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U.S. Aircraft Carriers Vulnerable to Attack?: The Ticking Time Bomb

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By David Crane
defrev (at) gmail (dot) com

September 16, 2007
Article updated on 4/07/08.

In the world of big business, and big military, money is power. The more money one controls, the more powerful one is. And, in the U.S. military, the bigger the program and sexier the hardware/technology, the more prestige you’ve got, especially if that hardware can rain a lot of destruction down on the enemy. Perhaps those are just a few of the multitude of reasons the U.S. Navy wants to spend an estimated $13.7 billion per unit for a future Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier a.k.a. “super carrier” called the CVN 21 (formerly CVNX).

Basically, the stated mission of the Northrop Grumman CVN 21 Program is to “conceptualize, design, build, test and deliver a state-of-the-art aircraft carrier that meets operational requirements of the United States Navy and results in specified reductions in acquisition costs, manning and weight while enhancing operational capabilities.” How, a $13.7 billion super aircraft carrier is going to lead to reductions in acquisition costs is anyone’s guess, but it sounds good. And, good PR is everything these days when it comes to huge-budget military programs.

However, there are a couple of little “flies in the ointment” in the form of the latest ship-killing unmanned weapon systems like supercavitating torpedoes and supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles being produced and/or developed by other countries that can probably sink the CVN-21, even if it is protected by its own highly-advanced, highly-lethal systems like fighter aircraft (primarily F/A-18s), ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare i.e. “sub-hunting”) aircraft, the Raytheon Ship Self-Defense System (SSDS), Aegis-radar-equipped and highly-weaponized cruisers and destroyers, submarines, etc. That’s not to mention unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) a.k.a. unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) being produced and developed by other countries that can also potentially wreak a lot of havoc and destruction on surface ships. And, at the end of the day, that’s what the CVN-21 will be, a large, hulking, incredibly expensive (albeit very sexy) surface ship.

The thing about surface ships is, they’re vulnerable to anti-ship missiles, torpedoes, AND UAS/UAVs, the whole trifecta, and these unmanned yet highly lethal weapons are increasing in sophistication all the time. Take the BrahMos Supersonic Cruise Missile (air-breathing), for instance. An Indian-Russian joint venture, the BrahMos can be launched from aircraft, ships, and subs, and flies at approx. three (3) times the speed (“high supersonic velocity”) of standard subsonic cruise missiles like the Raytheon BGM-109 Tomahawk Land-Attack Missile (TLAM) (submarine or ship-launched) and Boeing AGM-84 Harpoon/SLAM (Stand-off Land Attack Missile) anti-ship cruise missile. It’s fire-and-forget, has a low radar signature, and can be programmed for a variety of attack trajectories. The Brahmos Aerospace website has an “operational scenario” illustration that shows the BrahMos Universal Supersonic Cruise Missile’s versatility with regard to launching platforms.

And, then there’s the Russian-made 3M-54E / SSN-27 Sizzler supersonic cruise missile being employed/deployed by China and (reportedly) Iran’s Kilo subs (unconfirmed/unverified), which is currently giving our Naval commanders a real headache in trying to figure out a way to defend our carriers against it. Major problem.

Basically, the BrahMos and Sizzler supersonic cruise missiles look like an excellent complements/companions to the Russian SS-N-22 Sunburn (a.k.a. 3M-82 Moskit a.k.a. P270 Moskit) ramjet-powered anti-ship missile, SS-NX-26 Yakhonts missile (follow-on to the Sunburn missile, also ramjet powered) and VA-111 Shkval Supercavitating Rocket Torpedo (which, by the way, is capable of speeds exceeding 200 knots under water) and whatever other more-advanced supercavitating torpedoes the Russians might have in their arsenal.

A quick note on the Shkval: The VA-111 Shkval’s high speed is achieved via supercavitation, where a vacuum bubble forms in front of and around the body of the torpedo, greatly reducing water resistance (i.e. friction). Pretty cool, except for the fact that the Russian military has it, and ours (U.S.) doesn’t. The good news is, word on the street is that the Shkval is “dumb”, meaning it’s not a guided fire-and-forget torpedo. At least that’s what the public’s being told. The bad news? The bad news is, that even if this is true, the Russians aren’t stupid, militarily complacent, or devoid of ideas and plans, and their military technology is constantly marching forward for the motherland just like ours is–sometimes even faster. So, it’s just a matter of time (probably not much, at that) before a successor to the Shkval series of supercavitating torpedoes is developed that’s a “smart” guided fire-and-forget weapon that will home in on our very expensive ships and subs with the single-minded precision and obsession of a lion pack on a wounded water buffalo.

By the way, what if the Russians already have a “smart” precision-guided supercavitating torpedo? Chances are, the Shkval isn’t the most advanced supercavitating torpedo they’ve got. Remember, they don’t have as open a press or society there as we do (especially under Putin), so theoretically it should be easier for them to keep the latest advanced military weapons a secret. Same goes for China. While we’re on the subject, what if the Russians and/or Chinese have a more advanced supersonic anti-ship cruise missile (one with countermeasures and multi-mode guidance/targeting) than the Brahmos, Sizzler, Sunburn, Yakhonts, or any other missile that’s been reported on so far in the press? It’s not exactly unlikely, since the Russians and Chinese have their own classified systems just like we have ours. Using that same argument, let’s hope we (the U.S.) have some classified ship-defense systems (particularly for our carriers) of which DefenseReview is unaware to counter anything (anti-ship weapons) the Russians, Chinese, et al could possibly have at their disposal.

It’s ironic that in the post-cold-war world, some might say, well, “if somebody’s got to have weapons like that, at least it’s just Russia” (oh, and India), right? Not really. On January 18, 2006, Jane’s Defence Weekly published an article on the development of a D-21 medium-range ballistic missile-based anti-ship missile being develped by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). And that’s not all the Chinese have. Apparently, the Chinese now reportedly have Russian Sovremenny-class destroyers armed with the afformentioned Russian 3-M-82 Moskit/SS-N-22 Sunburn and (probably) SS-N-27 Sizzler anti-ship cruise missiles. Thank God the Chinese are our “friends”, too, just like the Russians, huh? I mean, both of those “friendly” countries need us as a trading partner into the forseeable future, so they wouldn’t launch those big, mean anti-ship missiles and torpedoes against our big expensive (approx. $5 billion–without the planes on it) Nimitz-class aircraft carriers or CVN-21 future aircraft carrier, would they? Of course not. For now.

That’s the thing about this crazy world. Things have a funny way of changing. Sometimes they change gradually, and sometimes they change very quickly. The world turns, paradigms shift, and the next thing ya’ know the Russians or the Chinese are launching a battery (let’s say 20-100) of Sizzler (or other) supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles and supercavitating torpedoes at one time against a single U.S. aircraft carrier, and yesterday’s friend is suddenly today’s enemy sinking your very expensive battleship. But, again, why would the Chinese want to sink one or several of our aircraft carriers? After all, they don’t still want Taiwan back. And, it’s not like we’ve ever threatened to send in our aircraft carriers and other surface ships to protect Taiwan. Hell, they’ve probably forgotten all about that technologically and monetarily-rich little island sitting right off their coast. They’re probably past it. On to the next thing. After all, the Chinese are known for their forgetful nature and let-bygones-be-bygones attitude.

O.k., so, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Indians can all sink our aircraft carriers faster than a pitbull can down a steak. At least the Iranians don’t have anything like that. Ya’ know, ’cause that would be alarming. What? The Iranian’s do have something like that? Oh, God, that’s right, remember what I wrote about the world changing? It seems that the Iranians are developing their own supercavitating torpedo called the “Hoot” (or “Whale”) “sonar-evading underwater missile” a.k.a. supercavitating torpedo, most likely based on the Russian Shkval tech, since the Russians were helping them develop it,
at least in the late 1990’s. The Iranians claim that “no submarine or warship can escape.” And, according to this DEBKAfile article, Iranian Kilo subs can already launch the Sizzler missile. So, there’s Russian technology and technical expertise behind the Iranian navy, now. Perfect (Sarcasm). That’s just wonderful (sarcasm, again).

Now, what if Russian president Vladimir Putin or his successor decides to sell the Sunburn or Yakhonts missile to the Iranians, just like the U.S. once did with the Stinger shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile to the Afgani Mujahedeen in the 1980’s. Just like the Stinger turned that war around for the Afghani’s, so would the Sunburn or Yakhonts change the game for the Iranian’s versus the U.S. Navy. If that were to happen, payback would truly be a bitch, for us.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “So what?” Even if the Iranians get one of those super-duper missiles, the U.S. Navy’s got SeaRAM, which can defeat those nasty Mach 2.5 (approx.) anti-ship missiles. The SeaRAM Anti-Ship Missile Defense System can defeat it. It’s our salvation. Well, not so fast. Ya’ see, that little theory depends on two things: 1) that the enemy missile threat will be detected in time and SeaRAM will have a 100% kill rate, and 2) the 11-missile RAM launcher won’t run out of missiles before the enemy does.

Boy, that’s a lot to depend on. In the tactical shooting a.k.a. defensive shooting world, there’s an old saying: “Action beats reaction.” In other words, the actor always has the time advantage over the reactor. Time is the reactor’s enemy, which means it will be our ships’ enemy, if any of the now multiple countries who have supersonic anti-ship missiles and high-speed supercavitating torpedoes decide to launch them on us. Make no mistake, the first ships they’ll launch against will be our aircraft carriers, and they’ll probably launch a large number of these missiles at one time.

Let’s give the U.S. Navy the benefit of the doubt, and say that it can stop 90% of the enemy missiles and/or torpedos streaking towards the carrier(s). The result’s going to be the same. Understand that if just one of these missiles or torpedos hits the carrier, it’s probably done. Even if it doesn’t sink, it will most likely be taken out of operation. So, in effect, no more carrier. Let’s say it takes two hits to destroy the carrier. All the enemy will have to do is fire at least 20 missiles at once, get its two hits on the carrier, and no more carrier. What if the enemy launches 20 missiles and 20 torpedos at the carrier at the same time? Get the picture? 20 anti-ship missiles and 20 torpedos might read like a big investment, but it’s nowhere near the investement of a $5-$13.7 billion aircraft carrier. Not even close.

And, then there’s the threat of bomb-laiden enemy unmanned aircraft systems/unmanned aerial vehicles (UAS/UAVs). Back in June 2006, an Iranian UAV/UAS flew and loitered over the USS Ronald Reagan supercarrier undetected and unmolested for 25 minutes before flying back safely to its base. That’s a problem. One of the factors contributing to this blind spot/vulnerability for U.S. warships may be the lack of slow-speed/long-loiter time fixed-wing observation/reconnaissance/detection aircraft that can be launched from and fly continuously over U.S. aircraft carriers and the rest of the ships in the battle group, leaving them without the requisite air cover to defend against enemy UAV/UAS threats. As Defense Review outlined in a previous article, U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups are no longer launching S-3B Viking ASW/ASuW (Anti-Submarine Warfare/Anti-Surface Warfare) aircraft off the deck. Obviously, this leaves all the ships in a U.S. aircraft carrier battle group vulnerable to submarine attack (missile and torpedo), but the S-3B Viking, if it were still operational, could probably also assist in protecting against enemy UAV/UAS attacks.

Perhaps the best low-speed/long-loiter aircraft for this role would be an two-seat, navalized version of the Northrop Grumman A-10 Thunderbolt II “Warthog” ground attack aircraft, or “Sea Hog“, if you will. Having a man in the second seat (rear seat) would be an important element in the Seahog’s ability to protect the battlegroup. A second man would provide a second pair of eyes (a valuable addition in itself), and he could concentrate on the observation, reconnaissance and detection roles, freeing up the pilot to concentrate/focus on flying the aircraft (and not crashing). Basically, the second man would be an AFAC, or “Airborne Forward Air Controller”.

By the way, while we’re at it, we might want to consider bringing tactical seaplanes back. In case you’re woried about speed, jet-powered seaplanes like the Convair F2Y Sea Dart proved a long time ago that seaplane fighter aircraft can fly just as fast as land-based fighter aircraft, not that they necessarily need to fly that fast (per the previous two paragraphs). Seaplanes would obviate the need for a catapult launch and recovery system, and give the battle group enhanced air defense and attack capability.

Bottom line, if we get into any kind of serious beef with ANY country that has a decent arsenal of these weapons, our aircraft carriers will most likely be destroyed and sunk within minutes. They’re just too big, too slow, and too visible to survive, even with all their onboard and offboard networked defenses. The fact is that high-speed, sophisticated precision anti-ship weapons technology is cheaper and can therefore outpace our ability to protect our big, slow carriers. In the end, war is a financial transaction. Russian helicopters cost a lot more to produce, field and replace than Stinger missiles, and U.S. Aircraft carriers cost A LOT more to produce, field and replace than even the most sophisticated anti-ship weapons.

But, here’s the kicker: The enemy might not even have to rely on the above-discussed weapons to sink our carriers. Back in 2002, the U.S. Navy conducted a training exercise called “Millenium Challenge 02“, which was designed to showcase high-tech joint-force doctrine. Instead, it ended up showcasing the ability of the Opposing Force (OPFOR) Commander, Gen. Paul Van Riper, to sink two-thirds of the U.S. fleet with “nothing more than a few small boats (fishing boats, patrol boats, etc.) and aircraft.” Here’s how Gary Brecher a.k.a. “War Nerd” described Gen. Van Riper’s naval combat tactics, and the ramifications (i.e. big-picture significance) of the resulting carnage to our warships:

“He kept them circling around the edges of the Persian Gulf aimlessly, driving the Navy crazy trying to keep track of them. When the Admirals finally lost patience and ordered all planes and ships to leave, van Ripen had them all attack at once. And they sank two-thirds of the US fleet.

That should scare the hell out of everybody who cares about how well the US is prepared to fight its next war. It means that a bunch of Cessnas, fishing boats and assorted private craft, crewed by good soldiers and armed with anti-ship missiles, can destroy a US aircraft carrier. That means that the hundreds of trillions (yeah, trillions) of dollars we’ve invested in shipbuilding is wasted, worthless.”

And, that’s about right. Pretty accurate assessment. DefenseReview recommends that you read the article.

Now, in case you’re thinking that Millenium Challenge 02 was just an anomoly, Bill Sweetman recently reported for Ares defense technology blog on submarine HMCS Corner Brook successfully targeting British aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious a.k.a. “Lusty. To prove that this actually happened, the Canadian Navy released a photograph of the Illustrious that was taken through the Corner Brook’s periscope. “The picture represents hard evidence that the submarine was well within attack parameters and would have been successful in an attack,” said Commander Luc Cassivi
of Submarine Division, Halifax.

If the Corner Brook had been a hostile sub, good ol’ Lusty would have been seconds away from being sunk by a Mk 48 heavyweight torpedo–and that’s not even a high-speed supercavitating torpedo. Truth is, the torpedo doesn’t have to be that fast, because action beats reaction, and the threat you don’t see is probably the threat that will kill you–and Illustrious couldn’t see Corner Brook.

So, what’s the solution? There are a few, actually. The most intelligent solution is probably to go to an all-submarine combat fleet, with quiet-running (or, even better, silent-running) submarine aircraft carriers, cruisers, and destroyers. This should be within the United States’ technological capability. However, even if we can’t make our warships true submarine warships (capable of going very deep), we should at least be able to make them submersible to an adequate depth where they can’t be effectively targeted by anti-ship missiles. The submarine ships of all types should be outfitted with advanced anti-ship missiles and torpedos, and equally-advanced anti-aircraft missiles. The second solution is to go with a partial submarine, partial surface fleet. Ideally, the surface ships (cruisers, destroyers, etc.) should sit low in the water and incorporate design and weaponization aspects similar to the developmental NGSS (Northrop Grumman Ship Systems)/General Dynamics DDG-1000 Zumwalt Class Destroyer (formerly DD 21 Destroyer) and CG(X) Cruiser. One of these design aspects is a low-profile “tumblehome” hull form for stealth, reducing the radar cross section (RCS) significantly. Another is the proposed Peripheral Vertical Launch System (PVLS), to reduce the ship’s vulnerability to a single hit. All ships (surface and submarine) should be as small and fast as possible, and be capable of carrying, launching, and recovering 2-12 F-35B (STOVL) or F-35C Lightning II JSF (Joint Strike Fighter) aircraft.

A larger number of smaller, faster, stealthier ships, all networked and each capable of launching their own F-35 fighter aircraft, would yield a big combat advantage over a smaller number of much larger ships that are much easier to target, track and hit. In the age of high-tech, high-speed fire-and-forget missiles and torpedoes, a smaller, faster, more dispersed and less-visible fleet is most likely the smarter way to go. Each ship will be organically less vulnerable to anti-ship missile and torpedo attack, cost less and take less time to build (and thus replace if destroyed), and carry less men on it (so less men will be injured and/or killed if it’s sunk). Each ship will also be individually less important/crucial to the overall fight than a single, huge, uber-expensive super carrier like a Nimitz class or CVN 21 supercarrier. Why put all our eggs (or most of them) in one basket, when we can disperse the force and the risk?

The third solution is to at least make our aircraft carriers submarine (or at least submersible). You’d probably be limited to approx. 12 aircraft per boat, but so what? Just build more boats. Yes, a big, shiny CVN-21 supercarrier surface ship will look really impressive initially when it shows up off someone’s coast. But, how impressive will it look when it’s sinking to the bottom after getting pulverized with anti-ship missiles and torpedos? If the U.S. Navy keeps building gigantic surface aircraft carriers and daring people to sink them, odds are, eventually, someone will take us up on it and do just that. My personal prediction is that this will happen within the next 10-20 years. Within 10-20 years, one of our aircraft carriers will get sent to the bottom by enemy missiles or torpedos (or both)–or possibly even UAVs/UAS. This scenario could even happen within the next five years. I hope I’m wrong about this. I really do. It would be a terrible loss of life. But, by building these humugous surface ships, we’re asking for it, and it’s probably going to take a tragedy like this to wake up the top brass in Navy and DoD–if they get the right message at all. It’s possible that they’ll learn the wrong lesson and just build a bigger aircraft carrier with more armor, weapons and aircraft on it. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

A very wise U.S. submarine commander once said “There are two kinds of ships in the US Navy: subs and targets.”

How right he was.

Author’s note: In a previous article, DefenseReview suggested un-mothballing our surviving battleships for redeployment if/when necessary. To clarify, we only recommend this as an interim solution, since they (the battleships) already exist, and only if they’re modernized with the latest weapons, radar, and ship-defense systems, and outfitted with aircraft-carrier-type catapult launch and recovery decks for aircraft (preferably with ski-jump-type take-off ramps). The battleships would need to be able to carry, launch, and recover their own aircraft in order to be totally self-sufficient and provide their own air cover. Again, we would recommend the F-35B Lightning II STOVL “Joint Strike Fighter” (JSF) aircraft for air-to-air defense missions, and a navalized 2-seat A-10 “Warthog”, or “Sea Hog“, aircraft for low-speed/long-loiter-time ship defense missions.

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About David Crane

David Crane started publishing online in 2001. Since that time, governments, military organizations, Special Operators (i.e. professional trigger pullers), agencies, and civilian tactical shooters the world over have come to depend on Defense Review as the authoritative source of news and information on "the latest and greatest" in the field of military defense and tactical technology and hardware, including tactical firearms, ammunition, equipment, gear, and training.