Unicorn Hunting: How Unlikely Iran is to Destroy a Carrier

By: - July 28, 2019

The destruction of an Iranian drone by U.S. forces has led to renewed talk of tension with Iran and potential war. This has led to click-bait headlines such as those from the National Interest which presented a plan for how Iran will destroy a carrier.

Like many nations, Iran has invested heavily in ballistic missiles which seem like a cost-effective way of destroying large capital ships of their adversaries. In Iran’s case, it has the added benefit of advancing the potential delivery systems of the nuclear weapons they are developing. Their arsenal likely includes the Fateh anti-ship ballistic missile. To use that missile to kill a carrier, Iran would try to lure the carrier as close to Iranian territory as possible. They would then launch every missile they had which could be scores or even hundreds of them that would confuse and possibly overwhelm American defenses. To his credit, the National Interest author admitted that missile defense systems make this scenario unlikely, but the author presented such an implausible and unlikely scenario that it shouldn’t have been published in the first place.

American naval commanders weren’t born yesterday. They know that being closer to territory makes them better targets, and they have entire battle groups of ships and air groups of planes that can strike from far outside the range of those missiles. They also have significant first-strike capability in the form of missile subs that can destroy launch sites. So it’s unlikely America will enter the range needed for Iran to have any advantage to inflict harm.

If they do get within range, the story that inspired this handwringing also shows why Americans shouldn’t be concerned. The American destruction of the Iranian drone represents new anti-missile technology that is increasingly being fielded which makes the destruction of a carrier very unlikely. It used a system developed to jam the electric system of drones, causing them to harmlessly plummet into the sea.

Just in the past few months, American forces have revealed that they are mounting new portable lasers on F-15s and eventually F-35s, Zumwalt-class destroyers, Striker combat vehicles, and eventually tanks. These lasers have unlimited ammunition and they often have their own tracking system. This adds another layer of defense and leaves the AEGIS systems on escort destroyers free to shoot down many more missiles.

Missiles have been around for 70 years. They are scary, and potential adversaries are producing newer and faster versions on a regular basis. But the U.S. is well-prepared to defend against them using interlocked defense systems that are constantly being upgraded as well. A carrier being sunk by Iranian missiles is so unlikely that a person would be more practical hunting unicorns.