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America’s Carrier Fleet Cited as Vulnerable

December 31, 2009

On a regular basis, I offer proposals for aircraft carrier alternatives, for platforms I think can do the naval air mission equally well if not better than large fixed wing decks. These alternatives are for the most part less costly, simpler to deploy, and carry the three principle weapons here, all available now, in varying degrees of maturity:

  1. V/STOL aircraft, since the 1970s.
  2. Tomahawk cruise missiles, since the 1980s.
  3. Unmanned combat air vehicles, since the 1990s.

In a profound article appearing in Proceedings Magazine, Commander John Patch questions The Carrier Invulnerability Myth and writes the principle debate should not be cost or whether they are even needed in an age of low tech warfare. The primary cause for rethinking our dependence on large decks should be their vulnerability to a host of threats. Before we get into the article, here are the top 3 foes of the carrier, in my own opinion, most of which have been with us for some time:

  1. Nuclear powered attack submarines since the 1950s
  2. Sub and supersonic cruise missiles since 1960s
  3. Anti-ship ballistic missiles by 2010?

Also not unthinkable, as stated in the post, are other less ominous but equally destructive possibilities such as a suicide bomber infiltrating the ethnically diverse carrier crew. It makes so much sense that terrorists thrive in the crowded population, and there are few vessels so well crowded as a 5000+ crew flattop.

From Commander Patch’s article, here is a list of “where” they might be vulnerable:

  • Mass media, satellite communication, and the Internet can provide location and disposition of U.S. carriers when they are near shipping lanes or coastal waters; carrier presence is obvious well before the silhouette appears on the horizon.
  • Carriers not supporting a conflict requiring continuous air wing operations will not be operating at higher speeds, especially at night.
  • Fast, low profile, open-ocean craft are widely available.
  • Armored hangar bay doors are useless when open, typical to lower conditions of readiness.
  • Carrier crew size and diversity would likely allow unfettered access to clandestine infiltrators of almost any ethnicity.
  • While nuclear power provides virtually unlimited steaming, carriers remain dependent on forward staging areas and supply ships for food, aviation fuel, and stores.
  • The insatiable appetite for information afloat is satisfied by way of precious, uninterrupted bandwidth flowing through multiple nodes with varying vulnerabilities.

Why we harp mainly on cost and alternatives, unless an article by someone else like this comes along, is the fact that we know the admirals and their supporters won’t be convinced by potential threats. The cult of the carrier, like the older cult of the battleship, is deeply ingrained not only in the military mind but in the public’s, and they won’t be convinced these floating monuments to American shipbuilding expertise are at risk until they see the ships themselves with smoke billowing from their capacious decks, vanishing beneath the waves with untold multitudes of their crew. It is a sad state of affairs. Here is more pondering the unthinkable:

  • A carrier operating with only a single escort on an OEF no-fly day, far separated from other strike group warships, is approached by a small team of highly trained, well-armed saboteurs in a low-profile, fast boat at night in international waters. They gain access via a lowered elevator when the ship is in low readiness conditions for a quick surprise attack with satchel charges in the hangar and flight decks to destroy most carrier air wing aircraft before the ship musters a response.
  • An adversary state about to seize several small islands in the Persian Gulf directs a small team of special forces to commandeer a large container ship, which veers into the path of a CVN exiting the southern Suez Canal in a restricted waterway. The resultant collision and carrier grounding causes enough damage to limit the carrier to ten knots, preventing most fixed-wing flight operations indefinitely.
  • An extremist group targeted by carrier air wing operations identifies the less protected fleet auxiliaries providing carrier strike group logistics in a forward theater and targets them simultaneously with waterborne improvised explosive devices. Critical fuel, food, and stores shortages severely limit air wing operations for a period of weeks.

Ultimately, as with the battleships, it will be cost that will sink the carriers. This reminds of those who still argued for the continued relevence of the all-gun superships, after Taranto, after Pearl Harbor, after the loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse, after Samar Island. Remarkably the cash-strapped Royal Navy even prepared new plans with  the battleships as the core of the fleet as late as 1944, until this poor idea was vetoed by Prime Minister Churchill.

15 Comments leave one →
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  2. Wayne permalink
    January 5, 2014 2:48 pm

    I served as a Nuclear Machinist Mate on the Carl Vinson. The idea that a carrier is obsolete seems a bit absurd. The new class carriers have almost a 50% reduction in manning. Also having had experienced first hand a carrier responding to a Natural Disaster (Haiti), it is important to not forget the ability of these platforms to conform to the need at hand. Our carriers can also be served as an emergency hospital, a water plant (in which I was in charge of) and a midway point platform for relief vehicles. Being able to park our facilities right off a coast has multiple uses. We can deter war just by the sheer presence of our carriers, and in the situation stated above, nothing says America is here to help like sailing a CVN class carrier into a harbor. Think outside the idea of just a obsolete platform. And just for you environmentalists, carriers are very green, recycling at sea, having sailors separate trash every meal, as well as purifying and reusing oil.

  3. Matt permalink
    January 6, 2010 10:56 am


    I wouldn’t say the DPRK or Iran have “seemlessly” deployed guided missiles – most of their launch attempts have been flops. I think locating (let alone targetting) a carrier at sea is a vastly more technologically and operationally complex undertaking than CDR Patch realizes.

    As for the neer peer submarine threat — PRC diesels are growing in capability but still a long ways off from seriously threatening USN. It’s sub force is mostly knock-offs of early Cold War era Soviet diesels. And no one deploys modern nuclear SSNs other than US and its allies (PRC SSN are not modern, and Russian SSN are falling apart at the pier).

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 5, 2010 7:58 pm

    Matt, I was a bit surprised myself that this article made it into the normally Big Deck friendly Institute! I agree that we are also talking of a potential threat, but it is one which makes much sense. We can’t expect that precision technology would be an America monopoly any more than gunpowder was for the Chinese centuries ago. Considering that even Third World countries like N Korea and Iran seamlessly build and deploy guided missiles of various types, how hard would it be for our peer competitor to learn how to target a carrier?

    It is a threat worth taking seriously when you have 10-11 giant ships to consider, and their 5000+ crew each to send in harms way. But to me this ASBM is just the coup de grace on the ongoing obsolescence of large decks, which began with the launch of nuclear attack subs in the 1950s, with the addition of increasingly accurate and powerful cruise missiles at sea. But the Chinese proved you don’t even need nuclear power to threaten the flattop’s. Even an old style d/e sub armed with torpedoes will do to penetrate the ASW screen of our most important (to the admirals at least) capital vessels.

    Short of conflict though, I see the biggest threat to carriers is funding, and the emerging technology offering us alternatives to vessels which take billions of dollars to deploy, billions more to arm with planes, and many billions to defend from ever increasing threats to its existence. Building a globally capable fleet will always be a burden on a country, but it should never be an unreasonable one, escpeially when there are alternatives if we only look.

  5. Matt permalink
    January 5, 2010 7:38 pm


    I read this “profoud” article; how it was published in Proceedings – a periodical which prides itself on its objectivity and analysis – is beyond me. I’m not denying that carriers are potentially vulnerable, I just think that CDR Patch could’ve presented a better case with a little more research.

    In terms of the high end threat, the article hinges upon use of anti-ship ballistic missles against a CVN at sea, yet the Naval War College has repeatedly published the fact that China does not currently possess this capablity, and is unlikely to for some time. And in my opinion, targetting a carrier at sea is like finding a needle (albeit an exceptionally large needle) in a haystack.

    In terms of the assymetric threat carriers don’t typically keep their elevator decks lowered at sea, thus it is highly unlikely that a team of terrorists or spec ops could use this as a means of boarding. Anyone who’s serve in an operational capacity on a CVN would know this.

    I’d also like to point out that CDR Patch is a retired SWO – think there’s any institutional bias at play?

    If you’d like to read an article which is admittedly biased, but at least relies upon facts and experience to assess carrier vulnerability AND utility, I’d recommend RADM Kraft’s “It Takes a Carrier” also in Proceedings.

  6. Joe K. permalink
    January 1, 2010 10:16 pm

    Mike said: “I argue consistently that the low tech insurgents and rogue powers while having nothing like the high tech military power Western Industrial nations enjoy, have been equally effective in projecting their interests on land and sea.”

    Aren’t there big problems with making those assertions? I mean, how many stable countries have only that low-tech weaponry and resources at their disposal? And how many countries have been able to successfully project their power over other countries using those resources? I can’t name any. And since that’s a profound thing to suggest and seeing as how my lessons and classes on military history haven’t yielded any such examples I’m inclined to declare that statement absurd.

    The Taliban isn’t a country. Whatever their influence brings is extralegal and non-governmental. Piracy efforts off Somalia’s coast are also extralegal and non-governmental. No stable nation uses only a guerrilla style military force for security and power projection. Even North Vietnam had the conventional-style forces during the war.

    Luckily we have ways of dealing with these unstable states or hostile NGOs: special operations units and the intelligent and effective use of conventional units to support them. You never seem to assert spending more on the Special Forces and instead drive to preen our conventional forces to revolve around the unconventional threats when we already have something to fight them. And recent articles from the NY Times have shown that both our unconventional and conventional efforts are showing progress.,0,3916114.story

  7. Joe permalink
    January 1, 2010 1:36 pm

    It’s only an exercise in redundancy and overkill if you feel that all we’ll ever fight are P-HICS (people hiding in caves) and the terrorists and drug lords who want to party as if it’s 699 A.D. In that instance, if the Yemeni attack of two weeks ago is your template, then yes, Tomahawks made the most sense to deploy/use.

    But life isn’t all about being prepared to attack Yemen. In my post I said “hypothetical war scenario”. Vulnerable though all surface platforms may be, if you’re going to deploy such assets in a conflict, I’d rather have the one that is capable of 48-56 strike aircraft and can also launch Growler and E-2D assets as well as opposed to the STOVL carrier that can ferry 12-24 F-35B’s, lacks the other air assets, and is capable of a much lower sortie rate.

    It doesn’t invalidate contributions that could be made by a smaller carrier, but it certainly doesn’t make them “as effective” & (a 2x fleet of them to super-carriers) “twice as powerful as”, either, in this hypothetical example.

    The change you believe in might be to completely do away with manned air, but the change you could most successfully argue for & achieve would be for the Navy to fund a smaller type of carrier, styled like the angled-deck French PA2, and further slow the production rate of the Fords and allow a slow, natural drop in the qty of ships that size we maintain.

    That path might only put us inbetween the extremes in the carrier world of “Size Matters” and “Strength in Numbers”, but it would free up funds that could be used to enlarge the navy substantially if smaller platforms are used. And, given that in the short-term, pols won’t let the Zumwalt die, it’s doubtful that an argument for going all Marie Antoinette on the carrier fleet would be listened to anytime soon.

    I don’t argue with you on the fact that carriers are vulnerable. Can & should we do much more to beef up the defensive posture of all our platforms – certainly seems we should. We exhibit too much arrogance in thinking nobody can touch us or infiltrate our technology.

    However, you also have to say that if something being vulnerable to destruction is the first sign you should consider moving away from it, then who’s going to break this news to the infantryman…who’s been obsolete for over 10,000 years…yet whose continued service is perceived by nations to be as keen as it ever was?

  8. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 1, 2010 12:07 pm

    Joe K-To be honest, I believe the time for even light carriers is starting to run out. The technology to kill large ships is only increasing, as is the alternatives to manned naval air. My interests today is in the potential of cruise missile ships and unmanned air at sea. The economy and effectiveness of these will be the decider on where naval airpower will go on this new century.

    The problems the British navy and others are having with the deployment of fixed wing air at sea is more noticeable than in the US Fleet, but it is very apparent here too. I never would argue against the large deck’s usefulness, whether for disaster relief or supporting the troops in a land battle. Instead, I question whether this usefulness comes at too great a cost, in the risk of the crews in a peer conflict, to the expense of deploying such vessels that takes away from other essential naval missions, and to the entire mindset that only high tech platforms, the fewer the better they claim, are the answer to the low cost threats we are facing in a new age.

    I argue consistently that the low tech insurgents and rogue powers while having nothing like the high tech military power Western Industrial nations enjoy, have been equally effective in projecting their interests on land and sea. We are currently in an arms race with the Third World that we can never win playing by the old rules. For the Navy, this is typified by the large deck carriers, ships which are doing less but costing more, the airwings are shrinking as is the variety of aircraft. Pretty soon we will be championing light carrier sized–30 plane airwings because this is all we will afford on our 100,000 ton decks. The platform has become more important than the weapons she carries. No longer a carrier but a symbol of past glory.

    We need to fix this while we have some ingenuity left in the fleet.

  9. Joe K. permalink
    January 1, 2010 11:08 am

    If anything shuts down the carriers, it will not be cost alone. It will be cost combined with other advancements. I’m pretty sure carriers would’ve been dead if it were only cost that was being considered, but look at their benefits both in traditional and non-traditional roles.

    One example of the latter pointed out by an Army Lt. Col. is that following the tsumani in the Indian Ocean, the carrier was the first to respond providing emergency supplies to the displaced locals. And thanks to its quick response you will never read about any waves of disease running through refugee camps because they had the speed and effectiveness to prevent such an outbreak.

    Yes, it’s non-traditional, but having that ability with such vessel I think would be a definite value booster not just for the U.S. but the whole world as well.

    And with your notion about using light carriers, you do realize there is a trade-off in terms of that air wing power. Pilots on those ships are already under enough stress making sure they qual for their landings. But I question the idea of light carriers being superior to the supercarrier on the idea of crew fatigue. With only 30 places to be able to carry out a quick combat response might make the light carriers more vulnerable to an attack, especially if they’re being launching continuously for air ops.

    Plus, how long would it take to actually bring about a class of light carriers? And I’m not talking about the amphib ships used by the VTOL Marine Corps squadrons. Even in converting those amphib ships to your “light carrier” would take years both in planning out and actually doing it. And given the age of those ships, there’s a definite chance that they run into conversion problems.

    You never actually argue for a plan to convert the Navy to your specs, you just argue the results. And I question how much it would set our resources back (both in what we have and what we don’t) just to make that happen.

  10. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 31, 2009 5:32 pm

    Joe-A supercarrier in the post Cold War age replete with precision guided munitions is an exercise in redundancy and overkill. It is not necessary to deploy a complete airwing when a handful can do the same function. The effectiveness of say a 50 plane airwing is wasted because all your PGMs are placed in a single large platform. This platform, however powerful can only be in a single place at once, so all its enhanced firepower is wasted on a few targets.

    The 12 light carriers are not only more survivable, but twice as powerful. 6 light carriers are as effective as 6 supercarriers. But the same could not be said of the Independence class CVL versus the Essex CV in 1944. Then you needed the extra sorties and firepower of a large deck to ensure bombing effectiveness.

    The navy has yet to grasp the potential of the firepower they have on hand in this modern age with PGMs, which is why they are shrinking.

  11. B. Walthrop permalink
    December 31, 2009 4:38 pm

    Good. I look forward to your posts. I’ll be back Monday and Tuesday, and until then Happy New Year!


  12. Joe permalink
    December 31, 2009 4:32 pm


    You said in last week’s thread: I don’t think overall any warship is particularly more survivable than another in response to a poster’s comments/concerns about super-cavitating torpedoes and supersonic sea-skimming missiles re: current warship survivability chances.

    Not knowing what you might say Monday, B. Walthrop does bring up a good point. Borrowing from and building on what he said, if you had a hypothetical war scenario and a choice of surging either 6 super-carriers or 12 light carriers, would the greater qty of carriers be any safer given the potency you ascribe to the threat posed by new-gen missiles/torps?

  13. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 31, 2009 1:04 pm

    B. Walthrop wrote “the main thrust of your argument is to replace carriers with (wait for it) carriers.”

    Good point. See us this Monday and Tuesday.

  14. B. Walthrop permalink
    December 31, 2009 10:59 am

    The binary vulnerable/in-vulnerable argument is clearly a strawman.

    The real question is the level of risk that the “scary” scenarios attempt to present.

    Reading past the surface a bit, what the author is really saying is that, “I assure you, she’s made of iron and can be sunk/damaged/degraded/etc.” So what? I don’t mean to be cavalier, but an honest assessment of risk would be welcome. At least that would be a starting point for debate.

    I suppose that you assume that your small carrier fleet would be less vulnerable due to numbers and dispersion, but there would be a trade-off in massing combat capability that those that believe COIN and IW at sea are exclusively the future of warfare ignore as valuable as well.

    From the IW perspective would it really matter a great deal in terms of impact if the ship struck was a 100K ton super-carrier or a 40K ton light carrier. I don’t think so, but maybe you could provide an argument to the contrary.

    It is interesting to note that in the US cost finally sunk the battleships in 1992. 40+ years of service is not bad for a platform with that level of technological development. Cost may indeed sink the carriers, but even with the current inventory it won’t happen for another 3 decades. The real threat that will sink the carriers is when a credible counter to naval aviation (either manned or unmanned) is realized.

    I’d like to see you take a more futuristic track with your carrier alternative weekly, as the main thrust of your argument is to replace carriers with (wait for it) carriers. Directed energy weapons would be a good place to start. Ironically, if this capability comes to fruition it will probably at least initially require fairly large ships (or mobile enough land support equipment to avoid more conventional counterstrikes) to support the electrical generation or chemical storage that is likely to be required. They would be a game changer for the carrier fleet though.



  1. Carrier Alternative Weekly « New Wars

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