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Submarines Versus Aircraft Carriers Part One

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Martin Sieff
Washington DC (UPI) Apr 09, 2008
"The bigger they are the harder they fall" is a principle that doesn't just work in heavyweight boxing; it also applies to nuclear-powered aircraft carriers faced with swarms of attacking diesel-powered submarines.

The myth that gigantic, 80,000 ton nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carriers are unsinkable is not believed by any serious naval officer or analyst, but it has become a deeply ingrained assumption in the American public consciousness, including among most senators, congressmen and their staffs on Capitol Hill.

This is in large part because neither the United States nor Britain has lost a major fleet aircraft carrier in action since the first half of World War II. During World War II, the United States did not lose a single one of its more than 40 fast Essex-class aircraft carriers to enemy action.

This was in part due to the extraordinarily inept and passive combat operations record of the Japanese submarine force, in striking contrast to the magnificent gallantry and operational skill of Japan's aircraft carrier-based striking arm, and the cruisers and destroyers of the Imperial Navy's surface forces.

But the main reason was that Essex-class carriers were fast and Japanese submarines operating in the Pacific Ocean were slow. The USS Yorktown at the Battle of Midway in 1942 and the British aircraft carriers Ark Royal and Eagle operating off the coasts of Europe in 1941 and 1942 were both sunk by torpedoes fired by German U-boats.

The fact that no U.S. aircraft carrier has been seriously threatened in combat in any of the wars the United States has fought since 1945 has added to the mystique of the carrier admirals. They continue to dominate the Navy, greatly influencing its procurement decisions to this day. And arguably, in the 21st century, the political power and prestige of the carrier admirals is greater than ever.

The presumptive Republican nominee for president of the United States this year is Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a heroic carrier combat pilot during the Vietnam War and the son and grandson of U.S. Navy admirals. His grandfather in fact commanded one of the U.S. Navy's main carrier strike forces against Imperial Japan in the closing months of World War II.

However, the real reason none of America's magnificent aircraft carriers has faced serious threat over the past 60 years is for the very good reason that the United States has never fought any war during all that time in which they faced any enemy with significant naval forces.

North Korea and the People's Republic of China did not have them during the Korean War of 1950-53, and North Vietnam did not have them during the Vietnam War, where major U.S. ground forces were committed from 1965 to 1972. In neither of the Gulf wars -- in 1991 and 2003 -- did Iraq have significant naval or anti-ship air launched weapons systems with which it could threaten U.S. aircraft carriers operating in the Persian Gulf or the Indian Ocean.

Through the Cold War, the only naval force in the world capable of potentially sinking U.S. aircraft carriers by hostile action was the Soviet navy from the late-1960s on. Even today, that threat is not widely understood, yet it greatly influenced Chinese naval planners who have developed 21st century asymmetrical responses to threaten U.S. carrier battle groups currently operating in the Western Pacific Ocean.

earlier related report
How aircraft carriers became vulnerable
Not a single Essex-class U.S. fleet aircraft carrier was sunk by enemy submarines in World War II. But America's nuclear aircraft carriers have been sitting ducks for fast-attack submarines for the past 40 years. No one in the American or British public realized in 1940 that battleships had become sitting ducks for aircraft-carrier attacks. But in fact that capability had been demonstrated 19 years earlier when U.S. biplanes commanded by the legendary Gen. Billy Mitchell sank the former Imperial German Navy battleship Ostfriesland in a trial attack off Hampton Roads, Va., on July 21, 1921.

One of the eyewitnesses of that event was Capt. Osami Nagano of the Imperial Japanese Navy who went on to command the aircraft carrier strike that sank eight U.S. battleships at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. 1941.

Similarly, neither U.S. policymakers nor the American public realize the vulnerability of giant aircraft carriers to torpedo attacks from modern fast submarines was demonstrated in 1968 when a fast Soviet nuclear-powered attack submarine matched the USS Enterprise at top speed in the Pacific Ocean. That moment, vividly and thoroughly discussed in Patrick Tyler's "Running Critical," was as epochal a moment in the shift of the strategic balance at sea as Billy Mitchell's sinking of Ostfriesland.

Nor was this a freak, or isolated incident. Since 1968, U.S. submarines have routinely scored disabling hits on American carriers in U.S. Navy war games, and the hits, Navy insiders know, are routinely unacknowledged in the official assessments of the maneuvers.

The Russian Navy is now only a shadow of its former self, but China has emerged as the would-be challenger to U.S. naval supremacy in the 21st century. China has experienced repeated problems with building its ambitious and expensive nuclear submarines. These problems probably explain in large part China's reluctance to use its enormous shipbuilding capacity to try and build giant aircraft carriers to match the U.S. leviathans.

Instead, China is investing shrewdly in a "string of pearls" strategy: It is using its great financial clout to buy influence in nations suspicious of the United States and India across around and across the Indian Ocean, in order to be able to construct its own naval and air bases there. These bases have been built, are being built, or are being contemplated in Myanmar, in the Andaman Islands, in Mauritius, in Pakistan and even on the eastern coast of Africa.

Such bases would allow China to maintain or rapidly deploy fleets of combat aircraft and home-base their diesel-powered submarines, based on Russia's excellent Kilo-class at them.

Diesel powered, Kilo-type subs cannot stay at see indefinitely and they lack the range of the nuclear-powered subs of the U.S. British and Russian navies of sailing anywhere in the world without refueling and still having full operational capabilities. But given a base a few hundred or even a thousand miles form their operational areas they are formidable weapons and China has invested big in them. In 2006, China built 14 diesel-powered subs while the United States built only a single nuclear one.

The Chinese strategy in the event of any maritime war with the United States, most especially over Taiwan, in the foreseeable future, would clearly, therefore, be to use swarms of Kilo-type subs to overwhelm the anti-submarine warfare -- ASW -- defenses of U.S. carrier battle groups to torpedo the giant U.S carriers. Alternately, they could choose to surface briefly and even risk destruction in order to fire their formidable Hai Ying -- Sea Eagle -- HY2 anti-ship supersonic cruise missiles, copied with Moscow's approval from the Russian Moskit 3M80 Moskit -- NATO designation SS-N-22 Sunburn. These weapons were expressly designed to kill U.S. aircraft carriers.

Kilo subs would be no match for state-of-the-art, nuclear-powered U.S. undersea attack subs one on one. But they would not be deployed that way. Just as Nazi Kriegsmarine U-Boat -- wolf packs -- operating on the surface -- sought to overwhelm Allied convoys escort ships by their sheer weight of numbers during the long Battle of the Atlantic ion World War II, Chinese diesel subs, remaining underwater, would seek to overwhelm a carrier battle group's defenses by their numbers as well. The much smaller size of China;s diesel submarines -- as they do not have to carry any nuclear propulsion plant -- automatically gives them a great advantage in this regard.

Next: Why carriers need armor
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Royal Navy's Most Powerful Attack Submarine Returns To The Fleet
London, UK (SPX) Apr 08, 2008
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