Too Big to Sink

Lieutenant Jeff Vandenengel, U.S. Navy

Warning Signs

Warning signs abound that the carrier may not actually be too big to sink. Loss of a carrier could be the U.S. Navy’s Black Swan—an event that seems unlikely but occurs with massive consequences that appear obvious in hindsight. 1 Nassim Nicholas Taleb says these events are characterized by “rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability.” 2 Today’s carrier-centric operations could easily fit this mold.

Rarity: Nothing in the past 20 years points directly to the demise of the carrier as the premier weapon in naval combat. The vessel’s history is undoubtedly illustrious, with successes at Taranto, Coral Sea, Midway, in defense of the Pusan Perimeter, and countless strikes against targets in Vietnam, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Today’s Nimitz (CVN-68)- and Ford (CVN-78)-class carriers—powered by nuclear reactors and armed with formidable air wings—are the most powerful and well-defended ships in history. Their fearsome firepower and incredible flexibility seem to ensure their future success.

Evidence for the carrier’s invincibility, however, is seriously flawed. War games, exercises, models, and expert opinions are not nearly as robust as actual combat experience. A U.S. carrier has not been forced to defend itself against a credible enemy since the fighting around Okinawa in 1945. As former Naval War College President Rear Admiral Walter Carter Jr. wrote, “More than seventy years have passed since a major maritime conflict. During that time many new technologies have emerged, with few combat tests to provide reliable guideposts regarding what will prove successful now and in a future conflict.” 3 The Falklands War—the only example of major naval combat since World War II—featured just three months of fighting more than three decades ago. Today, we simply do not know how the aircraft carrier would fare in modern combat.

Extreme Impact: Loss of a carrier would severely impact the U.S. Navy’s ability and nation’s will to fight. When the carrier functions as intended, it can deliver awesome amounts of precision ordnance over extended periods of time. With its impressive economies of scale, logistical facilities, and platform flexibility, it leads the fleet in the accomplishment of numerous missions, including strike, antisurface warfare, fleet air defense, and reconnaissance. As Rear Admiral Michael Manazir wrote, the carrier “provides us with an unequaled hard, soft, and smart power advantage in a single, responsive, flexible, and mobile package.” 4

Despite the vessel’s power, the problem is what happens if it cannot function as intended. If the carrier is sunk, damaged, or deterred from entering the fight, then combatant commanders will have a significantly weakened force. Retired Commander Phillip Pournelle, a former operations analyst in the Office of Net Assessment, explains that today, “all fleet operations are variations on the theme of carriers delivering ordnance.” 5

Royal Navy Admiral Sandy Woodward, the commander of British forces during the Falklands War, illustrated how much was riding on the British carriers in that conflict:

Argentinian commanders failed inexplicably to realize that if they had hit [the carrier] Hermes, the British would have been finished. They never really came after the one target that would surely have given them victory. As it was, we fought our way along a knife-edge, I realizing perhaps more than most . . . that one major mishap, a mine, an explosion, a fire, whatever, in either of our two aircraft carriers, would almost certainly have proved fatal to the whole operation. 6

U.S. aircraft carriers account for an even greater majority of a strike group’s capabilities than did the British carriers in the Falklands. The loss would of one would drastically weaken the force, leaving it significantly less likely to be able to accomplish the task at hand. Centralizing so much of the fleet’s firepower in a single ship is effective when that ship is impervious to enemy attacks but dangerous when it and all of its capabilities are at risk of being lost all at once.

Sinking the symbol of U.S. power also would have severe political implications. Today the carrier is a powerful diplomatic tool that the nation uses to reassure its allies and warn its foes. There is no better example of its influence than the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, in which two carrier strike groups reminded China of the might of the U.S. Navy. How effective would that message have been if a carrier had recently been defeated in battle?

The domestic effects of a carrier’s defeat likely would be even worse. How many political leaders could support U.S. involvement in a conflict after the nightly news broadcast video of a burning carrier? How many wars would the American people support if a carrier sank, potentially killing more Americans in a single day than the number who died in the attacks on Pearl Harbor and on 9/11, or in Iraq and Afghanistan combined?

Retrospective Predictability: It is difficult today to argue that the carrier is headed for defeat, with its advanced air wing, stout defenses, and elite sailors. Yet if that defeat does occur, future historians will point to trends in scouting technology, antiship missiles, and submarines as proof that the fall could have been predicted.

In World War II, navies visually searched for enemy capital ships and were aided by basic radars, signals intelligence, and radio direction finding. Navies have recently added unmanned aerial vehicles, advanced over-the-horizon radars, satellites, powerful sonars, and cyber capabilities to their search capabilities. The Allies successfully employed a small number of coast watchers with primitive radios to track Japanese warships. Seventy years later there are millions of people on earth, many armed with cameras and internet access, ready to report that they just saw a U.S. aircraft carrier pass by offshore. When the six Japanese carriers secretly sailed across the Pacific to launch their attacks on Pearl Harbor, they were able to avoid civilian shipping that could have revealed their position. Today that task would be exponentially more challenging; there currently are more than 4 million fishing boats and small merchant ships, and more than 100,000 large merchant ships scattered across the globe, many of them able to immediately and discreetly report a carrier strike group’s precise global positioning system (GPS) coordinates. 7 Carriers, as Norman Polmar put it, are now practically “impossible to hide.” 8

When the carrier is found, antiship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs), and submarines are poised to wreak havoc. Those looking to explain the carrier’s defeat will likely question why so much faith was placed in hard-kill missile defenses, such as Aegis, when at best only two ASCMs had ever been successfully shot down by interceptors in combat. 9 Noting that Argentinians used just seven Exocet missiles to hit three British ships and sink two of them in the Falklands War, historians will argue that it was obvious that potential foes such as China and Russia, with thousands of ASCMs, could sink a similar portion of ships. 10

If ASBMs prove fatal to the carrier, officials will question why so many people did not believe the weapon would be so operationally effective. They will point out that when fired at ASBMs, Aegis interceptors must track and hit a target with a cross-sectional area of approximately one square meter that is traveling at approximately 5,000 knots in three dimensions outside the atmosphere. 11 By comparison, when fired at an aircraft carrier, ASBMs must track and hit a target with a cross-sectional area of more than 20,000 square meters traveling at approximately 30 knots in only two dimensions. 12 Future investigations will argue that the belief Aegis missiles succeed every time, yet ASBMs fail every time, was evidence of the Navy’s endemic institutional bias.

Finally, if submarines defeat the carrier, experts again will argue that it comes as no surprise. They will discuss how World War II submarines were simply “submersible warships,” and how today’s submarines are significantly more fearsome, with nuclear power, air-independent propulsion, guided torpedoes, and supersonic ASCMs. The Falklands War—the one major combat use of submarines in the past 70 years—provided proof of that growing danger. Investigators will point out that after a British submarine sank the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, the entire Argentine Navy withdrew to port out of fear of additional attacks. 13 They will also highlight as proof of the difficulty of defeating submarines how, as the official U.S. Navy report on the Falklands states, “the Royal Navy, long believed to be the best equipped and trained Navy in the Free World in the field of shallow water [antisubmarine warfare], was unable to successfully localize and destroy the Argentine submarine San Luis, known to have been operating in the vicinity of the Task Force for a considerable period.” 14

Today, the enemy’s defeat of the aircraft carrier, the most powerful warship in history, appears unlikely. However, when the first U.S. carrier is sunk, there will be a great deal of evidence that will make the its demise appear obvious in hindsight.

A Priceless Ship

Stealthy F-35C fighters, powerful destroyers and cruisers, and prowling nuclear-powered submarines provide a robust defense of the carrier. But regardless of how great that defense may be, it will never achieve the perfection needed for a priceless ship.

Even if the carrier could be perfectly defended, there are still serious consequences of relying on ships too big to sink. Many of the Navy’s combatants must sacrifice some of their offensive capabilities to serve the carrier. For example, the powerful Aegis combat system, the heart of Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)-class destroyers, is primarily a defensive system. In addition, these ships must weaken their offensive punch by carrying defensive interceptors instead of Tomahawk land-attack missiles. Submarines are incredibly powerful offensive platforms, but they also may be forced to sacrifice that capability in time of war to protect the carriers.

Rear Admiral William Holland in his 2015 Proceedings article explained the problem in allocating submarines to protect the carrier, “The proper employment of submarines is as a major force to be wielded as a unit—dispersed and widely distributed under an operational command whose task is to ‘sweep the seas.’ Destruction of the enemy fleet is the goal; protecting our own fleet by eliminating the threat is a beneficial byproduct.” 15

Relying on carriers not only requires much of the rest of the fleet to weaken its offensive capabilities, but also means there is less money available to build those smaller ships in suitable quantities. Paying more than $12 billion for a Gerald R. Ford-class carrier—plus at least $7 billion for its air wing and billions more for the required escorts—eats up a massive chunk of the Navy’s budget. 16 Here, the opportunity cost is a larger fleet able to conduct more combat operations in war and presence missions in peace. Funding shortfalls often result in extended deployments and shortened maintenance periods. Today, the U.S. Navy is superb, but it is shrinking, stretching its ability to balance presence requirements, deployments, maintenance periods, and crew rest. Continuing to invest in expensive carriers will worsen that trend.

Divest and Diversify

The Navy has stated that it requires 355 battle force ships to accomplish its missions, yet it currently has 275. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that for the Navy to achieve its required numbers, the shipbuilding budget would have to increase by almost a third. 17 Even if that massive budget increase were approved by Congress, continuing to rely on a relatively small number of expensive warships would not provide the most capable Navy for the nation.

By shifting away from an all capital ship fleet, the Navy could significantly increase its ship inventory while strengthening the fleet overall. Incredible advances in technology have occurred since the carrier’s inception, allowing ship designers to decouple size and power. Before the carrier’s reign, large naval guns were the best means to deliver firepower, and massive ships were needed to carry them. Later, naval aviation proved a better means of delivering large volumes of ordnance, and large carrier decks were essential to accomplish this. In the missile age, however, technology allows for small vessels to carry firepower comparable to that of a much larger ship.

Platforms such as corvettes with unmanned aerial vehicles, simple missile ships with weapons that can be configured for use against either sea or land targets, antisubmarine frigates, and air-independent propulsion submarines could form the backbone of this new fleet. While these ships are all less individually capable than Gerald R. Ford-class carriers, Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, and Virginia (SSN-774)-class submarines, a fleet composed of large numbers of these ships could be significantly stronger than a fleet reliant on a few aircraft carriers.

In addition, instead of attempting to hide just a few unmistakable aircraft carriers and their associated escorts, tomorrow’s fleet should rely on smaller platforms that operate in large quantities with much smaller individual visual, acoustic, and electromagnetic signatures, making their continual tracking significantly more challenging. Each of these ships has less robust defenses than a carrier strike group, but an entire fleet composed of these platforms is much harder to destroy. As former Naval War College President Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski wrote, “Fleet survivability, not individual ship survivability, is what dominates [emphasis his].” 18

Change by Force or Change by Choice

The aircraft carrier has had a long and illustrious history, but it cannot continue forever. Instead of waiting for budgetary challenges or an enemy combat success to force it to radically change its structure, the U.S. Navy should begin the transition on its own terms today. By building larger numbers of smaller combatants, relying more on missiles and less on expensive aircraft, and acknowledging trends in scouting technology, the Navy can take advantage of carriers’ many attributes without being completely dependent on them. The alternative is for the Navy to continue to rely on a ship so vital that it has become too big to sink.


1. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable,” New York Times, 22 April 2007, .

2. Ibid.

3. RADM Walter E. Carter, Jr., USN, “Sea Power in the Precision-Missile Age,” Proceedings, vol. 140, no. 5 (May 2014).

4. RADM Michael C. Manazir, USN, “Responsive and Relevant,” Proceedings, vol. 140, no. 2 (February 2014).

5. CDR Phillip E. Pournelle, USN, “When the U.S. Navy Enters the next Super Bowl, Will It Play like the Denver Broncos?” War on the Rocks, 30 January 2015,

6. ADM Sandy Woodward, One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1992), xviii.

7. Ian Urbina, “Stowaways and Crimes Aboard a Scofflaw Ship” New York Times, 17 July 2015, .

8. Norman Polmar, “U.S. Navy—A Paradigm Shift,” Proceedings, vol. 138, no. 3 (March 2012).

9. CAPT Wayne P. Hughes, USN (Ret.), Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, 2nd ed. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000), 152. The USS Mason (DDG-87) likely became the second ship to shoot down an ASCM off Yemen in October 2016.

10. Office of Program Appraisal, Lessons of the Falklands (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, February 1983), 32.

11. “U.S. Navy Sees Chinese HGV as Part of Wider Threat,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, 27 January 2014, .

12. “Aircraft Carriers - CVN: U.S. Navy Fact File,” U.S. Navy, 16 October 2014, .

13. Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins, The Battle for the Falklands (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1983), 149.

14. Office of Program Appraisal, Lessons of the Falklands, 47.

15. RADM W. J. Holland, USN (Ret.), “Submarines: Key to the Offset Strategy,” Proceedings, vol. 141, no. 6 (June 2015).

17. Congressional Budget Office, An Analysis of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2017 Shipbuilding Plan (Washington, D.C.: Congress of the United States, February 2017), 1.

18. Stuart E. Johnson and VADM Arthur K. Cebrowski, USN (Ret.), “Alternative Fleet Architecture Design,” Center for Technology and National Security Policy, National Defense University, August 2005, 4.

Lieutenant Vandenengel , a 2008 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, is the weapons officer on the USS Alexandria (SSN-757). He previously served on the USS Cheyenne (SSN-773) and was the Commander, Submarine Squadron Seven, Junior Officer of the Year for 2013. He holds a masters in business administration from Boston College and a masters in mechanical engineering from the University of Rochester.


The Inefficiencies of Carrier-Centric Warfare

By Lieutenant (j.g.) Travis Meyer, U.S. Navy

For at least the past four decades, the Navy has maintained as a high priority its ability to launch aircraft from forward-deployed carrier strike groups in support of operations ashore. Carrier operations are arguably one of the least effective methods of conducting strike operations in support of a ground force ashore.

The inefficiencies of carrier-centric operations require examination not just of the carrier, but also of the aircraft it launches. F/A-18 Super Hornets have a unit cost of approximately $58 million. They carry approximately 12,781 pounds of air-deployable ordnance on average, the weight of which is distributed between a maximum of six wing point stations for air-to-ground munitions. 1 Every two to six bombs on target requires a trip back to the carrier, which adds fuel costs per pound of ordnance. The average maximum range of a Super Hornet is 908 nm, and any strike outside that range requires additional midair refueling, adding even more to the costs per pound of ordnance expended. 2

Other operational constraints include the F/A-18’s turnaround time, time-on-station of around 30 minutes, and time requirements between initial and follow-up strikes as approach vectors are reestablished. Add to this the costs of operationalizing the F/A-18’s combat chain logistically and providing its security. The costs and constraints are significant prior to calculating the full costs of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier accompanied by a full air wing and protected by several escort ships and submarines, all of which are operated collectively by 6,700 personnel who must be continuously replenished by Military Sealift Command logistics ships. The costs of operating the strike group amounts to around $6.5 million per day. When you add the cost of training pilots and maintaining their proficiency by logging monthly flight hours to the life-cycle costs of the aircraft, the cost rises to about $7.5 million per bomb dropped. 3 That price tag that dwarfs even the conservatively priced $2 million cost of launching a Tomahawk missile. 4

By comparison, land-based sustained strike operations are far more efficient both logistically and tactically. Land-based strike capabilities can consist of mortars, artillery, rockets, and land-based aircraft. Their use does have the strategic drawback of requiring a footprint on the ground, but this footprint is often far easier and more cost effective to secure and supply than its equivalent carrier strike group at sea, particularly in permissive combat environments where supply lines of communications are not held at high levels of risk. While manned aircraft have maintained hegemony over precision-guided munitions for much of the past three decades, precision-guided projectiles and rockets with a 10-meter accuracy have been developed. These include the M982 155mm Excalibur projectile fired from the M777 Howitzer and the M31 Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System fired from the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). 5 The M777 and M142 HIMARS have maximum effective ranges out to 40,000 kilometers and 70,000 kilometers, respectively. 6 They have the added benefit of not putting U.S. pilots at risk over a combat zone.

Remotely piloted aircraft—such as the MQ-9 Reapers armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles—are now capable of delivering a 500–2,000 pound laser-guided or GPS-guided munition on dynamic targets. 7 The added benefits of remotely piloted aircraft over carrier-launched aircraft is their significantly better loitering time over a target, their ability to collect real-time intelligence prior to a strike, and their ability to conduct immediate battle damage assessment after it. These advantages are only going to improve.

Land-based ordnance delivery systems and unmanned vehicles provide tactical advantages over carrier-delivered ordnance, and their security, personnel, and logistical footprints are significantly smaller and far easier to maintain. 8 The Navy can deliver ordnance from a different set of delivery systems using its current platforms, but it chooses to favor a less efficient and most costly carrier-centric approach.

1. Dr. Jerry Hendrix, “Retreat From Range: The Rise and Fall of Carrier Aviation,” Center for a New American Security, October 2015.

2. Ibid.

3. CAPT Henry J. Hendrix, USN (PhD), “At What Cost a Carrier?” Center for a New American Security, March 2013.

4. Ibid.

5. Patrick Cooley, “Area Fire Weapons in a Precision Environment: Field Artillery in the MOUT Fight,” USMC Command and Staff College, January 2005.

6. Ibid.

7. Bruce Pirnie et al., “Beyond Close Air Support Forging a new air-ground partnership,” RAND Corporation, 2005.

8. Government Accountability Office, “Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs, GAO-07-406SP,” March 2007.

Lieutenant Meyer is assistant curriculum developer, Naval Oceanography Antisubmarine Warfare Center, Stennis Space Center.





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