America’s Cycles of Change

Carrier Vulnerabilities: The Bigger They Are, The Harder They Fall

Mon, 16 November 2015

The bigger they are, the harder they fall. It’s been a common delusion throughout history that if you build a bigger ship, it’ll be tougher to sink. Maybe even unsinkable. But no ship has ever been unsinkable — from the Titanic to the Bismarck.

Today, the latest version of the ancient fantasy is America’s gigantic nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. A single one of them dwarfs the resources that were put into any medieval cathedral — and they can sail around the world too.

Americans have been confident about their aircraft carriers for a long time. No U.S. Essex class aircraft carrier was ever sunk in World War II. No U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier has ever been sunk or seriously disabled by enemy action. But since the first U.S. nuclear-powered carrier, the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) was built nearly half a century ago, they have never been involved in a sea war with any enemy capable of seriously threatening them.

However, no ship is unsinkable, and when it comes to aircraft carriers, a lot of the best naval warfare submarine, torpedo and ballistic missile designers in the world have worked long and hard for decades to come up with new ways to sink them.

The first problem that modern super aircraft carriers face is that they are big — exceptionally, extraordinarily big. If a single Nimitz-class carrier was stood on its end it would be a 90-floor building, more than 900 feet high. What that means is that aircraft carriers make dream targets. Anything that big can be hit, and in terms of combat firepower, anything that can be hit can be killed.

There is a widely held popular assumption that even if you could pump one or two torpedoes or two or three sea-launched missiles into a U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier they are so huge, so tough and have so many fail-safe systems built into them that they would keep on operating regardless.

That may even prove to be the case: But the simple fact is that no one has ever fired a few torpedoes into a nuclear aircraft carrier-size hull or blasted it with a few missiles to be sure. And all the computer simulations in the world are based on assumptions — usually comfortable ones — that cannot begin to approximate the far more complex variables of real-world field testing.

Second, aircraft carriers are volatile, dangerous environments filled with high-octane gasoline, devastating conventional ordnance and — at their heart — nuclear reactors.

Nor does an aircraft carrier’s nuclear reactor have to be directly hit in order to destroy it or cause a catastrophic meltdown. Any damage that shredded enough coolant pipes or, worse, pumps in the reactors coolant circulating system could set such a dangerous sequence of events in motion.

The Russian-built and designed Sunburn — known by the Chinese as the Hai Ying or Sea Eagle HY2 — in particular is designed to be a U.S. carrier killer. It can fly at Mach 2.5, or two and half times the speed of sound — around 1,700 miles per hour carrying an almost 500-pound warhead. And it can deliver a tactical nuclear weapon.

Writing in Defense Review on Nov. 20, 2006, respected defense analyst David Crane also noted a report in Aviation Week that China was also “developing a new high-speed cruise missile called Anjian — ‘Dark Sword.'”

“From the picture we’ve seen of it, Anjian also looks very stealthy, i.e., it looks like it utilizes stealth technology. If China’s already perfected this item, it would be another weapon that our Navy can’t combat,” Crane warned.

Crane’s warnings appear justified. U.S. nuclear aircraft carriers, for all their size, resemble battle-cruisers more than battleships in their high speed, great offensive armaments and most of all lack of armor plate protection. 

Armor plate went out of fashion after World War II among naval designers around the world, and it has never come back into fashion. That means the nuclear reactors of any modern U.S. aircraft carrier have less protection than a World War II battleship.

Modern U.S. nuclear-power super-carriers are technological marvels and breathtaking to see in action. But operationally they resemble 1930s World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Primo Carnera. He looked terrific, but he had a glass jaw. He couldn’t take a punch. Max Baer, a killer in the ring, demolished him. Carnera’s disastrous story was later dramatized in the classic 1950s movie The Harder They Fall, starring Humphrey Bogart. 

Modern American aircraft carriers are much the same as Carnera: They are unequalled in their capability to project power around the world. They are even a godsend to help societies afflicted by terrible natural disasters as they proved after the tsunami catastrophe hit Indonesia. But the one thing they are not designed to do is take a lethal punch. And they have a lot of prospective enemies out there who have been working flat out to develop the weapons systems that can kill them.