Can Russia's Missiles Really Sink Aircraft Carriers?

Can Russia's Missiles Really Sink Aircraft Carriers?

Even if we look at the Kornet versus carrier engagement in a vacuum, the Kornet faces major problems.

Here's What You Need to Remember: Claims that Nimitz-class carriers are vulnerable to Kornet ATGMs may be exaggerated. 

Could Russian Kornet Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs) attack the USS Abraham Lincoln, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier?

Using limited analysis of the capabilities of the Kornet and the carrier’s defensive capabilities, Mark Langfan, the Chairman of Americans for a Safe Israel, has come to the conclusion that Kornets were a serious threat to the carrier.

However, Langfan’s research misrepresents many aspects of the Kornet and displays a large oversight of many aspects of naval warfare.

First, he analyzes the attack on the carrier in a vacuum. In a deployment around the shores of Iran would be backed up by a litany of smaller destroyers and patrol ships. In particular, the Cyclone-class patrol ships are assigned to the waters in the Persian Gulf.

These ships are optimized to take on the small boats that could mount Kornets, with dual 25-millimeter autocannons. Cyclones are also equipped with Griffin missiles, which are optimized for use against small boats and can take them out from as far as eight kilometers away. The carrier also has its own air wing, which could be used to strike small ships before they even entered engagement range.

Even if we look at the Kornet versus carrier engagement in a vacuum, the Kornet faces major problems.

Langfan says the Kornet is “fire-and-forget,” which is incorrect as no variant of the missile mounts a seeker that can be used to track the target independently. All are reliant on a laser beam from the launching post for guidance to the target. Some launching posts, such as Kornet mounts on armored vehicles, have the capability to automatically track the target with the launching post, but such launching posts are heavy. Installing one on a wooden-hulled small boat is highly impractical.

Assuming a regular tripod firing post is used, a Kornet attack is still impractical. The regular Kornet tripod is unstabilized, as it is meant to be used on stable dry land. Mounting it on a boat’s deck would make it bob and weave with the motion of the boat, making an accurate missile shot impossible at any significant range.

So what if a missile is launched, and somehow tracks properly? Still, probably not much.

Carriers are armed with a multitude of self-defense missiles and systems, such as the Phalanx CIWS or RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile. The sensors on these devices, while optimized to track larger anti-ship missiles likely would have no problem tracking the smaller Kornet. The relatively slow speed of the Kornet would give these systems a generous window of engagement before the missile hit the carrier.

But what if the Kornet actually hit? Again, not much.

The article discusses the Kornet’s ability to pierce through steel. While the Kornet’s warhead is easily capable of defeating the hull of an aircraft carrier, the thin jet of molten metal created by its HEAT warhead is unlikely to do much damage. ATGMs rely on this jet of metal hitting a crew member or critical flammable component in a tank to take it out of action. The crew, ammunition, and fuel are all relatively compactly packed together in a tank. Not so in a ship. A Kornet hit would likely only kill people within a very small radius of the impact, if anyone is there at all. After penetrating, it would leave only a small hole (generally smaller than the diameter of the missile itself) in the hull. Damage control teams on ships are trained to deal with far more devastating damage, and patching the hole a Kornet would create is likely child’s play for them. Most anti-ship missiles feature a massive warhead that’s meant to crash through the hull and embed itself meters deep into a ship before detonating for massive damage. Kornets detonating on the hull itself would likely deal very little damage to vital areas of the ship.

Langfan does mention the thermobaric version of the Kornet as having massive explosive potential. While this is true, the thermobaric version has very little penetrative capabilities. It’s unlikely that a thermobaric Kornet would make its way through the hull, though it probably would leave a significant dent or create spalling on the other side.

Aircraft carriers face a litany of threats in the modern age, but the U.S. Navy has spent the last half-century thinking of ways to defeat threats to them. Kornets mounted on dhows is the least of a carrier’s worries.

Charlie Gao studied Political and Computer Science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national security issues.

This article first appeared in 2019 and is being reprinted due to reader interest.

Image: Reuters