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 (
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. US
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
and Forrestal conflagrations. Enterprise
was stricken by a series of bomb explosions and
torrents of burning fuel during a mishap on Enterprise 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.
was able to sail into Enterprise Pearl Harbor under her own power and repairs were completed in 51
days, after which she continued on her scheduled deployment.
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.
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.
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.