The Navy’s twelve nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are among the most potent expressions of American military power. In recent years, though, there has been growing concern that changing mission requirements and enemy capabilities may make carriers more vulnerable to attack. This study analyzes the steps adversaries would need to take to execute a successful attack. It concludes that carriers are likely to be highly survivable for many years to come (barring major tactical blunders), and that carriers are becoming more resilient over time.
The first step in attacking a carrier is to find it. Most potential adversaries would have difficulty doing this as long as the carrier remains in the open sea, takes prudent evasive actions, and actively counters efforts at detection. If a carrier is actually detected, the next step an enemy must take is to establish a continuous target track. That is necessary because a carrier is likely to be far from the location where it was first detected by the time weapons arrive there.
Few if any nations today possess an assured capacity to track carriers continuously. All of the relevant methods — radar, electronic eavesdropping, electro-optical and acoustic sensors — have major drawbacks such as high cost, vulnerability to preemption, and inability to precisely discriminate. While that may change over time, aggressors will still face a daunting task in penetrating the layered defenses of a carrier battle group.
The most significant threats to carriers are cruise missiles, wake-homing torpedoes, ballistic missiles and mines. But cruise missiles are unlikely to penetrate the battle group’s integrated air defenses, and few potential adversaries are capable of employing submarines or torpedoes effectively. Ballistic missiles lack necessary targeting features and mines are easily dealt with using a variety of existing and prospective methods. The intrinsic resilience of large-deck carriers further mitigates the threat posed by adversaries.
This report was prepared by Dr. Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute staff. All members of the Naval Strike Forum had an opportunity to review and modify the final report.
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