WASHINGTON, April 10 (UPI) -- More than 40 years ago, there was a British heavyweight boxing champion called Henry Cooper who could do everything -- except take a punch.
Cooper was big, powerful, fast and had a dream punch himself that could and did devastate world champs. But he also had a glass jaw. And whenever he was up against any real world-class powerhouse, they blew him away.
That is the problem facing the gigantic nuclear-powered aircraft carriers of the U.S. Navy in any future war against China over Taiwan or if they have to operate dangerously close-in against Iran in any future Persian Gulf conflict. For while Russia and China, as we have previously noted in this series and other columns, have specialized in creating asymmetrical weapon systems designed to disable and destroy U.S. super-carriers, the carriers themselves are far more vulnerable to shell and missile attack than battleships were 65 years ago in World War II.
That is because well-built American, British, German, Italian and Japanese battleships carried thousands of tons of the most low tech but effective defensive naval weapons system ever devised -- steel armor. That didn't make them invincible. The 80,000-ton Yamato and Musashi, the two biggest, most powerful, most heavily armored and armed dreadnoughts ever built, proved helpless against the blizzard of U.S. attacking aircraft and submarines that made funeral pyres of them both in 1944 and 1945. But it still took a lot of punishment to sink, especially from above surface weapons.
However, as respected defense analyst David Crane pointed out in an important article in Defense Review in November 2006, U.S. nuclear-powered super-carriers today don't carry anything lie that armor. They rely on their own speed, the size of their protective support groups and their ability to stay far out in the ocean, launching their aircraft to strike from long distance, to keep them out of harms way.
But that may not always be enough. As Crane noted, in October 2006, a Chinese diesel-powered submarine was able to sneak up on a U.S. carrier task force and surface within torpedo and missile firing range of it before being detected.
Ironically, U.S. super-carriers are now far more vulnerable tot his kind of attack than they were a few years ago because, as Crane also warned, the U.S. Navy no longer uses its trusty old Lockheed Martin S-3B Viking aircraft in their traditional Anti-Submarine Warfare -- ASW -- role to protect the gigantic ships.
Crane therefore concluded, "Frankly it makes one wonder how the U.S. Navy plans to protect our carrier battle groups against modern quiet attack submarines armed with standard torpedoes, anti-ship missiles, and the new breed of supercavitating torpedoes like the Russian Shkval-2. Given the current lack of U.S. ASW/ASuW capability, we don't see how the U.S. Navy can.".
Crane wasn't alone in coming to this conclusion as the outspoken and deliberately outrageous -- but also very knowledgeable -- war blogger Gary Brecher notes in his new book, "The War Nerd," in 2002, U.S. Gen. Paul Van Riper hypothetically sank U.S. super-carriers while playing the role of Iran in war games, using only the coastal vessels and extremely small warships Iran currently has, but recognizing they would be equipped with state-of-the-art Russian and Chinese anti-ship missiles.
However, as was the case when the USS Cole was attacked by al-Qaida in Aden harbor on Oct. 12, 2000, Van Riper also showed that even small boats carrying hundreds or thousands of pounds of explosives can prove deadly. Had the Cole not been in harbor when the attack occurred, it would have been sunk.
As if all that wasn't enough, even the principle of evolution in weapons systems has been working against America's super-carriers:
Next: Why the attack outstrips U.S. aircraft carriers' defense.