What Would It Take To Sink The USS Gerald Ford?

USS Gerald Ford
The USS Gerald Ford is the world's largest and most advanced aircraft carrier, a groundbreaking ship the likes of which has never been seen in human history

Is it Possible to Sink the USS Gerald Ford?

The USS Gerald Ford is the world’s largest and most advanced aircraft carrier, a groundbreaking ship the likes of which has never been seen in human history. Over 1,000 feet (337m) in length, and displacing 100,000 tons, it is the largest warship ever built by man. But is the Ford truly unsinkable as some claim, and if not, what would it take? Hello, and welcome to another blog post on the Infographics Show website- today we’re taking a look at what it would take to sink the USS Gerald Ford.

Before there was Yamato:The largest battleship in the world

On the morning of April 7th, 1945 the Japanese battleship Yamato steamed towards the American task force invading Okinawa. The largest battleship ever built, the Yamato was the most feared ship in the world at the time, with 18 inch guns that could launch shells over 26 miles (42km) away. Japan had spared no expense in its construction, outfitting it with nine 18 inch 45 caliber guns- largest caliber of naval artillery ever equipped on a warship- each capable of firing high explosive and armor piercing shells. The Yamato’s second battery consisted of six 155 millimeter guns and twenty four 127 millimeter guns, as well as 162 anti-aircraft guns for self-defense. In short, the Yamato packed enough firepower to engage two or three American battleships at the same time. Yet once spotted by American recon aircraft on that April morning its fate was sealed- by the time the day was done the Yamato would fall victim to an American air attack of over 300 aircraft, of which the Americans would lose only 10. 

Battleship

Yamato Vs USS Gerald Ford

The USS Gerald Ford has drawn many comparisons from skeptical defense analysts to the Yamato- battleships were powerful and feared weapons of war, and none more so than the Yamato, but they were already being made obsolete by the time the Yamato was in full operation. So too these skeptics fear that the aircraft carrier is even now nearing obsolition, and with a further 10 planned purchases and a 13 billion dollar price tag- if they are right the Ford and its sister ships could end up being a costly mistake for the United States.

Why do people fear the aircraft carrier is nearly obsolete?

The first answer to that question comes from the evolution of the long range missile. In World War II aircraft carriers reigned supreme due to their ability to project firepower far out of range of even the mightiest battleship’s guns, rendering them all but obsolete. So too now do missiles threaten to outrange the aircraft carrier, with modern missiles boasting ranges of hundreds to thousands of miles while moving at hypersonic speeds.

The second threat to the modern aircraft carrier comes from coordinated attacks by smaller surface vessels or drones- think swarm attacks. An aircraft carrier is a very big, bulky ship and it is feared could fall prey to attacks by massive swarms of unmanned speed boats loaded with explosives, or aerial drones on a kamikaze mission to sink the carrier. While well protected from traditional naval or aerial attack, an aircraft carrier is poorly suited to defend against hordes of small attackers.

What would it take to sink the USS Gerald Ford?

Submarine Attack

For a long time the primary threat to a carrier has come from submarines, which are by their nature extremely difficult to detect and target. Yet the USS Ford has a speed of about 30 knots (56kmh/35mph), with a classified top speed. At 35 mph the Ford is already faster than most submarines, and any submarine trying to speed up to catch the Ford would generate a lot of noise and be very quickly identified by the Ford’s escort ships or numerous anti-submarine helicopters, each loaded with dipping sonar and depth charges. While skeptics point to back in 2006 when a single Chinese submarine surfaced amidst an American carrier group mid-exercise, it is important to note that the carrier and her escort ships at the time were not actively looking for submarine threats as they had no reason to. While this could potentially have been a lethal vulnerability, a Chinese submarine attacking an American carrier would have been tantamount to a declaration of war, and during war or during the buildup to the possibility of war, the USS Ford and her escorts would definitely be actively looking for subs, making it extremely difficult if not impossible to penetrate the entire battlegroup.

ship wreck

Cruise  Missile Attack

The second threat the Ford would face would be from cruise missile attacks. Launched from extreme distances most cruise missiles are designed to fly low to the ocean on a pre-programmed track before ‘popping up’ to engage their internal targeting radars and alter course for a hit. By flying low the cruise missile avoids radar detection, albeit as soon as it ‘pops up’ to engage its radar and adjust its trajectory it would give itself away to every radar in the Ford’s battlegroup. In that scenario the battlegroup’s AEGIS cruisers would coordinate a defense of the entire group, firing salvos of SM6 or RIM missiles to destroy incoming missiles. With 2 RIM launchers installed on the Ford, and dozens across the rest of the battlegroup, a cruise missile would need to penetrate several layers of anti-missile defense, each extending out for tens of miles. Even if these somehow failed however, each ship in the battlegroup is equipped with CIWS Phalanx Turrets, chainguns capable of tracking and firing on inbound missiles at over 50 rounds a second- the Ford alone has 3 equipped.

What is The Best Method to Sink  USS Ford 

Cruise missiles

The best way to overcome the Ford’s missile defenses would thus be to launch a large volley of, but cruise missiles have one fundamental weakness- they require a launch platform, either a ship, submarine, or aircraft. With the Ford’s 90+ complement of combat aircraft and 4 E2D Hawkeye early warning radar planes, the carrier could cast a protective bubble of surveillance hundreds of miles around the entire battlegroup. Easily spotted, there simply exists no naval or air force in the world that could survive long enough to get in range of a Ford carrier and its battlegroup. Even during the Cold War Soviet military doctrine dictated the sacrifice of dozens of Tu-22M Backfire bombers in kamikaze missions against American carrier battlegroups. Few if any were expected to survive the attempt to attack an American carrier, and the US was so confident of its ability to defend their carriers that their own military doctrine dictated the widespread use of carriers in a conflict against the Soviet Union.

Ballistic missiles

Ballistic missiles prove a much bigger threat however, as they can be launched from thousands of miles away making their launch platforms difficult if not impossible to neutralize early. While typically reserved for delivering nuclear weapons to major cities, modern ballistic missiles such as those developed by China and Russia purportedly have the maneuverability to alter their course on their descent trajectory and thus accurately target a small, moving target such as an aircraft carrier. Yet while touting its arsenal of hundreds of DF-21 ‘carrier-killer’ missiles, these types of missiles require long and complex ‘kill chains’ made up of several key links that make it possible to A) Spot a carrier, B) identify the carrier, C) track the carrier and D) accurately target a carrier. These links range from aerial radar platforms, tracking satellites, command and control centers down to the actual missile itself. China has to date not shown the capability to master every link in this long and complex chain, nor its ability to defend these varied assets from attack, which would thus disrupt their entire capability. Even so, a Ford’s battlegroup is well equipped to defend itself from ballistic missile strikes as proven by recent tests of the SM6 missile carried by the group’s AEGIS cruisers. While a saturation strike of dozens of missiles would have a good chance of overwhelming the carrier’s defenses, it’s unlikely China or Russia could protect the vital communications and tracking elements needed to guide those missiles in the first place long enough to actually hit a fast moving Ford Carrier.

aircraft carrier

Swarms of drones and speedboats loaded with explosives

The last threat to the American Ford class carriers comes from swarms of drones and speedboats laden with explosives. An emerging and very real threat, both of these attacks would require a carrier to be operating extremely close to hostile shores, something which a Ford carrier would never do during war time. A swarm of fast attack boats would likely not have the range to find and then close with a carrier battlegroup on the open seas, and even if they did they would have to face a gauntlet of helicopters and escort ships laden with .50 caliber machine guns. While in simulations swarm attacks against American carriers have proven it can be a devastating threat, as long as the carrier battlegroup remained outside of coastal waters it would likely be out of range. Never ones to leave it up to chance however, American defense companies have already begun testing and deploying directed energy weapons and other similar systems to protect from just such threats.

Conclusion

The USS Gerald Ford is the first in the new line of Ford class carriers. Carrying over 90 aircraft, to include two squadrons of F-35Cs, Ford carriers will be the most formidable weapons of war ever created. Yet as technology continues to advance it may be shifting the advantage to smaller, faster weapons such as anti-ship missiles, prompting a retaliatory arms race in defensive weapons such as lasers and railguns. In the end only combat will prove if the Ford class carriers will continue to dominate the seas for America and its allies just as the Nimitz carriers did before them, or if the supercarrier has finally seen the end of its days.
Do you agree with our analysis? How do you think this would all play out? Let us know in the comments.