While it might seem really strange that the U.S. Navy tried to sink their own aircraft carrier, knowing how these powerful and expensive ships can take a punch – in light of the fact that China or Russia would try to take these vessels out in a war – truly matters. Here is what one expert had to say on the subject: China lauds its anti-ship missiles that are nicknamed carrier killers, but just how difficult is it to sink U.S. aircraft carriers? The USS America is a case in point. The America had a distinguished service history since its commissioning in 1965. The flat-top was retired in 1996 and the Navy wanted to know how a carrier would react to explosions that would simulate an attack. During explosive tests almost ten years later it took four weeks to the carrier before America was finally scuttled. So, this action showed that the America could take a punch and not go down easily.
Let’s take a look at why the carrier was so resilient:
USS America: An Exemplary Service Record
The USS America was a non-nuclear conventionally powered carrier of the Kitty Hawk supercarrier class. The America was a mainstay during the Vietnam war with three deployments in theater and later patrolled the Persian Gulf and saw action during Operation Desert Storm. The America had a nose for difficult jobs having been deployed off the coasts of Libya, Iraq, Haiti, and Bosnia during its service history.
Big and Dangerous
The vessel displaced 83,573 tons. It had four hangar elevators. These serviced 79-aircraft. The air wing was made up of fighters, bombers, and anti-submarine airplanes such as F-4 Phantoms, A-6 Intruders, A-7 Corsair IIs, and SP-2 Neptunes.
Air Defense Was Effective
USS America had a full complement of air defenses including radars and sensors that at the time of the Vietnam War were of advanced quality. It also carried surface-to-air missiles and a close-in weapons systems for better protection and survivability from any bogeys that made it past the main air defenses.
No Pilots Lost Over Vietnam
The America had an excellent record during Vietnam. Amazingly, it lost zero pilots while flying 10,500 sorties and dropping over 11,000 pounds of bombs.
Enviable Record in the Middle East
During the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan, the America saw more combat off the coast of Libya. By then it carried F-14 Tomcats and was engaged in battle with Libyan surface-to-air missiles and small ships which it destroyed or damaged.
But Middle East service for the America was not complete. The carrier sent 3,000 sorties to attack Iraqi positions during the First Gulf War. After the war, the America sent its aircraft to patrol the no-fly zone over Iraq.
Simulated Battle Testing
In 1996, USS America was decommissioned. Rather than converting it into a museum, the Navy selected it for testing in 2005 to study how huge ships would cope with explosions on board and respond to the flooding that took place after.
Dario Leone of the Aviation Geek Club unearthed this quote on Quora about the America from mechanical engineer Blake Horner that is quite telling: “[T]he whole point of the tests was to make future carriers more survivable, as well as see how warships reacted to underwater explosion and damage. Clearly, after taking a beating for four weeks, they can survive a LOT due to just their sheer bulk. But at the same time, the tests were not meant to truly sink her immediately. Thus, there was no ‘shoot to kill’ mindset of the naval officers conducting the test, versus the whole point of attacking enemy battleships was to sink them,” Horner said.
USS America was thus the largest ship in the U.S. Navy to ever sink. The evaluators learned that a double-hulled ship of its size was difficult to destroy. They concluded, according to Horner, that missiles would have to penetrate deeply through numerous rooms and empty spaces to mortally wound a large carrier. These lessons helped the Navy design future carriers such as the Gerald R. Ford-class.
Now the America, after a notable 30-year service record, is at the bottom of the sea between Charleston, South Carolina and Bermuda.
Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.