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

Mar 05 2015 - 61 Comments

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

 

  • Morksuggan

    The Iranian exercise are as real as a Walt Disney cartoon, only for propaganda use inside iran.

  • Tostik

    Every scripted exercise that I know about–from Cope India, to the Collins Class diesel “destroying” a Los Angeles class sub, to a Swedish sub destroying a US Carrier–has given the other side advantages, so that they could get some training, and is not the way US assets would be fought.

    For the sake of brevity, Let’s just look at the Australian Collins Class Diesel Sub “destroying” an LA Class nuke sub. I know that the LA class sub was confined to a small area, and was forced to enter that area at high speed to help the Collins Class sub find it, while the Collins sub could move with full stealth. Not Fair. I don’t mean to demean Australian submariners–they did a great job–but they were given advantages they would not have in a real world battle.

    I don’t know about the exercise in this article, but if France and America were go to war, my bet is that the French sub would probably be destroyed in port, and if did get out of port it would be trailed, and attacked by an American sub, and would never be able to find the American Carrier in the first place. American Carriers have operated very close to technological advanced countries without detection. And if you didn’t know about that, then my point is made–you have no idea how American Carriers would be used. And if you don’t know the parameters of this exercise, you can’t draw any conclusions.

    I could go on about other exercises, such as Cope India, but I’ll stop here. And no, the Swedish diesel did not “sink” the American Carrier. Even with advantages the Swedish sub was kept away from the “American carrier”.

  • Chiang Kai Shek

    This is a false statement.When the sub fired the first torpedo it s disclosed it position and it already doomed.That s why the balistic subs are vulnerable after they fired the missiles.

  • Tostik

    Most of these exercises with other countries, are about ‘possibilities’, not ‘probabilities’. Most probably, these subs would never get close to a US Carrier, so advantages are given to the other side in these exercises, so that both sides can have some training. It’s still very hard to find ships in the vast expanse of the ocean, and even if you can, equally difficult to get a sub in position to intercept a Carrier doing 30+ knots in a zigzag pattern. And I know that US Carriers have operated close to technologically advanced countries without detection.

    And many of these articles have fallen prey to journalistic enthusiasm. Case in point–In exercises off San Diego, the Swedish sub, the HMS Gotland, “sunk” the USS Ronald Reagan several times, according to several Newspaper and internet articles. US sailors in the exercise finally cried foul, and said they had sunk the Gotland several times too, and had often protected the Ronald Reagan successfully, even when they didn’t sink it. But the half-truth articles are still out there on the internet spreading disinformation.

    Bottom line is, if we don’t know the parameters of these “scripted exercises”, and we don’t know how the US Navy will fight their ships, we “experts” can’t make dogmatic conclusions about the US Navy and US Carriers.

  • LeLeMans

    Hell we did it with a Skipjack-class SSN back in 1978. It’s way too easy.

  • saberhagen2

    oh, so i guess Iran just hired an US carrier for their drill? Brilliant.

  • Bglen

    Swedish navy also sank a U.S. carrier in recent war games with modern diesel model.

  • Tostik

    But Carriers are actually very hard to find in the vast tracks of the ocean too. And they move very fast — 30+ knots. In order to be stealthy a diesel sub has to move between 3-4 knots–think guided mine. Sorry, 3-4 knots does not catch 30+ knots. Nor does it intercept the Carrier if it’s running a zigzag pattern. So even if the carrier is located,–very very difficult–you probably won’t be able to intercept it. And Carriers are starting to operate drones, some with a 1500 mile combat radius. The area of operations for the carrier will get a whole lot bigger.

    My guess is the French/Dutch/Swedish subs would have never gotten close to the US Carrier, in a real world environment. Meanwhile drones from the carrier would have destroyed the enemy sub’s base.

  • Tostik

    Newsflash–Carriers have always been vulnerable. The way they survive is by out-ranging the threat. With drones, soon to be seen on carrier decks, Carriers will be able to lay 1,500 miles off the enemy territory, and make strikes–probably even destroying the enemy’s sub bases–so they can move even closer. And if you don’t think that Carriers are still very hard to find in the ocean, well, you need to do some more study. And even if the Carrier is found on the ocean, to get a sub in position to intercept a 30+ knot ship, that is zigzagging, is very difficult indeed. Yes the French/Dutch/Swedish/Australian submariners are very good, and I’m glad that’s there’s no chance we’ll have to fight them in a war, but they would probably never be in a position to even attack a US carrier in a real war. These exercises are about possibilities, not probabilities. Is it possible that a sub that might get in close to a carrier group?–yes, and training needs to done for that possibility.

    And as for the Gotland “sinking” the Ronald Reagan, I also know that the Gotland was “sunk” several times too. And even when the protecting escorts were unable to sink the Gotland, they
    successfully protected the Ronald Reagan. Probably, something similar happened in this exercise too, I’m guessing.

  • General-Zod

    Aircraft carriers dating back to their inception in 1916 have always been vulnerable. They are massive ships carrying huge loads. They are no agile and serve as floating airfields. The US Navy has a fleet of the most advanced Aircraft carriers and those carriers have plenty of countermeasures to protect them. The US Navy is not perfect but they absolutely take every piece of knowledge they get about weakness and apply that to the future. The Navy is 24/7 deployed and has been essentially since the Cold War.

    There are new Aircraft carrier defense systems and the US Navy is putting alot of stock into Anti Submarine Aircraft. If the Chinese snuck into the middle of an Aircraft carrier group – you can be sure that the Admiral of the US Navy would want to know why and analyze every piece of data as to how it could happen.

    In a real world War scenario – it would not be so easy to do that. The US is humble enough to admit weakness at least on an internal level. Let the enemy think that they can operate with impunity. Talk to an Admiral in the Russian or Chinese Navy and get their opinion on how easy it would be to sink an Aircraft carrier. Easy would be the last thing that they would say.

  • Tostik

    Newsflash–Carriers have always been vulnerable. The way they survive
    is by out-ranging the threat. With drones, soon to be seen on carrier
    decks, Carriers will be able to lay 1,500 miles off the enemy territory,
    and make strikes–probably even destroying the enemy’s sub bases–so
    they can move even closer. And if you don’t think that Carriers are
    still very hard to find in the ocean, well, you need to do some more
    study. And even if the Carrier is found on the ocean, to get a sub in
    position to intercept a 30+ knot ship, that is zigzagging, is very
    difficult indeed. Yes the French/Dutch/Swedish/Australian submariners
    are very good, and I’m glad that’s there’s no chance we’ll have to fight
    them in a war, but they would probably never be in a position to even
    attack a US carrier in a real war. These exercises are about
    possibilities, not probabilities. Is it possible that a sub that might
    get in close to a carrier group?–yes, and training needs to done for
    that possibility.

    And as for the Gotland “sinking” the Ronald
    Reagan, I also know that the Gotland was “sunk” several times too. And
    even when the protecting escorts were unable to sink the Gotland, they
    successfully protected the Ronald Reagan. Probably, something similar
    happened in this exercise too, I’m guessing.

  • OldPoorRichard

    When I was on the Enterprise, the captain came on the 1MC to commend a sponson watch who eyeballed a sub periscope during wargames. Not stated was the obvious fact that we were “dead” already by the time the sub was spotted. Carriers are extremely vulnerable to anti-ship cruise missiles as well as submarines. It’s expected that in the case of nuclear conflict, all US carriers everywhere in the world will be destroyed by the enemy in less than 24 hours.

    • Anon

      Keyword there is nuclear conflict, we have our thousands of nukes for that situation.

      Kind of pointless. to argue that carriers are useless in a nuclear scenario.

      Also the key strategy for the soviets for reliably sinking a carrier was sacrificing wave upon wave of blackjacks. Why was that their strategy vs submarines you think? Carriers aren’t an easy target in a fleet.

  • CaesarInVa

    Doesn’t surprise me. The Navy’s focus over the last decade or so has been on the sexy, expensive F-18 and its various configurations. It’s sleek, its sexy, and given its configuration adaptability, which include fighter, attack/strike and electronic warfare variants, even I have to admit that it IS a pretty versatile, all-weather, all-mission aircraft with practically limitless capabilities…except when it comes to finding and sinking the traditionally primary threat to the carrier task force: an enemy attack submarine. Unfortunately, in focusing almost exclusively on maximizing the strike capability of the carrier air wing (and reducing the costs associated with operating a myriad of different airframes), the Navy neglected it’s carrier-borne anti-submarine warfare capability. There was a time when every carrier air wing embarked two squadrons capable of ASW operations: an HS3 helicopter squadron (which served in a dual capacity as plane-guard/rescue and ASW platform) and a S3 squadron composed of twin turbo-jet Viking fixed-wing aircraft. While the HS3s were pretty good ASW platforms with their dipping sonar, the S-3s were superb, given their ability to loiter over a fixed point for hours and their impressive array of ASW sensors and armaments (I should know, I served with VS-41 and VS-21 which in those days operated out of NAS North Island). Perhaps the Navy thought the ASW role could be transferred to the surface vessels that comprise the carrier’s escort. If so, they’ve made a mistake. Apart from another submarine, the best anti-submarine warfare platform is one capable of stealth, long loiter times, heavy ordinance loads and a broad array of sensors. Surface vessels are easily detectable, even to a submerged submarine, since they make a lot of noise and can’t get from one point to another very quickly (or quietly). Consequently, with skill and a little luck, a reasonably-competent submarine commander should be able to evade an approaching escort with moderate to no difficulty. In stark contrast, an airborne ASW platform is virtually undetectable to a submerged submarine (until either its sono-buoys or torpedoes hit the water) and as a consequence is very difficult to evade. I guess the Navy overlooked this in their rush for sexy. All I know is that the last of the S-3 squadrons were decommissioned years ago with a few survivors being converted into Carrier Onboard Delivery aircraft. With China building-up their submarine force through construction and acquisition, the Navy would be well advised to bring a few squadrons of S-3s out of mothballs.

  • john12340

    Multiple Planes Landing and Taking Off From a Moving Aircraft Carrier https://youtu.be/cOr5dbq916s h

  • Todd Beck

    Its rather interesting that all the comments against the use of aircraft carriers seem to forget that the 3 largest powers next to the USA to include China, Russia and India all want them….very very badly! Of those 3 listed they want some 6-7 at my last count. Its easy to hate the US navy I guess and to brag about a hit but if they were something of a national fancy versus useful, I am doubting the next two most potent navies in the world would waste the massive expense to plan and build something neither can currently build in their shipyards to date though that could change with the Ukraine in Russia’s hands but then comes expense. Russia claims to plan to build one larger than the new USS Gerald R Ford. So obsolete? Easily sinkable? I think not. They certainly don’t think so. Add to that the new British class of carrier. There is not a navy in the world that wants to project power that wouldn’t give their collective national left nuts for a aircraft carrier. As for the french, theirs doesn’t really count as a useful carrier so they are included in wanting. It just so happens the US operates 10 so they become a larger target in propaganda than in reality. I am pretty sure the French don’t believe that if they were at war with the opposing carrier that most of their offenses wouldn’t be knocked out rather quickly. Those are biggggggg waters out there with lots of firepower to hide just as those subs claim to master.

  • Realist

    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…

  • UKExpat

    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.

  • Michael Kinney

    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.

  • Michael Kinney

    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.

    • Tostik

      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.

  • Tostik

    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.