The US Navy received the first of its new generation aircraft carriers, USS Gerald R. Ford, on June 1, moving the $13 billion ship closer to becoming operational. It is expected to be commissioned this summer. Two other Ford-class carriers, the John F. Kennedy and Enterprise, are also planned. The ship can carry more aircraft, weapons and fuel with its larger flight deck and features the newly designed electromagnetic aircraft launch system. Once commissioned, the Ford will undergo a series of tests and is slated to be operational in 2020.
She carries 75-90 aircraft. Ships of the Ford class are intended to sustain 160 sorties per day for 30-plus days, with a surge capability of 270 sorties per day.
HMS Queen Elizabeth, a 280-meter, 65,000-ton aircraft carrier – the largest and most powerful ship of the UK Royal Navy – started sea trials in June 26. She is to be commissioned this year and expected to reach initial operating capability in 2018. The second ship of the class, HMS Prince of Wales, is scheduled to be launched around summer 2017, followed by commissioning in 2020. The flattop is designed to operate V/STOL aircraft; her air wing will typically consist of F-35B Lightning II fighter-bombers and Merlin helicopters for airborne early warning and anti-submarine warfare. She provides accommodation for 250 Royal Marines supported with attack helicopters and troop transports.
France has plans to build its second aircraft carrier. Some experts believe that the aircraft carrier’s construction will be begun in 2020.
The leading NATO nations continue to build large-deck, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, which are the signature expression of military power. They have been a critical component of almost every major combat operation going back to WWII. The flattops are the tools to ensure sea dominance, power projection capability and intimidation of other countries, like Russia, for instance. Will the large ships be effective platforms to make Russia kneel? The answer is no. Not today.
The Russian Raduga Kh-22 carried by Tu-22M3 aircraft is a large, long-range anti-ship missile with an operational range of 600km (320nmi). In theory, with its range and the 1 ton (2,200 lbs) shaped-charge warhead the missile can cripple an aircraft carrier at a single blow. The warhead is powerful enough to make a 5m wide, 12m deep hole in the hull of any ship it strikes.
The Kh-32, an upgraded version of the Kh-22 capable of delivering a 1,000 kg conventional warhead or 1,000 kiloton nuclear warhead. Russia is finalizing its trials. The Kh-32 will also be carried by Tupolev Tu-22M3 supersonic bombers. The cutting-edge missile is virtually invulnerable to ground-based air defenses and interceptors of a potential adversary. Once launched, it climbs to an altitude of 40 km, to the stratosphere, to dive on the target at a steep angle. The missile is expected to have a firing range of up to 1,000 km compared to the 600 km for the Kh-22. It can reach speeds of no less than 5,000 kmh. The combination of speed and trajectory makes the Kh-32 almost invincible to enemy air defenses and interceptors.
The Tu-22M3 (Backfire) is a supersonic, variable-sweep wing, long-range strategic and maritime strike bomber, which can fly at a maximum altitude of 14,000 m and the rate of climb of the aircraft is 15 m/s. The aircraft has a cruise speed of 900 km/h and maximum speed of 2,300 km/h. The operational range of the aircraft is 7,000 km. The aircraft can be equipped with refueling probes to allow in-flight refueling for extended range. All the Tu-22M3 aircraft are expected to be fully upgraded by late 2018. There are over 60 Tu-22M3s in Russia’s inventory.
In the documentary film (The Putin Interviews) shot by Oliver Stone about Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader mentioned a new missile with unique characteristic capable of many things, including overcoming any missile defenses. The missile in question is the 3M22 Zircon, a hypersonic missile that will travel 4,600 miles (7,400km) per hour — five times the speed of sound. It boasts a range of 250 miles. That’s just three minutes and 15 seconds from launch to impact.
State tests of Zircon are scheduled for completion in 2017 and the missile's serial production is planned to be launched next year. Russia will be the only nation in the world to launch serial production of hypersonic weapons, leaving the US far behind. The first Zircons will be installed on sea platforms. According to Harry J. Kazianis, Executive Editor of The National Interest, such missiles could «could turn America's supercarriers into multi-billion dollar graveyards for thousands of US sailors». Even a small-size ship armed with Zircons becomes a formidable foe for an aircraft carrier. No weapon to counter the Zircon exists as yet.
Aircraft carriers are powerful ships to reckon with, there are not easy targets. They are hard to approach and guiding the missiles to strike a flattop is a serious challenge. But the days when they guaranteed supremacy at sea are over. If push comes to shove, Russia has the means to strike and sink them.