Missile Defence: Protecting Aircraft Carriers

Dr. Vijay Sakhuja

The Indian Navy was recently briefed on the Aegis ballistic missile defence (BMD) system for ships. The US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin had discussions with Indian authorities and reports suggest that they are ‘open to collaboration’ with the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) on integrating the Prithvi Air Defence Shield (PADS) with the Aegis system. The Aegis system has proved successful in fourteen tests in the Exo-Atmospheric and the Endo-Atmospheric domain and among these the 2008 shooting down of the nonoperational US satellite with no "hot" debris reaching the earth has been the system’s hallmark. The system is fitted onboard nearly 100 warships among the US, Japanese, South Korean, Norwegian, Spanish and Australian navies and 20 more ships are expected to host this sophisticated system that can track more than 100 missiles based on ‘threat priority'.

The need for a ship based BMD system gains salience and criticality in the context of the investments made by states in the development of ballistic missiles that can be launched from shore based platforms and also from submarines. In the Chinese context, the Type 094 Jin class SSBN that carries 12 X JL-2 ballistic missile (a variation of DF 31 land-based ballistic missile with a range of 8,000 kilometer), capable of hosting single nuclear warheads of one mega ton or three to eight MIRV of smaller yield is a well acknowledged threat. Another development that merits immediate attention relates to the development of an array of shashoujian, or “assassin’s mace” technologies that offer China an ability to attack aircraft carriers. Of particular concern is the modified DF 21 Anti Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) missile that has been especially configured to attack and cripple large sea targets such as the aircraft carriers. The missile has a speed of up to Mach 10, can cover 1,200 miles in less than 12 minutes and capable of hitting moving targets at 2000 km.

The ASBM capability allows China to fit an Electro-magnetic Pulse (EMP) bomb that can destroy the ‘neurological networks’ thus decapitating the aircraft carrier’s C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) systems. The bomb does not land on the target; instead it explodes in the air rendering the C4ISR network of the air carrier nonoperational. A US Naval Institute report has pointed out that this is "the first time a ballistic missile has been successfully developed to attack vessels at sea. Ships currently have no defense against a ballistic missile attack." The US has made note of this development and appears to integrate the threat in their strategic and tactical calculations. In the first instance this would necessitate fitting more ships with the SM-3 interceptors that have proved their capability in the fourteen tests conducted so far.

Similarly, Pakistan’s arsenal of a variety of advance ballistic and cruise missiles merits attention. Reports suggest that Pakistan is developing MIRV capability for the Shaheen-II ballistic missiles and the under development Shaheen-III missiles. Although the current capability of Pakistani missiles is built around radar seekers and the GPS updates provide enormously accurate CEP, the integration of ‘re-entry vehicle’ would make these extremely potent and defeat the anti-ballistic missile defence systems. In the Indian context, there is as yet no sea based anti ballistic missile system and this gap in their defence can make the Indian aircraft carriers highly vulnerable.

While the missile may have the capability to attack large mobile targets at sea, it is important to first obtain positional data for targeting purposes. The radar system would not be able to perform all the tasks of identification and designation of target data; it would require the support of other systems such as satellites, UAVs, maritime patrol aircraft, and other forward deployed air/surface/sub surface assets. This takes us to the important issue of strategic engagement between China and Pakistan on such issues. The current Chinese capability is in the form of Ziyuan 2 and Yaogan satellites and these platforms have good resolution and the potential to identify an aircraft carrier from space. However, these are in sun synchronous orbit and can make one pass over an area in a day. What would be needed is a series of such satellites that are able to update target coordinates on regular basis.

While these are constraints, China may even explore the possibility of dual-use of its assets by both the host nation and China. This could be in the form of staging its maritime patrol aircraft and UAVs from Pakistani bases which would ensure “presence” and also enhance its operational reach, thus far constrained by distant deployment capability. It would overcome the PLA Navy’s serious shortcomings in the availability of platforms with higher staying power. The UAVs would be a logical choice due to their high endurance, and long range for identifying the carrier group; but these would have to be of extremely low signature making it difficult to be detected by the aircraft carrier systems.

The Indian navy may have integrated the anti ship missile threat from surface , sub surface and air platforms of the Pakistan Navy, a salvo of DF-21 or Shaheen-II / III ballistic missiles poses an ‘existential threat’ and could be worth the attention it merits. In essence, the ASBM threat necessitates an equal priority as acquisition of aircraft carriers.

Author Note
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is a Senior Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.