Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Have Aircraft Carriers Sunk Ships Since World War II?

Post-War Sinkings at Sea

Grumman A-6E Intruder
The Grumman A-6E Intruder was accepted for service in 1963 and was in service with the United States Navy and Marine Corps between 1963 and 1997. They were involved in several sinkings of enemy vessels during that period. This photo was taken on 23 November 1981 (National Archives 6364507).

Aircraft launched from ships that sank other vessels was fairly common during World War II, especially in the Pacific Theater of Operation. However, since then it hasn’t happened that often. There are always details about the incidents that deviate them from classic airstrikes such as at the Battle of Midway. However, when the situation called for it, naval aviation was able to deliver results several times during the post-war era.

So, here we look at incidents since World War II when carrier-launched aircraft sank ships.

The major powers that deploy aircraft carriers haven’t really engaged in heated conflicts with any maritime powers since World War II. In my view, that alone sets WWII apart from all later conflicts. Seapower is the hallmark of a Great Power, and military conflicts at sea between Great Powers have been extremely limited since WWII.

However, on occasion, aircraft carriers have sunk enemy shipping. Usually, these incidents are one-offs and relatively minor, involving gunboats or with inconclusive results.

I’ll just list a few examples to give a gist of the kinds of actions that aircraft carriers or vessels carrying aircraft (times have changed, not only aircraft carriers carry aircraft these days) have taken against enemy shipping since World War II. There are probably more, but any other such incidents would be along these same lines.

Royal Navy Westland Wasp
A Royal Navy Westland Wasp (Mike Freer).

During the Falklands War in 1983, aircraft launched from Royal Navy vessels badly damaged the Argentinian submarine ARA Santa Fe. The submarine was hit by missiles and depth charges but barely made it back to port, where it was abandoned and eventually sank. The asterisk to this incident is that none of the British vessels were actually aircraft carriers, but naval aircraft such as Westland Wasp and Westland Lynx helicopters launched from naval vessels did the damage.

USS Ticonderoga burning in January 1945
USS Ticonderoga, shown here burning in January 1945, sank ships both during and after World War II. As shown above, she survived kamikaze attacks during WWII. It was one of several WWII carriers to participate in the Vietnam War (US Navy)

Aircraft carriers have been involved in collisions that resulted in ships sinking. USS Wasp (CV-17) collided with destroyer USS Hobson on 26 April 1952, sinking Hobson and causing 176 deaths. On 10 February 1964, Australian light aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne (launched during World War II) rammed and sank the RAN destroyer HMAS Voyager, which had cut across its path. Voyager sank with 82 deaths. Melbourne also collided with US Navy destroyer Frank E. Evans on 3 June 1969. While Evans did not sink, 74 sailors died. In each instance, the aircraft carrier sustained damage to its bows but returned to port for successful repairs.

In the early days of the Vietnam War in 1964, USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) had several incidents with North Vietnamese shipping. The (North) Vietnam People's Navy attacked some US destroyers, so the Ticonderago launched rocket-armed F8E Crusaders that sank a handful of North Vietnamese gunboats. Ticonderoga and Constellation then launched airstrikes against the NV bases and destroyed/sank 25 gunboats. During the winter of 1965–66, Ticonderoga sank more enemy shipping during a general interdiction campaign.

In May 1972, the Midway, Coral Sea, Kitty Hawk, and Constellation laid naval mines off North Vietnamese ports such as Haiphong. Exactly how many ships sank from the mines is unclear, but it’s hard to believe there weren’t any victims. The ships also participated in Operations Linebacker and Linebacker II later that year which undoubtedly sank some ships in port.

French-built patrol boat
A French-built a La Combattante IIa-class FACM Guided-Missile Patrol Craft (PTG) (Source: Jebulon).

In Operation Attain Document in March 1986, U.S. Navy aircraft and ships of the Sixth Fleet entered the Gulf of Sidra (off Libya) and met with Libyan attacks. Aircraft carriers USS America, Coral Sea, and Saratoga were involved. Essentially, it was a dispute over territorial waters and freedom of the seas. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi then sent in attacks to prevent the U.S. ships from entering the Gulf. Following unsuccessful Libyan missile strikes and air attacks, Grumman A-6E Intruders from VA-34 (USS America) and VA-85 (Saratoga) sank a Libyan French-built La Combattante IIa-class patrol boat using Harpoon missiles and cluster bombs. A-6Es from VA-55 of Coral Sea then badly damaged a Libyan corvette and patrol boat. Saratoga A6-Es of VA-85 later sank a Libyan corvette, ending the battles.

Grumman A-6E Intruder
A Grumman A-6E Intruder (USS Lexington).

During Operation Praying Mantis in April 1988, fighting between U.S. and Iranian forces began after a US ship, the guided-missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts, struck an Iranian mine in the Persian Gulf. As part of retaliatory actions around an Iranian oil platform, A-6Es from VA-95 flying from USS Enterprise sank two Iranian speedboats. Later, two A-6Es responded to a missile attack from the Iranian frigate IRIS Sahand. They sank it using Harpoon missiles. Other A-6Es later responded to attacks from another Iranian frigate, IRIS Sabalan, by dropping bombs on it. They disabled the Iranian ship and forced it to be towed to port. After some more unsuccessful Iranian missile firings, the battle ended. This was the largest carrier action since WWII.

During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, USS Ranger (CV-61) conducted a general suppression campaign against Iraq. In addition to hitting many land targets, the ship’s Grumman A-6E Intruders sank enemy shipping in port.

While these operations may not seem particularly dramatic, they got the job done and sent some steel to the bottom.

USS Ranger CV-61
USS Ranger CV-61.