Part of CNO Elmo Zumwalt’s “Sea Control Ship” concept that would provide a Cold War-era evolution to the escort carrier concept for convoy protection and ASW hunter-killer teams, the basic idea was to turn these small (18,000-tons, 592-feet oal) flattops into economical CVEs overnight through the fly-on of a Harrier det for air defense/surface strike and a Sea King SH-3 ASW/SAR element.
The technology was there, with Harrier making its first test landings on British flattops as far back as 1963, the RAF’s GR1 entering service in 1969, and the Royal Navy ordering its first two dozen navalised 24 Sea Harrier FRS.1 (Fighter, Reconnaissance, Strike) aircraft in 1975.
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
Of course, Zumwalt wanted some dedicated SCS hulls, but, barring the shipbuilding dollars, the Iwo Jimas could work in a pinch.
Planned Sea Control Ship concept, art
Planned Sea Control Ship concept, model
Sea control ship outline, Janes ’73
The entry for Iwo Jima-class LPH USS Guam as an interim sea control ship in the 1973-74 Jane’s
Well, prior to VMA-231 shipping out on Guam, the Marines ran an extensive evaluation trial in March 1971 on her sister, USS Guadalcanal (LPH-7). I recently came across about 30 minutes of color footage from those trials, involving the “Flying Nightmares” of Marine Attack Squadron (VMA) 513, from MACS Beaufort– the first American Harrier squadron– in the National Archives.
Check out this screengrab:
Now that’s a beautiful aircraft. Dig those full-color roundels and the Marine crest. The British-made AV-8A was essentially the same as the RAF’s Harrier GR.1 with very few changes. Keep in mind the first Marine Harrier arrived in the USA on 21 January 1971, just two months before this trial, and the last was delivered in November 1976.
The videos show ordnance in play, lots of short take-offs and vertical landings of camouflaged early British-built AV-8As, and even some night operations.
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.
Below we see the Kidd-class destroyer USS Scott (DDG-995)— what the Spruances should have been– seen with four vessels of the Spanish Navy: the fleet tanker Marques de la Ensenada (A-11), the 16,700-ton aircraft carrier Principe de Asturias (R11), the Baleares-class frigate Asturias (F-74) and the Santa Maria-class frigate Reina Sofía (F84), 1 February 1992 on the lead up to Dragon Hammer ’92. If you note, the Iberian flattop has six Harriers on her deck along with an SH-3 and a UH-1.
U.S. Navy photo VIRIN: DN-ST-92-09810 by PH2 Jerry M. Ireland
All except the oiler were 1970s U.S. Navy designs, so you could characterize the task force as American by proxy. The Knox-class destroyer escort/fast frigate lines of Asturias are as evident as are the Oliver Hazard Perry-class FFG format of Reina Sofía.
As for Principe de Asturias, she sprung from the Zumwalt-era idea of the Sea Control Ship, a simple light carrier/through deck cruiser that could carry a composite squadron (ala the “Jeep Carriers” of WWII) of Marine AV-8A Harriers and Navy SH-3 Sea Kings to escort convoys, protect underway replenishment groups, and bust Soviet subs.
Sea control ship outline, Janes ’73
The entry of Guam as an “interim sea control ship” in the 1973-74 Jane’s
Zumwalt’s idea was to have as many as a dozen SCSs on hand to form hunter-killer groups to ensure, well, sea control, in the event of a big blowup leading to a Red Storm Rising style Battle of the Atlantic redux.
Come to think of it, we could use a dozen of the above groups today, just saying.
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.
1931 Jane’s, showing a plan for the carrier Langley
Named in honor of Samuel Pierpont Langley, an American aircraft pioneer, and engineer, “The Covered Wagon” started as an experimental platform but was quickly proven an invaluable weapons system that changed how the U.S. Navy fought at sea.
In the nearly 100 years since, from CV 1 to CVN 78, aircraft carriers have been the Navy’s preeminent power projection platform and have served the nation’s interest in times of war and peace. With an unequaled ability to provide warfighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict, and to adapt in an ever-changing world, aircraft carriers, their air wings, and associated strike groups are the foundation of US maritime strategy.
SECNAV Carlos Del Toro’s official message celebrating 100 years of U.S. Navy Carrier Aviation.
About those big decks…
Today, the U.S. Navy has more big deck flattops than any other fleet in the world– a title it has held since about 1943 or so without exception– including 10 beautiful Nimitz-class supercarriers (all of which have conducted combat operations) plus one Gerald R. Ford-class carrier in commission (and finally nearing her first deployment) and two more Fords building.
It is expected the Fords will replace the Nimitz class on a one-per-one basis. Of the current 10, five are in PIA, DPIA, or RCOH phases of deep maintenance, leaving just five capable of deployment. Still, even with half these big carriers tied down, the five large-deck CVNs on tap are capable of more combat sorties than every other non-U.S. flattop currently afloat combined.
For reference, check out this great series of top-down shots by MC3 Bela Chambers of the eighth Nimitz-class supercarrier USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75), the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle (R 91), and the Italian aircraft carrier ITS Cavour (C 550) transiting the Ionian Sea during recent NATO tri-carrier operations.
Commissioned in 1998, HST, like her sisters, is over 100,000-tons full load and is capable of carrying 90 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft. Currently embarked with CVW-1 aboard, you can see her deck filled with over 30 F-18E/Fs from VFA-11 (Red Rippers), VFA-211 (Fighting Checkmates), VFA-34 (Blue Blasters), VFA-81 (Sunliners), and EA-18Gs of VAQ-137 (Rooks) along with MH-60S/Rs of HSC-11 (Dragonslayers) and HMS-72 (Proud Warriors) and E-2D “Advanced” Hawkeyes of VAW-126 (Seahawks). The current wing is deployed with 46 F-18E/F, 5 EA-18G, 5 E-2Ds, 8 MH-60Ss and 11 MH-60Rs. Once an F-35C squadron gets integrated with CVW-1, replacing one of the Rhino units, it makes all sorts of other changes. Add to this MQ-25 Stingray drone refuelers and you see big things on the horizon.
For comparison, Charles de Gaulle, commissioned in 2001, is the only nuclear-powered carrier not operated by the U.S. Navy. At 42,000 tons she is smaller than the conventionally-powered Chinese carriers or the new Royal Navy QE2 class vessels, but the French have been operating her for two decades (off and on), including combat operations, and she is probably at this point the most capable foreign carrier afloat. However, she typically deploys with only around 30 aircraft, including the navalised Dassault Rafale (M model), American-built E-2C Hawkeyes, and a mix of a half-dozen light and medium helicopters. Her current “Clemenceau 22” deployment includes just 20 F3R Rafales of 12F and 17F.
The newest of the three vessels seen here, is the Italian aircraft carrier ITS Cavour (C 550), commissioned in 2008. Some 30,000-tons full load, she was built with lessons learned by the Italians after operating their much smaller (14,000-ton) “Harrier Carrier” Giuseppe Garibaldi, which joined the Marina Militare in 1985. Whereas Garibaldi was able to carry up to 18 aircraft, a mix of helicopters and Harriers, Cavour was designed for STOVL fixed-wing use with 10 F-35Bs (which Italy is slowly fielding) and a dozen big Agusta AW101 (Merlins). She is seen above with a quartet of aging Italian AV-8Bs, which explains why Garibaldi, currently in Norway on a NATO exercise there, is there sans Harriers.
It should be noted that, when talking about smaller but capable carriers such as Charles de Gaulle and Cavour, the U.S. Navy also has a fleet of “non-carriers” that can clock in for such power projection as well.
Further, there are seven remaining Wasp-class and two America-class amphibious assault ships, which can be used as a light carrier of sorts, filled with up to 20 AV-8Bs or F-35Bs (after updates), with the latter concept termed a “Lightning Carrier.” A slow vessel, these ‘phibs are not main battle force ships, and they cannot generate triple digits of sorties per day, but they are a powerful force multiplier, especially if they free up a big deck carrier for heavier work. While not as beefy or well-rounded an airwing as a Nimitz or (hopefully) Ford-class supercarrier, these LHD/LHA sea control ships can provide a lot of projection if needed– providing there are enough F-35Bs to fill their decks.
Thirteen U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 122, Marine Aircraft Group 13, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), are staged aboard the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) as part of routine training in the eastern Pacific, Oct. 8, 2019. (U.S. Marine Corps photo illustration by Lance Cpl. Juan Anaya)
An F-4N Phantom II (BuNo. 151008) of Fighter Squadron (VF) 111, the “Sundowners,” part of Carrier Air Wing 19 (CVW-19), launching from the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV 42) operating in the Mediterranean Sea. This marked the final cruise for the aging Midway-class carrier, the first named for a President of the United States.
This photo was taken 45 years ago this month, in February 1977.
U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation photo No. 1996.253.7279.033
While the above was a magnificent photo of a beautiful full-color bird, there were lots of changes on the way.
On 30 June 1977, CVW-19 was disestablished.
FDR decommissioned on 30 September 1977 and was later sold for scrap.
Official caption: “Mediterranean Sea. U.S. Marine Corporal J.E. Goldsburg cleans the windshield of an AV-8A Harrier Advanced Vertical Take-Off and Landing Close Support Aircraft on the flight deck of USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV 42).”
Photographed by PH3 Greg Haas, November 9, 1976. U.S. Navy Photograph, 428-GX-USN 116818, now in the collections of the National Archives
The shot was taken during VMA-231’s Bicentennial Med cruise which saw the Ace of Spade’s squadron integrate their brand-new Hawker Siddeley-made early model Harriers with Carrier Air Wing 19 in regular operations.
After stops in Spain, Italy, Sicily, Kenya, and Egypt, the Aces cross-decked to the amphibious assault ship USS Guam (LPH-9), which at the time was the testbed for the ADM Zumwalt’s Sea Control Ship concept. Guam, acting as one of the world’s first “Harrier Carriers,” would pass through the Red Sea and participate in Kenya’s Jamhuri Day Independence celebration.
USS Guam (LPH-9) with AV-8A Harriers, 12.9.76. Note the four airborne Harriers in a diamond formation, flown by VMA-231 “Ace of Spades” squadron Marines, and at least five more on deck. Catalog #: USN 1169189
As for the Aces of VMA-231, they are one of the last Harrier operators in the world.
The more things change…
U.S. Marine Cpl. Blake R. Phillips, a power line mechanic with Marine Attack Squadron 231, maintains an AV-8B Harrier II, Camp Leatherneck, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, March 5, 2013. Phillips maintains aircraft as part of his daily inspections. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Gabriela Garcia/Released)
As we did Warship Wednesday on a Monday this week, try these historical maritime shots on for size, taken 44 years ago today.
Official Caption: “USS GUAM (LPH-9) Operating with Marine AV-8A Harrier VTOL aircraft in the Mediterranean Sea, 9 December 1976, she drew these planes from USS FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT for her goodwill visit to Kenya.”
Note the four airborne Harriers in a diamond formation, flown by VMA-231 “Ace of Spades” squadron Marines, and at least five more on deck. Catalog #: USN 1169189
Guam, a 17,000-ton Iwo Jima-class large amphibious transport (helo), commissioned 16 January 1965 and had already been extensively used by the Navy, first off the Dominican Republic in the intervention there, then in the space program.
Marine AV-8A Harrier of VMA-513 hovering over USS Guam (LPH-9) 1972
Importantly, she had served between 1971 and 1973 as the Interim Sea Control Ship, derived from ADM Elmo Zumwalt’s idea for a 15,000-ton light carrier equipped with Sea Kings for ASW and Harriers for self-defense/anti-shipping, which made her ideal for embarking the V/STOL craft once again in squadron-quantity in 1976.
The entry for Guam as sea control ship in the 1973-74 Jane’s
USS Guam (LPH-9) Underway in the Indian Ocean, off the east coast of Africa, on 9 December 1976. Her crew is forming KENYA 76 on the flight deck in conjunction with her visit to Mombasa, Kenya for the celebration of that nation’s independence. Adams-class destroyer USS Claude V. Ricketts (DDG-5) is steaming in company. Guam is shown carrying 13 AV-8A Harrier jet aircraft and two Marine CH-53D helicopters on her flight deck. FDR had deployed with 14, meaning one Harrier is either airborne or below-deck. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, Photographer: PH3 Greg Haas, Atlantic Fleet Audio Visual Command. NH 107675
Guam would go on to serve off Somalia and in the first Gulf War, then was decommissioned and stricken on the same day, 25 August 1998, and disposed of as a target three years later.
As for the accident-prone AV-8As, derived from the original British Hawker Siddeley aircraft, the Marines purchased 102 AV-8A and 8 TAV-8A models between 1971 (just two years after the Harrier GR.1 entered service with the RAF) and 1976, later replacing them with the larger, marginally safer, more advanced, and more American-built McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II in the mid-1980s.
Which brings us back to the Aces of VMA-231, who are still flying the Harrier today, one of the few who are.
Marine Attack Squadron (VMA) 231 “Ace of Spades” AV-8B+ at Boca Chica Field, NAS Key West, Dec.1, 2020. U.S. Navy photo by Danette Baso Silvers
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…
HMS Illustrious, an Invincible-class Britsh Harrier Carrier with a Sea Harrier lifting off her ski jump
Britain’s last “Harrier Carrier” ex-HMS Illustrious (R06), the fifth warship and second flattop to bear the name in the Royal Navy since 1789, had been courted by three different cities in the UK for use as a floating museum ship in the past couple years. Alas, that is not to be.
She was the oldest ship in the Royal Navy’s active fleet when she was paid off 28 August 2014 after 32 years’ service and will not be replaced until HMS Queen Elizabeth is formally commissioned in May 2017.
The only operational aircraft carrier in the British fleet, she lost her fixed wing air arm when the MoD retired the Harrier fleet in 2006 and served as an LPH after that, only operating helicopters. The last of the 1980s era Invincible class of 20,000-ton harrier-carriers, she was to be kept as a museum ship but that fell through and the Crown has sold her to the Turks for £2 million.
She will leave Portsmouth for the breakers this fall.