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Hardly Seaworthy: The 5 Worst Aircraft Carriers of All-Time

Admiral Kuznetsov
Admiral Kuznetsov at sea. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Whenever you write up any sort of 5 Best or 5 Worst list, you’re bound to ruffle some proverbial feathers. Deciding what to put on the list becomes even more complicated when you’re talking about a highly complex, multi-crew weapons system like, in this instance, history’s five worst aircraft carriers, as opposed to comparatively simple individually-operated weapons like handguns and rifles. I suppose the criteria for making this list would have to incorporate inherent design flaws, and/or crew (in)competence, and/or inauspicious combat record alike. So then, without further ado, and in no particular order….

The Shinano

So, let’s see, a WWII Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) battleship — sister ship to the supremely powerful battleships Yamato and Musashi no less — converted into a supercarrier…only to be sunk on November 1944 during her sea trials in vicinity of Yokosuka Naval Base by the submarine USS Archerfish (SS-331) after three torpedo strikes and the passage of 7 hours. 69,000 tons and 1,435 officers — including the skipper, Capt. Toshio Abe — enlisted sailors, and civilians, down the drain  Yes, I’d say the Shihano (信濃) easily qualifies for this Bottom 5.

The Taihō

This one is clearly an example of crew incompetence, as there’s just no way in hell a heavy carrier should sink after just one torpedo hit. Yet, sure enough, in the star-crossed case of the IJN Taihō (大鳳, “Great Phoenix”),which was the then-new flagship for Vice-Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, on 19 June 1944, a single torpedo hit from the submarine USS Albacore (SS-218) did her in. As explained by the History Central info page:

“Meanwhile, a novice took over the damage control responsibilities. He believed that the best way to handle gasoline fumes was to open up the ship’s ventilation system and let them disperse throughout the ship. This action turned the ship into a floating time bomb. At 1330, a tremendous explosion jolted Taihō and blew out the sides of the carrier. Taihō began to settle in the water and was clearly doomed.”

The Graf Zeppelin 

For all of the fearsome feats pulled off by the battleships, battlecruisers, surface raiders, and Unterseeboote (U-boats, that is) of Nazi Germany’s Kriegsmarine, the WWII accomplishments of their aircraft carrier fleet were…nonexistent. A major reason for this lack of body of work was that the vaunted German arms industry only built one carrier to begin with: the Graf Zeppelin (Flugzeugträger A, Aircraft Carrier A). On-paper, this ship was yet another marvel of Teutonic engineering. Her keel was laid on 28 December 1936, she was commissioned on 8 December 1938…and then the start of hostilities in 1939 delayed further progress.

By 1943 it turned out that the Graf Zeppelin was still not seaworthy, and the then 67-year-old Admiral Erich Raeder was pushed aside by der Führer as commander-in-chief of the Kriegsmarine and replaced by Admiral Karl Dönitz, who did not believe in the strategic importance of aircraft carriers and put the kibosh on any further work on the Graf Zeppelin. At the end of the war, she was sunk by the Germans in the river Oder…only to be raised by the Soviets…who in turn sank her for good as a target ship on 16 August 1947.

The Admiral Kuznetsov

So much has been written about the problems plaguing the Admiral Kuznetsov — Russia’s lone aircraft carrier — that it seems like a virtual no-brainer to include it on a 5 Worst Carriers list. Kuznetsov has been beset with a whole host of maladies, from reliance on an ultra-thick, tarry black substance called Mazut as its power source, to a sunken dry dock in 2018, to a 2019 onboard fire that cost 300-350 million rubles in damages. She was commissioned in 1990, as the Soviet Union was in its slow-but-steady and increasingly obvious death throes, and as noted by my 19FortyFive colleague Kyle Mizokami, “Between 1991 and 2015, she completed only six patrols at sea.”

All of which helps explain why the ship hasn’t been used for the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

The Vikramaditya

India’s INS Vikramaditya — that country’s flagship aircraft carrier no less — goes to show that Soviet-designed carriers continue to be plagued with reliability issues even after changing ownership, which I suppose proves the proverb that “A leopard cannot change its spots.” Starting off her service life in 1987 as the Soviet Navy’s Admiral Gorshkov, India purchased her from post-Soviet Russia in 2004 for the equivalent of $2.35 billion USD.

In 2016, a toxic gas leak occurred during maintenance work in the vessel’s sewage treatment plant compartment, resulting in two deaths. That was followed by three fires in a 3.5-year span: a boiler room fire in April 2019 that resulted in the death of Indian Navy officer Lt. Cdr. DS Chauhan from smoke inhalation; a second fire that occurred in May 2021 whilst the ship was undergoing its refit, which luckily resulted in no casualties; and most recently last month, which again thankfully caused no casualties but nonetheless help demonstrate a disturbing pattern.

Agree or Disagree?

So then, dear readers, what do you think? Were any of the ships on this list unfairly maligned in your opinions? Are there any other carriers conspicuous by their absence from the list? Let us know in the comments section!

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). In his spare time, he enjoys shooting, dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports.

Written By

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Omega 13

    August 12, 2022 at 10:19 am

    The Kuznetsov should be number one. Any ship that needs to be followed by a maintenance tug is the winner… or in this case, loser!

  2. Nucdoc

    August 12, 2022 at 11:12 am

    From what I’ve read Taiho actually was a well designed ship with some good features. As you said it was crew incompetence that doomed her not because she was fundamentally flawed. HMS Ark Royal also sank as a result of a single torpedo hit. All of the exhausts from her boilers went through a single compartment which, of course, where the torpedo from the U-Boat caught her. She had absolutely no auxiliary power capability on board which means she could not fight the flooding which eventually sank her.

    I might also list the USS Wasp (CV7) on the list. The U.S. Navy had the limits of carrier tonnage from the treaties of the 1920s to deal with and designed a ship that matched the Yorktown class as far as plane capacity but with absolutely no armor protection. When it was hit by torpedos off of Guadalcanal it burst into flames that could not be contained. (It was, like the Japanese carriers at Midway during the 10:25 attack, in the midst of rearming and refueling aircraft).

  3. Roger Bacon

    August 17, 2022 at 1:54 pm

    What’s the criteria for judging? Design ? Actual performance?

    If it’s design then the USS Ranger might qualify as the worst. It was made up from leftover tonnage under teh Washington naval treaty. It was so light and unseaworthy that they never allowed it to operate in the Pacific, even in 1942 when the US was running short on carriers.

    Shinano, when it was torpedoed, still have work ongoing, including cables running through all the water-tight doors. It was impossible to stop the flooding in time. For it’s design, it would have been quite formable if it completed its sea trials.

  4. El Uno Grande

    August 18, 2022 at 10:56 am

    Aplastante victoria británica de 1982 escribiste? En Malvinas, no hubo ninguna victoria y menos aún aplastante. Fue tablas, my friend. Y el tema sigue abierto. No en vano tu país invierte millones de libras para defenderse de Argentina, que francamente hoy no tiene nada. Aún así a los británicos después de 40 años les dura el susto. Un cordial saludo, Christian.

  5. Maryellen Reilly

    September 30, 2022 at 8:56 pm

    I think IJN Taiho was the best carrier they ever built for WW2.
    Armored flight deck, foam spray system.
    Once she was struck by one torpedo, damage control should have stopped air operations and emptied the AV gas bunker. Then filled the bilge with the foam.

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