What [I]would[/I] it take to disable a Nimitz class supercarrier?

Assume you are a technologically advanced nation, at the level of modern day Germany, Japan, or China. You want to mission-kill a Nimitz class supercarrier refitted recently. The time of the attack is December 2013, and you had 5 years to develop the technology. A kill counts if the carrier will require at least 6 months of heavy repair work before it can be used to launch aircraft. (it doesn’t have to sink)

The carrier has it’s usual escort fleet accompanying it.

What weapon system should you develop to mission-kill the carrier for the lowest possible monetary cost? Note that this prohibits the use of nuclear weapons, as you cannot afford to replace your whole country if it gets glassed.

To get started : the most obvious attack would be to launch an overwhelming number of low flying anti-ship missiles at the carrier. How do you get your attack aircraft into range? (do you have to develop stealth aircraft technology?) How many missiles would it take? Apparently, there are approximately 44 RAM interceptors, as well as several CWIS mounts. Would 45 incoming missiles be enough for one to get through? How much damage would one actually do to a supercarrier?

Why exclude nukes? All you need is plausible deniability. A relatively easy way is to explode a nuke deep underneath the carrier, creating an ensonified zone so the carrier sinks straight down. There’ll be no tell-tale fallout. The carrier will simply disappear. Bonus points if you do it in a storm.

There would be fallout, and the impulse from detonation would be audible for thousands of miles.

Despite what you say, detonating a nuke underwater would absolutely be the way I’d do it. Blah blah blah fighting the hypothetical. I’m not convinced the US would nuke an entire country anyway if all they did was possibly use one underwater nuke to sink a carrier.

In a thread from last fall about a Nimitz-class sent back to 1941, the bottom line seemed to be that a Pearl Harbor-level strike force would probably do the job due to the sheer number of planes in the air, and that the carrier wouldn’t have enough time to launch enough aircraft to make much of a difference.

Your question didn’t specify: Are we assuming the presence of the entire carrier force surrounding it, or just the carrier moseying along all by itself on the open sea?

I never said it wouldn’t work. A nuclear torpedo does have a certain elegance. Close really does count when you’ve got a fission bomb for the warhead…

I specified the “normal” task force is surrounding it. (in real life, whatever method of attack the bad guys have will probably not be a secret to the U.S. admirals commanding the carrier group. If the enemy has anti-carrier ballistic missiles, presumably the carrier group will have extra ships with ABM capability. If the enemy has submarines, presumably there will be a large escort force of H-K subs. And so on)

This may not be possible. First it’s going to be very difficult while the task force is at sea, all the other ships are there to protect the carrier and I’d think they all had “RAM interceptors”. Just how good are these missiles? Second problem is only allowing five years R&D and minimal expense, not sure those go together very well. Perhaps this is just hopeful thinking, but I think the USN have already worked on this and have taken precautions.

Shear numbers of rockets … the carrier group can only knock down so many thousands.

Would you allow an attack while the ship is in port? Because then one could just ram it with another ship, torpedoes might be effective or a land-based rocket system filled with anthrax spores. The possibilities are endless …

I never said it wouldn’t work. A nuclear torpedo does have a certain elegance. Close really does count when you’ve got a fission bomb for the warhead…

But this challenge is to do it for the lowest possible cost. For example, if an exocet missile costs half a million a shot, and you need 200 of them to overwhelm the defenses, then that’s 100 million dollars.

If there’s a 1% chance that using a nuclear warhead will turn into escalation and a full nuclear war, that means the cost is 0.01 * (total value of your entire country) + cost nuclear torpedo.

If the country is japan, they have a national wealth of 35 trillion, and so you have an expected cost of 350 billion dollars + cost of the torpedo.

Is there some way to via stealthy single person torpedo subs, to get close enough to trigger an overload in the reactor(s)? Then ignite the airplane fuel, set it up to look like a catastrophe occurred instead of an attack.

As you can tell, I have given this next to no thought nor understand the problem, but if minimal expense and a limited time frame are what you have going for you, then sabotage and guerrilla tactics will be what is most likely to work.

That may be some James Bond tactics there…but given there are over 6000 people on the boat, this doesn’t sound impossible. If the infiltration team had well forged badges and uniforms…it doesn’t sound as impossible as one might assume. People see what they want to see. I would suspect that if your uniform looked legit, and you were “moving with a purpose” through the carrier, you just might make it to a critical system.

Naval mines would do the job.

Is the carrier the only goal? I’m not worried about payback?

What intel do I have on the fleet? Do I know what route it will be taking??

If I’m only concerned about the carrier what about cruise missile arsenal ships? Simple and relatively cheap. And wildly impractical if I don’t have good intel.

You’re only worried about nuclear payback. Any intel gathering is part of your solution.

The US is fighting a 13+ year war for a non-nuclear attack that killed less than 3,000 people. Sinking a carrier would kill 5,000 or more (it could be assumed that other ships in the carrier task force might be affected). I can’t see a situation where a US President or a Congress, no matter how divided, would (or could) allow that many deaths to go unavenged.

How fast have the new generation of torpedoes gotten? Could one make the attack run without being intercepted?

Could a really large number of ordinary missiles – Exocet or Silkworm style or whatever’s modern – overwhelm the defenses?

(Could a suicidal saboteur open the sea-cocks?)

If the nation is NOT at war with the US: Have an operative bring one or more covert explosive devices on board the carrier and plant them near the JP-4 fuel storage tanks ( the reactor and the weapons magazines are too closely guarded) and then detonate those devices. The resulting fire would render the carrier inoperative for months to years, depending on whether or not the fuel vapor was ignited again by any aircraft on deck or an errant spark somewhere on the carrier.

The event would appear to be a terrorist act undertaken by a disgruntled military member rather than an attack.

If the nation was at war: Launch multiple cruise missiles programmed to approach the carrier from multiple directions. The carrier defensive systems and the ships screening it would be limited in the numbers of targets they could successfully engage. Depending upon the quantity of missiles launched, at least 1-2 would get through.

If one strikes the superstructure and causes severe damage and casualties, the carrier is out of the fight. If it strikes the aircraft fuel tanks or a weapons magazine, you may have an explosive event and a fire so massive that the carrier might sink.

Rules of Engagement


Buy a Kursk-class submarine. Shadow the task force (no doubt an escorting hunter-killer sub is shadowing you.) Once you get the low-frequency radio signal signifying your country is at war with the US, flood your missile tubes and fire three SS-19 missiles. The first missile will detonate if it picks up radar coming from a ship or plane. The 110-kiloton blast will blind all electronics within 50 miles. The next two missiles will have a far easier time flying in to melt the carrier task force.

Meanwhile, you start hot-footing it at 40 knots after the last missile launch before that American attack sub gets you (likely he will.)

This sounds almost guaranteed to work. However, it’s crazy expensive. You have to pay for the submarine (I think the Russians have 1 left and they may refuse to sell it), a ballistic missile program, and develop nuclear weapons if you are Japan or Germany. Possible to do in 5 years with nation state level resources? Maybe. In the Tom Clancy novels, Japan had no trouble doing it, and the author was completely correct in that Japan has all of the technology needed domestically to produce high grade fission bombs.

But your real problem is that you are not going to get away with it. The flash when the SS-19 knockoff goes off is unmistakable. Even a 1% chance of losing all of Japan or Germany or China is unacceptable.