U.S. aircraft carrier and part of its escort “sunk” by French submarine during drills off Florida

If you thought aircraft carriers were invincible you were wrong.

On Mar. 4, the French Ministry of Defense released some interesting details, about the activity conducted by one of its nuclear-powered attack submarine (SNA) in the waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.

According to French MoD website (that is no longer online, even if you can still find a cached version of the article titled “Le SNA Saphir en entraînement avec l’US Navy au large de la Floride”), the Saphir submarine has recently taken part in a major exercise with the U.S. Navy off Florida.

The aim of the exercise was joint training with U.S. Carrier Strike Group 12 made by the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, several Ticonderoga cruisers or Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and a Los Angeles-class submarine, ahead of their operational deployment.

The scenario of the drills saw some imaginary states assaulting American economic and territorial interests; threats faced by a naval force led by USS Theodore Roosevelt.

During the first phase of the exercise, the Saphir was integrated into the friendly force to support anti-submarine warfare (ASW) by cooperating with U.S. P-3C Orion P-8A Poseidon MPA (Maritime Patrol Aircraft): its role was to share all the underwater contacts with the other ASW assets.

In the second phase of the exercise, the Saphir was integrated with the enemy forces and its mission was to locate the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and its accompanying warships and prepare to attack the strike group.

While the fictious political situation deteriorated, the Saphir quietly slipped in the heart of the multi-billion-dollar aircraft carrier’s defensive screen, while avoiding detection by ASW assets.

On the morning of the last day, the order to attack was finally given, allowing the Saphir to pretend-sinking the USS Theodore Roosevelt and most of its escort.

Although we don’t really know many more details about the attack and its outcome, the scripted exercise its RoE (Rules of Engagement), the simulated sinking of a U.S. supercarrier proves the flattop’s underwater defenses are not impenetrable.

This is the reason why modern subs often train with aircraft carriers: they pose a significant threat to powerful Carrier Strike Groups.

Obviously, this was not the first time a submarine scored a simulated carrier kill with torpedo attacks.

For instance, in 2007 HMCS Corner Brook, a Canadian diesel-electric submarine “sunk” UK’s Illustrious during an exercise in the Atlantic.

Image credit: U.S. Navy


About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.


  1. Carriers may be obsolete against first-tier foes, or at least in the littoral zones of those foes, but carriers are probably still cost effective against the vast bulk of the world’s surface area, much like the B-52 heavy bomber.
    War against a first-tier foe is going to be nuclear anyway, and I would be surprised if our navies continued pursuing combat anymore once they realized that everything was gone. Russian and American sub commanders might even commiserate and try to populate a Pacific Island in a pathetic attempt to rebuild civilization. Good luck with that once all the women are gone…

  2. I think one of the main points that is being missed here is that large carriers can clearly no longer be considered immune from receiving battle damage of one sort or another. What is probably immediately needed is to take urgent action to ensure that such battle damage is kept to an absolute minimum so that as far as possible any damage to the carriers fighting ability is strictly limited. It is probable that the main damage risk could well lie with nuclear carriers especially if / when their reactors are damaged and serious radiation leakage occurs. Thinking this will not happen is not an option, it does no take a genius to understand that if an old first generation French nuclear submarine can position itself to damage a nuclear carrier then other nuclear submarines can do the same, particularly if they have the same capabilities as say the new UK “Astute Class” boats. Failing to address this type of potential emergency now would be insane.

  3. Back in the Reagan years when we had a much larger navy I participated in such an exercise. I remember being on the flight deck and looking to port and seeing a periscope 100 yards out with a flare burning on the water. We were sunk. Oh what a feeling. Lesson learned. Our navy has been drastically reduced under the current administration. There is a reason why our enemies and other third world countries are building/buying submarines at an alarming rate while we are wasting our money on building Littoral Combat Ships that cannot fight their way out of a wet paper bag.

  4. We have never had (even when we had a 600 ship navy in which I served) an ASW fleet large enough to totally protect carrier battle groups. Now with a reduced Fleet we are even less capable. The future looks even less rosy.

    • With cheap robot subs on the horizon, I think it feasible that most enemy subs will be trailed as they come out of port. And while diesel subs are hard to detect, these are mostly coastal or for constrained waters. But to be their most stealthy, they have to limit their speed to 3-4 knots, and 3-4knots does not catch a zig-zagging Carrier doing 30+ knots in the open ocean. And Chinese nuclear subs are still very loud. Fortunately, for the US, the best submariners are our allies.

  5. If you don’t know the parameters of these exercises, you can’t make a
    conclusion. I’ll give you a hypothetical exercise as an example. Let’s
    say Army Black Hawk helicopters are going against F-15s in an air-to-air
    exercise. It leaks-out that the Black Hawk helicopters “won” the
    exercise because they shot down the F-15s. But the truth about the
    exercise is that it was confined to the Grand Canyon, with the ceiling
    at 200′ below the rim of the canyon. No wonder the helicopters “won”.

    1. These exercises are never free range. In the real world this sub would
    probably never even get close on the open ocean, because they are slower
    than the carrier. It’s very hard to intercept an aircraft carrier
    zigzagging at 35 MPH (without restrictions), even if you know their
    approximate location.

    2. The carrier never uses, or brings, it’s full ASW capability. A full ASW prosecution might mean the sub would be sunk often, and never get any training, i.e. attack runs wouldn’t exist.

    3. In every one of the famous US-carrier-got-sunk-by-a-sub exercises, the
    sub got sunk a few times too, even the Gotland. But of course, you never
    hear about that, because that would not be sensational enough story
    for our wonderful press to write about.

    I do not mean to disparage the French submariners. I’m sure they’re very good, as are
    their submarines, and would be very dangerous in certain circumstances.

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