What does it take to attack an Aircraft Carrier successfully?

USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) conducts high-speed turns in the Atlantic Ocean. Ford is at sea conducting sea trials following the in port portion of its 15 month post-shakedown availability. (U.S. Navy photo)
USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) (U.S. Navy photo)

In recent years there has been growing concern about the new capabilities that may make aircraft carriers vulnerable to attack.

Critics contend that carriers will grow increasingly vulnerable as potential adversaries acquire reconnaissance satellites, long-range cruise missiles, hypersonic missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles, very quiet submarines, and other tools for denying the aircraft carriers access to littoral areas.

anti ship ballistic missile
Anti Ship Ballistic Missile (Source: Chinese Internet)

This article analyzes the steps adversaries would need to take to execute a successful attack. 

The first step is that the adversary missile launchers must survive long enough to launch. 

The carriers practice defense by offense all the time. Their aircraft have very long legs and carry missiles that have even more range. They also operate with nuclear submarines that can take out missile sites unexpectedly. Hostile aircraft would be neutralized hundreds of miles before they can launch their missiles against aircraft carriers.

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What does it take to attack an Aircraft Carrier successfully? 8

The second step in attacking an aircraft carrier is to find it. 

Given the carrier’s size, that might seem like a simple task. Actually, it is not, especially in wartime. 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.

So long as the carrier remains in the open sea, the capacity of most adversaries to find it will be limited. In addition to the battle group’s efforts to suppress enemy sensors and communications, the carrier will constantly be moving. Much of that movement will be designed to avoid areas of potential vulnerability. The nuclear-powered aircraft carriers could cruise at maximum speed for weeks.

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Satellite spots Chinese aircraft carrier sailing with 39 other ships and submarines

The most practical way to conduct surveillance over such expanses is with satellites, which have a much wider field of vision than sensors operating inside the atmosphere. 

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.

During 30 minutes, it may have maneuvered anywhere within a circle measuring 700 square miles. Over 90 minutes, the area grows to 6000 square miles. In a day – if it is cruising in a straight line at high speed – it can move over 700 nm from where it was first sighted.

hms queen elizabeth
The Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) transits alongside the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) during exercise Saxon Warrior 2017. (U.S. Navy photo)

Long-range missiles, especially hypersonic missiles, rely on mid-course guidance to target the carriers. Adversaries expect to get this from reconnaissance aircraft, drones, and satellites. Carrier groups are well-equipped to eliminate aircraft and drones with their own aircraft, and the destroyers accompanying the carriers can even shoot down satellites.

Few nations possess an assured capacity to track carriers continuously.

All of the relevant methods — satellite, radar, electronic support measures, electro-optical and acoustic sensors — have major drawbacks such as high cost, vulnerability to preemption, and inability to precisely discriminate.

Penetrating Air Defenses

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.

Assuming an adversary was able to locate a carrier, launch its missiles, and target the carrier, that missile still has to identify and hit the target in the face of defensive aircraft with defensive missiles, escort ships with surface-to-air missiles and rapid-fired point defense guns, intensive electronic countermeasures, digital spoofing, decoys, flares, and directed energy weapons.

long range anti ship missile lrasm
Long Range Anti Ship Missile LRASM-Lockheed Martin

The outermost defensive perimeter of the battle group – hundreds of miles from the carrier – is provided by the carrier’s airborne surveillance radar ( e.g. E-2D Hawkeye) and the advanced radars on surface combatants. As attackers penetrate further, they come within range of various other sensors, including those on the carrier itself. 

The task groups have Cooperative Engagement Capability that enables every participant to see what all do and the best weapon sensor combination. The system quickly merges, filters, and disseminates information from dozens of airborne and surface radars to provide a composite picture of the surrounding airspace.

Even stealthy, sea-skimming cruise missiles are unlikely to escape detection, and defensive weapons can be employed with maximum efficiency.

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HMS Dedender Firing a Sea Viper missile during Exercise Formidable Shield

At the outermost perimeter, those weapons would consist of the carrier’s interceptor aircraft, armed with air-to-air missiles. Closer in, the interceptors would be supplemented with surface-to-air missiles carried on Aegis destroyers and cruisers.

The final layer of defensive weapons consists of the carrier’s own missiles (ESSM, RAM), the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System, the decoys and electronic countermeasures.

the aircraft carrier uss theodore roosevelt (cvn 71) launches a rolling airframe missile (ram).
The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) launches a Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM).

Ballistic missiles lack necessary targeting features, and mines are efficiently dealt with using various existing and prospective methods. Mines present a more significant threat in shallow water. They are harder to detect in chokepoints like the Straits of Hormuz. The carriers operate in such areas only when cleared of mines. Currently there are a lot of manned and unmanned mine countermeasures systems are in use.

A more serious undersea threat to aircraft carriers is presented by submarines equipped with advanced munitions, like homing torpedoes. However, Navies have invested extensively in antisubmarine systems that can be employed from aircraft, surface combatants, and submarines.

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