Does It Pay To Have Big Ships?

China’s recent coming-out party for their first aircraft carrier made me think about all the flattops lost in the history of modern combat. The Liaoning may introduce the Chinese to proper naval aviation, but the giant warship is also a massive liability.

As you read this, the world’s powers are studying the Liaoning in considerable detail. They have plenty of intel on the old Kuznetsov class; this one is probably limited to a training role. Now the world wants to see how the Chinese respond to their first big ship. Will their pilots get the chance to land on a real flight deck? How many sailors will be assigned to keep Liaoning in proper condition? How will they react to damage scenarios like hull breaches and fire? Can Chinese warships escort the carrier and protect it from submarines and missiles?

These are very important questions if China were to lurch into a shooting war with another nation. Aircraft carriers are prime targets in any decade and an adversary will stop at nothing to sink them.

The crew of USS Franklin (CV-13, pictured above) learned this the hard way on 19 March, 1945 when a single Japanese plane attacked the American flattop. The result of two bombs was simply horrific.

One struck the flight deck centerline, penetrating to the hanger deck, effecting destruction and igniting fires throughout the second and third decks, and knocking out the combat information center and airplot. The second hit aft, tearing through two decks and fanning fires which triggered ammunition, bombs, and rockets. Franklin, within 50 miles of the Japanese mainland, lay dead in the water, took a 13 degree starboard list, lost all radio communications, and broiled under the heat form enveloping fires. Many of the crew were blown overboard, driven off by fire, killed, or wounded, but the 106 officers and 604 enlisted who voluntarily remained saved their ship through sheer valor and tenacity. The casualties totaled 724 killed and 265 wounded, and would have far exceeded this number except for the heroic work of many survivors.¹

Has China considered the risk to their own sailors with the activation of their only aircraft carrier?

The carrier is the king on the chessboard that thrills a nation with thoughts of superiority. But when they go down, they’re not easy to replace. If China disregards the chance of losing this huge investment, she has only to look into wartime losses from World War II.²

Japan’s carrier losses

  • Akagi, scuttled by U.S. dive-bombers in the Battle of Midway
  • Amagi, sunk in 1945
  • Chitose and Chikuma, sunk in 1944
  • Hiryu, scuttled in the Battle of Midway
  • Hiyo, sunk in the Battle of Philippine Sea
  • Kaga, sunk in the Battle of Midway
  • Ryujo, sunk in the eastern Solomons
  • Shinano, sunk by a submarine in 1944 only ten days after completion
  • Shinyo, torpedoed in 1944
  • Shokaku, sunk by a submarine in the Battle of Phillipine Sea
  • Soryu, sunk in the Battle of Midway
  • Taiho, blew up in the Battle of Phillipine sea
  • All escort carriers of the Taiyo class were sunk by U.S. submarines
  • Unryu, sunk by a submarine in the South China Sea
  • Zuikaku, destroyed by seven torpedoes and six bombs in 1944

Britain’s carrier losses

  • Hermes, sunk by Japanese dive-bombers in 1942

America’s carrier losses

  • Lexington, sunk in 1942
  • Princeton, sunk in the Battle of Leyte Gulf
  • Wasp, sunk by three Japanese torpedoes in 1942
  • Yorktown, sunk in 1942
  • Four escort carriers of the Casablanca class

There is something to be said for a wiser form of national defense that properly factors the risk to men and material. Some of the worst naval disasters in history are the stuff of legend simply because of the fast way in which valiant souls are lost. If China’s sailors lack proper damage control skills in a crisis, then the Liaoning will serve only as a sinking tomb.


¹ Naval Historical Center

² Dunigan, James F. and Nofi, Albert A. (1995). Victory At Sea:  World War II In The Pacific. 

Editor’s note:  The latter work by Dunigan and Nofi is an excellent resource and a descriptive account of 1940s naval warfare. A must-have for military history buffs!


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