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.

6 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

    • 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

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