There are three things that an aircraft carrier fears. One of them is a massive swarm of tiny boats, each of them carrying outsized armaments. Sure you might get one, five, even ten of them. But you can't stop 200. So to get in on the game, the US Navy's building a swarm of their own. But the Navy's has a computerized brain.
(Oh, the other two things that an aircraft carrier captain fears are diesel submarines with Air-Independent Propulsion and DF-21 ballistic missiles. But that's really neither here nor there, we can get into those in other posts. For now, what you need to know is ROBOT SWARM.)
The reason why a swarm of small boats is so scary to an aircraft carrier is essentially because it uses the carrier's own strengths against it. An aircraft carrier's primary armament, the planes and helicopters it carries, are really good at attacking targets on land, shooting down enemy aircraft, and knocking out big enemy ships like cruisers and submarines, all at relatively long range. Basically, they were built to fight "blue water" wars over great distances, not much more compact "brown water" skirmishes.
Since the early 2000s, studies and wargames have shown that a swarm of small boats could literally sink a US Navy flotilla, especially when combined with other threats, such a shore launched cruise missiles. In response to these revelations the Navy has deployed some measures to combat such a threat, although many think they are insufficient. These include:
1.) Armed embarked MH-60 Seahawk helicopters with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles
2.) Added 25mm optionally manned chain guns to surface combatants
3.) Upgraded the Mk15 Phalanx to Block 1B standard, which includes FLIR for engaging surface targets. The RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile can also engage small boats as well now.
4.) Fielded the surface combat module for the embattled Littoral Combat Ships, which was supposed to include the Non Line Of Sight missile for attacking small boats, now the AGM-114 Hellfire will supposedly be added.
5.) Patrol boats are being added to the fleet for the first time in decades, although their numbers will be limited
So traditionally, if one big and expensive American Harpoon or SLAM-ER missile shot from a big and expensive F/A-18E Super Hornet, can get through to knock out a Russian Kirov-class battlecruiser 50 miles away, that's great. Job done. Enemy threat neutralized.
But what if the carrier was swarmed by a hundred small boats, each armed with two missiles of their own, from less than five miles away? Even by assuming the carrier has a dozen of its planes and helicopters in the air at the time, all loaded up completely for anti-surface warfare, it's entirely possible that just one, or even a handful, of those boats could get through.
And if just one boat can launch just two Chinese-made C-802 Silkworm missiles at an aircraft carrier, or even dozens of short-range smaller armor-piercing missiles, that aircraft carrier is going to have a very, very bad day. Double that if a second boat makes it past a carrier's screen of planes, frigates, subs, destroyers, and cruisers.
And if more than that gets through, it could bring down the whole ship. Think of it like a swarm of mosquitos attacking you. You might be able to swat a few out of the air, but it'd be very difficult for you to get them all. Now imagine that if you do get bit, there's a possibility you might crumple into a gibbering, drooling, puffed heap, unable to function like a proper human being.
If you got dozens of bites, you might expire completely.
It's not a bad idea, if taking out a carrier was your sort of thing, like it is in Iran. And Iran knows that.
But hey, the US Navy knows that, too. And just because a tactic can possibly be used by your potential enemies doesn't necessarily make it bad.
Except the US Navy fights for a country known as America, and America likes robots. Lots of robots.
The Navy first publicly tested its own swarm of small (robotic) boats back in August on the James River in Virginia. 13 small boats were sent out to attack a larger one, but more than that, they planned and carried it out themselves.
The only thing they didn't do was actually fire their weapons, which still needs a human to give the final go-ahead.
Obviously, the technology is still in its early stages, but the idea sounds promising enough. And it may work even better at taking down an aircraft carrier like the Chinese Liaoning than any fighter jet equipped with a Harpoon would.
At the very least, when a fighter jet goes to attack a big target, it puts the human pilot at risk. (Well, it does for now.) But if you don't want to risk anybody at all, and want a much higher likelihood of success, a robot boat swarm is one way to do it. And this is something that is already in the works when it comes to flying combat drones, so why not apply it in full to floating ones? At the very least, a mob of American unmanned fast-attack boats, along with Hellfire armed Seahawk helicopters, could give an enemy fast-boat swarm something to tangle with while a lumbering Carrier Strike Group runs for its life.