Tag Archives: sea control ship

Harrier Carrier, 1976

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.

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.

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

It Only Took the Royal Navy 37 Years to Come Full Circle

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.

Then came the Falklands War, and with Ark Royal long gone and Invincible only able to carry a handful of aircraft, the aging Hermes was stacked with an impressive 26 Harriers (to include 10 RAF GR.3 ground-based variants) and 10 Sea Kings. Retired in 1983, she was sold to India two years later– a country that loved Hermes intently as INS Viraat until she was sent to the breakers this very month.

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.

However, last week the new supercarrier HMS Queen Elizabeth put to sea with the largest single air wing any British ship has carried since Hermes was put to pasture in 1983: 14 F-35B Lightning (reportedly “the largest air group of fifth-generation fighters at sea anywhere in the world”) and eight Merlin HM2 (“Grey Merlin”) ASW helicopters– two of which are “baggers” carrying experimental Crowsnest AEW radar sets.

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…

The Harrier Carrier. It’s still a thing

harrier 68mm sneb rocket volley

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).

harrierhide3

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.

The Hawker P-1127 (Harrier prototype) after landing successfully on HMS Ark Royal, 3 February 1962.

In 1974, the Marines began the first shipboard trials on the helicopter assault ship USS Guam and two years later 14 AV-8A Harriers from Marine Attack Squadron 231 (VMA-231) “Ace of Spades” embarked aboard the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV-42) from 1976 to 1977 to prove the concept of integrating the short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) Harrier into catapult and barrier configured carrier’s normal Air Wing operations.

harriers uss fdr franklin

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.

sea-control-ship

Heck, Zumwalt even wanted Harrier optimized Spruance-class destroyers in several different flavors, none of which ever got past the drawing board.

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through deck spruance vtol harrier destroyer aviationAs 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.

strike cruiser harrier

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

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 Britsh Harrier Carrier with a Sea Harrier lifting off her ski jump

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.

Then came others

India began operating its INS Vikrant with Sea Harriers in 1983 later joined by the retired Hermes (as INS Viraat).

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

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.

Plus of course, all five Tarawa-class and eight Wasp-class LHA/LHDs of the U.S. Navy were designed so they could operate as dedicated Sea Control Ships when needed. This was validated when some 20 AV-8Bs of VMA-331 operated from USS Nassau (LHA-4) in support of Operation Desert Storm, flying 240 combat sorties and dropping 900 bombs.

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 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 Indians hung up their last jump jet this May.

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)

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 Navy Is Doubling its Carriers

Back during the Lehman Navy of the Regan era, the 600-ship navy built around an incredible 15-Carrier Battle Groups was the pipe-dream that came very very close by 1989.

The Navy, down to about 240-ish ships now, is lamenting that they Only have 11 of the largest warships (Nimitz and Enterprise class CVNs) ever built and in the next few years this may shrink to 9 as the Enterprise is looking at retirement after 50-years of service and another carrier is down for an 18-month refueling period.

However, the Navy may soon be able to add 8 new carriers at the stroke of a pen, with another 2-12 on the drawing board.

The USS Wasp (remember the WWII Aircraft carrier of the same name?) LHD-8, officially an amphibious warfare ship, is returning to port after spending 18-days with two early F-35 Lightning aircraft on board.

http://www.navy.mil/search/display.asp?story_id=63444

The first F-35B landed on WASP’s flight deck Oct. 3, beginning an 18-day test period for the aircraft. During the testing, two F-35B Marine Corps test jets (BF-2 and BF-4) accomplished vertical landings and short take-offs under various conditions.

While underway, the world’s first supersonic short take-off, vertical landing (STOVL) fighter logged more than 28 hours of flight time and completed 72 short take-offs and 72 vertical landings. Wasp crew members worked around the clock with pilots, engineers, mechanics and a wide-array of aeronautical professionals, both military and civilian to meet the mission of the F-35B sea trials.

While the US Navy had for the past twenty years had almost a  dozen LHA/LHD hulls to carry out the task of “Sea Control” with a fleet of 190 Marine AV8 Harriers, the Harrier by and large is a daylight only, subsonic strike aircraft, not a dogfighter. The vaunted 3rd Generation F-35 is supposed to be everything the Harrier was not in a V/STOL platform.

The fact that the Wasp is the same size as the new French De Gaulle class carrier, as well as the same size as the WWII-era Essex class carriers that served in the US Navy until 1989 (see the USS Lexington) in one role or another is a valid point. With 2-3 squadrons of F35’s aboard along with a detachment of SH-60s as plane guards the 8 LHDs on the USNs payroll can earn their keep as emergency aircraft carriers if things ever get hot in the China Sea….  Looks like the Navy finally may have 15-carrier (or more) battlegroups in the works…