One of the most intimidating features of the U.S. military is its naval nuclear aircraft carriers. Thanks to the work of engineers, these ships are highly secure locations amidst hostile conditions. Today, let’s take a closer look at how these aircraft carriers defend themselves when attacked, assuming an attacking force would be so bold as to make one.
Due to their sheer power and capacity, aircraft carriers can withstand enemy sieges lasting months, repelling devastating attacks and striking hundreds of targets daily. As of September 2021, there are 45 active aircraft carriers worldwide by 14 navies from different countries.
The U.S. Navy itself has eleven of the largest nuclear-powered aircraft carriers globally. The total surface area of their decks exceeds the total area of the decks on the aircraft carriers of all the other nations combined. What’s more? Each of these is the platform for up to 90 of the latest fighters, helicopters and UAVs. In addition to the aircraft carriers, the U.S. Navy also possesses nine amphibious assault ships for helicopter facing. These can successfully carry up to 20 V/STOL fighters.
Furthermore, they are comparable to medium-sized aircraft carriers currently in service in other countries. The modern U.S. aircraft carrier is akin to an 1100-foot layered cake comprising a nuclear power plant, tanker, Arsenal of bombs, and airfield. All this dessert is further adorned with a group of cruisers and destroyers, which protects from attacks by missiles, fighters and torpedoes, even if they have to sacrifice themselves. Looming over at more than 1000ft, 25 aircraft carrier decks stand as tall as a large office building with more than four square acres of flight decks. Yes, their survivability has increased significantly since the Cold War. Still, military experts are nonetheless beginning to grow uneasy thinking about how these sea giants may eventually become vulnerable as China’s power grows.
But let’s now consider why the Navy really ought not to worry. Aircraft carriers are constantly moving, and they don’t precisely go slow. Their speed of 35 mph is sufficient to overtake most modern submarines quickly.
Therefore, even detecting an aircraft carrier with its impressive dimensions can be the first obstacle for enemies. Then there’s the daunting task of calculating everything and aiming. After all, the moment the guns are loaded, the aircraft carrier will already have eyes on targets. Additionally, the vessel will begin maneuvering and changing its course and speed if conditions become more threatening.
One of the former Navy officers highlighted that to defeat a ship; an enemy must find it thousands of miles away and then fire on it from that same distance. Even with hypersonic weapons, this is still asking a lot. The Pentagon has made considerable efforts over the past few years to mitigate this threat; U.S. ships also have an almost unlimited range of operations, especially in regard to the Ford-class, since its nuclear power plant makes such vessels virtually unstoppable.
It does not halt even if the enemy were to intercept the fuel tankers supplying the Navy. Another thing to consider is how nuclear power allows an aircraft carrier to perform deceptive maneuvers in any direction over an extended period, certainly beyond the range of enemy forces trying to find this giant ship in the middle of the vast ocean. The Carrier Strike Group was formed to counter enemy forces in closed waters or the sea at any time of the year and under all possible weather conditions. The aircraft delivers the main offensive firepower, while the ships in the strike group are responsible for supporting and protecting the aircraft carrier itself from the enemy ordinance. However, the duties of the strike team are not necessarily as strict as they may seem.
Ships can also conduct offensive operations, such as launching cruise missiles if needed. While the air wing instead covers down on the defense of the aircraft carrier, an air wing placed on ships is capable of destroying opponents well before they can approach their intended target. The U.S. Navy aircraft carriers are home to dozens of advanced F/A-18 fighters, the latest F-35, E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, MH-60 R/S helicopters, and various types of drones. They are equipped with the latest technology, including advanced sensor arrays, integrated control systems, and precision arms. Furthermore, the air wing also includes radar aircraft that can detect a potential threat hundreds of miles out from the aircraft carrier’s current location.
Growler electronic warfare aircraft jam the enemy’s communication and radar systems, rendering them unable to call for help. The strike teams are not limited to any specific composition, which can change depending on the particular mission sets or the current threats.
Often the strike group will include “Supercarrier”, this is the central part of the strike group and acts as its flagship. An air wing accommodates up to nine squadrons of one or two Ticonderoga-class missile cruisers under the control of the Aegis combat system, with three types of missiles, SM-2 and SM-6, as well as BGM-109 Tomahawk for long-range strikes. Then there are two to three Arleigh Burke-class missile destroyers, DDG used for AAW and ASW defenses. These are equipped with Tomahawk missiles for strikes at medium ranges. Up to two attack submarines, also equipped with Tomahawk missiles for the attack at medium ranges. Their primary task is to cover the strike group from enemy surface ships and other submarines. Also, supply ships provide support via needed equipment, gear, etc.
The Fleet Response Plan States that six strike teams must be ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. The maximum period for notice should not exceed 30 days, and two additional teams must be ready within 90 days. Thus, the aircraft patrol the airspace above the aircraft carrier, rushing in the direction of enemies if any are detected.
If the plane somehow failed to neutralize the threat, then the battle cruisers with the Aegis will enter the action, directing air defense systems from surrounding ships to attack enemy vehicles or missiles. And finally, should the air defense system also fail to destroy the enemy forces, then the Phalanx CIWS air defense system with a 20-millimetre Gatlin Cannon comes into play. RAM is also used as point protection system. The carrier’s defensive sensors and weapons are linked together through an advanced airborne command sensor to execute coordinated strikes and maneuvers against enemies. The U.S. Navy has spent decades developing an advanced system that integrates all its military assets into a single integrated network.
Now, everyone who is a node within this network can quickly receive critical information regarding the enemy activity, thus mitigating the risk of damage. Defending aircraft carriers is both redundant and multifaceted, so the likelihood of successfully defeating one is less than one in 100. Even if the enemy were to break through the defense of an aircraft carrier, these beasts are almost impossible to sink due to their crazy dimensions and the hundreds of watertight compartments and thousands of tons armor covering the vessel.
The latest aircraft carriers out, such as the Ford-class, sport additional protective measures that the U.S. Navy never disclosed publicly. Also, its ability to provide more than 600 electricity to power onboard systems and the network during combat operations can someday facilitate the future installation of either high energy lasers, hence an electromagnetic railgun, or perhaps some other even more advanced weapons.
The only real way to sink these giant ships is through nuclear weapons. Ballistic missiles are no longer effective because they lack maneuverability in the late phases of their flight.
Drones, of course, are most likely to take the lead in tomorrow’s wars. Still, even in the best-case scenario, unmanned or trans-atmospheric aircraft will not likely become a full-fledged replacement for an air wing for at least another couple of decades or so. Thus far, the unmanned systems do no fully possess the capabilities required to defeat mobile targets consistently, and they depend on vulnerable and potentially inaccessible ground bases for control.
Here is an awesome video on this interesting topic: