Sinking a Carrier: Proof of Concept

14 April 2010


Consequences of the 1993 bombing masterminded by Ramzi Yousef.

Some time ago (probably on PBS’s Frontline, but I can’t find the reference now) I saw an interview with a law enforcement official who was escorting Ramzi Yousef, responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, to a legal proceeding. They were in a helicopter in New York City in view of the World Trade Center. The official pointed to the twin towers and said, “They’re still standing.” Yousef replied that they wouldn’t be standing if he had had more money.

I found another version of this story at CNN, recounted by CNN correspondent Brian Todd:

In the book, The Looming Tower, author Lawrence Wright says: “When Yousef was captured in the mid-’90s, brought to New York and flown in a helicopter by the World Trade Center, one agent said, “You see, it’s still standing.” And Yousef replied, “It wouldn’t be if we had more money.”

From what I have read about Yousef, he wanted to be remembered as being the man who brought down the World Trade Center Towers. He tried and failed, and the title ultimately went to others. The point here is that, quite apart from the ideological views that may inspire the chosen target, men can take personal pride in a difficult accomplishment, can indeed aspire to such an accomplishment, however incomprehensible it may seem to others. The aspiration and the accomplishment become disconnected from the the ideological superstructure that inspired the task, and takes on a life of its own.

On the New Wars blog, Mike Burleson has written a three part series, Can a Speedboat Sink a Carrier? In the second of these installments, Can a Speedboat Sink a Carrier? Pt 2, Burleson quoted a couple of paragraphs from my Speedboat Diplomacy and developed the theme.

Harry S. Truman Strike Group 10

Unparalleled and perhaps unprecedented (it could be argued that the 19th century British Navy was in a similar position of mastery) US mastery of the seas has created a World Trade Center-like center of gravity surrounding the Carrier Strike Group (CSG). Such symbolic displays of force constitute an irresistible target and exercises a particular attraction (if not fascination) for the kind of people who want to be remembered for a famous (or notorious) exploits. We could call them evil geniuses or criminal masterminds, but it is not the evil or the criminality that is the motivation; these are, at most, “collateral.” What matters is the desire for honor and glory, and anyone who could engineer the sinking of a carrier would certainly accrue accolades in many quarters of the world, however much they would be cursed elsewhere. The more difficult the challenge, the greater the glory for having succeeded.

The Bismarck was an irresistible target; sinking it wasn't chance, it was inevitable.

Irresistible targets are not new. Germany’s Bismarck and Tirpitz and Japan’s Yamato and Musashi were built to be the biggest battleships ever. Enormous resources were invested in their construction and operation. Their mere existence was seen as a threat, and considerable resources were invested in destroying them. These ships took enormous punishment. The Musashi was hit by 10-19 torpedoes and 17 bombs. Martin J. Dougherty in his The World’s Worst Weapons calls these ships “a waste of resources” that were obsolete by the time they were built. This is at least arguable, but if it is arguable it is at least as likely to be true as false.

Any discussion of sinking a carrier must refer to the great carrier engagements of the Pacific Theater during the Second World War. Although technology and weapons systems have changed, the verities that come into play in the circumstances of carrier battles, and the naval doctrine that expresses these verities, is not likely to have changed dramatically. I don’t say that it hasn’t changed at all, but that the changes are not likely to have been large or to address essentials. Changes in naval warfare involving carriers since the Second World War have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary, contingent rather than essential.

Then, as now, carriers were deployed with several support vessels. During WWII, this was called a Carrier Task Force (CTF); today it is called a Carrier Battle Group (CVBG), or, more recently, a Carrier Strike Group (CSG). These CTFs were as bristling with weaponry as the contemporary CSG, only less advanced than what we have today, and with many specialized functions represented today by Guided Missile Cruisers, Anti Aircraft Warships, and Anti Submarine Destroyers. The carrier, then as now, surrounded by its support vessels, was on watch for attack from below, beside, or above.

Japanese carrier Akagi

Some of the carriers of the great Pacific Theater engagements, like the battleships mentioned above, took enormous damage and still stayed afloat. Of the four Japanese carriers lost at the Battle of Midway — Akagi, Kaga, Sōryū, and Hiryū — all were ultimately scuttled by Japanese torpedoes. However, the Akagi was disabled by a single 1,000 lb bomb from an SBD Dauntless, and all were rendered inoperable by enemy fire. Thus it is somewhat deceptive to speak of sinking a carrier. It would be better to focus on rendering a carrier incapable of fulfilling its designated role.

Japanese carrier Akagi

In recent discussions of sinking carriers, such as the three part series by Mike Burleson mentioned above, it is assumed that the US CSGs will maintain unquestioned air superiority, so that the only opportunity for another power is with ships, with the particular concern being a swarm of smaller ships coming at a CSG simultaneously from all points of the compass. These seem to me to be valid assumptions, though the possibility of cruise missiles launched from shore or ballistic missiles launched from further inland also need to be taken into account. The US Navy, of course, is well aware of this threat and has even conducted SWARMEX exercises to assess the threat and develop means of countering it.

Deck of the Yorktown, view taken forward after torpedo attack, US Navy (Bill Roy The story of the USS Yorktown (CV-5) is one of the most extraordinary of the Pacific Theater, from being disabled during the Battle of the Coral Sea to ultimately being lost at Midway, though very nearly saved.

These recent discussions and exercises seem to diverge over the very possibility of anything getting through that could sink (or disable) a contemporary carrier. The reader-generated discussion of Mike Burleson’s second piece, commenting on my Speedboat Diplomacy (Can a Speedboat Sink a Carrier? Pt 2), was particularly revealing in this respect. This begs a central question: what would count as proof of concept of sinking a contemporary carrier? Since carriers don’t act in a vacuum, but are part of both a structural context of a CSG as well as being part of a doctrinal context of established procedures of naval warfare, one can’t reasonably reduce the discussion to a single weapon or a single tactic. The operations of a CSG have become so complex that nothing short of a full battle would settle the question, and then the question would be settled only if a carrier was destroyed. If a carrier was not destroyed in an engagement, this would not prove that it wasn’t possible, only that it is difficult to do. Successive engagements, like successive scientific experiments by independent teams of researchers, would serve to increase the inductive knowledge we have of the situation but would not yield certainty.

Carriers can be and have been sunk: the USS Yorktown (CV-5) at the bottom, more than three miles down — deeper than the wrecks of the Titanic or Bismarck. Discovered in May 1998 by underwater explorer Robert Ballard.

Since I asserted above that nothing essential has changed since the CTFs of the Second World War engaged each other on a large scale, but rather that changes since then have been evolutionary in nature, I take it as proof of concept that a carrier can be sunk that carriers were in fact sunk at this time. Obviously, many were sunk (or fatally disabled) by the action of dive bombers, and there are no more specialized dive bombers. Also, there were no helicopters at that time, and no radar-guided Phalanx CIWS Gatling guns. This list can be extended almost indefinitely. And I have no doubt whatsoever that the world’s navies have learned the lessons of bombs and fueled aircraft on the flight deck and below decks burning and exploding, as happened so often with WWII carriers. But in the confusion of battle and the fog of war, with these enormous armed platforms surrounded by combat air patrols and destroyers and submarines, something still managed to get through.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, rationalist philosopher and big hair afficianado, understood that all sublunary things suffer from metaphysical evil, even apparently invulnerable military hardware. Indeed, the very fact of their armor is proof of the degree of their vulnerability.

Aircraft carriers, the CSGs of which they are part, and the doctrine by which they are employed, suffer from what Leibniz called metaphysical evil. In one of the few books he published in his lifetime, the Theodicy, Leibniz wrote, “Metaphysical evil consists in imperfections, physical evil in suffering and other like troubles, and moral evil in sin.” (I discussed metaphysical evil yesterday in Metaphysical Responsibility. It would be an interesting intellectual exercise to inquire into what sense moral and physical evil might apply to non-sentient objects, but I will save this for another time.) Like everything else in this world, aircraft carriers necessarily suffer from limitations and imperfections. In so far as they are limited and imperfect, they are vulnerable. In so far as they are vulnerable, they invite attack. We cannot wish this away.

The HMS Sheffield burning after being hit by a French-made exocet missile.

Given that most carriers lost in the Second World War were disabled by fires, and that the HMS Sheffield lost in the Falkland’s War was also lost to fire (the British claim that the warhead didn’t even explode), one obvious approach to targeting ships and carriers is to exploit this vulnerability to fire with modern technology. Much recent research on thermobaric weaponry has focused on bunker buster bombs and caves, but the interior of a ship’s hull is in some respects not unlike a cave. The Russians have built an enormous thermobaric bomb based on nanotechnology — the Aviation Thermobaric Bomb of Increased Power (ATBIP) — with a yield in the range of small nuclear weapons. This has obvious implications.

Late Soviet military technology: the VA-111 Shkval supersonic torpedo, still a formidable counter-measure to large, expensive ships.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see that a single supersonic cavitating torpedo with an armor-piercing head and a thermobaric charge could take a carrier out of action with a disabling fire below-decks. Throw a hundred of these in the water, and assuming that your counter-measures are 99 percent effective, only one will get through — but, as with the Akagi, sometimes one is enough. If it becomes a mere numbers game, like playing a single number on the roulette wheel, eventually your number comes up. This then ceases to be chance and becomes inevitable. Once we understand that it can be done, it becomes a question of how it is done and who does it. Enter creativity, ingenuity, and personal pride in accomplishment.

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I have written more, and in more detail, about aircraft carriers in The End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier and The Political Context of Striking a Carrier.

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Note added Friday 06 March 2015: Recently in a provocative military exercise called ‘Payambar-e Azam 9’ (The Great Prophet 9), the IRGC blew up a model of a US carrier. While I was not able to find images of this on the IRNA site, there are pictures on the TIME website in Iran Blows Up Replica U.S. Warship During Defense Drill (this item was brought to my attention by the new CSIS evening newsletter edited by H. Andrew Schwartz). While this Iranian exercise was widely dismissed as a stunt, carrier vulnerability has been underlined by a recent exercise involving an updated and refitted carrier, as reported in French Submarine ‘Sinks’ Entire US Aircraft Carrier Group During Wargames. The article credits the French submarine with, “sneaking deep into the defensive screen of the Strike Group, avoiding detection by the American anti-submarine warfare assets, and, on the last day of the drill, ‘sinking’ the Roosevelt and most of its escort.”

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2 Responses to “Sinking a Carrier: Proof of Concept”

  1. Sean M. Kelly said

    Great. I own two original submarine plaques. USS Rasher AGSS 269 and SBN 593 ( USS THRESHER ). Note: last plaque was removed and sent to shipyard shop for drilling and taping — Portsmouth Shipyard. April 10, 1963 she couldn’t blow her tanks — wasn’t any sub safe at this time. Both our up for sale: – Sacramento, Ca. serious only.

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