American airpower pioneer Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell was the groundbreaker when it came to demonstrating the ability of warplanes to sink large enemy vessels.
This took place on July 21, 1921, when Mitchell’s airmen, via the dropping of six 2,000-lb. bombs, sank the 22,448-ton German battleship Ostfriesland – a veteran of the epic WWI Battle of Jutland – thus proving that airplanes could sink capital ships.
However, much controversy surrounded this accomplishment: among other things, the Ostfriesland was at anchor and unable to maneuver and there was no defensive antiaircraft (triple-A) fire to hinder the aerial attacks.
Big Bomb vs. Big Boat Back Then Part Deux: “Tallboy v. Tirpitz
By WWII warplanes repeatedly demonstrated the ability to sink battleships in actual wartime conditions, in spite of the latter being able to both maneuver and put up a triple-A fire defensive screen. Arguably the most dramatic and efficient instance of bombers killing a battleship took place at Operation Catechism on November 12, 1944, when RAF Lancaster bombers, packing 12,000-lb. “Tallboy” bombs, attacked the 42,200-ton Kriegsmarine battleship Tirpitz and scored two direct hits along with a near miss, which caused the vessel to capsize and sink rapidly, with death toll estimates varying from 950 to 1,204 crewmen.
Big Bomb vs. Big Boat Now: “Quicksink” v. Courageous
Time and technology have allowed for the next generation of anti-ship warfare. The Quicksink program has turned out a smart bomb that is essentially an iteration of the 2,000-lb. Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) as a Joint Capability Technology Demonstration (JCTD) “which creates air-delivered, low-cost, surface vessel defeat capability for the warfighter … This JCTD uses an existing guidance kit integrated with the new seeker to rapidly demonstrate the capability at minimal costs … The WOSA seeker also allows the technology to be included on a variety of current and future weapons systems and enables them to engage static and moving maritime targets.”
In short, the munition is intended to provide the U.S. Air Force with the same one-shot, one-kill capability as the U.S. Navy submarine force’s Mk-48 torpedoes.
The “massive cargo ship” used for the demonstration was the break bulk carrier Courageous, which bore a gross tonnage of 30,046 tons. The warbird used to take advantage of the vessel’s sacrifice was the F-15E Strike Eagle, i.e. a single sleek fighter bomber performing the same task that used to require multiple heavy bombers in the previous century. The event took place in the Gulf of Mexico, and reportedly the sinking took place within 40 seconds from the time of initial impact.
As a Forbes Senior Contributor put it in an article published last May in 2022, “After a stunning live-fire demonstration in the Gulf of Mexico, America’s new QUICKSINK bomb, a fast-moving Joint Capability Technology Demonstration, is ready to target China’s vast armada of aggressive civilian and lightly-armed military craft…The QUICKSINK bomb fills a long-vacant niche.
For years, both the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard have struggled to address China’s enormous array of lightly armed government vessels and dual-use civilian craft. Often hard to control, stop, or sink, these Chinese boats are often employed, in fleets of hundreds, to achieve China’s maritime goals or to directly support military action.”
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces 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).