operating in the North Sea. But as a rough guess, the RUSI study assumes the Kinzhal’s onboard sensors can detect a target within 40 square kilometers (25 miles), just like China’s DF-21D ASBM. Which means to get that within that distance of a moving ship, the missile would need to be vectored to the target’s location by a land-based over-the-horizon radar or radar-equipped maritime patrol planes like the Il-38N and Tu-142.
In turn, those lumbering patrol planes would need to get within about 200 miles of their target to acquire it on their sensors, which means a strong chance of being shot down by carrier-based fighters. That leaves land-based radar, which can’t be shot down but only has a range of about 25 miles. Thus, even though a Kinzhal may have a thousand-mile range, Russian ships and aircraft would have to get dangerously close to their target.
Similar problems apply to older supersonic Mach 3 P-800 and subsonic Kh-35 anti-ship missiles launched by bombers and submarines. “To get within 120 kilometers [75 miles] of a carrier, Oscar IIs [attack submarines] would have to safely escape their Arctic bastions and potential ASW [NATO anti-submarine] pickets in the high north,” Kaushal writes. “Moreover, given the limitations of submarine onboard sensor suites, questions regarding the ability to track targets such as carriers on the basis of off-board data such as ELINT [electronic intelligence] remain. While missiles such as the P-800 offer a target little warning time at sea-skimming mode, the ranges at which they can be effective in this mode require launch platforms such as the Oscar II – of which there are only two – to take significant risks. As such, submarine-launched P-800 salvos may be comparable to ASBMs – lethal and difficult to intercept, but difficult to cue in and dependent on high-value launch platforms of which Russia does not have many.”
However, if a Russian anti-ship missile can find its target, that ship is in trouble. “The PK [probability of killing a target] of an individual missile, assuming it does acquire its target and evade the defenses of the carrier battle group, is likely reasonably high,” Kaushal told Uncommon Defense. “For quasi-ballistic missiles, and some of the faster cruise missiles, the odds of evading defenses may be reasonably good, though less so for slower missiles like the Kh-35 which still make up the bulk of Russia’s arsenal. The major strain on Russian resources is the problem of ISR which forces Russian commanders to saturate an area with very large salvos- which is likely to be a strain on limited stockpiles particularly if we are talking about the newest missiles.”
RUSI estimates that the probability of an individual Russian missile hitting a Western carrier is so low that 20 missiles would be needed to ensure a kill. For a high-value target like a carrier, the effort might be worth it. But like NATO, Russia only has a limited supply of expensive smart weapons. “Of course, if a Russian commander can coordinate a salvo of 20 ASBMs and deems the risk of expending large numbers of scarce assets worthwhile, he may score a strategic success,” Kaushal notes.
Interestingly, Kaushal argues that China’s vigorous efforts to defeat American carriers, such as DF-21 “carrier-killer” ASBM, don’t necessarily translate to the European theater. Russia “has no equivalent to the Chinese SAR [synthetic aperture radar] satellite constellation and sources of data such as maritime patrol aircraft have to be used from closer in, where they are at risk of being shot down, as well as facing competing demands from other missions like ASW patrols.”
The RUSI study admits that its calculations are rough and that conditions can change, such as Russia deploying radar satellites. “Speculatively, one might wonder how the ISR network on which the Kinzhal depends might be improved by some form of Sino-Russian agreement that gave Russia access to data from China’s growing orbital SAR network,” Kaushal ponders.
The RUSI study is good news for the U.S. Navy, whose carriers are increasingly endangered by Chinese weapons like hypersonic missiles and the DF-21, a land-based strategic nuclear missile now adapted for ship-killing. But while a DF-21 may be difficult to shoot down, it still has to find a ship in constant motion across the vastness of the Pacific.In the end, the RUSI study reminds us that apocalyptic fears of fleets pulverized by super-missiles need to be taken with a healthy grain of salt. “Russian commanders will have to think long and hard about how many risks they are willing to take for an uncertain chance of scoring a hit on a carrier,” Kaushal says.
— Michael Peck