Could North Korea actually sink an American aircraft carrier?

The answer is simple: No

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson.
(Image credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Z.A. Landers/U.S. Navy via AP)

Building advanced military technology in the 21st century is hard and expensive. Case in point: America is spending $1 trillion — or more, depending on how you do the math — on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. The plane, while flying today, is massively overbudget, years behind schedule, and is not even fully ready for combat operations.

So what does a nation like North Korea — which has an economy smaller than that economic juggernaut Ethiopia — do when it wants weapons like missiles that can carry a nuclear payload, one of the most technically challenging things any nation can aspire to, that can hit the United States homeland? You starve your own people so that as much as 40 percent of your own population is not getting enough calories per day.

But even such dire measures don't guarantee military muscle or even the ability to strike your enemy with deadly precision. Which brings us to North Korea's latest military threat, to sink America's nuclear powered aircraft carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson, or, to use Pyongyang's all-so-scary terminology: "The world would clearly see how the U.S.'s rash, arrogant aircraft carriers turn into a lump of scrap metal and gets buried at sea, and how the country vanishes from the Earth."

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Tough talk for sure. However, could North Korea actually sink an American aircraft carrier, the very symbol of Washington's power projection capabilities, indeed, one of the most powerful weapons of war on the planet? The answer is simple: No.

To understand why they can't, or to be more precise, why it would be the equivalent of hitting the lottery, we need to understand what is being threatened and how it would be carried out. The most likely way North Korea would attack a carrier would be through some sort of strike with a cruise or ballistic missile. Ankit Panda, a senior editor for The Diplomat, has laid out the most comprehensive analysis to date of what could be described as a North Korean "carrier-killer" ballistic missile, borrowing the phraseology of something China has been working on for over two decades — and has not tested against a non-cooperative maritime target to this day.

So is such a weapon in the realm of North Korea's capabilities? Yes, but the challenges Pyongyang would have to overcome seem difficult to master — at least for now.

First, North Korea would need to make sure it could target the carrier — not exactly an easy thing to do. Trying to find a ship even as big as an aircraft carrier and target it in the open ocean is not easy. Pyongyang does not have the satellite and intelligence capabilities of nations like China, Russia, and the United States have when they want to target a naval vessel in time of war. Plus, no ship is going to be standing still if it might be under possible attack, so North Korea would need accurate real-time intelligence on the water — not such an easy feat to accomplish.

However, let's suppose they can solve the targeting dilemma and fire off a missile. Could they get past U.S. missile defenses, which are the best in the world? We must remember that the U.S. government has been working for decades on nullifying threats to its carrier fleet — from the Soviet Union attacking with bombers armed with cruise missiles during the Cold War to China or Iran attacking with cruise and ballistic weapons from the land, air, or sea. Washington has multiple layers of defenses for its carriers and is ready for an attack — if North Korea could find the target in the first place.

Third, and finally, if Washington knew that a strike was coming and knew that it could conduct punishing carrier operations out of range of the North Korean missiles, wouldn't it make the most sense to just stay out of range? Or, considering that America is presumably working on or is actively using cyber weapons to mitigate other missile technologies, couldn't Washington "shoot the archer" before they strike, via malware or a virus?

Now, is it possible North Korea could, given enough time, energy, and testing develop the ability to sink a U.S. naval vessel? Yes. However, there is also the question of escalation. North Korea is certainly a student of history and knows what happens if they attack a symbol of American power — think about 9/11 for a second. Imagine how the American people would react if a U.S. carrier was sunk on the high seas by one of the most vile and dangerous regimes on the planet. Imagine the images on social media of U.S. sailors' dead bodies floating in the ocean. Does North Korea want to risk America's vengeance after such an attack?

While there are many pathways to war on the Korean Peninsula, an attack on U.S. carrier is not one of them — at least not yet.

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