This writeup aims to discuss the impact of rapidly improving missile and unmanned vehicle technology upon the way wars are currently fought between distant nations. Although not common knowledge, both Russia and China currently possess ship-to-ship warfare capabilities in excess of any other country on Earth, due to the continued ingenuity of Russian weapons scientists. This trend looks set to continue, as no other military force has (to public knowledge at least) in development any weaponry of such sophistication.
Modern offensive warfare against a distant target relies upon a nation's ability to effectively project its military power. As demonstrated so emphatically by the Japanese surprise attack upon Pearl Harbour, aircraft carriers are among the very best methods to accomplish this. A fully laden supercarrier and its attendant support craft possess the critical capability to transport extremely heavy firepower an arbitrary distance, and establish a secure beachhead upon another nation's soil. Without air superiority or at least aerial standoff, a country cannot deploy its ground forces securely. Naval vessels can be sunk, armoured convoys shattered and air transports downed if the airspace around them cannot be secured. This wisdom continues to strongly steer the course of current military deployment, as evidenced by the large carrier fleets maintained by the United States. Such battle groups have seen successful deployment in both Gulf Wars, and as deterrents to conflict elsewhere. There can be no doubting the effectiveness and necessity of a well trained and well armed navy in conducting a distant war. However, modern leaps in technology are fast making obsolete the conventional wisdom of blue-water naval dominance, in favour of the defending side.
As stated, Russia and China are currently better equipped to destroy an enemy navy than any other nation in the world. Although neither possess aircraft carriers matching U.S. or British capability (China in fact has none at all), both benefit from the integration of cutting-edge antiship missile technology into their respective navies. At the moment this is embodied in the Russian-made SS-N-22 'Moskit' cruise missile, currently the most lethal antiship weapon in the world, to which Russia is rumoured to be already designing a superior model. The best naval antimissile system currently in deployment is the US-made Aegis system, which locks onto and destroys incoming missiles with a variety of countermeasures. The Aegis is the only line of defense between U.S. carrier battle groups and enemy missile frigates, and up until recently was capable of near-perfect defense. The Moskit however, changed the playing field. The Moskit is capable of such high speeds and violent maneuvers that the Aegis system cannot lock onto it in time to destroy it, either with distractions such as chaff/flares or with active methods such as the Phalanx point-defense system. Each Moskit cruise missile can be equipped with a 120 kiloton nuclear warhead, six times that used at Hiroshima and enough to destroy several large ships in one shot. Each missile costs a mere fraction of the cost of a carrier battle group to build and deploy, yet one or two nuclear-tipped Moskits could easily eliminate most or all of the opposing ships. There is currently no defense in the world against this missile. Russia recently completed sales of two Type 956A 'Sovremenny'-class destroyers to China, each armed with eight such missiles.
In a similar development, this time beneath the waves, Russian weapons scientists have also succeeded in the development of a supersonic torpedo, known as the 'Shkval'. This weapon is rocket-powered, travelling close to and beyond the speed of sound underwater by means of a phenomenon known as cavitation. The recent loss of the Russian submarine Kursk with all hands is attributed to a malfunctioning Shkval torpedo. Current defense against submarines is basically other attack submarines with active sonar and ASW warplanes, but the continuing development of the Shkval again renders conventional tactics useless. Submarines defending a battle group cannot react in time to defend against such weapons, and an aircraft carrier is as incapable of dodging a Shkval as it is incapable of evading a Moskit. Countermeasures are ineffective, because cavitation torpedoes are 'dumbfire', or unguided. When your speed outmatches that of your target by a factor of twenty, you don't need homing ability. It is also highly probable that further developments in silent-running submarine drive systems, such as those seen on the Russian 'Akula'-class, the British 'Trafalgar'-class and the U.S. 'Los Angeles', will allow a submarine so armed to get close enough to deliver a payload such as the Shkval with little or no warning.
Whilst only specific examples, each demonstrates a new order in the way forces must be deployed away from home. Aircraft carriers and their support ships are the most expensive tactical assets in modern military deployment. A battle group can represent over $20bn in military assets without breaking a sweat, whereas the high-speed ordinance used to destroy some or all of it can cost under $1m each. This represents the first opportunity for a smaller, less economically rich nation to defend against a larger one. A form of naval guerilla warfare emerges, a small navy conducting effective hit-and-run attacks upon a larger and more capable one. Without aircraft carriers, an overseas war cannot be effectively conducted, thus nations would be restricted to land and air wars, which as WWII showed us are among the bloodiest and most debilitating wars to fight. Wars would be restricted to continents without aircraft carriers or an effective defense against the new generation of unmanned, automated weaponry. As a guy once said to me, all wars are trade wars. Whilst I debate his meaning of it, the statement stands. Economic collapse brought down the Soviet Union, and as long as one nation can reliably destroy one hundred times more military assets of an enemy than it has to spend in the process, economic starvation will eventually eat away even the largest of militaries. If after each engagement you have to rebuild ten ships and fifty aircraft, whilst your opponent simply slots another missile back in his launch tube, you cannot prevail in either the long or the short term without economically crippling your country, your victory hollow and meaningless.
New Scientist Magazine, various issues
Discussions with a naval warfare specialist
In response to The Custodian
You make very good points and I do not dispute them, but bear in mind that I was discussing a trend. The Moskit and Shkval systems are powerful but flawed, but missile and torpedo tech is progressing far faster than Aegis-style defense technology. Richer nations will always enjoy an advantage, but the gap is fast narrowing. As to your comments about Aegis, it honestly cannot effectively target Moskit missiles. The TMD capability you mention depends upon early detection of a ballistic projectile, which allows enough reaction time to compute a solution and fire. The Moskit has a highly evasive flight path and a violent pop-up maneuver on final approach, a far more difficult proposition than shooting down a warhead you knew about the moment it was launched and has a predictable flight path.