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. “There are two types of naval vessel: submarines and targets.”

    Le SNA Saphir en entraînement avec l’US Navy au large de la Floride
    From http://www.defense.gouv.fr – Today, 7:39 AM
    C’est après deux semaines de patrouille en Atlantique Nord que le sous-marin nucléaire d’attaque (SNA) Saphir est arrivé dans les eaux de la Floride pour participer à un exercice majeur de dix jours avec la marine américaine. L’objectif de cet exercice était d’entraîner un groupe aéronaval américain (CSG 12 pour Carrier Strike Group 12) composé du porte-avions Theodore Roosevelt, de plusieurs frégates de type Ticonderoga ou Arleigh Burke et d’un sous-marin de type Los Angeles, avant leur déploiement opérationnel.

    Le scénario de l’exercice prévoyait une agression des intérêts économiques et territoriaux américains par des états fictifs. En réaction, une force navale, dirigée par le Theodore Roosevelt était mise sur pied pour parer à toute éventualité.

    Durant la première phase de l’exercice, le Saphir était intégré à la force navale amie en soutien direct avec pour mission de faire de la lutte anti sous-marine en coopération SOUMAIR, avec des avions de patrouille maritime de type P3-C Orion P8 Poséidon. Il devait donc reporter tous les contacts obtenus sur les sous-marins ennemis et les partager avec les autres moyens anti-sous-marins du théâtre (avions de patrouille maritime, hélicoptères et frégates ASM).

    Dans une seconde phase, le Saphir, était intégré aux forces ennemies et avait pour mission de localiser le porte-avions Theodore Roosevelt ainsi que les autres bâtiments de la force navale amie et de se tenir prêt à l’attaque. La situation politique se dégradant de jour en jour, le Saphir s’est glissé discrètement au cœur de l’écran formé par les frégates américaines protégeant le porte-avions, tout en évitant la contre-détection des moyens aériens omniprésents. Au matin du dernier jour, l’ordre de feu était enfin donné, permettant au Saphir de couler fictivement le Theodore Roosevelt et la majeure partie de son escorte.

    Une fois l’exercice terminé, le Saphir a gagné Norfolk, plus grosse base navale du monde, pour une escale destinée à entretenir les liens avec l’US Navy. Nombreux furent les échanges avec les équipages des Los Angeles, notamment avec les marins du SSN Newport News désigné bâtiment hôte durant l’escale.

    L’amiral commandant les forces sous-marines et la force océanique stratégique (ALFOST) a rejoint le Saphir en escale pour rencontrer, en compagnie du commandant du Saphir, le Rear Admiral Butler, commandant du Carrier Strike Group 4 (CSG4) et le Vice Admiral Tyson, adjoint au commandant du USFFC (US Fleet Force Commander). Cette entrevue a permis d’effectuer un premier débriefing de l’exercice et de réaffirmer le besoin d’interopérabilité entre nos deux marines.

    Ce point est en effet essentiel pour une intégration efficace sur les théâtres d’opérations, notamment dans le golfe Arabo Persique. Cet exercice a de nouveau illustré la plus-value du concept d’emploi en multi-luttes / multi-senseurs des SNA français.

    En attendant le prochain exercice et comme disent les forces sous-marines américaines : « happy hunting » !

  2. U.S. Navy ASW capabilities are not what they were since 1990. Most of the fleet is now multi-role but with a focus on air defense. Dedicated ASW platforms like the old Spruance class DDs are gone. Hopefully this exercise is a wake up call.

    • Much of the anti submarine warfare abilities have gone into the Air. Orion Aircraft are very capable and the new replacements provide the carrier groups with constant coverage.

  3. Carriers are easy meat. The Navy dumped their carrier borne ASW aircraft the S-3 Viking and have not paid as much attention to ASW since the end of the cold war. I believe even the Chinese had a sub surface in the middle of a carrier task force which they didn’t see. The Russians would have no trouble taking out a carrier in a real shooting war.

    • Russia how? Their Navy is a floating hunk of rust. They have one surface vessel in the Black Sea fleet that poses a threat. A huge portion of it’s Submarine fleet are rusting and dormant. They maintain a small but potent force of Submarines. Many of them are Nuclear and are not attack based.

    • Carriers are not easy meat. These exercises are never full prosecutions, and they are never “free range”. If an American carrier used all their ASW resources, they would probably “sink” the approaching sub, and the sub would never get any training for an attack run on the carrier. And if American carriers can use all the ocean, and are not geographically constrained, they are unlikely to be found by any sub. ZigZagging at 30+ knots makes intercepting a carrier very difficult, even if the sub knows the general vicinity of the carrier.

      And these exercises are never one sided. The subs are often sunk, even when the carrier is not using all of it’s ASW assets.

    • Uhh those are two different situations…one was an exercise, and the other was a Chinese sub that no one even knew of to be in the vicinity.

      • In the case of the Chinese sub, the US carrier group was on high alert as they were “invading” a Japanese task force off the coast of Japan. As such, the USS Kitty Hawk is on the look out for submarines, yet a Chinese sub came within 5 km of it.

        • No it was not on “high alert”. It was in a very low state of readiness because no navy in the world, at that time, was in a high state of alert, i.e. most ships were in port. The Kitty Hawk was joining a publicly known exercise with allies, which was probably the only reason the Chinese sub knew where it was in the first place.

          • Dude, the Kitty Hawk was on high alert because it was expecting Japanese submarine to be “attacking” it during the exercise. And since when do any aircraft carrier group ever goes on low alert in hostile region? Excuses, excuses….

    • Another sensational article which virtually no research behind it. The Kitty Hawk was joining a publicly known exercise, with allies, which was probably the only reason the Chinese sub knew where it was in the first place.

      And many American submariners have speculated as to why the Chinese sub would have surfaced while stalking an American Carrier. It didn’t make any sense. It gives your position away, and it shows how close you got–they know an American sub would never have done that. Some think they were having serious technical problems, Chinese subs being the junk that they are.

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