How vulnerable are America’s carriers?
Key point: More than just anti-ship missiles.
Aircraft carriers have been the primary capital ship of naval combat since the 1940s, and remain the currency of modern naval power. But for nearly as long as carriers have existed, navies have developed plans to defeat them. The details of these plans have changed over time, but the principles remain the same. And some have argued that the balance of military technology is shifting irrevocably away from the carrier, driven primarily by Chinese and Russian innovation.
So let’s say you want to kill an aircraft carrier. How would you go about it?
On September 17, 1939, the German submarine U-29 torpedoed and sank HMS Courageous. Courageous was the first aircraft carrier lost to submarine attack, but would not be the last. Over the course of World War II, the United States, the UK and Japan lost numerous carriers to submarines, culminating in the destruction of the gigantic HIJMS Shinano in 1944.
Submarine-fired torpedoes remain a critical threat to modern carriers. Russian and Chinese submarines regularly practice attacks on U.S. carrier groups, as do those of allied navies. Modern torpedoes cause damage by exploding beneath a ship, an impact that can break the ship’s back with dramatic effects. Fortunately, no such torpedo has ever hit a ship the size of a U.S. supercarrier, although the U.S. Navy did conduct a variety of tests on the hulked USS America in 2005. Those tests, which may have involved underwater charges (of the sort that damaged USS Cole) did not result in America’s sinking; she was scuttled in the wake of the process. The short answer is that no one knows how many modern torpedoes a U.S. carrier could take before sinking, but we can estimate with little doubt that even a single torpedo would cause extensive damage, and severely impede operations.
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