Key point: North Korea knows what it has to do.
Could North Korea’s armed forces sink an American aircraft carrier? Yes—depending on what type of carrier they confront, how skillfully U.S. Navy commanders employ the flattop and its consorts, how well North Korean warriors know the tactical surroundings and, most crucially, whom fortune favors in combat. Fortune is a fickle ally, prone to switch sides and back again in battle. It’s doubtful an American carrier would fall prey to undersea or aerial attack—but only the foolish say never or always in martial competition, a topsy-turvy affair in which the weak sometimes best the strong.
It could happen, and that warrants forethought.
First, some preliminaries. We know for a fact that the DPRK Navy can sink surface vessels. It did so in 2010, launching a sneak submarine attack on the South Korean corvette ROKS Cheonan. Granted, Cheonan was a single ship operating alone, not the centerpiece of a carrier or amphibious task force ringed with escort ships equipped to hunt and assail submarines. The Cheonan incident nevertheless offers proof, if more is needed, of a timeless truth about undersea combat: even a technologically backward diesel sub running slowly—and thus silently—can approach, strike and sink a modern surface craft crewed by highly professional mariners such as those comprising the ROK Navy. The same could befall the U.S. Navy.
Indeed, examples are legion of weaker navies equipped with subs giving superior foes fits. In 1982, a Royal Navy task force defending the Falkland Islands expended most of Great Britain’s war stock of antisubmarine ordnance in a vain effort to dispatch a single Argentine Type 209 diesel-electric boat, ARA San Luis. The Argentine skipper reportedly brought his craft to rest on the seafloor in time-honored fashion. Stopping propulsion eliminated machinery noise, letting San Luis evade detection. Tactics refined during World War II worked on the lesser combatant’s behalf against a NATO navy optimized for antisubmarine combat.