How Hard Is It to Sink an (Almost) Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier?

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The Trump Administration has just sent another 1,000 soldiers to the Middle East because of worsening tensions with Iran. Part of these tensions are due to attacks last week of oil tankers. In addition to troops, the major line of defense in what could become a major conflict are the Navy ships sent to the Persian Gulf. The portion of the ships that will provide the most military might are part of an aircraft carrier built around the USS Abraham Lincoln. The effectiveness of its Navy fleets has been questioned over worries that aircraft carriers are easier and easier to sink.

Carriers are often moved into hot spots as deterrents, based on their ability to launch quickly dozens of fighter jets and other aircraft. They are also surrounded by other warships, such as cruisers and submarines. The question about the effectiveness of carriers and their vulnerability to attack is raised whenever they sail in hostile waters. However, carriers are nearly impossible to sink, which challenges the argument that they are a risky and expensive way for the Navy to spend money.

The Lincoln is among the Nimitz-class carriers, which are slowly being replaced by new Gerald R. Ford-class carriers, launched in 1988, and is one of the world’s largest ships, at 1,092 feet long.

According to the National Interest magazine, there are several reasons carriers are very hard to attack and harder to sink. First, their speed allows them to outrun many other ships, particularly submarines, and also makes them hard to track. In addition, they have “hundreds of watertight compartments and thousands of tons of armor, [so that] no conventional torpedo or mine is likely to cause serious damage,” reports the magazine. The carriers also have high-tech sensors that can pick up missiles at great distances. To counter missiles, they have “radar-guided missiles and 20-mm [millimeter] Gatling guns that shoot 50 rounds per second.”

Among the most important points the National Interest makes is that carriers are part of large groups of ships. Some of these carry Aegis combat systems, which are highly sophisticated naval- defense systems. These groups also include their own submarines and a number of submarine-detection methods and deterrents.

The Navy also operates the carriers in such a way as to keep them far from potential threats. The National Interest points out that that includes staying away from areas that might be mined.

Robert Farley, a professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky and an expert on naval ships and defenses, recently wrote:

The United States has spent, essentially, 30 years developing and working out a reconnaissance strike complex that includes multiple redundant systems of surveillance and communication, resulting in a kill chain that transfers information in real time from advanced sensor platforms (satellites, submarine listening posts, drones, patrol aircraft) through communications nodes (satellites, aircraft) to ships, planes, and submarines that can launch and guide missiles to targets.

Finally, each time a carrier is overhauled, many of its systems are upgraded. This allows carriers built decades earlier to be retrofitted with the latest technology. The Navy also has upgraded the systems on other ships that protect carriers.

The National Interest concludes:

The most important advance of recent years has been the netting together of all naval assets in an area so that sensors and weapons can be used to maximum effect. Initiatives like the Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air program link together every available combat system in a seamless, fast-reacting defensive screen that few adversaries can penetrate.

The USS Abraham Lincoln is already among the most powerful ships in the world, but it will become obsolete with the launch of new Gerald R. Ford-class carriers, another example of how the United States spends money on defense — and these are the countries that spend the most on war.