China is developing an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) based on a variant of the CSS-5 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) as a component of its anti-access strategy. The missile has a range in excess of 1,500 km and, when incorporated into a sophisticated command and control system, is a key component of China’s anti-access strategy to provide the PLA the capability to attack ships at sea, including aircraft carriers, from great distances.
Work is believed to be ongoing to provide this missile with a sophisticated terminal guidance system. According to some reports the Mod 2 version of the CSS-5 will be comparable to the US Pershing II IRBM, employ advanced radar guidance to achieve extremely high accuracy.
An aircraft carrier is a big target, so it would probably not be too difficult to put sensors on a missile capable of guiding it to the target. And intercepting the missile in its re-entry phase would be quite difficult, because it would be going very fast. Think of it this way: it’s a lot more technologically difficult to hit a small missile doing 3000 m/s than a large ship doing 20 m/s. So assuming China and the USA are roughly technologically matched (which they will be over the next decade or two), it’ll be a lot easier for China to hit America’s carriers than for America’s carriers to defend themselves.
Where does this leave Britain? Britain is currently building 2 65,000 ton aircraft carriers, to be named Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales. These will cost £4 billion between them. But could they fall victim to a missile system much cheaper than themselves? I’m reminded of the fate of the last Royal Navy ships with these names — the last Prince of Wales was sunk in 1941 by Japanese air-launched torpedoes, and 8 days later and halfway around the world, Queen Elizabeth was sunk by Italian frogmen; in both cases the ship was defeated by vastly less expensive weapons.