USS America: Why the U.S. Navy Sunk Its Own Aircraft Carrier

March 2, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: USS AmericaAircraft CarrierMilitaryDefenseU.S. NavyNavy

USS America: Why the U.S. Navy Sunk Its Own Aircraft Carrier

In a unique and final contribution to naval research, the USS America, a Kitty Hawk-class supercarrier decommissioned in the 1990s, was intentionally sunk in 2005 after weeks of controlled explosions.

Summary: In a unique and final contribution to naval research, the USS America, a Kitty Hawk-class supercarrier decommissioned in the 1990s, was intentionally sunk in 2005 after weeks of controlled explosions. This experiment, conducted 17,000 feet below the Atlantic Ocean, aimed to understand the resilience of large naval vessels to onboard explosions. USS America, laid down in 1961 and having served notably in Vietnam and the Mediterranean, was selected for this fate to inform future carrier designs. Despite her robust build, featuring a double-layered hull and superior compartmentalization, the carrier's sinking marked a significant, if unconventional, endpoint to her decades of service.

From Warship to Research Subject: The Sinking of USS America

In 2005, a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier sunk for the first time since the Second World War. USS America sunk 17,000 feet below the floor of the Atlantic Ocean following weeks of controlled explosions on May 14th of this year. When the Kitty Hawk-class carrier was decommissioned almost one decade earlier, the Navy decided to conduct a study involving how a colossal ship would respond to explosions on board instead of simply relegating the vessel to retirement. The service would soon discover that sinking a U.S. aircraft carrier is easier said than done.

The history of USS America

USS America (CVA/CV-66) was one of three Kitty Hawk-class supercarriers designed for the Navy in the 1960’s. Built to be more capable than their Forrestal-class predecessors, Kitty Hawk, Constellation and America sported more advanced technologies. They were the first class of supercarriers to feature deck-edge elevators and angled decks in addition to high tonnage. The Kitty Hawk ships were meant to complement the Forrestals and embody a moderate improvement.

Each ship in this class was longer overall than previous carriers, with more practical elevator placements. A fourth Kitty Hawk carrier was also planned; however, USS John F Kennedy became so heavily modified that she was considered her own carrier class.

Introducing USS America

USS America was laid down in 1961 at Newport News, Virginia, by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Corporation. By 1965, she conducted her first catapult launch with a Douglas A-C4 Skyhawk. The same year, America sailed for her first deployment to the Mediterranean. She later participated in a simulated conventional warfare wargame with Frank before returning to Naval Station Norfolk. America was soon used to conduct flight qualifications for the F-4 Phantom, F-8 Crusader, and A-4 Skyhawk aircraft.

In her next deployment, America sailed again to the Mediterranean as a crisis in the Middle East was unfolding. When the technical research ship Liberty was attacked by Israeli torpedo boats and fighters in 1967, America was the first to respond, launching Phantom interceptors to ward off any potential attack against task force units. After it became clear that the Liberty attack was accidental and not an act of war, America was used to house the injured sailors from Liberty.

During the Vietnam War, America would make three deployments to the frontlines. In her first stint stationed on “Yankee Station,” America’s aircraft bombarded roads, trucks and other infrastructure to impede the flow of men and war materials to the south. America would later deploy in the Gulf of Tonkin and Subic Bay.

The post-service lives of the Kitty Hawk ships:

For decades, the Kitty Hawks served the Navy honorably. USS Kitty Hawk was overhauled in the late 1980s as part of the Service Life Extension Program for $785 million. Eventually, Constellation was overhauled under SLEP for an even more significant dollar amount. Kennedy later received a $491 million infusion to extend her service life.

However, the ship was not upgraded under the same SLEP program as her sister ships. USS America’s fate was quite different. Since America possessed such a strong track record at sea, the service decided to make the carrier useful one last time upon her retirement.

As then-Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Natham explained, “America will make one final and vital contribution to our national defense, this time as a live-fire test and evaluation platform. America's legacy will serve as a footprint in the design of future carriers — ships that will protect the sons, daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of America veterans.”

The sinking of USS America

As another expert explained for the Aviation Geek Club, sinking the vessel was a challenging ordeal. “It took four weeks and they ended up having to scuttle her from on board due to her not sinking. She is not only far larger than WWII battleships, but she is also a lot tougher. While she does not have the heavy armor the battleships of yore had, she does have a double layered hull, meaning weapons have to push through alternating layers of steel and empty pockets to reach her internals. On top of that, her internal compartmentalization was far better than that of battleships. She is so large, there are so many more rooms that must be filled in order to make her sink than that of a battleship.”

After serving in the Navy for three decades, USS Americas remains at the bottom of the sea, somewhere between South Carolina and Bermuda.

About the Author: Maya Carlin

Maya Carlin, National Security Writer with The National Interest, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin