Why No Enemy Would Dare Sink a U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier

July 23, 2019

[Applause] [Applause] circumstances obviously matter for an attack on a US aircraft carrier an out-of-the-blue attack from a conventionally armed state actor would enjoy the highest levels of success but would also have an impact on elite and public opinion in the United States that might drive calls for dire retribution since the 1950s the supercarrier has been the most visible representation of US military power in maritime hegemony although super carriers have participated in nearly every military conflict since the commissioning of USS forrestal in 1955 no carrier has come under determined attack from a capable opponent in part this is because super carriers are very difficult to attack but the symbolic grandeur of the massive ships also plays a role no one wants to know what the United States might do if one of its carriers came under attack what would happen if a full attack the United States Navy USN aircraft carrier during a conflict how would the United States react and how would it respond circumstances circumstances obviously matter for an attack on a US aircraft carrier an out-of-the-blue attack from a conventionally armed state actor would enjoy the highest levels of success but would also have an impact on elite in public opinion in the United States that might drive calls for dire retribution an attack as part of a crisis would seem less extraordinarily hostile but would nevertheless incur demands for a severe response finally an attack during active hostilities might well represent a significant escalation but would be least likely to elicit an enraged public response most devastating of all might be an attack by non-state actor that resulted in significant casualties in all of the destruction of the carrier this would undoubtedly inflame US public opinion while leaving the United States without a clear path for response in retribution escalatory logic as part of an ongoing military conflict an attack against the US and carry it would not necessarily represent the legal challenge aircraft carriers or weapons of war after all and they are just as vulnerable to attack as any other weapon but as military theorists have pointed out for at least two centuries states choose their levels of escalation very carefully most wars are limited Wars and in limited Wars generals Admirals and politicians are aware of the political import of the targets they select consequently some targets remain off-limits for states that want to keep it warranted even if those targets make a material contribution to the conduct of the conflict the United States has enjoyed for quite some time a perception of untouchability around its most cherished expensive ineffective military assets even with conventional naval and air forces attacking a super carrier is no mean task the USSR trying to develop effective anti carrying weapons and tactics for decades a pursuit that China has now taken up but aircraft carriers should have an almost mythic symbolic importance both in global opinion and in the self conception of the US Navy no state has undertaken a determined attack against the US and Korea since World War two authorizing an attack against the US and supercarrier would require a weighty political decision political and senior military authorities might prefer to simply damage a carrier which would send America a message about vulnerability but that would not necessarily lead to the deaths of extensive numbers of US personnel however it would be difficult for anyone to guarantee limitations on damage as a lucky shot might destroy the carrier granting the authority to tack Ikaria would necessarily run the risk of sinking the ship the USS Nimitz carries almost 6,000 American military personnel and represents a vast expenditure of American treasure attacking her and thus endangering this blood and treasure is a very risky prospect indeed the sinking of a US aircraft carrier might well result in casualties that would exceed the total losses of the Iraq war and no more than a few minutes when capital ships sink they sometimes take nearly every crew member with them 1415 of a crew of 1418 went down with HMS home in 1941 for example the targets of an attack against a carrier in effect would be US military capabilities public opinion an elites opinion defining elite as including military and civilian leadership the political and military leadership of the foe would need to believe that attacking the carrier was militarily feasible that it would for their operational or strategic goals and that the likely us responses were manageable in military in political terms on the operational and strategic levels it's not difficult to imagine a context in which damaging destroying or deterring a carrier would enable operational military success simply clearing the skies of f-18s and f-35 stents to make life easier for fielded military forces on the strategic site an attack would convey a seriousness of commitment while creating fear of vulnerability in America damaging or sinking a carrier would make the costs of war starkly clear to Americans and might dissuade them from further conflict finally any decision to escalate must take the potential US response seriously and including either that America would not escalate in response or that any US response could be effectively managed impact much would depend on the effectiveness of the attack even an unsuccessful attempt at attacking a super carrier an intercepted submarine sortie or a volley ballasted missiles that failed to reach the target for example would carry escalatory risks although it would also indicate seriousness of purpose to US policymakers the military impact of a successful strike against a carrier would be straightforward a missile volley that either sank a carrier or led to a mission kill by damaging the flight deck of a carrier into inoperability would deeply affect US military operations both by removing the carrier from the fight and from deterring america from deploying other carriers to the region the US and can deploy only a limited number of carriers at any given time in a crisis the USN could shift carriers around and stand up additional ships but knocking out a carry effectively eliminates around 10 percent of American naval aviation strike power the United States has other options land-based air cruise missiles assault carriers but in many scenarios damaging or sinking a carrier could have a dramatic impact on the military balance however a mission kill would not necessarily inflame US public opinion and might even create a sense of vulnerability among the American people perhaps more importantly such an attack might give us policymakers who have historically been more casualty verse than the US public pause over the costs and benefits of the intervention an attack that sank a carrier with significant casualties on the other hand might well result in demands for vengeance the specific circumstances of the attack notwithstanding this could put us policymakers in the awkward position of needing to escalate without being able to use some of the most lethal military options in their toolkit but again the attacker would run severe risks damaging or sinking a carrier could result in a much stronger us commitment to the conflict as well as a u.s. decision to escalate either vertically by using additional weapon systems or horizontally by widening the geographic scope of the fight sinking a carrier would be a great way to turn the limited war into a major war and there are very few countries that would seriously contemplate major war against the United States final salvo it is not likely that any foe will decide to attack a u.s. n super carrier by accident launching an attack against a carrier represents a profound political military decision to escalate the stakes of a conflict and it is unlikely that a tactical commander a sub skipper for example would be allowed to make such a decision on his or her own if such an attack ever takes place during a crisis or a conflict the policymakers on either side not to mention the rest of the world will need to take very deep breaths and think hard about what the next steps might be you

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