Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Enterprise and Forrestal Conflagrations

There is a school of thought that claims that the aircraft carrier is just a floating target, waiting to be sunk by anti-ship cruise missiles, ballistic missiles like the Chinese “carrier killer” IRBM, or torpedoes.  If those claims are true, we would lose not only the gazillion dollar carrier but the gazillion dollar air wing to no good purpose.  Can history tell us anything about the “sinkability” of carriers?

Well, WWII history tells us that carriers (US carriers, at any rate) were extremely difficult to sink and were able to shrug off bombs, torpedoes, naval gunfire, and kamikaze strikes in amazing quantities.  Of course, a WWII carrier bears only a superficial resemblance to a modern carrier.  The WWII Essex class carrier was around 870 ft long and 30,000 tons displacement.  In comparison, a Nimitz class carrier is 1100 ft long and 100,000 tons. 

Some might also claim that WWII weapons are not as powerful as today’s.  Certainly, there were no Mach+ guided missiles but a kamikaze diving into a carrier (often with a bomb) at three hundred miles an hour or so is still a pretty potent weapon!  WWII aircraft dropped bombs in the 200-1000 lb range.  And so on.

Let’s set aside the WWII history and look for more modern historical data.  There are two modern historical events that stunningly demonstrated the resilience of modern carriers:  the Enterprise and Forrestal conflagrations.

The Enterprise was stricken by a series of bomb explosions and torrents of burning fuel during a mishap on 14-Jan-1969.  The event was triggered by a Zuni rocket explosion on a parked F-4 Phantom which was caused by overheating from an aircraft engine starter unit.  This released and ignited the aircraft’s fuel.  In short order, three more rockets exploded, blowing holes in the flight deck and allowing burining fuel to pour into the lower decks.  An aircraft bomb exploded and blew an 8 ft hole in the flight deck.  This was followed by a Mk 82 500 lb bomb, another 500 lb bomb, and then 3 more Mk 82 bombs which ruptured a 6000 gal fuel tank on a tanker aircraft.  According to Wiki, there were a total of 18 explosions resulting in 8 holes in the flight deck with penetrations to multiple lower decks and burning fuel running down to those decks.  Casualties totaled 28 dead and 344 injured.  Aircraft damage totaled 15 destroyed and 17 damaged.

The fires were extinguished in 4 hours.  Given the location of the disaster at the stern of the ship, flight launch operations could have continued using the forward catapults.  Landings may or may not have been possible.  Enterprise was able to sail into Pearl Harbor under her own power and repairs were completed in 51 days, after which she continued on her scheduled deployment.

Enterprise Fire

The Forrestal suffered a similar flight deck accident when a 5” Zuni rocket fired from a parked aircraft due to an electrical surge.  The rocket hit a fuel tank on another aircraft and ignited the fuel.  Additional fuel tanks ruptured and ignited.  In less than a minute, the first 1000 lb bomb exploded.  Nine bombs, mostly 1000 lb, exploded with several exerting an enhanced power 50% greater than a standard 1000 lb bomb due to degraded explosive material.  The explosions tore large holes in the flight deck and allowed burning fuel to flow into the lower decks.  All fires were under control in 3 hours.  Casualties totaled 134 dead and 161 injured.

Forrestal Fire

Wiki has fairly detailed discussions of both incidents.

Both carriers were “hit” by several major bomb explosions and torrents of burning fuel penetrating to lower decks.  In both cases, despite this damage, fires were controlled in just a few hours and, in combat, at least partial flight operations would have been enabled immediately thereafter. 

The “hits” were not deep penetrating hits as might be expected from an anti-ship missile but the explosions and burning fuel did penetrate multiple decks so the net effect was somewhat similar.

As a result of these incidents, many additional safety and firefighting equipment and procedures have been added to carriers.  For example, in the Forrestal case, most of the trained firefighting personnel were killed by the first explosions, leaving the bulk of the firefighting to be conducted by largely untrained personnel.  Now, basic firefighting training is mandatory for all crew members.

Firefighting Training

The takeaway from these incidents is that carriers are a very resilient and tough target to sink.  Despite the massive damage inflicted, both carriers were able to extinguish their fires and resume a degree of operations within a few hours.  Neither lost propulsion.  The other notable aspect is the tremendous firefighting and damage control capability a carrier has due to the huge amount of equipment and large numbers of available crew.  Again, this greatly contributes to the ship’s resilience.

Before we casually write off carriers as floating targets just waiting to be sunk by the first anti-ship missile that happens by, we would do well to consider these incidents and the lessons that can be learned from them.


  1. This is a good indication of the resilience of a carrier when dealing with bombs/rockets/missiles striking the upper areas.

    In my opinion the interesting discussion would be about torpedo or missiles striking below or in close proximity to the water line. That would result in water entering the ship. However I don't know enough of shipbuilding/procedures to draw any valid conclusions my self.

    What would you, ComNavOps, think about that scenario (also one where there are simultaneous below water and flight deck hits)?


    1. There are those who believe that a single torpedo will sink any ship afloat. That's patently absurd. Torpedoes are potent weapons, to be sure, but hardly the one shot killers that some portray them to be. We have bits of evidence to disprove that in the form of historical mine hits. Many tankers have been hit by mines but few, if any, have sunk. A carrier is highly compartmented and not susceptible to sinking from a single hole in the hull, no matter how large. The oft cited argument is that a torpedo will "break the keel" of a ship. Again, that's patently absurd. For one thing, ships no longer have a keel in the traditional sense of a single, longitudinal structural member that forms the main backbone of a ship. Again, mine history offers some evidence of the fallacy of this belief. The USS Princeton was hit by two bottom moored mines under the hull, one near the stern and one near the bow. Damage was severe but even this small ship (relative to a carrier) was not broken in half. The ship survived and was able to leave the minefield under its own power.

      USS Tripoli, LPH-10, was also hit by an underwater mine which opened a 20 ft by 20 ft hole in the hull from the waterline down to the bottom of the hull. The ship survived and continued its mission for several days.

      While mines are not exact equivalents of torpedoes, the evidence strongly indicates that the torpedo one-shot kill myth is just that - a myth.

    2. One shot maybe but most subs fire a spread. The Argentine ship the cruiser General Belgrano took 2/3 conventional UK Brit unguided torpedoes (800 LB warheads) and almost immediately sunk. Of course the Nimitz class is over 100K tons, the Belgrano 7K.

      Your point on myth is well noted.

    3. Mines and heavyweight torpedoes are only superficially similar in terms of damage mechanism.

    4. Mines and torpedoes are not identical but we do the best we can with the data we have. That said, they do share much similarity in the behavior of underwater explosions, the propagation of shock waves, the effect of depth on shock and cavitation, etc.

      If you have a detailed comparison of the relative effects and how they translate to ship damage, please share. I'd love to see it.

    5. Belgrano was in horrible state for action, from what I've heard; the Argentinians hadn't taken care of her for years, nor were very good at locking her down for action. So... The torp from the sub may, probably, would have sunk her anyway, but I think that her quick demise had more to do with her crew than her design.

    6. The Belgrano was a former US Brooklyn class light cruiser. Several of that class received torpedo, bomb, and shell hits during WWII and all exhibited great resilience. Your assessment of her state and crew skill is probably correct.

    7. CNO, couple of things here.

      While your point is correct (Torpedoes are not Magic Bullets), for the general readership I feel it worthwhile to point out that the 'Backbreak' Torpedo concept is a very well studied and understood concept - which is why we started trying to use it in the 1930s (and foolishly thought that shiny new toys would work without proper testing were proven oh so totally wrong - a mistake we obviously have not learned from).
      It CAN happen, and reliably, but it was never a one hit wonder intended to work on anything larger than Light Cruisers.
      Against any ship ship over ~600ft in length AND ~12,000ts displacement it has a drastically reduced effect, becoming virtually impossible to reliably cause if the ship is built properly. Multiple hits in the correct places along the length would be needed to break the keel of such a ship.
      That leads me into...

      > "For one thing, ships no longer have a keel in the traditional sense of a single, longitudinal structural member that forms the main backbone of a ship."

      They actually do, all ships require one or two main keels, with two being reserved for tankers and cargo ships.
      The Nimitz and Ford both have a ~1" thick, ~8' tall heavy steel I-beam with a ~2" thick, ~7' wide flat keel plate (the bottom of the I) running the entire length of the ship smack in the middle, which forms the main 'backbone' of the ship.
      Heavier Warships meant for durability and extreme displacements may actually have three keels (or more, but always an odd number), one main in the center and two supporting keels placed much closer to the sides of the ships (the rest evenly divided).
      However, this did not change the importance of the main keel.
      If the main keel snaps or is destroyed at any point, the ship can easily lose over 80% of its load capable tonnage, which renders that ship effectively dead, economically speaking (even if repaired, the entire ship would have warped around the point of damage).
      With the supporting keels, this effect is greatly lessened, and requires breaking all of the supporting keels within ~40 feet of each other to actually destroy the ship's integrity, but breaking the main keel still deals a massive blow to the load capable tonnage that the ship can carry - which in the case of top-heavy ships can easily be lethal.
      HOWEVER, lethal as it may be, in the case of a Super-Carrier, such damage is so complicated to cause that it is actually considered nearly impossible!

      To explain, the aforementioned keel is A LOT of steel for a single torpedo to chew through and it would probably take more than one hit by an ADCAP to actually break the keel of a Nimitz.
      So, to sink a Nimitz-class CV, you THEORITICALLY would only need about 6 extremely accurate, very powerful torpedoes with super-intelligence that have the entire bottom of the ship mapped out in their SSDs and measuring systems accurate to within 1 foot in total pitch black (regardless of time) and each torpedo would have to be fired at least around 15 minutes apart so they don't interfere with each other...
      Safe to say, we are getting into pure impossible sci-fi with the requirements on this hypothetical torpedo, and even then - with those same torpedoes, it'd be much more reliable to go after the reactors for a mission and economic kill.
      Backbreak is essentially impossible with a Nimitz without a spread of ~30+ torpedoes and a lot of bad luck, and I doubt any ship could survive that.

      Just giving another perspective, overall backing your point - Super-Carriers are ridiculously hard to sink, and they are that way by design.
      Really, if someone wants to go at the survivability of a Carrier, they ought to look at Mission Survivability - where one tiny (but terribly placed) hit really can remove a Carrier from the war for half a year (counting transit).

      - Ray D.

  2. I am dated but as a former CVN TAO in the 1980's aboard one of the carriers you mention above. As such I was familiar with all defensive measures- air, surface, sub-surface for the CVBG and intimately with the CVN, soft or hard kill.

    IMpO, they are very hard to target/kill; and articles that "write carriers off" in favor of other naval strategies or procurement paths due to hyper drive missiles, wake following torpedoes or even nuclear weapons, etc., are either sensational hype and/or, usually mask an anti-aircraft carrier, "political/industrial agenda" that has been around since the 1970s, challenging the USN carrier status quo (some of it derives from the USAF).


    1. I think you're correct about the rationale for most people who claim carriers cannot survive on the naval battlefield.

  3. I would like to point out the IJN Shinano to contrast your previous examples. Shinano sank because of design flaws and poor damage control, despite receiving less initial damage then Enterprise Forrestal.

    Now lets take a look at the Ford which many numerous, known design flaws. What flaws do we not know about that would compromise the ability to of the crew to save the ship?

    1. "I would like to point out the IJN Shinano to contrast your previous examples."

      You caught the sentence in the post that recognized that non-US carriers may have had different experiences regarding survivability? Here's the quote,

      "... WWII history tells us that carriers (US carriers, at any rate)..."

    2. "Now lets take a look at the Ford which many numerous, known design flaws."

      I'm not aware of any design flaws that would compromise survivability other than reduced manning. If you know of any survivability flaws, let me know.

    3. The weapons magazines were relocated from their position in the Nimitz Class to make the ship significantly more survivable. That is according to this guy who ran the Ford program during the late 1990's.


      I don't think these explosions on the flight deck are analogous to an ASM hit. The ASM will explode inside the ship, whereas these two fires entailed explosions on top of the ship.

    4. "I don't think these explosions on the flight deck are analogous to an ASM hit."

      Who said they were? Setting that point aside, the incidents were somewhat analogous in that the explosions blew holes in the flight deck and down multiple decks below with flaming fuel pouring down the openings. In that respect, they somewhat mimicked the behavior of an anti-ship missile.

      Whether a missile penetrates (causing little entry damage) and then explodes or whether holes are blown through multiple deck levels and then filled with pouring, flaming fuel, the net result is somewhat the same - internal compartments were damaged and set ablaze.

      Before you reply, note carefully the repeated use of the word "somewhat". Do not argue about something I haven't stated!

  4. Hi CNO,

    Great blog you have got over here.

    Anyway, I delved into this issue in my paper: http://jmss.org/jmss/index.php/jmss/article/view/640/pdf


    1. Thanks for the link. I'll offer some thoughts for your consideration. These are not meant as criticisms - they are just points to consider. I hope you'll take them as interesting points for discussion and nothing more. I admire anyone who's willing to put their thoughts out there for public review! Well done.

      The paper is interesting although it asked the wrong question. The question is not whether the carrier has utility but, rather, what has changed about the carrier to even cause questions to be raised about its utility in combat? Answer: air wing size/composition. You mention these in passing when they should be the main focus. The carrier, itself, has no more inherent utility than a rowboat. It is the air wing that gives the carrier its utility or lack thereof. Any discussion of carriers must, therefore, be a discussion purely about the air wing and its employment.

      Another question that ought to have been addressed is why is every country that has the resources (and some that don't!) trying to build carriers if they are so questionable? Witness - China, Russia, India, Britain, etc. The answer to that provides the overall answer. There are no questions in those countries. Those countries may have questions about budget and priorities but not about the inherent utility and value of a carrier or they wouldn't be desperately trying to build them. The question you need to ask/answer is what have those countries figured out that we seem determined to ignore as we continually question our own carriers?

      The paper fails to address the targeting limitations of the DF-21 which renders it useless as a "carrier-killer".

      The paper completely misinterprets the results of carrier vs submarine exercises. To be fair, most people do. If you don't understand the misunderstanding, ask me and I'll explain.

    2. Thanks for sharing your views, CNO.

      Your first few points are well-taken and could be addressed in another piece.

      That said, being merely a civilian analyst, I do want to know more about the carrier vs sub part.


    3. "carrier vs sub"

      Ben, this is one of the most misunderstood exercise results out there. People take the result - a sub "win" - as evidence that the carrier is nothing more than an easy, floating target waiting to be sunk. That's not quite the truth.

      Consider a sub vs carrier exercise (and by carrier, we mean the carrier and its escorts). The exercise starts with a constrained exercise area. The carrier is tethered to a known, limited area because who wants to spend a month waiting for the sub to find the carrier? Exercise time is precious so the exercise gets a "leg up" by artificially placing the sub and carrier in close proximity. That's how the diesel sub "finds" and closes with the carrier. Of course, that's utterly unrealistic.

      Next, if the carrier were out in wild, its path would be sanitized by our own subs. That part is ignored in exercises. That doesn't mean that our subs would find every enemy sub but many would be found and destroyed especially as the diesel sub speeds up to try to achieve an intercept on the carrier.

      Exercises are repeated over and over in order to provide training opportunities. While we see the dramatic photos of a carrier in the sub's periscope, what we don't hear about are the times the sub fails. Win or lose, the exercise simply gets reset and repeated. I have no idea what percentage of time each "wins" but we clearly only see the dramatic submarine "win".

      In the wild, barring pure, dumb luck where the carrier literally sails right over the sub, a diesel sub has virtually no chance of achieving an intercept. The speed differential is simply too great. Nuclear subs are, of course, a different story. In exercises, the sub is basically handed a ready made intercept. Where a carrier is vulnerable is when passing through a geographical chokepoint patrolled by a SSK. The solution to that is to sanitize the area prior to passage - something not accounted for in exercises. Let the carrier's forces hunt the sub for hours or days prior to "passage" and see how many wins the sub gets.

      In exercises, there is no real penalty for failure on the part of the sub. They can be as aggressive as they want. If they fail, the exercise repeats. In the real world, failure equals death and the sub is going to behave a good deal more cautiously, I would think. Also, in the real world, the helos and escorts will be dropping live ordnance on many false contacts and those drops, while they won't sink a sub, will influence the behavior of the sub, causing it to hide and reroute to avoid overactive helos/escorts. That will cause the sub to miss opportunities.

      A sub vs carrier exercise is utterly unrealistic. It's more of a mechanical tracking exercise than an actual ASW exercise.

      Also, in an actual war, we would make every effort to interdict and destroy subs at their bases. Thus, some subs would never even get to their operating area. Those that aren't lost in port will face a degree of attrition as they travel to/from their operating areas, further lessening the overall submarine threat. This is not even remotely considered in exercises - understandable since that's not the point of an exercise.

      I can go on but hopefully you're beginning to appreciate the degree of unrealism in an exercise especially as it pertains to SSK's.

      All that said, I do not underestimate the threat that a sub poses! However, it is not the one-sided affair that so many want to believe.

    4. Ben, recall that of the carriers we started the Pacific war with, we lost all but Enterprise. That didn't diminish their value. People today seem to think that just because a ship can be sunk means that it has no value. That's idiotic, of course. The question is what can the ship accomplish before it is sunk? With carriers, the answer is a LOT, if they're properly used.

    5. Actually the DF-21D may not even exist! As I made clear in the paper, too little is known about it hence arguments made about it would be mostly guesswork!

      ~ Ben

    6. "Actually the DF-21D may not even exist! As I made clear in the paper, too little is known about it hence arguments made about it would be mostly guesswork!"

      The key point about the DF-21 is not whether it or any long range missile exists. The key point is that there is no viable long range sensor/targeting capability. One could have a missile that could circle the world seven times but if you can't sense/target beyond the horizon, it does you no good. Such is the case with any Chinese ballistic missile now or in the future. While long range missiles are fine for fixed targets with known locations (Guam, they're looking at you!), ships are immune until and unless they can be targeted.

      Satellites can't provide real time targeting and will likely be destroyed at the onset of war. Subs could very rarely provide OTH targeting. That leaves aircraft (manned or UAV) as long range sensor/targeting platforms and the carrier layered defense exists to prevent that. So, unless the air defense is asleep on the job, the carrier is almost immune to long range attack.

      Now, the worrisome part is that the air wing is steadily shrinking and also becoming steadily less effective. For example, we've lost the dedicated long range fleet interceptor (F-14) that was supposed to prevent exactly the kind of enemy long range aerial sensing that we're talking about. We've lost the long range, fixed wing ASW aircraft (S-3) that would mitigate the possibility of submarine sensing/targeting. Now you understand why, in a previous comment to you, I suggested that you ask what has changed about the air wing that! This is a partial answer and you can see that the changes have increased the vulnerability of the carrier. The carrier hasn't changed - the air wing has!

    7. "Now, the worrisome part is that the air wing is steadily shrinking and also becoming steadily less effective. For example, we've lost the dedicated long range fleet interceptor (F-14) that was supposed to prevent exactly the kind of enemy long range aerial sensing that we're talking about."

      What's really worrisome to me is it seems like the Navy doesn't seem to even recognize the threat yet.

      Maybe they do, and there just aren't the resources. But the outer air battle may well become a thing again, and the F-35 just isn't the plane to do it.

  5. Carriers are certainly resilient on to topside damage. But I am not so certain they would hold up as well to below waterline damage.

    If memory serves - all of the major USN carriers (CVs) sunk during WW2 were done in by torpedoes.

    1. "But I am not so certain they would hold up as well to below waterline damage."

      Of course they wouldn't! Holes below the waterline are hugely more problematic. Why would you even wonder about that?

    2. You are (apparently) trying to illustrate that carriers are less vulnerable than commonly believed.

      Yet history shows the most common method of carrier demise was below waterline damage. Torpedoes.

      Note also that our potential enemies happen to have an awful lot of submarines.

    3. Yes, I demonstrated that carriers are less vulnerable than believed.

      Did you completely misread that I was claiming that carriers are immune to torpedoes? I'm lost as to what point you're trying to make, if any.

    4. Just a what-if. But, in the case of the Forrestal, what would have been the effects if the same happened in the hanger deck and burning fuel leaked to the lower decks? That kind of fire would be more representative of a strike by an antiship missile.

    5. My point is you are concentrating on the wrong damage mechanism.

      Far more carriers have been sunk by below water damage.

      You also sorely misunderstand the threats posed by modern submarines on a carrier strike force.

      For one thing: a carrier is not nearly as mobile as you think. Not with it's short ranged air wing. It pretty much had to park at close range which makes it extremely vulnerable to SS and SSKs.

    6. If you'd like to disagree with me, do so over something I've actually said. Where have I said that submarines pose no, or little, or even a lesser, threat?

      I've simply chosen to examine one type of damage for which we have actual "data" and attempt to extrapolate the general conclusion that carriers are not as "sinkable" as many claim.

      I did not examine nuclear bomb effect on carriers but that doesn't mean I discount their ability to damage or sink a carrier.

      Make your next comment, if you choose to make one, about something I've actually said.

    7. "a carrier is not nearly as mobile as you think."

      A carrier is infinitely mobile. Whether a commander chooses to park a carrier in one spot and leave it there long enough for SSKs to get to it is a tactical/operational decision and would be a poor one.

      For a given target (assuming its somewhat near a coast) a carrier could "park" anywhere in a 500 x 500 mile area. That's 250,000 sq. miles for an SSK to search and cover. Unless the carrier just happened to sail right over it, an SSK is not going to be able to reach the carrier. You may be thinking of the non-threat uses of a carrier wherein we do park them at relatively fixed locations. In war, against a peer, the carriers will come and go quickly. Think high end combat tactics rather than low end peacetime practices. In war, a carrier is always going to be moving and generally at high speeds.

  6. How combat effective would a Ford or other CVN be if the island took a solid hit with leadership/electronic casualties? I would argue that I don't need to sink your carrier to give it the utility of a rowboat.

    1. Leadership is not normally found in the island during combat. Also, that's what chain of command is for! Carriers are actually not all that affected by loss of sensors. In fact, in combat, the carrier would be unlikely to operate its sensors and would depend on the radar/sureillance picture provided by Aegis escorts and E-2 Hawkeye aircraft. So, while any hit is serious and degrades combat effectiveness, a hit on the island would have relatively little effect. In fact, if I had to pick a spot to take a hit, it might well be the island!

    2. As far as I am aware, and I could be wrong, a CV's Tower contains the sensor arrays and command facilitates for air traffic control and fighter direction - both of which they NEED for combat; and yes, by requirements the Air Traffic/Fighter Direction Control is in the tower - they have to be so they can see and control the flight deck.
      As you know, the open sea is a huge place, and if the carriers cannot control their birds at range they have to resort to visual control only - which limits them to about 50 miles, which in the age of stand-off missiles of 100+ miles range is 'already dead' range.
      Lets also not forget that the sensors for landing aircraft are also on the tower, and pilots and deck crews are no longer trained for 'blind' landings.

      In short, you take out the Carrier's tower/island and you shut down the Carrier's runway for hours (if not days, weeks, or months), because not only can the carrier no longer coordinate Aircraft activity, it cannot land them - making any launches a one way flight.

      Carriers are not like the battleships in that regard, they do not have the layers upon layers upon layers of command retardation built into their systems (beyond basic ship control) and they cannot because of their design functions limit their ability to do so.
      ...Unless you want a CV with multiple full towers, which is actually not a bad idea and has been considered but rejected as too costly. I still think we need to go back and look at those designs again.

      - Ray D.

    3. Did you think that I was claiming that a carrier would suffer absolutely no loss of capability if hit in the island? That would only be true if the island had no function. I stated that hits on the island would be less damaging than hits elsewhere. For instance, E-2 Hawkeyes are fully capable of controlling the aircraft so that capability, while nice to have, is not absolutely vital. Aircraft control can also be transferred to Aegis cruisers.

    4. > ...hits on the island would be less damaging than hits elsewhere.

      The problem is, from my understanding from what I have read and the number of people I have spoken to (and I again admit that I could be wrong), this is simply not true.
      See, the thing is...

      > "For instance, E-2 Hawkeyes are fully capable of controlling the aircraft"

      From my understanding, they actually are not, surprising as that may be.
      What I have been informed is that, if it wasn't for the Carrier acting as a go-between, the E-2s would be unable to communicate with the other aircraft at all except for the insecure voice channels.
      This is part of the network security, each of the aircraft have a unique semi-randomly determined 'passcode' that their computers demand before opening up digital communications with any system - the E-2s don't have the code, only the Carriers do.
      There is a simple reason for this, but it's outside the scope of this comment.
      However, essentially, what happens is the E-2 sends the data to the Carrier which then decrypts it and then semi-automatically re-encrypts it and sends it off to the aircraft the data was intended for - this is (or was) the most secure way to do it (when the system was created in the ~'70/80s).
      The end result is that it SEEMS the E-2 is directing the aircraft, and they basically are (but not fully, which is something they cannot do), but the Carrier (via the 'command facilitates', i.e. coding system and signal relay, on/in the Island) is serving as the Radio link between the two - or 'carrying' the communications, if you will. Remove the middle man (the Carrier) and the communications between the E-2 and the Aircraft drop. Quite abruptly, too.
      The only capability the E-2s have without the Carrier being in the chain is to roughly guide in aircraft via almost completely insecure voice-only communications - essentially as the Fighter Director Teams on Picket Destroyers did back in WW2 - which would alert the enemy aircraft not only that our aircraft are there, but of their intentions as well. The same is true of non-carrier ships trying to direct aircraft, they either send the data through the Carrier or they only have insecure voice channels. As you know, this is a losing proposition.
      For the same reasons, Aircraft Control cannot really be transfered to the cruisers without that purpose being built into the Cruisers from the get-go - they would have to be carrying the same exact command facilitates that the Carriers do in order to decrypt and re-encrypt the communications data, and they don't because they simply do not have the spare volume, displacement, and/or computing power to perform that role. Aside, do you really want to give the already overworked Cruisers ANOTHER role?

      This is also ignoring the simple fact that they cannot land aircraft without the island - the pilots and crews are (shamefully) no longer trained for visual landings.
      Not only that, but I'm am under the impression that the tower plays a major irreplaceable part in merely getting aircraft into the air in the first place.

      For these reasons, if I had to pick any spot on the Carrier to hit that would cause serious damage - but survivable damage that left the carrier combat capable - I would actually choose one of the Catapult clusters.
      That way, the Carrier is left as roughly half functional - if the Island is destroyed, the carrier is essentially mission killed and incapable of anything, even defending itself!

      - Ray D.

  7. There's no doubt that having a bigger crew helped. Well trained crews can do miracles.

    The concern I have is, the Ford class. Given the challenges, how could it possibly be worth 2x that of Nimitz? The other is, what new capabilities does it bring to justify the cost?

    I personally believe that 3-4x smaller carriers, perhaps conventionally powered would work better than a single super carrier. It's too many eggs in 1 basket.

    The other challenge is how well a carrier would stand up to sustained battle damage. We're talking not just 1 hit that started and spread, but multiple, repeated hits, potentially deliberately targeted by enemy forces at spots known to cause widespread damage.

    The other question I have is for anti-battleship people. If a carrier can survive pretty heavy damage, does that not extend to a battleship as well? They have the advantage of crew and of course, being a battleship, they are even more heavily armored than a carrier by far.

    One of the challenges I think will be submarines. I am concerned that the poor submarine strategy used by the Japanese during WW2 may have lulled the US into a false sense of security. After the USS Hornet CV-8 was sunk from torpedo bombers, relatively few US carriers were sunk. That would be for both carrier and battleship.

    Oh, and finally, on the reliability of weapons, safety is very important. I'd be very interested in the safety of the Zuni rocket given its record here.

    1. If anyone is interested in the Hornet sinking:

      Apparently it was a combination of torpedo and dive bombers, but still it took quite a few hits.

    2. "The other challenge is how well a carrier would stand up to sustained battle damage. We're talking not just 1 hit that started and spread, but multiple, repeated hits, potentially deliberately targeted by enemy forces at spots known to cause widespread damage."

      No ship will stand up well to "multiple, repeated hits"! Ask Yamato how that went.

      I think you're overestimating the ability to target particular spots on a ship. That makes for great naval warfare fiction but isn't realistic. The best we can do, as far as I know, is center mass radar return or high contrast thermal targeting like the waterline. Optically guided, man-in-the-loop could pick a specific aim point but that's not an option on long range anti-ship missiles.

      For example, in exercises that I've seen on videos, the hit points of Harpoons seem almost random and that's under perfect conditions.

    3. "It's too many eggs in 1 basket."

      Would you rather have four soldiers spread out on foot or clustered together in an M1 Abrams where the risk is concentrated and all their "eggs" are in one basket?

      They're concentrated because that concentration allows us to exert far more firepower than four soldiers can individually. The risk is greater but the firepower is even "more greater" so it's worth it.

    4. For the price of an M1, I would rather have 2-3 or so 45 ton medium tanks. They will win.

      The same logic is why an aircraft like the F-16 exists. A pair of F-16s will win against an aircraft like the F-15.

      You can always combine multiple smaller ships into a fleet.

      This is not like battleships where you are building larger and larger guns. This is a choice between 3 aircraft with say, 30 aircraft, and 1 big one with say, 90 aircraft.

    5. @CNO in regards to the Yamato, it sunk after taking 5x 1000 lb bombs and at least 10 torpedoes.

      I think with a better designed torpedo system, Yamato might have been able to take a few more hits, but it's fate was pretty much sealed. It did not have sufficient AA to take out torpedo bombers and other attacks.

      The problem is that in the case of a carrier, there is a high probability of a mission kill even with 1 missile or torpedo going through.

      That's why I want more carriers. If 1 takes a hit, 2 and 3 are still fully operational. In fact their aircraft may very well save carrier 1 if it comes down to that.

    6. "This is a choice between 3 aircraft with say, 30 aircraft, and 1 big one with say, 90 aircraft."

      Well, you're arithmetically correct but you're overlooking a whole lot of other factors. Let me start by saying that the Navy has looked at the large carrier vs small carrier issue repeatedly and has always come to the same conclusion: large carriers are significantly more combat effective and cost effective. That alone should suggest to you that you're simple arithmetic-based concept is flawed. Consider these factors:

      1. A carrier that operates 30 aircraft (to use your numbers) would still be nearly as large and as costly as a Nimitz and now you're paying for three of them.

      2. A carrier that operates 30 aircraft will still need a crew nearly as large as a Nimitz and now you're operating three of them. You can't simply divide the Nimitz by three.

      3. Carriers require many miles of air space to operate their aircraft (landing, takeoff, assembly, tanking, etc.) without interfering with other carriers. The Navy discovered this in WWII and worked out the "spread". That spread has only gotten larger with jets. So, you hugely increase the area that needs to be defended by the escorts. Thus, you need 2-3 times the number of escorts for 3 carriers as one. $$$$

      4. A larger spread and a greater number of ships increases the likelihood of detection and successful attack by enemy assets.

      5. Every carrier needs nearly the same amount of shops, maintenance personnel, spare parts storage, hangar space, etc. as one large carrier. The centralized maintenance function of a single, large carrier is inefficent when decentralized across multiple carriers.

      6. A carrier with 30 aircraft can't/won't operate the electronic warfare (Growlers) and AEW (Hawkeye) and tanking aircraft that are needed to make an effective naval air force. Where do those assets come from? This goes back to the Navy studies showing that large carriers are far superior.

      7. Smaller carriers (or any smaller ship) are more likely to sink when hit than large carriers. So, while three carriers do offer a degree of disbursed risk and overall survivability, they are individually more likely to sink.

      I can go one but you get the idea.

      Having said all that, I have espoused the concept of paired large/small carriers which gets around many of the small carrier weaknesses listed above.

      I don't know enough about land combat but I suspect that many of the same weaknesses that I listed also apply to the small tank vs large tank that issue that you've discussed that also seem based on simple arithmetic.

    7. My response:
      1. Aiming for a carriers in the 20000-40000 ton range displacement (as opposed to ~105000 tons on the Ford class).

      Final optimal size will require study. I'd expect though that cost will scale with displacement.

      2. Disagree.

      The Nimitz has a ship complement of about 3200.

      Aircrew is another 2800.

      Here is an example of a smaller aircraft carrier:

      Note the crew complements.

      Another example might be the French Navy Flagship:

      Again, note the crew complements.

      3. No disagreement there, although with fewer jets, the spread might be somewhat smaller.

      4. True, but the loss of each carrier is less devastating and you can have multiple fleets.

      5. A larger carrier will need more money spent per carrier. The other advantage is that with more carriers, you will have "economies of scale" per class run.

      It's a matter of buying say, instead of 10 big carriers, 30 smaller ones. Actually with the savings from volume, you might be able to afford 33 or a couple of extra.

      6. Depends on the size of the aircraft. You could design a smaller EW warfare aircraft. Or you could modify existing fighter designs for a 2 seater EW aircraft.

      I personally don't see loss of AWACS as as big a drawback. The reason why is because I do not expect that AWACS aircraft like the Hawkeye to survive against a modern enemy.

      Their radar makes them as much a target as anything else and the Russians have been designing very long-ranged anti-AWACs AAMs.

      7. True, but I think net survivability will go up because it's still harder to take on 3 vessels. Plus remember, many hits are not outright sinkings. They are often mission kills.

      There are some pretty big other advantages with smaller carriers though too:

      1. You can split the fleet up. You can combine multiple small carriers together, but you also can split the fleet up should the need arise.

      Assuming 10 large carriers, that means maybe 3 are actually in deployment at any time, maybe 4 if you force it.

      With 30 carriers (and perhaps 33-35 with economies of scale), you have 10 (11 with 33) deployed, allowing a bit more flexibility.

      3. I haven't said this, but it's not aircraft. It's sorties you want.

      Large aircraft have an inherent drawback in terms of deckspace. Deckspace (I don't know how familiar you are with air operations) is a huge limit of aircraft carriers.

      It's the square-cube law. Let's say I have 2 ships - A with 10000 tons and B with 80000 tons displacement. B will have 2x the beam, 2x the length, and 2x the draft depth of A. The problem is that B only has 4x (2x the beam and 2x the length) of deckspace. That's a big problem, even if B could carry 8x as many aircraft.

      That problem extends to smaller carriers too. So a carrier 1/3 the size of a large carrier will have the cube root of 3 or about 44% more deckspace per unit of displacement.

      In regards to land combat, keep in mind that tanks are not like ships.

      Tanks have all their armor in front. Heavy tanks are pretty much invincible in front, while sides, rear, top, and bottom are vulnerable. Medium tanks basically have a strong, but penetrable front. All other sides are comparable to other tanks.

      So basically a lighter tank with larger numbers can flank the heavier tanks (which also happen to be much slower usually).

    8. The Abrams is quite vulnerable to hits from the side and rear and bottom.

      There have been quite a few losses from that during the Iraq Occupation. IEDs that are powerful enough can penetrate the tank and kill some of the occupants inside.

      The exact numbers are classified by the US Army, but I once read the total was 553 as of late 2015.

      - 23 in the Gulf War (14 outright, 7 in friendly fire accidents, and 2 to prevent capture)
      - 530 were sent in home for repair to prevent capture. They won't say how many were damaged beyond repair, but unofficially it could be more than 300.

      I haven't heard of attacks from the top, probably because the US has not gone to a war where the Abrams was deployed and the enemy had a real chance of air superiority.

      However, I suspect that like all tanks, it is vulnerable.

      This ISIS propaganda film is interesting:

      What you are seeing is a Russian 9M133 Kornet anti-tank missile hitting the rear turret of the M1 Abrams.

      There have been a couple of cases of Saudi Abrams being blown up too. They tend to end up on the Internet sometimes:

      As that is where the ammunition is stored, the missile must have caused a cook-off (it's one of the reasons why I am uncomfortable with storing ammo in the turret, which is the top of the tank).

      But the point is that heavy tanks are invulnerable only in front and are quite vulnerable everywhere else.

    9. 1. While you might expect cost to scale with displacement, it does not. The last Nimitz (I don't use the Ford as a data point since it's an out of control monstrosity) cost $6B. The closest we have to a small carrier is the LHA-6 America which cost $4B and has a 45,000 ton displacement vs the 100,000+ ton Nimitz class displacement. You may want costs to scale but they don't.

      2. You can disagree about crew size but small carriers require almost as much crew as big carriers. The Midway would be a small carrier compared to the Nimitz class but still had a crew of 4100 on a displacement of around 45,000 tons. What foreign ships do and how they operate has no relevance on USN manning.

      5. The dollars spent per aircraft carried is much less on a larger carrier. That's one of the reasons why those studies consistently conclude that large carriers are preferred. Economy of scale is the elusive Holy Grail of the Navy. It is always cited and almost never occurs. In addition to total acquisition costs being much, much less for larger carriers, the operating costs are much less. It makes sense - operating three ships and crews simply costs more than operating one.

      Being able to buy 3 carriers for the price of 1 is just a fantasy. You might as well say 5 for 1, or 10 for 1. They're just as unreal. The reality is you'd be lucky to get 1.5 for 1.

      6. You can't get much smaller EW than a Growler! E-2's don't operate out front. They're back and protected. If the Russians have a magic anti-Hawkeye missile that can 200+ miles then we're simply screwed. The Russians make all kinds of claims, most of which aren't true.

    10. "You can split the fleet up."

      This is not an advantage in war. War is all about massing a fleet to create locally superior firepower. All of WWII was about massing fleets and operating carriers in large groups. We only operated individual carriers early in the war when we were short of carriers and had no choice.

      Peacetime is a different story. There are uses for small, disbursed carriers but then they would, preferably, be Essex size/type carriers operating prop driven planes. This has been discussed.

      "Assuming 10 large carriers, that means maybe 3 are actually in deployment"

      Again, you're confusing peacetime with war. The standard peacetime deployment model is 1 out of three deployed. In war, that model does not apply. Ships are deployed as needed. If we have 10 carriers we could have anywhere from 0-10 deployed. Also, ships are semi-continuously deployed for the duration of a war. WWII saw us deploy every available carrier on a regular basis, at least until we had much larger numbers later in the war.

      "sorties ... deckspace"

      US carriers are not sortie limited. If we were operating 90+ aircraft that might be an issue but we have not been sortie limited for many years and with the ever decreasing size of air wings, the sortie issue is even less relevant.

      Deckspace is similar to sortie rate. If you are deckspace limited, it's an issue. We are not. Not even remotely so.

      On a side note, you're also ignoring the fixed consumption of deck space by islands and elevators. Those are the same size regardless of ship size. So, the island/elevators take up a proportionally greater chunk of deckspace on a small carrier.

      US large carriers are designed to operate nearly 100 aircraft. We currently operate around 65. We are nowhere near sortie or deckspace limited.

    11. "The Abrams is quite vulnerable to hits from the side and rear and bottom."

      And a light tank is vulnerable to hits from anywhere! You're thinking in peacetime mode. In high end combat against massed artillery and enemy aviation, light vehicles of any sort are going to have a very short battlefield life.

      That said, a quantity of lighter vehicles as SUPPLEMENTS and SUPPORTS to heavy armor are fine. That's essentially what a Bradley is. As a replacement for heavy armor, light tanks are a losing proposition. I don't know which you're proposing.

    12. As far as crew complements, you are comparing WW2 era ships with modern ships.

      I cited a modern carrier, the carrier Charles de Gaulle, a carrier displacing 42,500 tons full load, with the Nimitz. It has about 2000 people.

      In war, you'd still have to worry about maintenance problems. You cannot have all 10 of 10 carriers in combat at once. They have to go down for overhaul. Maybe the sailing versus time in port would go down, but the amount of time spent in maintenance is not going to go down. Actually, it may even go up because the ships are going to be traveling more in war and pushed much harder.

      "US carriers are not sortie limited. If we were operating 90+ aircraft that might be an issue but we have not been sortie limited for many years and with the ever decreasing size of air wings, the sortie issue is even less relevant."

      I'd say deckspace is a huge bottleneck in carriers. In a full scale war, I'd want my full complement of aircraft on board a carrier.

      In combat, deckspace is very, very important. Would have to find a book, but here will do for now:


      " Deckspace is probably a good measure of combat power. The rest of the world's carriers have about 28 acres of deck space, less than half that of America's [until 2011, this number was only 15 acres, but new Chinese, Indian and Italian vessels upped the total appreciably]."

      The point though is that maximizing deckspace per dollar is incredibly important, and due to the square cube law, large displacement carriers are counterproductive in terms of deckspace per ton of displacement, which means fewer sorties.

      The other point is that if 3 small carriers of 30000 tons have 1.44x deckspace and engage a 90000 ton carrier, they could generate far more sorties.

      Also, sortie rate was why I oppose F-14s. They're horrible in terms of flight to maintenance ratios.

      "On a side note, you're also ignoring the fixed consumption of deck space by islands and elevators. Those are the same size regardless of ship size. So, the island/elevators take up a proportionally greater chunk of deckspace on a small carrier."

      A standard Nimitz has 4 elevators. A small carrier, assuming 2 elevators per ship on a 30000 tons (fun fact, the Italian flagship Cavour displaces about 30000 tons full load and has 2 elevators). So with 3 small carriers, you'd have 6 elevators on 3 carriers total, versus 4 on the Nimitz. That goes in line with the 44% more deckspace. 50% more elevators and 44% more deckspace.

      True, you would have to duplicate some islands, but each carrier would not need as large an island, and you would have 3 of them dispersed, allowing you to launch aircraft much more quickly.

    13. "And a light tank is vulnerable to hits from anywhere! You're thinking in peacetime mode. In high end combat against massed artillery and enemy aviation, light vehicles of any sort are going to have a very short battlefield life.

      That said, a quantity of lighter vehicles as SUPPLEMENTS and SUPPORTS to heavy armor are fine. That's essentially what a Bradley is. As a replacement for heavy armor, light tanks are a losing proposition. I don't know which you're proposing."

      A Bradley is an APC (technically an IFV), not a tank.

      You can't have an army of only 70 ton tanks. First, there's no APC in service in the US weighing 70 tons. The Israelis do have one called the Namer, which is based on their Merkava, but it would never be used for a Blitzkrieg style war. You need light armor that can advance rapidly for a sustained period of time.

      Second, you're over-estimating how survivable a heavy tank is against artillery. A direct hit from a 155 mm (or Russian 152mm) artillery shot will knock out any tank.

      Actually, I wouldn't rely too heavily on artillery to destroy a tank. It's very difficult to destroy a tank that is moving. If you are talking about laser guiding a shell, modern tanks have sensors to scatter them.

      An example is the T-90:

      Note the 2 "eyes". Those are IR dazzlers designed to blind an enemy laser. This is 45 ton medium tank, btw.

      As far as aircraft, I'd expect that a heavy tank would be as vulnerable, if not more vulnerable.

      The reason is because heavy tanks have a slower sustained speed, give a larger IR signature (because they have a larger engine), and because they have a longer tail (ex: they need more supplies per tank).

      The other problem is that even heavy tanks cannot survive against top attacks from aircraft. Their top armor isn't that thick (it cannot be or else you will have a snail speed tank). You saw that Kornet ATGM hit that Abrams and ignite the ammunition. It's almost impossible to armor the top and rear of the tank while keeping speed.

      Basically, a light tank is: moderately armored in front, weak everywhere else. Heavy tanks are pretty much invincible in front, but just as vulnerable on the sides and rear. It's only at the expense of weight can you armor them more (the British did that to try to protect against IEDs and RPGs after one of their troops lost a foot). It was an 84 ton tank.

      Oh and speaking of supplies: Even if you don't destroy the tank itself, the supply trucks are much more vulnerable because there are more of them (which is something the Iraqi insurgency did).

      That's also why I'm anti-M1. That gas turbine needs to be replaced or it will lead to preventable casualties in war and prevent a rapid advance.

      See here:

      An enemy force will try to do that as well.

      Only with a modern army rather than an insurgency, it will be much more devastating. The only way to mitigate is to reduce your tooth to tail ratio.

      Not saying we don't need some heavy tanks, but they've got some pretty huge weaknesses and trade-offs.

  8. If anyone wants to read more LCS drama, here is Michael Gilmore's latest testimony to the US Congress:


    It's a pretty in depth report and a sad reflection of the state of the program. Kudos to Gilmore for standing up for integrity.

  9. It's also worth pointing out that each carrier is escorted by 5-6 Aegis cruisers/destroyers and the air wing includes a maritime strike squadron of MH-60R helicopters. Plus, each carrier is equipped with ESSM, SeaRam, and Phalanx. Granted no defense is 100% effective and the Navy needs a longer range ASW platform, but today's carriers are better protected than ever before.

    That said, it's also worth pointing out that Enterprise was sidelined for about 6 weeks for repairs and Forrestal even longer, about 8.5 months. In a conflict today, losing a carrier for an extended period of time could allow an enemy to gain an advantage.

    1. "5-6 Aegis cruiser/destroyers"

      Unfortunately, maybe 1/2 that number for each CSG.

      Re the sidelining of ENT/FID after conflagration:. We had over 16 attack carriers then so they could be relieved quickly.... Also, their damage wasn't from a blue water, battle of Midway fight in continuing harms way. I am sure that both, given more damage control efforts and some at sea repair, they could have fought their way out if they had to. Carriers move fast for their size...too.

  10. CNO you forgot the 2008 fire on the USS George Washington (CVN 73). That cigarette-and-poorly-stowed-gear-sparked blaze took 12 hours to beat and cost the Navy over seventy million dollars to repair. The ship was offline and in the yard for 3 months--55,000 man-days of work.

    Bottom line is that, no matter how good a ship is, it is only as resilient as the crew practices and ship readiness allow it to be.

    1. The fire, while serious, was not an example of multiple explosions of heavy bombs. The post attempted to look at high order blast effects on carrier survivability.

  11. Quote.
    Another question that ought to have been addressed is why is every country that has the resources (and some that don't!) trying to build carriers if they are so questionable? Witness - China, Russia, India, Britain, etc. The answer to that provides the overall answer. There are no questions in those countries. Those countries may have questions about budget and priorities but not about the inherent utility and value of a carrier or they wouldn't be desperately trying to build them.

    Some side-questions to the topic:
    What about Navies without the budget for building/operating a carrier-based surface fleet? (Most NATO Countries, all South American, all Africans)

    Are they wasting there time and money?

    Is there any alternative (technical / doctrinal / tactical) to carrier naval aviation?

    What about the US Navy surface combatants which are not attached to a CVBG, to an ARG or to specific task such BMD? To they have a useful role to fulfill?

    Are the Surface Action Groups worthwhile if they don't act in coordination with a CVBG?

    1. "Are they wasting there time and money?"

      It all depends on what your "mission" is. If you need a carrier to accomplish the mission then you're wasting money if you buy anything less. If your mission doesn't require a carrier than don't spend money on a carrier. Most of the countries you mention have a very limited naval mission and don't require carriers to fulfill the mission.

      "Is there any alternative (technical / doctrinal / tactical) to carrier naval aviation?"

      Yes. The Soviets, during the Cold War, substituted long range bomber aviation for carriers. Land based air is a suitable substitute. The advantage of the carrier is that it is mobile and allows you to move your air base anywhere you want.

      Ballistic missiles are a viable substitute for carriers if you're willing to use them.

      "Are the Surface Action Groups worthwhile if they don't act in coordination with a CVBG?"

      It all depends on what their mission is and what threat they'll face. ASW hunter-killer groups and MCM groups are examples of surface groups that are highly useful. Of course, they need to operate with air support (land or carrier) or operate in reduced threat regions. The enemy can't be everywhere any more than we can. There will be large areas than are reduced threat and would benefit from various surface groups. Remember, an Aegis Burke is a formidable AAW platform and does not need aviation support for any but sustained, high threat scenarios.

  12. Great Piece, Good debate, Pity I’ve been off for Christmas, As I think all the decent convocation has probably been taken.

    I can help but feel that the allegations against Carriers are started via propaganda by countries with no carrier airpower.

    Although I do admit carrier warfare is complex in its simplicity and perhaps people simply don’t understand the nature of the game.

    I think the carriers biggest protection is that it’s always at least 300nm away in any direction, and exactly what that means in terms of size of ocean.

    But that not the point of the article.

    Thanks for the good read everyone.


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