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Originally fielding a tiny force of surplus ex-Spanish AV-8S Matadors which were withdrawn from service in 2006, she has been largely relegated to use as a royal yacht and sometime LPH, reportedly only getting to sea about 12 days a year.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.
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)