Are Navy Carriers Vulnerable?

There is a long-standing debate in Navy circles about just how vulnerable the huge nuclear carriers are. Although super carriers have been involved in a number of conflicts since their inception – Vietnam, both Gulf Wars, minor skirmishes in the 80s and 90s – there has never been a credible threat to these massive ships.

The rise of China as a regional sea power and the current Navy’s emphasis on littoral warfare has sparked doubts that a carrier can defend itself. Also called into question is whether the current generation of escort ships can prevent enemy submarines or weapons from damaging or sinking the ship.

Nimitz-class carriers (and the very similar Ford-class) are the largest surface warships ever built. Designed from the ground up to sustain a very high pitch of operations while retaining the lessons in damage control learned during World War II, these massive ships have been considered almost unsinkable – without the use of nuclear weapons – since they were designed.

During the Cold War era, conventional wisdom believed that the only way to sink a super carrier was using wave attacks of surface-, air- and sub-launched missiles. These wave attacks were intended to overwhelm the defenses of the carrier’s escorts and inflict overwhelming damage to the ship after it had expended its self-defense ammunition. Since a global war with the Soviet Union carried the risk of tactical use of nuclear weapons, the Navy’s policies included getting as many planes off of the ship and formed up for strikes as quickly as possible.

050115-N-6932B-105The value of the carrier, when the Navy contemplated war with the Soviets, was based on getting its first strike off. If the carrier survived the attack, subsequent strikes could be rearmed and prepared after the wave attacks were complete.

At the time, the largest missiles in the Soviet inventory – with the exception of nuclear armed weaponry – were insufficient to sink a carrier with one strike. A certain level of damage was expected and damage control training has a high emphasis in the Navy. Lessons from the war in the Pacific showed that American carriers, unless damaged overwhelmingly, were more likely to survive than Japanese carriers. The emphasis on damage control training was thought to make the difference.

Two recent incidents, however, have reawakened the debate over survivability. Last spring, a French submarine claimed, during war games, that it had sunk or damaged a number of ships in the Theodore Roosevelt battle group, including the carrier itself.  A few months later, the Chinese unveiled their “carrier-killer” and “Guam-killer” ballistic missiles. With a range that far outreaches the carrier’s plane’s operational radius, the Chinese missiles also have a large enough warhead to severely damage or destroy a nuclear carrier.

After decades of emphasis on littoral warfare, the US Navy currently has one class of cruiser and one class of destroyer designed for battle group defense. The number of Ticonderoga-class cruisers, however, has been declining as budget tightening and age take their toll on the ships. Arleigh Burke-class destroyers have the same weapon and sensor systems as the Ticonderogas, but are smaller with less ammunition and shorter range. The LCS ships and Zumwalt-class destroyers are not designed for battle group defense. Their emphasis is on littoral warfare and, in the case of the Zumwalts, anti-ship warfare.

The Chinese military has emphasized area denial warfare, specifically in the South China Sea, and the design of the “carrier-killer” and “Guam-killer” missiles is aimed at the US Navy carrier battle groups. The PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) designed those weapons to sink, or at least stop, the US Navy’s carriers. A replay of the Taiwan Straits crisis, where the US Navy sent a carrier battle group between Taiwan and China, carries a much greater risk now than it did 20 years ago.

With an aging fleet, a de-emphasis on blue water conflict and a potential opponent who is willing to take another look at the steps needed to destroy a nuclear aircraft carrier, the US Navy has found itself in a very unfamiliar position thinking about their capability to defend the symbol of American sea power for the last 65 years.

Disclaimer: The opinions stated in this article are the author’s own and are not necessarily the opinion of US Patriot Tactical.

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Matt Towns

Matt is a former military journalist who spent 10 years in the US Navy. He served in various posts during his career, including a couple of deployments on the USS Valley Forge (CG-50). After leaving the Navy, he worked in management for a number of years before opening his own businesses. He ran those businesses until 2012 when he chose to leave the retail industry and return to writing. Matt currently works as a freelance writer, contributing to the US Patriot blog and other websites about political affairs, military activities and sailing.
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