Home / Robert Farley / The Care and Feeding of Aircraft Carriers

The Care and Feeding of Aircraft Carriers

USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) on the James River on 11 June 2016.JPG
USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) on the James River. By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Cathrine Mae O. Campbell – This Image was released by the United States Navy with the ID 160611-N-ZE240-145. Public Domain.

I get extremely irritable when folks, sometimes in the comment sections of lefty blogs*, make unfounded assertions about the vulnerability of aircraft carriers.  Fortunately, Foxtrot Alpha gave me the opportunity to write about the topic at some length:

The modern aircraft carrier is a global symbol of American dominance, hegemony, peace, even empire. But at over 1,000 feet long, and displacing more than 100,000 tons, is it a sitting duck? Is the massive emblem of American greatness just an obsolete, vulnerable hunk of steel?

 There’s a lot of consternation about whether or not the United States should even have massive supercarriers anymore. Obviously, the answer here is “depends on how much explosives you’ve got.” But while sinking an aircraft carrier is difficult, it’s not impossible. The key is what it’s used for, and who it’s used against. But if you wanted to sink one, here’s what you’d have to do, and what you’d be up against.

As a favor to me, only opine after you’ve read the article…

*But, um, never this blog.  And I was probably thinking about some other commenter, not you.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • John F

    I think one of the comments has it right- carriers are NOT fighting ships, they are mobile air bases, power projection tools- so the real question is are we paying too much for that.

    • “Power projection” or “beating up small countries and taking their lunch money” as I like to call it.

      • Arouet

        The fact that this is how we’ve been using it doesn’t mean this is the only way we could use carriers. For example, in East Asia.

  • John F

    make unfounded assertions about the vulnerability of aircraft carriers.

    I think we don’t actually KNOW how vulnerable carriers are or will be. We don’t know how many of these anti-ship systems will actually perform in combat, we don’t know how the countermeasures will perform either.

    Battleships turned out to be extremely vulnerable to airpower in WWII… but after Taranto/Pearl Harbor/Sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse did the US/UK lose one again to airpower? (Italy did of course).

    The submarine threat existed in WWII as well (And took out no small number of capital ships), subs have improved, so have countermeasures – has the needle actually moved one way or the other? Absent an actual shooting war how can we really know?

    Aircraft carriers have been big fat targets since day 1. Is the Ford more or less vulnerable in 2017 (relatively speaking) than the HMS Glorious was in 1940?

    • The US/UK didn’t lose any more battleships to aircraft that I know of.

      Japan lost both Yamato class battleships to aircraft.

      • John F

        And the Tirpitz… after the Brits spent an awful lot of time and resources to do it.

    • M. Davidson

      That’s the trick: the unknown. The reality is we don’t know what offensive systems will be used–especially, the ‘untested’–whether these will be effective, and to what cost to the carrier’s viability to carry on its mission.
      To me, the most troubling notion is exactly that.
      Then again, that must be what the adversary fears most, too. Whether this puts the affair into equilibrium matters little.
      In some ways, they share the same vulnerabilities as land bases.Yeah, yeah. I know that carriers can move unlike those great new man-made island in the SCS, but not that quickly AND they’re great big effing hulks which few of the other tens of thousands of maritime users would miss (begs the question as to why it took so long for the Vinson Group’s actual direction of travel to go unnoticed by the MSM), so they’re not impossible to track.
      Destruction of one would be a powerful symbol and not an impossible task with a tactical nuclear weapon mounted to a cruise missile. In crowded international waters near the KP, this seems well within the range of possible scenarios, which would result in great loss of life and assets.

  • N__B

    Not a single mention of the vulnerability of helicarriers to damage form Hulks and exploding arrows.

    • Brownian

      Or that sinking carriers is only 5/2 times as hard as sinking PT boats. The real difficulty is in determining whether the ship’s primary axis lies along a column or a row.

    • wjts

      I didn’t read the article, but I looked at the picture at the top of the post. That aircraft carrier has two big openings in the side – if either of them lead to the reactor core, couldn’t an enemy ship sink it by firing a torpedo in there?

      • Brownian

        That’s impossible! Even for a computer.

        • wjts

          It’s not impossible. I used to bullseye womp rats in my T-16 back home. They’re not much bigger than 20 meters.

          • Arouet

            JFC that’s a giant womp rat. I’d bullseye it too.

      • sibusisodan

        Only if they had the plans. And how would they get those?

        • Denverite

          Bothan spies have their way, though at great cost.

      • I didn’t read the article, but I looked at the picture at the top of the post. That aircraft carrier has two big openings in the side – if either of them lead to the reactor core, couldn’t an enemy ship sink it by firing a torpedo in there?

        As an ex navy nuc, the short answer is no. The reactors themselves are heavily shielded for obvious reasons (radiation exposure), but if a bomb did reach them, ‘all’ it will do is take out propulsion. The reactors would not explode :-)

  • cleek

    right below your article is a blurb that reads:

    America Insists On A $13 Billion Aircraft Carrier That’s Easy To Sink


  • keta

    The problem is complicated by the fact that the surface ships and submarines firing at such ranges cannot detect the carrier themselves; they need to operate off data provided by other assets, which tends to increase the time and uncertainty associated with targeting decisions.

    Those carriers are demonstrably difficult to find. Just ask the Trump administration.

    • ap77

      Yep. All equipped with classified cloaking devices and so on.

    • Lost Left Coaster

      Image was leaked of Trump providing directions to the carrier group.

  • sibusisodan

    Very thought provoking, thanks.

    I guess the Straits of Hormuz or Malacca are the chokepiints to be concerned about?

    • bbleh

      A good point, and one not limited to narrow straits. The article was technically well informed from what I could tell, but it was disturbingly heavy on explicit or implicit qualifications like “in the open sea” and the dependence of attacks on surveillance systems. Action against China would almost certainly be in comparatively restricted waters (South China Sea, Yellow Sea, East China Sea), where (1) the Chinese would know a lot about where we were, and (2) carriers don’t have a lot of room to run, especially if there are several of them. Similarly, the threat of systems not yet used in combat was, it seems to me, rather sweepingly diminished, when in reality a carrier group would have to survive ALL threats from ALL systems, novel or not. My takeaway was that there was a little bit of “whistling past the graveyard,” and if we ever needed to use carriers in action against China (which presumably would happen only if/when our nearby land airfields were taken out), we would have to count on losing at least some in fairly short order.

  • libarbarian

    Why do boats have to be long and thing, like floating erections?

    • wjts

      Because short and wide boats don’t move very quickly.

      • cleek

        they do, but only sideways

        • Lost Left Coaster

          They should just do that, then. And move ’em really quickly sideways. Like 30 knots.

      • libarbarian

        Maybe that’s just because nobody has ever asked the Universe for one that does hard enough?

        • wjts

          The Universe is so deep in the pocket of Big Fluid Friction it’ll never happen.

    • njorl

      I suppose we could try to build an aircraft coracle.

  • njorl

    China has launched a number of surveillance satellites presumably designed to support the Df-21, but these satellites may not be reliable under wartime conditions.

    Agreed. There has been more demonstrated success in testing of US anti-satellite weapons than Chinese ASBMs. Even the US is taking precautions to prepare for denial of satellite use.
    As long as we don’t do something stupid, like parking a carrier group within range of ASBMs during a time of significant crisis but not yet open hostilities, we should be able to do a “peel-the-onion” tactic – progressively remove defenses as the carrier group moves closer to its target.

  • Murc

    My understanding, as a layman, basically boils down to this:

    Against a genuine peer competitor, a military that had the same capabilities and assets as the USN and USAF, our supercarriers would in fact be very, very vulnerable indeed.

    But no such peer competitor exists. Nobody even comes close, in fact.

    I might be wrong about this but that’s my understanding.

    • Brett

      “Capabilities and assets” would be the key there. The Soviet Union was a genuine peer competitor, but they weren’t able to match up completely . . . although of course a full-blown war against a peer competitor these days and back then would probably escalate to a nuclear exchange, so whether or not the carriers could be sunk would be moot.

  • one of the blue

    Seems to me the best way to be able to sink an aircraft carrier is to have a navy comparable to the one fielding the carrier; something that has not been an issue for the US Navy since about 1944.

    I expect at some point in the next 30 years or so China at least will be able to field a comparable navy.

    • Lurker

      That is the best way to sink a carrier in an open ocean. In littoral areas, it’s enough to have a strong coastal defence. You can compensate your naval weakness with land based assets and small vessels like missile boats.

      As such, land based aircraft loitering above land based anti-aircraft systems may control the surface up to 400 km off shore. This means that any surface asset within 250 nm is in real danger of getting targeted and attacked by land-based systems or littoral vessel swarms. As these are cheaper than blue-water assets, it is possible for the coastal state to overwhelm the carrier group.

      So, the reality is, in my mind, that the US is unable to park a carrier group within immediate range from a defended coast. This is not really anything new. Historically, fleets have been quite unable and unwilling to attack coastal fortresses.

      • one of the blue

        Right. with the Battle of Midway a prime example, even though the “coast” in that case was a tiny island, albeit with a working combat airfield and ample anti-aircraft defenses.

      • mikeSchilling

        In littoral areas, it’s enough to have a strong coastal defence.

        That’s why you make the carriers virtual.

  • (((max)))

    Both Firefox and Chrome are telling me your secure cert is bad.

    As a favor to me, only opine after you’ve read the article…

    I did!

    In World War II, submarines sank a total of eight fleet carriers from Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom, beginning with HMS Courageous in 1939.


    In the open sea the latter is a difficult task, as carriers move at roughly the same speed as modern subs.

    Those world war II submarines had top underwater speeds of ~15-18 kts and were operating against carriers that had top speeds of around ~25-28 knots, and yet they did sink a considerable number of carriers (and other large ships). There are a lot fewer submarines now, and a lot fewer carriers as well, so they are much less likely to find each other. It seems likely thought, given prior expensive with worse-performing submarine tech, that if an attack submarine can find a carrier, said carrier is going to tend to be dead meat. Particularly when close to shore, or in relatively narrow waters (the Med, the Baltic, the North Sea, etc).

    Likewise, a sufficiently large anti-ship missile volley (possible when a carrier is operating near land) seems quite likely to get through to a flattop (or any capital ship). The inadequacies of WWII missiles have disappeared (lack of range, difficulty of deploying, inability to home in on targets) and the performance of the USS Stark in terms of survivability does not inspire a lot of confidence (if that’s what happens when you get hit by two missiles, wait til you see what a volley of fifty can do, especially when backed up by additional attacks). Roughly speaking, anti-missile defenses have the same set of issues as missile defense and AA guns – they can stop things, but if they face a large enough number of targets things start to get through, and it only takes a few hits to do a ship in.

    Carriers seem to exist in the same twilight that battleships existed in, during the interwar era. During peacetime, they’re the most well-protected and powerful ships on the seas, but if a major war breaks out the Age of Carriers is likely to come to abrupt end.

    So we’re lucky we don’t have major wars anymore. (Not that it would matter – the Age of Civilization is likely to follow the Age of Carriers to the grave in close order.)

    [‘Good article though.’]

    • SIS1

      Yeah, I think Farley underestimates the threat that a submarine posses.

      • ap77

        The USN has both (1) robust anti-submarine defenses, and (2) attack submarine of their own. They’re a threat to carriers, but not something that auto-deletes them.

        • SIS1

          Who makes the later claim?

          Yes, the US has anti-submarine defenses and its own subs – does it make it hard for an enemy sub to just waltz up to a carrier and sink it? Yes.

          But just as one can deny that an enemy sub “auto-deletes” a carrier, one can also deny that the existence of US anti-sub defenses somehow auto-deletes the threat of a sub.

          • ap77

            Of course it doesn’t make carriers immune to sub attacks, but I think it would be a really hard thing for an enemy sub to pull off. The area denial missiles seem more threatening to a carrier to me.

      • I believe a carrier battle group is shadowed by at least one of our own attack submarines.

        • GFW

          That was my impression also. Our idiot CinC not only just confirmed that, but implied it was more than one, which might be new information (although his comments might have been completely garbled or only applicable to the Carl Vinson at one particular unspecified moment in time so it’s probably no big deal).

          • Lurker

            Well, in the old “Harpoon”, a carried task force always had two submarines. :-)

            • wjts

              I’ve drunk a lot of Harpoon over the years but never once found one submarine, let alone two, in my glass.

            • EliHawk

              Same as in Jane’s Fleet Command. Except 99/100 times your Submarines were fucking useless except as the occasional cruise missile platform. Hunting down the enemy submarines would be accomplished by sending out all your Vikings and Seahawks and playing the waiting game for half an hour unless their subs gave away position by launching cruise missiles at you.

    • gccolby

      A couple points.

      First, I think it’s a significant overstatement to say subs sank “quite a large number” of carriers in WWII. Best I can recall, German U-boats didn’t have much of a record against surface combatants in the open ocean, though of course that wasn’t their mission. Yes, they were successful against big cargo ships and troop carriers, but those are slow, soft targets.

      Japanese subs were responsible for sinking at least one US carrier (U.S.S. Yorktown), and possibly others, though I don’t recall my history well, here. However, I’m not aware of any case where a submarine took down a healthy, fully-mobile carrier. The Yorktown had been critically damaged in the Battle of Midway, the sub just delivered the coup de grace to a sitting target that was already barely floating.

      You’re significantly off on sub speeds o the era, too – 15-18 knots is closer to the maximum surfaced speed of boats of the era. Submerged, nothing was faster than 9 knots, and that only noisily. I think modern subs are a lot quieter at high speeds, but are still quite detectable by modern escorts.

      That doesn’t mean subs aren’t a threat, but they don’t have much of a record against aircraft carriers, even in the Second World War.

      • Arouet

        Also, a submarine has obviously never sunk a 100,000 ton supercarrier. There is presumably a ton of new damage control tech and multiple redundancies built into current carriers. But we’ll never know unless a shooting war with a near-peer competitor happens. The Navy presumably knows more or less because of their experience with the America SinkEx.

        Also, Chinese nuke boats are, last I heard, still LOUD AS SHIT. Diesels are quiet, but only on battery, and on battery they can’t keep up with a Carrier Strike Group. So it’s not so one-sided.

      • Jestak

        There were several sinkings of “healthy, fully-mobile” fleet carriers by submarines during World War 2.

        -The Royal Navy lost HMS Courageous in 1939, HMS Ark Royal in 1941, and HMS Eagle in 1942 to U-boat attacks.

        -The US Navy lost USS Wasp to a submarine attack in 1942.

        -The Japanese navy lost IJN Taiho and IJN Shokaku to attacks from US submarines during the Battle of the Philippine Sea in 1944 (although the Taiho’s lost, as I understand, was partly due to faulty damage control procedures). A US submarine also sank the battleship-to-carrier conversion IJN Shinano in late 1944, although that is a more dubious case as the Shinano’s conversion was incomplete and it lacked basics like watertight doors and operable firefighting equipment.

  • Monty

    It would be super awesome if that huge, wonderful thing was part of an even more magnificently powerful armada going somewhere.

  • Tracy Lightcap

    I’m no expert on this, but aren’t you shortchanging the speed of both aircraft carriers and submarines in this? “Above 30 knots” is true, of course, but I have read articles that indicated that modern nuclear CVs can go above 40 in a pinch and that nuclear attack submarines can do better then 50, albeit at the cost of making a lot of racket when they do. I specifically remember a story about a Soviet sub back in the ’90s that was being harassed by a US frigate. Both were doing about 35 knots and the frigate kept turning up its sonar. Finally, the Soviet captain had enough and turned up the props, leaving the frigate in its wake by doing over 50 knots. The story speculated that he would have some explaining to do when he got back to Murmansk.

    But that may be a legend. I know that modern subs spend a lot more time surprising noise since sonar has been surpassed by passive listening devices. What’s the real story?

  • Brett

    Great article. I took a lot away from that article, but especially the need to remember that Carriers can move (obviously) and Carriers are protected by battle groups of support ships and aircraft. I think we tend to forget that, and forget that the Fog of War is still a very real thing when you’re trying to accurately hit targets.

  • First, me thinks that modern U.S. aircraft carriers have more to worry about from incompetent civilian oversight than they do from an actual military engagement.

    Second, the question for me is not the difficulty of hitting an aircraft carrier, but, assuming that some part of an attack makes it through, mission survivability. I’m thinking it would take a lot less to put a carrier ooc than to sink it.

    Third, at some point these ships become so costly that even the threat of losing one can keep them from being used. Didn’t the sheer political fallout from possible sinking of the Bismarck and the Tirpitz make Hitler highly cautious about deploying them?

    • wjts

      From what I remember (and I could very well be wrong), the Tirpitz wasn’t used much because there wasn’t much for it do. After the St. Nazaire raid, it couldn’t be used in the Atlantic. Issues with fuel supply curtailed serious operations in the North Sea and against convoys to and from Archangel. So lurking around Norway it was!

      • I have to go back and see if I can find it, but I think it was on an episode of Nazi Mega Weapons that Hitler didn’t want to risk getting the Tirpitz sunk, so he basically hid it.

        • wjts

          I wouldn’t be surprised if that were part of the calculus, but I do think the bigger issue is that there ultimately weren’t very many things the Tirpitz could realistically be expected to do.

          • Yep. He wanted the biggest battleship ever, but then once he had it, it was like ok, now what?

            Hitler really did have dick issues.

            • John F

              Yes he wanted the biggest battleship ever, but he never actually got it, which gave him the sads.

              The Bismark and Tirpitz were only briefly the “biggest” battleships afloat, and were never the “strongest”- several US and Japanese ship and 2 British ones could outgun them (Including the Rodney which was involved in Bismark’s sinking)- so Bismark/Tirpitz did not sate his need for compensation, neither did the biggest tank ever built

              And the Germans built the largest airship ever… the biggest plane to fly during WWII and the biggest gun

              yeah, someone had issues

            • wjts

              Hitler really did have dick issues.

              I swear I remember reading/seeing in a documentary something about a captured high-ranking Luftwaffe officer at the end of the war who said that Allied forces would find at various airfields prototype fighters with artillery pieces mounted in them for shooting down Allied heavy bombers. The Luftwaffe officer was very insistent that the whole plan was Hitler’s idea, and he had absolutely nothing to do with such a stupid plan.

    • Paleolithic

      Hitler wasn’t overly cautious about deploying Bismarck. It was supposed to participate in a lot of commerce raiding with other ships, but that didn’t work out in terms of others ships readiness, etc. so Bismarck only went out with Prinz Eugen.

      As I recall the Tirpitz couldn’t be put out because the Royal Navy greatly outnumbered the German fleet. Recall Bismarck lasted on its first mission only from 19 May to 27 May (sunk). Prinz Eugen got away. Tirpitz sat around as a “fleet in being,” which couldn’t really do much, but it made the British keep their own ships on station nearby “just in case.”

  • I don’t think carriers are that vulnerable, just that so much of the carrier battle group’s resources are dedicated to protecting the carrier.

    It’s a lot of effort to put a couple F-18 squadrons near somebody’s coast.

    • Lurker

      Yes, and it is somewhat questionable what these carrier air wings can do against a near-peer adversary like China.

      Let’s assume a carrier task force of three carriers, which is about as much as the US Navy can get on South China Sea within a month. That force would have about 120 strike fighters, and perhaps about 20 electronic attack planes. For any situation, some 30 fighters would be preserved to maintain combat air patrol for the force protection. There would be some 90 planes available for strikes. The strike force would need fighter escorts, so maybe 60 planes would be carrying air-to-ground ammunition.

      If you assume attacks against hard, defended targets, you can assume a 10 % attrition. In about eight all-out sorties, the strike force would be at 50 % strength, which means three to four days of active offensive operations. After that, you would need to lessen the pace to preserve your forces.

      Eight sorties with 60 attack planes can deliver an impressive amount of firepower. However, that is still quite limited, and I severely doubt that it could have a strategic impact against an adversary as large and populous as China.

      So, if the Chinese can build an air defence capable of causing a 10 % attrition on an attacking force, the overall effect of the US naval aviation on Chinese assets will remain limited, because while the carriers pack a respectable punch, they are still rather limited.

    • Mike Furlan

      Major Kong is correct.

      We are our own worst enemy. We will bankrupt our country long before we find an enemy that could sink our carriers.

      If we were tricky, we would let the Chinese steal the blueprints and build a couple of dozen for themselves.

    • Aaron Morrow

      How much of the world’s coastline could not be reached by a US base if the U.S. wanted to attack it? (I was thinking in terms of how much effort it takes to put US forces near everybody’s coast, and given my limited knowledge I assume the least effort would be to launch an attack from a base nearby.)

    • This^^^ is the biggest question. What exactly can a couple of squadrons of F 18’s do. Get themselves shot down in short order by low-tech AA missiles.

      Or they could drop iron bombs like in WW2 where bombers could barely hit a city when 1000 of them tried at once.

  • SIS1

    First, one doesn’t have to sink a carrier to remove it as a useful asset. A couple of decent missile hits might be able to make flight operations impossible, and that makes the carrier useless, which is not as good as sinking it, but does greatly hamper US options. When a carrier is a $10B asset and a missile is a $10M asset, it is worth it to ask how vulnerable something is to a threat that even enemies with far smaller budgets can counter.

    Second, I think the article significantly underplays the danger from submarines. A good, modern, quiet diesel-electric sub isn’t horribly expensive, and again, if one can get through the defensive net of the support group, you again have a situation where an asset a middle income country can afford being a massive risk to one of a very limited set of big US assets.

    • Aaron Morrow

      might be able to make flight operations impossible …
      if one can get through the defensive net of the support group

      Lacking the Force or a well-placed boxing glove arrow, I think you’ve ignored the low likelihood of those grave consequences occurring.

      • SIS1

        You do any real damage to the flight deck or damage the catapult system and flight ops are severely compromised, and nothing Farley says would indicate it’s takes more than a couple of hits to do this

  • ael

    No mention of the modern naval mine threat.

  • wengler

    If Trump starts a war with Iran, we’ll get our answer. Until then, we’ll pretend that huge surface ships aren’t that vulnerable.

  • Philip

    Maybe this is a dumb question, but isn’t the other stuff kind of irrelevant when Russia or China can just drop a tactical nuke on a carrier group? I guess the assumption is that either a shooting war hasn’t gone nuclear (so no tactical nuke) or we’re all doomed anyway so who cares. But if the nuclear taboo broke down there’s a real space between nonnuclear conflict and global annihilation

    • ap77

      Not sure about that. If tactical nukes are ever used, I think we’re REALLY close to “all bets are off.”

      Fortunately, we have mature leadership in the White House making these sorts of decisions.

  • Jordan

    sorry, ignorant here, but what are the scenarios where the aircraft carriers are under serious attack and its not a nuclear war?

    • Jordan

      although I appreciate the analysis, none of which I know, and it seems cooler than the old CT navy thing.

  • joejoejoe

    While the threat that small boats pose to major warships has been apparent for some time, the Pentagon’s Millennium Challenge 2002 exercise brought the issue to mainstream attention. In that controversial exercise, small fast boats carrying suicide payloads inflicted heavy damage on U.S. naval forces. “Red” strategy built off of the successful Al Qaeda attack against the destroyer USS Cole in 2000, as well as the history of Iranian small boat operations during the Iran-Iraq War.

    Referees eventually prohibited some of the most effective Red techniques in order to give U.S. forces a fighting chance.

    “Red” team strategies here should not be synonymous with small suicide boats with explosives but include any uncertain, unknown, low-cost opposition strategy. When you shift from ‘small boats w/explosives’ to ‘anything under the sun that might work’ you get much higher odds of stopping/delaying a carrier. Sinking one is really beside the point. Disabling a carrier in one battle is a significant morale boost for any adversary.

    I just watched a pretty good documentary on the British sinking of the Tirpitz (sister ship of the Bismarck) in 1944. The Tirpitz was so powerful and valuable that the Germans had it parked in the Norwegian fjord to keep it safe. The Germans spent an inordinate amount of resources protecting the Tirpitz, which made Churchill expend an inordinate amount of resources trying to sink it. Which he did.

    However dominant and awesome you think you are today, something is out there that is laughing at your invincibility.

  • Paleolithic

    I liked that you started with,

    “The modern aircraft carrier is a global symbol of American dominance, hegemony, peace, even empire.”

    Obviously much or our defense spending is for force/power projection, is in a sense expeditionary in nature, in addition to subsidizing high tech defense contractors.

    I read this stuff and think, “I don’t want to participate in that. I don’t want to pay for that.”

    A 50% cut to the DoD would be a good start in my opinion. But we wouldn’t be able to “intervene” in this or that! Yeah, still waiting to hear the downside.

It is main inner container footer text