WASHINGTON, March 31 (UPI) -- Watching the PBS documentary about life on the USS Nimitz, it is easy to imagine that America's nuclear-powered super aircraft carriers are unsinkable. But no ship is unsinkable, and when it comes to aircraft carriers, a lot of the best naval warfare submarine, torpedo and ballistic missile designers in the world have worked long and hard for decades to come up with new ways to sink them.
The first problem that modern super aircraft carriers face is that they are big -- exceptionally, extraordinarily big. If a single Nimitz-class carrier was stood on its end it would be a 90-floor building, more than 900 feet high. What that means is that aircraft carriers make dream targets. Anything that big can be hit, and in terms of combat firepower, anything that can be hit can be killed.
There is a widely held popular assumption that even if you could pump one or two torpedoes or two or three sea-launched missiles into a U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier they are so huge, so tough and have so many fail-safe systems built into them that they would keep on operating regardless.
That may even prove to be the case, but the simple fact is that no one has ever fired a few torpedoes into a nuclear aircraft carrier-size hull or blasted it with a few missiles to be sure. And all the computer simulations in the world are based on assumptions -- usually comfortable ones -- that cannot begin to approximate the far more complex variables of real-world field testing.
Second, aircraft carriers are volatile, dangerous environments filled with high-octane gasoline, devastating conventional ordnance and -- at their heart -- nuclear reactors.
Nor does an aircraft carrier's nuclear reactor have to be directly hit in order to destroy it or cause a catastrophic meltdown. Any damage that shredded enough coolant pipes or, worse, pumps in the reactors coolant circulating system could set such a dangerous sequence of events in motion.
The Russian-built and designed Sunburn -- known by the Chinese as the Hai Ying or Sea Eagle HY2 -- in particular is designed to be a U.S. carrier killer. It can fly at Mach 2.5, or two and half times the speed of sound -- around 1,700 miles per hour carrying an almost 500-pound warhead. And it can deliver a tactical nuclear weapon.
Writing in Defense Review on Nov. 20, 2006, respected defense analyst David Crane also noted a report in Aviation Week that China was also "developing a new high-speed cruise missile called Anjian -- 'Dark Sword.'"
"From the picture we've seen of it, Anjian also looks very stealthy, i.e., it looks like it utilizes stealth technology. If China's already perfected this item, it would be another weapon that our Navy can't combat," Crane warned.
Crane's warnings appear justified. U.S. nuclear aircraft carriers, for all their size, resemble battlecruisers more than battleships in their high speed, great offensive armaments and most of all lack of armor plate protection.
Armor plate went out of fashion after World War II among naval designers around the world, and it has never come back into fashion. However, the nuclear reactors that power U.S. super carriers would be the modern equivalent of the Hood's inadequately protected ammunition, or powder magazines. And the new Russian-designed supersonic anti-ship missiles would be the equivalent of the Bismarck's 15-inch naval guns.
Next: Next-generation anti-aircraft carrier missiles