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Outstanding Quote

May 17, 2010

This comes from George C. Wilson at Government

I was on the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy for seven-and-a-half months in 1983-84 to write a book on that floating city. Carrier pilots pointed out to me that all enemy anti-ship missiles would have to do to stop operations was damage the flight deck, not sink the carrier. Parked planes on the deck are highly flammable and the launching gear is complex and difficult to repair.

Clearly then, carrier operations are far more vulnerable to countermeasures, or the whims of nature than land bases, the latter which even after major attack can soon be put into operation. A damaged carrier, loaded with jet fuel, her own fuel, plus planes and munitions? Not so easy to fix.

USS Lexington CV-2 sinking at the Battle of Coral Sea, May 1942.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. hokie_1997 permalink
    May 21, 2010 1:15 pm

    Israel’s geopolitical situation is in no way similar to that of the US. They are not a maritime nation, and consequently their navy is mainly of the green water variety.

    If the coalition of Arab states arrayed against Israel in the 6DW had their act together, they could’ve easily pounded Israel’s fixed airbases into oblivion. That’s one of the key reasons that Israel was forced to take preemptive action.

    I thought this particular post was about vulnerability of carriers. But you’ve yet to respond to my numerous replies regarding just how inherently vulnerable a fixed airbase can be.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    May 21, 2010 12:53 pm

    Hokie, interesting that you brought up Israel in this discussion, which doesn’t have aircraft carriers and seems to be doing just fine. The counter-argument might be that Israel doesn’t have the need for a global navy, except the country has participated in numerous long range strikes, from Iraq to far-off Uganda which they compensated for their lack of large decks through ingenuity. And of course, these strikes came from land bases.

    Any future attacks on Iran would probably entail strikes from the sea using cruise missiles via submarines, another aircraft carrier alternative New Wars has advocated.

    Another form of power projection, or at least a form of enforcing your will on another power has been performed via espionage. This tactic, which I also mentioned in the Byzantine post, has allowed the Israelis to intercept arms smugglers, capture war criminals, and probably perform sabotage against enemies planning WMD attacks.

    The point of all this, if you have aircraft carriers and can afford them, fine. But I don’t think any nation should feel at a disadvantage for not having them since there are numerous alternatives for getting your way.

  3. hokie_1997 permalink
    May 21, 2010 8:19 am


    With respect to the aircraft not being alerted at Hickam and Clark, isn’t that the definition of strategic surprise?

    A determined enemy came up with a pretty darn good plan, executed it in relative secrecy, and schwacked our fixed and vulnerable air bases. I’d think in a dust-up with China or Iran we could expect a similar plan.

    History shows that the US has a nasty habit of getting caught with its pants down on the first engagement of nearly major war. That’s why I believe the mobility of carriers is essential to ensure survivability and flexibility.

    And with respect to the Six Day War — wasn’t that the same war where the Israeli Air Force pasted all of the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian fixed airbases – effectively taking all of their air forces out of the fight by lunchtime?

  4. Jacob permalink
    May 21, 2010 4:57 am

    hokie_1997: I think you’re drawing the wrong lesson from those examples. The airbases on Hawaii and the Philippines were knocked out because their commanders were somewhat clueless and didn’t put their planes on alert or get them off the ground. Now, the P-40’s probably still would’ve lost to the Zeros even after takeoff, but at least they’d go down fighting.

    Fast forward to the Guadalcanal campaign, where airbases were so vital that ground and naval forces were tethered to them. Both sides kept their carriers in reserve rather than at the forefront because it wasn’t worth risking them getting bombed by land-based planes. It wasn’t until the USN got its massive Essex fleet with their Hellcat swarms that carriers were able to wipe out enemy airfields.

    Then again this may all be a moot point. Modern jets and ships are so expensive now compared to their WWII ancestors that even the loss of a few of them becomes decisive in a conflict (see Six Day War).

  5. hokie_1997 permalink
    May 20, 2010 8:26 am


    If and when the enemy had strategic surprise and the capability to strike, fixed airbases by and large proved wholly UNSURVIVABLE in the Pacific during WW2.

    One only needs to look at what happened to Hickam AB on the first day of the war. The B-17s that we were counting on to deter and defeat the IJN were taken out immediately. Same story with US airbases in the Philipines and the RAF in Malaya.

    My point: fixed airbases and their aircraft were essentially taken out of the fight the moment a determined and thoughtful enemy decided they had to go. If the bad guys know where it is, and can get to it, they can kill it.

    Funny how history repeats itself. Flash forward 70 years and RAND is telling the Air Force that it’s bases in the Pacific are highly vulnerable to a PRC first strike.

  6. Mike Burleson permalink*
    May 20, 2010 4:19 am

    Chuck and hokie, both good points. I have written several times on how the USS Enterprise CV-6 survived numerous attempts at sinking during the Guadalcanal Fight, often sailing with half her deck inoperable. At times she was the only carrier available in the Western Pacific.

    Then afterwards, we lost none of the Essex class to sinking despite horrendous attacks from Kamikazes later in the war.

    My point about the land bases versus carriers, the ship is good to have but the land air base is better overall, from an economical and survivable standpoint.

  7. Chuck Hill permalink
    May 19, 2010 4:25 pm

    This discussion neglects all the times carriers were hit and stayed in the fight.

  8. hokie_1997 permalink
    May 19, 2010 3:19 pm

    Oops – meant USS Lexington sunk at Coral Sea. Yorktown was sunk a month later at Midway.

  9. hokie_1997 permalink
    May 19, 2010 3:13 pm


    I can’t argue that history shows carriers are extremely vulnerable if struck. In regards to your picture of the Yorktown sinking in WW2, it’s sure a good thing we had all those B-17s parked and ready at Hickam Airfield and Clark Airfields in 1941. Err wait a minute.

    If only those sneaky Japanese had just played by the rules and didn’t take out practically all of our land-base aircraft as well as neutralizing out airbases on THE VERY FIRST DAY of the war!

    The fact that Yorktown was sunk in May 1942 is simply illustrative of the fact that they were just about the ONLY ASSETS we could bring to bear against the IJN. And the reason that the carriers survived first contact with enemy and our airbases can be summarized in one word – mobility.

    If a bad guy wants to take you out of the game, your best bet in surviving his initial attack is to try to be somewhere else. My take is that if any smart near-peer threat decides to go toe-to-toe with the US, strategy dicatates that their first targets are going to be fixed land airbases. These proved incredibly easy to neutralize in 1941-41.

    How much easier do you think this is in 2010 with your much vaunted satellites and precision guided munitions?

  10. Mike Burleson permalink*
    May 18, 2010 6:56 pm

    Craig wrote “How many months was she sidelined?”

    Which is my point. All of their amazing capability doesn’t make up for their impracticality. Even if this was a capability we couldn’t do without, their great expensive doesn’t justify more than 5 or 6, since we no longer have the resources to afford more. Look at the decreasing number of planes if this isn’t true.

    The Navy might argue this wouldn’t be enough though they would say that if they had 15-20. If that is the case then obsolescence has creeped in.

  11. May 18, 2010 3:02 pm

    Right on–How long did it take for the GW to recover from the damage inflicted by a single carelessly-flung cigarette butt? How many months was she sidelined?

  12. Hudson permalink
    May 18, 2010 1:39 pm

    It’s true that the Big Decks have many enemies, and you could disable a carrier without sinking it. Still…

    The Navy has on file the acoustic signatures of quiet attack subs plus the battle group has its own SSN escort, SAM 3s launched from Burkes would have a fair chance of stopping incoming ballistic missiles, CAP would sink the Russian destroyer before it could get within gun range, and the radar that picks up skimmers would catch the low-flying bomber, no? Plus the carrier itself has CIWS.

    So, the big deck might survive to fight another day. Meanwhile, it would have devastated a country or two.

  13. Dana permalink
    May 18, 2010 12:48 pm

    Obviously some people don’t know just how much damage an Aircraft Carrier can take.

  14. Heretic permalink
    May 18, 2010 9:46 am

    Hence why Taiwan is making noises about wanting F-35B rather than F-16 Block 50/52. They at least realize that when defending against the mainland, their airbases are fixed high value targets, and F-16s are useless without nice, long, FOD-free, perfectly maintained runways. You don’t have to shoot down the defenders if they can never get off the ground. It’s the reason why a NATO requirement got written in the 1950s which directly led to the P1127, Kestrel, Harrier and Sea Harrier.

    There’s essentially only 2.5 aircraft in the world TODAY which could operated out of bases on Taiwan today if mainland China attacked the island.
    JAS 39
    F-35B (mythical)

  15. hokie_1997 permalink
    May 18, 2010 9:14 am

    Clearly then, carrier operations are far more vulnerable to countermeasures, or the whims of nature than land bases, the latter which even after major attack can soon be put into operation. A damaged carrier, loaded with jet fuel, her own fuel, plus planes and munitions? Not so easy to fix.


    As I’ve postulated before, the challenging part isn’t building a warhead which can crater a runway or knock out a carrier. I don’t think anyone is arguing that a carrier is invulnerable to modern warheads.

    What I think you are overlooking are the steps necessary to find, fix, and track the target in order to even deliver the warhead.

    If I want to target Guam airbase today, I can look up its coordinates on Google earth. And if I’m a bad guy I can keep throwing ICBMs, LGBs, Rockeyes, etc. until it is no longer capable of supporting flight ops. (I can also do all sorts of nasty things such as delayed fuzed cluster munitions, targetting runway repair crews, etc. to ensure it is down for a long time to come.)

    Compare this to a carrier in the open ocean. Carriers are big, but the Pacific Ocean for example is much bigger. If you stop and think about the math, finding a 1,000 ft long carrier and keeping a targetting solution on it whilst it’s trucking at 30+ kts is not an easy task.

    Mike, you continually stress in your articles that we are in the age of precision weapons. I wholeheartedly agree. And in this age of precision weapons, I believe that if a target can be found, fixed, and tracked, it can be killed. By that rationale, a land-based runway just makes the bad guys targetting solution a whole lot easier.

  16. MatR permalink
    May 18, 2010 8:32 am

    I’ve always been surprised that this doesn’t get more coverage – the basic fact that ‘choke points’ on a carrier can be knocked out, for relatively low numbers of deaths, to cripple its warfighting ability – bridge, deck, catapults, lifts, etc.

    For a couple of years, I’ve been thinking that a handy weapon to use on a carrier would be a ballistic missile with an mlrs-type cluster munition warhead. The carrier won’t sink, the host navy won’t be out for blood, and the people back home clamour for the fleet to be withdrawn. But the flightdeck and electronics will be a *mess*. (Maybe that’s the Chinese idea of a ‘carrier-killer’ too?)

    As an aside, in exercise, The RAAF’s F-111s were able to sink US aircraft carriers just by sneaking up on them low, and using laser guided bombs. Swop the LGB for a weapon like the CBU 100 Rockeye, maybe?

  17. Nomad permalink
    May 18, 2010 4:33 am

    Speaking honestly, the Russians had counted on to stop the takeoff-landing ops by the gunfire from the direct watching ship. This kind of the combat duty – direct watching ship – was usually provided by the destroyer which have at least 76-mm guns, and better 130-mm. The ship had usually chased the CTF screen from either the starbord or port quarter of the carrier, within the visual distance. The main aims were to send the messages about all the significant events occuring with the carrier (changing the course into the wind, massive spottings, massive launch etc) and to shell the deck of the carrier to prevent the launch of the strike group if it would be possible slightly just before the start of the war. Eventually, if the war was starting and this direct shadower had recieved the order by the radio, she had to do all the possible to stop the launch. Fired shells, missiles, torpedoes, jet depth charges, ram the carrier – not to sink but to prevent the launch. No other means of USSR could prevent the quick takeoff, and the Russian admirals quite understood it. And the best way to do so was considered as the shellfire of the flying deck of the carrier. I.e. the main enemy of the USN CTFs was not the huge carrier-killing subs and not the swarm of Backfires. It was the direct shadower that had to appeared compulsory if the situation was slightly drifting from the routine. In routine it quite could be the unarmed recco and ECM vessel, usual enough to be found on the 70-80 years pictures, but when the real combat became at least a bit more possible, it was the destroyer or at least frigate.

  18. Mike Burleson permalink*
    May 18, 2010 4:21 am

    Thanks SS!

  19. May 18, 2010 4:19 am

    ‘Avgas’ is used with Piston Aircraft. Avcat or JP-5 is jet fuel.


  1. Links of Interest 18 May 2010 « ELP Defens(c)e Blog

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