5 Ways a U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier Could Be Sunk in Battle

Summary: The U.S. Navy’s fleet of 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, the largest of any nation, reflects its maritime dominance. Yet, historical losses during WWII underscore vulnerabilities that persist into modern warfare. Today, adversaries strategize to exploit these vulnerabilities with sophisticated weapons. The Poseidon (Status-6), an autonomous nuclear-powered underwater vehicle, and China’s DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile, represent significant threats to U.S. carrier strike groups (CSGs) due to their advanced capabilities and potential for destruction. Additionally, Russia’s Tsirkon hypersonic missile poses a formidable challenge with its speed, maneuverability, and radar-evasive properties. Unmanned drones have also demonstrated their potential in maritime conflicts, offering low-cost yet effective strategies against high-value naval targets. Beyond technological advancements, simple yet catastrophic suicide attacks remain a stark reminder of the vulnerabilities carriers face, underscoring the complex spectrum of threats that modern navies must navigate to protect these strategic assets.

Modern Threats to U.S. Aircraft Carriers: A New Age of Naval Warfare

The United States Navy operates a total of 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers today – the largest number of any nation in the world today. However, the figure seems less impressive when we remember that a full dozen aircraft carriers were sunk by the enemy during the Second World War. That included five fleet carriers, a seaplane tender, and six escort carriers.

The Casablanaca-class escort carrier USS Bismarck Sea (CVE-95) was the last U.S. Navy carrier sunk in wartime after she was struck by two Japanese kamikaze aircraft while supporting the landings on Iwo Jima in February 1945. The loss of the carrier was tragic as 318 of her crewmen went down with the ship, and it would be far worse should any of the U.S. Navy’s Nimitiz-class or the new Gerald R. Ford-class supercarriers suffer a similar fate.

Sinking a U.S. carrier would be a devastating blow as the ships can’t be quickly or easily replaced, and it would serve as a morale boost to an enemy. Losing multiple carriers could cripple the capabilities of the U.S. Navy. And that is why our adversaries are considering ways to sink the carriers.

It would be easy, as a carrier strike group (CSG) is protected hundreds of miles out. Carriers and their escort ships are armed with sonar and torpedoes to prevent submarines from getting close, while radar scans for threats from above.

Yet, the truth is that a modern multirole fighter armed with the latest anti-ship missiles, or a submarine with conventional torpedoes could potentially sink a carrier if they could get through those defenses. However, five weapons should be seen as especially worrisome.

The Status-6 Oceanic Multipurpose System

Also known by the far more infamous moniker Poseidon (NATO reporting name Kanyon), the Status-6 is an autonomous, nuclear-powered unmanned underwater vehicle reportedly in production by Rubin Design Bureau that is capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear warheads.

Its existence was first confirmed by the Pentagon in 2016, and it can reportedly operate as an autonomous nuclear torpedo with a nearly unlimited range that is also able to carry a nuclear warhead with a blast yield of two megatons (MT). It can reach underwater speeds of 108 knots, significantly faster than traditional torpedoes. It was developed to destroy enemy coastal infrastructure including port facilities, but could target an aircraft carrier strike group – where a “direct hit” wouldn’t even be necessary given its blast yield.

The DF-26

China first unveiled its road-mobile, two-stage solid-fueled intermediate-range ballistic (IRBM) DF-26B (Dong Feng-26) during a military parade in September 2015. It has a reported range of 4,000km (2,485 miles) and it can be used in both conventional and nuclear strikes against ground as well as naval targets.

The mobile launcher can carry a 1,200 to 1,800 kg nuclear or conventional warhead; and as it could directly strike a target such as the U.S. territory of Guam, in the event of war it should be seen as a formidable weapon.

The Tsirkon Hypersonic Missile

Also known as the 3M22 Zircon, Russia’s Tsirkon hypersonic missile has been in development for more than 20 years and has been seen as a key next step for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military buildup. The combination of speed, maneuverability, and altitude could make tracking and intercepting such hypersonic weapons quite difficult.

The Kremlin has claimed the Tsirkon is capable of reaching speeds of about Mach 9 and that its strike range exceeded 1,000 km (600 miles). At such speeds, it could reach a target at that distance in just seven minutes. The sea-based Tsirkon utilizes a multi-stage launch system, which includes a booster, a solid-propellant booster stage, and a scramjet-powered warhead.

While it could be armed with a nuclear warhead, against a carrier it wouldn’t be needed. The hypersonic missile’s speed and force are so significant that it can inflict damage by its sheer ‘kinetic’ impact without even needing explosives. Another threat is that the missile’s plasma cloud – which completely covers the vehicle in flight – could absorb any rays of radio frequencies and thus make the missile invisible to radar. That allows the missile to remain largely undetected on its way to a target.

Unmanned Drones

The dangers that small unmanned sea-skimming drones present to carriers have been made crystal clear in the Black Sea in the past two years as Ukraine’s forces have employed a variety of low-cost platforms to repeatedly target Russian Navy vessels in port.

Just this past weekend, Kyiv claimed it hit two more Black Sea Fleet transports.

Key among the systems is Ukraine’s Magura V5 unmanned surface vessel (USV), which was developed for use in maritime operations, including surveillance, reconnaissance, patrol, and combat missions. It features a hydrodynamic body and is capable of agile maneuverability with quasi-stealth capabilities. The USV measures 5.5 meters (18 feet) in length and 1.5 meters in width. It boasts cruising speeds of 22 knots (25 miles per hour) and a maximum speed of 42 knots. It has a range of approximately 833 kilometers (518 miles) and a payload capacity of 320 kg (705 lbs).

A combination of sea-skimming, underwater, and aerial drones could prove to be a low-cost, yet potentially effective method of targeting a multi-billion dollar warship, especially when it operates in littoral waters where the defensive ring shrinks considerably. While it could take several – perhaps even dozens – of drones to sink a supercarrier, a lucky shot might be all it takes to cripple a vessel.

Suicide Attack

Even as a variety of specialized weapons have been developed, and future weapons will likely be designed, the greatest threat might be especially low-tech – namely a suicide attack. The one carried out by al-Qaeda against the U.S. Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Cole (DDG-67) while she was being refueled in Yemen’s Aden harbor on October 12, 2000, highlighted the risk.

Seventeen U.S. Navy sailors were killed and thirty-seven more were injured.

There are an unimaginable number of ways that such an attack could be carried out; including a diver strapped with explosives or worse a dirty bomb, paragliders that strike during a port-of-call visit, or simply by a crewmember secretly working as a sleeper agent.

Though such actions might not actually sink a carrier, they would still serve as a reminder that the warships aren’t so invincible.

Author Experience and Expertise: Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu. You can email the author: [email protected]. 

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