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.
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…
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)
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.
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…