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The Aircraft Carrier’s Glass Jaw

March 26, 2009

forrestal-fire03Martin Sieff exposes what the modern aircraft carrier might have to face in a real shooting war:

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 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.

This is a true case. Filled as they are with tons of aviation fuel and a fragile nuclear reactor, they could become a floating bomb if hit in the right spot. Potential foes currently have the weapon to make this a reality:

The Russian-built and designed Sunburn — known by the Chinese as the Hai Ying or Sea Eagle HY-2 — in particular is designed to be a U.S. carrier killer. It can fly at Mach 2.5 — 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 noted a report in Aviation Week that said 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,” Crane wrote. “If China’s already perfected this item, it would be another weapon that our Navy can’t combat.”

The writer also compares the giant ships to another fragile weapons system from another era, the battlecruiser:

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.

Earlier New Wars made the argument that the aircraft carrier is a direct descendant to the fast warships, when the great Admiral Fisher made the mistake of thinking “speed is armor”. And though the flattops for all their size and versatility are very handy to have around in peacetime, they might be a liability in war:

They are unequaled 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 2004 tsunami hit Indonesia. But the one thing they are not designed to do is take a lethal punch.

Smaller carriers could take care of the disaster relief if need be. During the Falklands War we also saw how Harrier capable ships could perform a power projection role. I would prefer large numbers of small ships around in case of war, which could be replaced by another quickly if needed, than a few irreplaceable but still vulnerable Big Ships.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    June 9, 2010 4:35 am

    Hokie you are judging that because there were losses, then the Harrier was a failure. Another way of looking at this, without the Harriers, the operation couldn’t have been carried out, the losses would have been worse and Britain wouldn’t have won its greatest naval victory since World War 2.

    I don’t see how you can get over the fact this was a brilliant operation, at the extreme logistical limits, in weather that was often prohibitive to traditional naval aircraft. the subsonic Harriers and especially the training of the British pilots was formidable. It was an amazing achievement for a couple ships smaller than a USN helicopter carrier.

  2. hokie_1997 permalink
    June 8, 2010 12:06 pm

    “During the Falklands War we also saw how Harrier capable ships could perform a power projection role.”


    Mike, I’ll have to ask how exactly you define power projection and what you categorize as being effective at it!

    If you subscribe to the Navy doctrinal view (i.e. influencing and supporting landing force operations ashore) than I’d argue that Harrier wasn’t really a game changer.

    Yes, it was used to drop bombs on the Argentinians. But due to its small payload, limited endurance, and the relatively small quantity which could fielded on small-decks, Harrier’s imact on operations ashore was minimal.

    In terms of supporting the landing force ashore by providing fleet air defense (Sea Harrier’s intended role) I’d say by anyone’s standards they were largely ineffective. Need I remind you that today (6/8) is the anniversary of the Bluff Cove attacks? 1 LSL and 1 LCU sunk, 1 LSL and 1 FF damaged in broad daylight by 1950s era jets dropping iron bombs.

    All under the supposed protective umbrella of light carriers equipped with Sea Harrier.


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