Could China sink a US aircraft carrier?

Defensionem Aviation Could China sink a US aircraft carrier?

Could China sink a US aircraft carrier? Admiral Luo Yang of the People’s Liberation Army Navy seems to think so… The Chinese admiral recently suggested that sinking a couple of American aircraft carriers in the South Sea of China would be enough to force the US out of the conflict even before said conflict would start.

It looks like he took Sun Tzu’s “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” a little bit too literally. So… apart from the fact that Luo Yang hasn’t studied his history very well (two countries that definitely hit back when attacked are the US and Russia), would it be possible for China to sink a US aircraft carrier?

Those ships are designed to be survivable. Their sheer size naturally helps them with buoyancy. You’d have to severely damage bulkheads and internals and allow tons of water to enter to compromise the ship’s buoyancy and integrity… To compare, here is some data: In 1940, the German battleship Scharnhorst received a torpedo hit from a British vessel.

The torpedo created a 14 meters by 6 meters gash in the Scharnhorst’s hull. The hole allowed 2,500 tons of water to rush in. Yet, the ship managed to limp back to Trondheim for repairs… Scharnhorst was a 32,100 tons vessel. A gaping hole allowing 2,500 tons of water to rush inside the hull did not sink it… Now imagine what it would take to sink a more modern and better designed 100,000 tons Nimitz class aircraft carrier.

The Soviets thought long and hard on how to confront US carrier groups during the Cold War and came up with gigantic AshMs such as the Granit and Vulcan. The Kuznetsov and Kirov classes of ships were meant to counter Western Carrier Battlegroups with swarms of Granits… Each of those weights 7 tons, flies at Mach 1.6 at sea skimming altitude, has a range of 600+km and carries a 750kg HE warhead or a 500kt nuclear warhead!A Kirov carries 20 Granit.

A Kuznetsov carries 12 of them (Although they were being removed from the Kuznetsov during its overhaul). A full salvo of them (with conventional warheads) could hurt a carrier badly.

That is if they all punch through the battlegroup air defence, which is not a given. The Soviet range of AshM, launched from ships, from the air or from coastal batteries, is never-ending. And all the ones that are designed to take on large carrier type vessels are invariably big, fast, designed to be launched in a swarm and able to carry either a very large HE warhead or a nuclear tip…

The Soviets also designed dedicated nuclear tipped torpedoes and universal nuclear warheads for 210mm torpedoes. The Supercavitating VA-111 Shkval torpedo can also be fitted with a nuclear warhead… In short, the Soviet worked long and hard at trying to come up with a solution on how to sink a carrier… And each time, the answer was brute force in overwhelming numbers: Swarms of huge (nuclear tipped) supersonic missiles or nuclear tipped torpedoes…

So… Have the Chinese got what it takes? At sea, they do not (yet) field Cruisers capable of unleashing swarms of large AshM. What they do have is a fleet of 120 Xian H-6 bombers. While those are the Chinese take on the 1950’s Soviet Tu-16, they still field enough of them to launch massive swarms of air delivered AshMs, close to home, and therefore close to their own air defence/air cover.

They are also frantically building a string of man-made islands bedecked with SAM and AshM batteries. Missile wise, they have a fair few. Many of them are “inspired” from Soviet/Russian designs that were subsequently modified. Here is a shortlist:

– X-600 family of missiles. Very long range with a conventional or nuclear warhead. But subsonic and therefore vulnerable to interception.
– CJ-10 long-range, subsonic, conventional/nuclear
– YJ-91 short-range, supersonic, conventional, but with a 165kg warhead
– CX-1, medium range, supersonic, conventional but with a large 250kg HE warhead
– CJ-1, very short range, supersonic, with a massive warhead of up to 500kg!

So, could China sink a US aircraft carrier? To start with, it is unlikely that the Americans would sail their flattops within range of the Chinese coastal batteries. And even if they did, it is unlikely that the Chinese would have enough of those to actually be able to unleash a barrage large enough to actually overwhelm a battlegroup defence and sink a carrier.

The Chinese navy does not yet have modern vessels in sufficient numbers to be able to confront a US battlegroup. They also lack expertise in the deployment and coordination of large battlegroups at sea.

That would leave an air attack… Could China sink a US aircraft carrier? In theory, yes. In practice, this might be a little bit more complicated as all assets would have to be at the right place at the right time… And such mobilisation and concentration of assets would obviously be spotted far in advance. Yes, the Chinese could damage and maybe sink a US aircraft carrier.

A sure way of sinking one would be using a swarm of nuclear-tipped supersonic AshM… But surely, not even Luo Yang would consider this option: The nuclear option, even if limited and tactical, would automatically call for retaliation in kind and subsequent escalation.

However, thinking that sinking a carrier would force the US to retreat from the South China Sea is wishful thinking and very naive… The Japanese struck a hard blow at Pearl Harbour in 1941. 4 main Battleships were sunk and 2335 men lost their lives. Immediately after, Germany declared war on the USA and unleashed its U-boats on the US Eastern seaboard.

From January 1942 to August 1942, Germany’s grey wolves waged unrestricted warfare on the unprepared Americans, from the coast of Nova Scotia all the way to the Caribbean sea and the Gulf of Mexico. During that time, they sank 609 allied ships (3.1 million tons) and killed thousands of sailors. The US retaliated against both foes at the same time and came on top.

Renaud Mayers
Currently working on behalf of the Belgian Ministry of Defence, thanks to my knowledge in WWII and other areas. Working in two WWII era fortresses still belonging to the Army.

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