While China, the U.S., France, Britain and India are collectively spending billions in treasure and decades of time to develop modern supercarriers to deliver wings of advanced combat aircraft across any coastline in the world, countries with a more modest budget are going a different route.
Rather than a 40,000+ ton vessel with a crew of 1K plus in its smallest format, simpler flattops filled with UAVs are now leaving the drawing board and taking to the water.
As previously reported, Turkey, which had built a 25,000-ton/762-foot variant of the Spanish LHA Juan Carlos I with the intention of using a dozen F-35Bs from her deck, kicking the country out of the F-35 program left it with a spare carrier and no aircraft. They have fixed that by planning to embark now Navy-operated AH-1 Cobra gunships and as many as 40 domestically-produced Bayraktar TB3s drones on deck with the promise of at least that many stowed below.
The Royal Thai Navy took the Spanish Navy’s Príncipe de AsturiasHarrier carrier design of the 1980s (which in itself was based on the old U.S. Navy’s Sea Control Ship project of the 1970s) and built the ski-jump equipped 11,500-ton HTMS Chakri Naruebet some 25 years ago.
Royal Thai Navy AV-8S Matador VSTOL fighters on HTMS Chakri Naruebet (CVH-911) harrier carrier, a capability they had from 1997-2006.
Originally fielding a tiny force of surplus ex-Spanish AV-8S Matadors which were withdrawn from service in 2006, she has been largely relegated to use as a royal yacht and sometime LPH, reportedly only getting to sea about 12 days a year.
As detailed by Naval News, the Portuguese Navy (Marinha Portuguesa) unveiled details on a new drone mothership project dubbed “plataforma naval multifuncional” (multifunctional naval platform). Initial brainstorming shows an LPH-style vessel that could hit the 10,000-ton range.
The mothership is shown with two notional fixed-wing UAVs on deck (they look like MQ-1C Grey Eagle but the new MQ-9B STOL may be a better fit) as well as 6 quad-copter UAVs and one NH90 helicopter. The design seems to lack an aviation hangar. Below decks is a modular area to launch and recover AUV, UUV and USV. Portuguese Navy image.
The fixed-wing UAVs are launched via a ski jump. Portuguese Navy image.
Last week, the Iranians showed off their new “Drone-Carrier Division” in the Indian Ocean including a Kilo-class submarine Tareq (901), auxiliary ship Delvar (471), and landing ship Lavan (514). Iranian state TV claimed one unnamed vessel currently carries at least 50 drones, which isn’t unbelievable.
Most were launched from rails using rocket boosters, including what appeared to be Ababil-2 and Arash types, which can be used to conduct one-way attacks. Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) television news coverage of the event showed a floating target and a target on land being hit by UAVs.
The one launched from the submarine appeared to be a new, smaller type, roughly similar in size and configuration to the Warmate loitering munition made by Poland’s WB Group.
A UAV that appeared to be an Ababil-3 – a reusable surveillance type with wheeled undercarriage – was shown taking off from Lavan from a rail. The UAV may have been fitted with a parachute and a flotation device so it can be recovered from the sea, although this was not shown.
Carrying the name of the Great War battlecruiser whose design flaws saw her blow up and sink at Jutland after taking a hit from the German battlecruiser SMS Lützow, the “anti-submarine cruiser” HMS Invincible (R05) slid down the ways of Vickers Shipbuilding Limited, Barrow-in-Furness, on 3 May 1977, sponsored by Queen Elizabeth herself.
1973 Jane’s. Note her intended air wing would be only 15 helicopters and Harriers.
Some 22,000 tons when fully loaded, she had a suite of four Rolls-Royce gas turbines that gave 97,000 shp on tap, enabling a speed of 28 knots. Armed with a pair of GWS30 Sea Dart missile twin launchers, the same as fitted to the state-of-the-art Type 42 anti-air destroyers of the era, with the ability to carry as many as 26 ready missiles capable of hitting a target out to 40 nm, she was designed to be self-escorting to a degree, with her mixed airwing of Sea King helicopters and Sea Harrier strike aircraft providing further ASW and AShW/Air Defense capabilities.
By the time Invincible was launched, the Brits already had almost 20 years of R&D in the Harrier and were 14 years past the aircraft’s first landing on an RN flattop.
Hawker P1127 making the first ever vertical landing by a jet aircraft an a carrier at sea on HMS Ark Royal in February 1963. IWM A 34711
As noted by the above Jane’s listing, the original concept would have seen her take to sea with 8 anti-ship missiles as well, likely Exocet MM38s, worked into the top of her islands, although these were never fitted.
Sea Dart launch from Invincible. These systems would be removed post-Falklands, replaced with CIWS.
“Vince” would go on to commission in July 1980 and, shortly after her shakedown and post-delivery overhaul were complete, sail off to war unexpectedly against the Argentines in the Falklands– cutting short a planned sale to the Royal Australian Navy to replace their aging carrier HMAS Melbourne.
The first of an ultimately successful three-ship class, Invincible went on to serve a solid 25 years with the Royal Navy. In 2005, she was decommissioned and was eventually sold for scrap in February 2011.
Once upon a time: HMS Ark Royal (R09) loaded with F-4 Phantoms and Buccaneers.
The country that in 1918 designed the first ocean-going aircraft carrier retired their last “big deck” flattop, the 53,000-ton HMS Ark Royal (R09) in 1979, taking the ability to support (F-4) Phantom FG.1s and Buccaneer S.2 bombers with her.
27 November 1978: 892 NAS Phantom XT870/012- last fixed-wing catapult launch from HMS Ark Royal took place at 15.11 that day, flown by an RAF crew of Flt Lt Murdo MacLeod and Deputy Air Engineer (RIO) Lt D McCallum in the back seat (pictured).
The replacement for Ark Royal was to be the 22,000-ton “through deck destroyer” HMS Invincible, capable of fielding a small force of about a dozen helicopters or so and V/STOL Sea Harriers. A mid-sized (28,000-ton) 1950s-era Centaur-class carrier, HMS Hermes (R12), was to be kept around for a minute for use as a “commando carrier,” akin to an LPH in the U.S. Navy.
Since 1984, the UK had to make do with the postage-stamp-sized “Harrier Carriers” of the expanded Invincible-class, which were maxed out at 8 Sea Harriers and 12 helicopters although they typically carried far less. By 2014, even those vessels were gone.
The F-35s come from the RAF’s 617 Squadron (The Dambusters) and the US Marines Corps VMFA-211 (The Wake Island Avengers), while the Merlins come from 824 NAS of the Fleet Air Arm– truly a joint wing with Royal Air Force, Royal Navy, and USMC elements.
Of note, a QE-class carrier has deck and hangar space for as many as 45 F-35s. So one day they may reach 1979 levels of seapower again…
When the Harrier jump jet became a real thing in the late 1960s, the Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR.1/GR.3 and the AV-8A were seen as being able to fight from primitive forward operating bases on the battlefield and help blunt the Soviet tank force should they come across the Fulda Gap or over the top into Norway (or for the Brits, against the Guatemalans in Belize or Argies in the Falklands).
However, the benefit of using these V/STOL strike craft on abbreviated aircraft carriers without the need for catapults or arresting gear was soon evident.
In fact, it was tested out before the aircraft was even put into production.
The Hawker P-1127 (Harrier prototype) after landing successfully on HMS Ark Royal, 3 February 1962.
Chief of Naval Operations Elmo Zumwalt backed the concept of a cheaply built 13,000-ton Sea Control Ship that could be filled with a couple dozen Harriers and Sea King ASW helicopters at about the same time. Basically a 1970s update to the Jeep Carriers of WWII.
Heck, Zumwalt even wanted Harrier optimized Spruance-class destroyers in several different flavors, none of which ever got past the drawing board.
As well as a modern battlecruiser based on a nuclear powered Virginia-class hull stretched to form an aviation capable “Strike Cruiser” that could accommodate 6 Harriers and 4 Sea Sprites/Hawks along with a full weapons suite.
Harriers on everything!
Even though Zum was replaced and a lot of his ideas (including building 100+ Pegasus-class hydrofoil missile boats!) went with him, the Harrier Carrier concept was growing.
In 1977, the Spanish Armada placed an order for a 15,000-ton ship based on Zumwalt’s concept which was commissioned in 1982 as Príncipe de Asturias capable of carrying 29 fixed-wing Harriers (“Matadors” in Spanish service) and rotary-wing aircraft. A larger 26,000-ton ship optimized for amphibious warfare, Juan Carlos I, was ordered in 2003.
Spanish Matadors on carrier Princip de Australias
The Royal Navy converted their last legacy carrier, HMS Hermes, with a 12-degree ski jump to help with rolling take-offs of the new Sea Harrier FRS.1 in 1980 while they ordered three specifically designed “carrier cruisers” as they were described at the time, the first of which, HMS Invincible, was commissioned 11 July 1980.
HMS Illustrious, an Invincible-class British Harrier Carrier with a Sea Harrier lifting off her ski jump
The British Harrier carriers proved able to do the job in a pinch (see= Falkand Islands).
For further example, in September 1995, just eight FA.2 Sea Harriers from 800 NAS aboard HMS Invincible commenced operations over Serb-held positions in Sarajevo. Over the next ten days, they flew 24 bombing sorties, 42 combat air patrols, and 28 reconnaissance missions, for a sortie rate of 11.75 flights per day, every day for a week and a half, with just eight airframes.
Invincible-class harrier carrier HMS Illustrious late in her career with about the maximum loadout of these hulls: 12 Harriers and 7 Westland Sea King AEW/ASW helicopters.
The 13,000-ton Italian aircraft carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi (551) came off the ways in 1985, picked up her first Harriers in 1991, and was joined by the nearly twice as large Cavour in 2009.
Cavour (550) aircraft carrier (CVH) is the flagship of the Italian Navy (Marina Militare) with Italian AV-8Bs
Harrier carriers ITS Giuseppe Garibaldi, left, and ESPS Príncipe Asturias, right, flanking the conventional CATOBAR French carrier Foch, center.
Thailand’s 11,000-ton HTMS Chakri Naruebet, based on the final U.S. Navy blueprints for a dedicated sea control ship but with the addition of a ski-jump ramp, was commissioned in 1997– flying a handful of Spanish surplus AV-8S Matadors.
In all, between May 1976 when USS Tarawa (LHA-1) was commissioned and 2005 when Invincible was taken out of service, no less than 22 Harrier Carriers or their equivalents were built, converted, or building for six navies around the world.
That was the peak.
Since then those numbers have been trimmed as all of the Invincibles and Tarawas, Vikrant and Hermes/Viraat, as well as Príncipe de Asturias, have been decommissioned. Currently, there are but 13 hulls afloat designed to operate these aircraft, which themselves are dwindling and are getting smaller in number every week.
The Harrier was withdrawn from both RN and Thai service in 2006.
The Italians still have 16 operational AV-8B/TAV-8Bs they operate from their two carriers and they are very active. For instance, 8 Italian Harriers flying from Garibaldi dropped 160 guided bombs during 1221 flight hours over Libya in 2011.
The Spanish have 13 EAV-8B+/TAV-8Bs capable of operations from Juan Carlos I, though maintenance on these older aircraft is reportedly a problem.
The 2016 Marine Aviation Plan carries 84 AV-8Bs airframes to produce 66 RBA Harriers in 6 operational and one replacement squadron. This is to reduce to 80 aircraft/5 operational squadrons in FY17, 64/4 by FY21, 48/3 in FY22, 32/2 in FY23, 16/1 in FY24 and drop altogether by FY27.
USMC Harriers will be replaced by the F-35C, in theory, by then for which the new LHA-6 class ships will be optimized for.
But speaking of Marine AV-8Bs from their dedicated sea control/amphib ships, they are still getting the job done.
Withness this video last week from USS Boxer (LHD-4) with Harriers of VMA-214 (Blacksheep) assigned to the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), launching missions in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, joining strike aircraft operating from USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) in the Mediterranean Sea.
“These missions from the flight decks of USS Boxer, like those from the USS Harry S. Truman, demonstrate the inherent flexibility of naval forces,” said Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan, commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.
“Today, U.S. naval forces are striking ISIL simultaneously from both the Mediterranean and the Arabian Gulf. Of course, the engine of this effort is our nation’s Sailors and Marines serving with the USS Boxer Amphibious Ready Group and the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit; they, together with our joint and coalition partners, are dismantling and rolling back terrorist networks in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere,” said Donegan.
Here are some beautiful shots of AV-8Bs aboard Boxer.
Just keeping it real.
VMA-214 Blacksheep AV-8B Harrier on USS Boxer, photo by Staff Sgt. Naquan Peterson
A U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier II aircraft assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 166 sits on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4) in the Arabian Sea Oct. 20, 2013. The Boxer was underway in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class J. Michael Schwartz, U.S. Navy/Released)
The Brits, anxious to get out of the military business as fast as possible, have decommissioned all three of their aircraft carriers….and retired all 74 of their ‘junk’ Harrier and Sea Harrier Jump Jets.
Harriers, the craft that won the Falklands War in 1982, kept Belize speaking English, and provided enough of a threat to Soviet Air units tasked with airfield destruction in Western Europe that Soviet air and tank crews slept uneasy…..
Surprise surprise, in a reverse of Lend-Lease, the US is buying Britain’s gently used Harriers for $675,000 a pop.
Wait, does this mean that the vaunted F-35 isn’t quite ready to hit the fleet?….hope no one tells the British…they were hoping to use it to replace…….their Harriers..
Britain has agreed to sell all of its 74 decommissioned Harrier jump jets, along with engines and spare parts, to the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps – a move expected to help the Marines operate Harriers into the mid-2020s and provide extra planes to replace aging two-seat F-18D Hornet strike fighters.
A Harrier GR9 takes off for the last time in November 2010 from the now-decommissioned aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are buying 74 decommissioned British Harrier jump jets. (U.K. Ministry of Defence)
Rear Adm. Mark Heinrich, chief of the U.S. Navy’s Supply Corps, confirmed the two-part deal Nov. 10 during a conference in New York sponsored by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in association with Defense News.
Heinrich negotiated the $50 million purchase of all Harrier spare parts, while Rear Adm. Donald Gaddis, the U.S. Navy’s program executive officer for tactical aircraft, is overseeing discussions to buy the Harrier aircraft and their Rolls-Royce engines, Heinrich said.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence in London confirmed the Disposal Services Agency was in talks with the U.S. Navy for the sale of the Harriers. The deal had yet to be concluded, he said Nov. 11.
Britain retired its joint force of Royal Air Force and Royal Navy Harrier aircraft late last year in one of the most controversial moves of the defense reductions, which also cut the aircraft carriers that operated the jets, other warships, maritime patrol planes and personnel.
Most of the retired Harriers are stored at the Royal Air Force base at Cottesmore, England.
They have been undergoing minimum fleet maintenance, including anti-deterioration measures, in order to keep them airworthy, Heinrich said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s Naval Air Systems Command declined Nov. 11 to comment on the deal, deferring to the British military.
An MoD source said Nov. 11 that he thought both deals could be signed in the next week or two. The MoD source confirmed that the entire fleet of 74 Harrier aircraft was involved in the sale.
Heinrich noted that payment details were the only outstanding issue on the parts deal discussions, and he said the purchase will give the U.S. Marines a relatively economical way to get their hands on key components to keep the Harrier fleet running.
While it is unusual for the U.S. to buy used foreign military aircraft for operation, integration of the British planes into Marine Corps squadrons shouldn’t be a major problem, one expert said.
“I don’t think it will be costly to rip out the Brit systems” and replace them with Marine gear, said Lon Nordeen, author of several books on the Harrier.
Nordeen noted that the British GR 9 and 9As are similar in configuration to the Marines’ AV-8B night attack version, which make up about a third of U.S. Harriers. The British planes also are night planes dedicated to air-ground attack, he said, and while both types carry Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) sensors, neither is fitted with a multimode radar such as the APG-65 carried by U.S. AV-8B+ models.
The absence of the big radar, Nordeen said, makes the GR 9A and AV-8Bs “a better-performing plane. Weighing less, it’s more of a hot rod.”
British GR 9s, although upgraded with improved avionics and weapons, are powered by the Rolls-Royce Mark 105 Pegasus engine. GR 9As have the more powerful Mark 107, similar to the Rolls-Royce F402-RR-408s that power Marine AV-8Bs.
British and U.S. Harrier II aircraft had a high degree of commonality from their origin. The planes were developed and built in a joint arrangement between British Aerospace – now BAE Systems – and McDonnell Douglas, now a division of Boeing. While each company built its own wings, all forward sections of the British and American Harrier IIs were built by McDonnell in St. Louis, Mo., while British Aerospace built the fuselage sections aft of the cockpit.
“All the planes have to fit together,” Nordeen said.
The Harrier IIs, built between 1980 and 1995, “are still quite serviceable,” he said. “The aircraft are not that far apart. We’re taking advantage of all the money the Brits have spent on them. It’s like we’re buying a car with maybe 15,000 miles on it.”
Operationally, Nordeen said, “these are very good platforms. They need upgrades, but on bombing missions they have the ability to incorporate the Litening II targeting pod [used by U.S. aircraft]. They’re good platforms. And we’ve already got trained pilots.”
Marine Corps Harriers are to be phased out by 2025, when replacement by new F-35B Joint Strike Fighters should be complete.