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Biden’s Nightmare: Could China Really Sink a U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier?

U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier Ronald Reagan
U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier Ronald Reagan.

It is a question that continues to make the rounds on Quora and Reddit as armchair experts debate the vulnerabilities of the United States Navy’s nuclear-powered Nimitz-class and Gerald R. Ford-class supercarriers – namely, “Could China really sink a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier?”

The answer is obvious: Yes, without question.

China Missiles

Depiction of Chinese missiles attacking the U.S. Navy. Image: Chinese Internet.

All modern warships are made of steel, a material that doesn’t float. A number of well-placed shots with armor-piercing .50 caliber rounds below the waterline could in theory even result in the eventual sinking of a modern carrier if countermeasures were not taken. But it wouldn’t be as easy as simply punching a hole in the vessel. Modern ships are designed to be difficult to sink, but it’s not impossible.

Could China Pull It Off? Don’t Use the Term Unsinkable

Simply put, it has been 110 years since anyone has made a dubious claim that any vessel is unsinkable.

“There is no danger that Titanic will sink,” reportedly proclaimed Phillip Franklin, vice president of the White Star Line – the owner of RMS Titanic – upon hearing of the ship’s striking an iceberg on April 15, 1912.

“The boat is unsinkable and nothing but inconvenience will be suffered by the passengers,” Franklin told reporters outside of New York’s press offices who were waiting for word on the vessel. Only later did he admit his mistake, stating, “I thought her unsinkable, and I based my opinion on the best expert advice. I do not understand it.”

Improvements have been made in more than a century since that night to remember, and global shipping losses have decreased significantly. Yet, as the 2012 Costa Concordia disaster reminded us, no ship is truly unsinkable. Hitting a rock – much like hitting an iceberg nearly a century earlier – won’t result in a good outcome.

Harder to Sink – But Not Impossible for China

As warships have gotten larger, it has become increasingly harder to sink them by gunfire alone. Yet, the forward-thinking United States Army Gen. Billy Mitchell was able to prove in the 1920s that small aircraft could sink a battleship – a fact that didn’t go over all that well with many in the United States Navy.

It was discovered in the Second World War that one or two torpedoes could and did sink carriers and battleships – while it was further determined that torpedoes were far more effective than bombs. The issue today would be whether a submarine could actually get close enough to launch a torpedo. A carrier doesn’t operate alone and is escorted by a strike group that includes submarines, a cruiser, and multiple destroyers and/or frigates. In addition, the carrier’s airwing will regularly conduct anti-ship warfare (ASW) sorties. Yet, back in 2005, the then-newly constructed USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) was theoretically “sunk” during war games that pitted a carrier task force against the small Swedish diesel-powered submarine HSMS Gotland.

The submarine was so silent it was able to run rings around the carrier strike group, so there remains a fear that an adversary could lay in wait and take a shot of opportunity against a flattop.

That same year that the Navy was shocked to discover that a small submarine could sink its newest carrier, an effort was made to actually sink the Kitty Hawk-class aircraft carrier USS America (CV-66) via a “SinkEx” operation. Yet, it wasn’t as easy as dropping a bomb like it was done back in Mitchell’s day. In fact, it took four weeks with live fire ordnance to send the mighty vessel to the bottom.

Far larger than World War II-era battleships, CV-66 lacked the heavy armor, but instead was built with a double-layered hull that featured alternating layers of steel and empty pockets. In addition, she was designed with internal compartmentalization that was far better than that of the old battle wagons.  

Back to the Question

To the original point, yes, China could sink a carrier – and it would be imprudent to think otherwise. The People’s Liberation Army has touted its so-called “carrier killer missiles,” which are powerful enough and reportedly accurate enough to sink even the largest warships that the U.S. Navy has to offer.

Of course, it could be noted that the large size of the carriers actually works in any missile’s favor. Large warships are simply easier to target. China has ramped up its efforts to improve its accuracy by building targets in the shape of U.S. Navy carriers in its remote desert.

As NavalNews.com reported, Anti-ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBMs) pose an unpredictable threat to carriers and other high-value targets. While modern heavyweight torpedoes can break the back of a modern carrier, the submarine would still need to be in the right place at the right time, whereas most anti-ship missiles have either lacked the range or size to strike a catastrophic blow to large ships like a carrier. This is where the new carrier killer missiles could change the playing field, and question the future of the floating airbases.

The carrier killers include China’s DF-26B anti-ship ballistic missiles, and it was just two years ago, in late summer 2020, that China conducted test launches of the platform into the South China Sea. China first unveiled its road-mobile, two-stage solid-fueled intermediate-range ballistic (IRBM) DF-26B (Dong Feng-26) during a military parade in September 2015. It has a reported range of 4,000km (2,485 miles) and it can be used in both conventional and nuclear strikes against ground as well as naval targets.

The mobile launcher can carry a 1,200 to 1,800 kg nuclear or conventional warhead; and as it could directly strike a target such as the U.S. territory of Guam, in the event of war it should be seen as a formidable weapon. Even more ominously, the DF-26B has been described as a “carrier killer” due to how it could be used to target the U.S. Navy’s fleet of Nimitz– and Ford-class nuclear-powered supercarriers.

What is also noteworthy about the DF-26B is that it is a dual-capable missile, a type of weapon banned by the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by the United States and the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. As China was never invited to join the agreement, and apparently didn’t abide by it, the United States withdrew from the treaty during the Trump administration citing in part Beijing’s deployment of such weapons as a justification.

As is often said on Saturday morning PSAs aimed at children, “knowing is half the battle.” The United States is aware that China can target the carriers with such weapons – and counter it by not providing an opportunity to come within range. That is of course Beijing’s goal, and the weapons could allow it to expand its control of the Indo-Pacific region.

Yet, perhaps this should be enough to make U.S. lawmakers and U.S. Navy officials consider the future of the supercarrier.

A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

Written By

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com. Suciu is also a contributing writer for Forbes Magazine.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Steven

    August 4, 2022 at 6:44 pm

    lol, by the time any missle landed it would hit water, the carrier would be long gone. Plus it would be stupid to kill a carrier, the backlash would not be worth it. Like they say, if your gonna hit him, you’ll have to kill him. China can’t kill usa, so why provoke it? Just putting a submarine blockade on China would destroy her… It’s like the old Soviet Union. They were the bogeyman for decades. In reality they were, and still are (Russia, not CCCP), nothings. They are nothing, all they have is their nukes. and people have even said the dirty secret is Russia’s nukes are so old and neglected they don’t even work.

  2. Eric-ji

    August 4, 2022 at 9:05 pm

    Of course ships, even nuclear supercarriers, can be sunk. And yes it would be a nightmare for whoever is president, for whoever did the sinking, the people of both countries, & the world. Hopefully no one is that mentally challenged.

  3. Jacksonian Libertarian

    August 5, 2022 at 12:10 am

    In the “mature precision strike regime” surface ships are obsolete. They can’t hide from satellites or stealth recon, and their wakes literally point out where they are, where they are going, and how fast. The only question is how many missiles will it take to overwhelm the defenses and destroy the ship? The ballistic missiles discussed here are only one of the types of anti-ship missiles available. Submarine, Ship, land, and Air launched sub-sonic, super-sonic, and hyper-sonic missiles are all available.

    It only took 2 missiles to sink the 13,000ton Moskva. A sink exercise on an empty aircraft carrier, is not a valid test. Aircraft carriers and warships are filled with fuels, high explosives, and low explosives, which make up a significant percentage of their tonnage. A burn out hulk that doesn’t sink, is still destroyed.

    In an age of smart anti-ship missiles, and cheap, attritable, long range drones, the justification for expensive “all your eggs in one basket” Aircraft Carriers is gone.

  4. ptownpt

    August 5, 2022 at 1:52 am

    The Kamakazi was the first long range high precision anti shio missile capable of sinking or putting large capital ships out of action. The concept has been refined by the Russians and Chinese to the point where the ranges of high precision unmanned ASMs far exceeds the strike range of the carrier’s embarked attack aircraft. Ditto, the hypersonic speeds of ASMs exceeds the capabilities of surface ships air defenses rendering them defenseless from air attack.
    For the above reasons, US national command political authorities are unlikely to risk the future deployment of carries near the hostile littorals of adversaries armed with long range hypersonic ASMs. Thus ASMs have effectively denied air carriers their ability to perform their strike role with their embarked attack aircraft. Which begs the question, of what future military value are defenseless large high value targets like carrier battle groups against the widely distributed lethality of long range Russian and Chinese air, surface and subsurface launched ASMs?

  5. Error402

    August 5, 2022 at 2:47 am

    US has never really left its 19th & 20th century gunboat days behind.

    Today, it continues the ugly policy of gunboat sailby to provoke and intimidate others (including subs off Russian bases and off chinese cities).

    Today, xi jinping’s comrades biden and austin and blinken want to sail or use carriers as death-dishing implement.

    But sinking such US carriers is only half of a solution.The real mcCoy thing is to work up a real mcCoy storm by smashing Okinawa island to a smouldering wreck.

    The japs will be screaming for uncle Sam to get the fick out of the region, prompting others to do the same.

    That’s important cuz uncle Sam is planning to FORWARD BASE its hypersonic arsenal right there, at the front window & front door as well.After it has completed development and testing of hyper missiles & projectiles which hasn’t happened yet.

    Apart from preventing uncle Sam placing its hyper arsenal in the region or right next door, china needs to go the ‘next step beyond’ i.e. fly a fleet of spaceplanes in constant low earth orbit.

    Such spaceplanes could be endowed with ability to separate ‘head from neck’ of uncle Sam in case of dangerous or fatal threat from Navy carriers by hurling a kinetic payload at 1600 Pennsylvania avenue or the DoD building next door.

    And it has already started. On 4 august 2022, its secretive spaceplanes made its second flight although this one is NOT GOOD enough compared to the one expected to fly in 2025 which is a HTHL type.

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