Naval Air: May 25, 2004

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The U.S. Navy is considering using one of its decommissioned Forrestal class aircraft carriers for a test of how well a large carrier can withstand modern anti-ship weapons. The four Forrestal class carriers, built in the early 1950s, were the first super carriers. Displacing 82,000 tons and 1040 feet long, they were built to handle large jet aircraft. All were removed from active service by the late 90s and put in reserve. One could be used for a destruction test that would remove some of the unknowns about what effect modern anti-ship weapons would have on a large carrier. This is important at the moment because the navy is in the midst of designing its next generation of carriers (the CVN-21 class). 

Russia built several types of large antiship missiles specifically for knocking out American carriers. The main ones are the Sunburns and Shipwrecks. China has bought dozens of the Sunburn missiles, and the United States has a few as well, purchased for use as realistic targets for American anti-aircraft weapons. China also has some of the older Shipwreck missiles.

The SSN-22 Sunburn can be launched from aircraft or ships. Its a four ton missile with a 700 pound warhead. But what really makes it destructive is its high speed. The missile approaches its target at Mach 2.5 (about 750 meters a second, faster than a rifle bullet). Its thought that the damage done by the explosive warhead would be secondary to the destruction created as a 2-3 ton object (the missile, less fuel already used up) hits the carrier at that speed. The SSN-19 Shipwreck is a seven ton missile, with a 1,600 pound warhead, launched from submarines and ships. It is a decade older than the Sunburn, and hits targets at about 600 meters a second. 

For decades, the U.S. Navy has estimated how they would deal with carriers getting hit by these missiles. But naval historians have pointed out that wartime experience is often quite different from these peacetime estimates. This was experienced during World War II, and as recently as 1982, when Argentina used missiles against British warships off the Falkland Islands. The damage these missiles did was not exactly what was expected and Britain, and many other navies, changed the design of their warships, and their damage control procedures, as a result. 

If one of the Forrestals is sacrificed in a test, it will have to be done carefully. There wont be anyone on board the ship when the missiles hit, and all data will have to be collected by hundreds of sensors mounted all over the ship and transmitting data constantly. Since the missiles will hit above the waterline, its also possible to put a number of torpedoes into the same ship to see how many it takes to sink it. Information obtained from the actual effects of these torpedoes and large missiles actually hitting a carrier would provide invaluable information for making existing carriers, and new designs, more resistant to battle damage.


 


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