It is really becoming redundant to talk about it, but I will state it anyway, yet again: we are in the age of missiles. Yes, aircraft carriers are magnificent ships and they carry with them a certain, fairly high, level of prestige for those who operate them but they are....drum roll...not the future of the naval warfare. They stopped being that once the range of the anti-shipping missile became comparable with the range of the carrier launched aircraft. Once Soviet Union started launching these missiles from submerged submarines--the game was over. As Commanders Joseph A. Gattuzo and Lori J. Tanner (both carrier aviators with enormous experience) stated in their Naval Forces In The New Century:
"Money spent furthering manned aircraft technologies and programs—the CVNX (proposed Nimitz-class carrier replacement) being one of them—is like polishing cannonballs so they will fly a little farther."
Original by Gattuzo And Tanner
So, now Russia announced what have been known for a while: that Russian Navy is about to procure hyper-sonic 3M22 anti-shipping missile known also as Zircon.
A lot of rumors circulate about this missile but what is known more or less for sure is the fact that this missile has a speed in excess of Mach=5 and the range varying anywhere from 500 to 1000 kilometers. The procurement of this missile signifies two major facts:
1. Russian material science is pretty good if it ensured that this missile is capable of sustaining the extreme temperatures associated with such speed at very low profiles of flight;
2. The problem of sensors, namely radar head (seeker), operating in a plasma environment, which is the result of this speed, have been resolved.
These are really bad news for aircraft carrier "trade-unions" (using Elmo Zumwalt's definition) both in US and in Russia. The reason being almost guaranteed inability of current and near-future air defense systems to deal with this threat. It is one thing to intercept ballistic high flying target at the ranges of 100s of kilometers, totally another is to do so in the case of a sea-skimmer which flies with the speed of about a mile a second and whose detection is effectively limited by the radio-horizon, which, depending on the height of the radar antenna and the altitude of said Zirkon, doesn't leave much time at all, if any, to develop a firing solution. Depending on these and other meteorological and radio atmospheric factors the range could vary anywhere from 20 to 40 miles. Obviously, there is always the issue of the AD screen, with ships in the task groups positioned away from the main target, which is carrier, and, of course there are patrols at the remote edges of the Carrier Battle Group. Well, doesn't matter--there are simply no means today, nor there will be any tomorrow, capable to reliably intercept this kind of weapons. Yes, I know, I know, those almighty lasers and other blasters but even they, those mythical weapons which exist mostly in the demonstration videos and the minds of enthusiasts, are not the answer. Why so, I will not discuss it here. Because after all, it is about Zircon and once the first hull capable of carrying this missile (or rather many of them), modernized Admiral Nakhimov hits the waves in 2018 after her modernization (with Peter The Great planned to do so in 2022), the naval warfare as we know it will cease to exist officially. The age of true Distributed Lethality will be upon us, while aircraft carriers will have to change drastically or be relegated to the role of the museum exhibits, for those which will survive. Tactical, Operational, Strategic and Economic realities, when salvo of 4-8 missiles, with the total cost of about 10 million dollars can sink 20+ billion dollars of hardware, not to speak of denying it the objectives, became such that they are impossible to be ignored anymore.