Tag Archives: strike cruiser

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 oddity that was the Flying Deck Cruiser

Between the end of WWI and the beginning of WWII, the U.S. Navy experimented with a number of, ultimately spurned, designs to create a hybrid aviation carrier or cruiser carrier– basically a cruiser hull, engineering suite, and partial main battery, but with an aircraft carrier flight deck and abbreviated hangar. Basically, a light carrier that could escort itself while still outrunning most submarines and battleships of the day– a perfect weapon! Also, there was the prospect of using such designs to thread loopholes in the various naval treaties of the day and getting the most bang for the buck.

Here are some of the concepts, designated as Light Aircraft Carrier (CLV) in the 1930s:

The initial 1931 design, with nine 8″ guns forward and a short, angled deck:

“Proposed Flight Deck Cruiser, type CF”

NHHC S-511-4

Proposed Flight Deck Cruiser Preliminary design plan prepared for the General Board during the final effort to develop a flight deck cruiser (CF). This plan, dated 19 December 1939, is for a 12,000-ton standard displacement ship (14,220-ton trial displacement) with a main battery of three 8/55 guns, a secondary battery of eight 5/38 guns and an aircraft complement of 24 to 36. Ship’s dimensions are waterline length 640′; waterline beam 67′; draft 21′ 8. Powerplant has 100,000 horsepower for a speed of 33 knots. The scale of the original drawings is 1/32 = 1′. The original plan is in the 1939-1944 Spring Styles Book held by the Naval History and Heritage Command. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

“Proposed Flight Deck Cruiser Preliminary design plan prepared for the General Board during the final effort to develop a flight deck cruiser (CF)”

NHHC#: S-511-9.

This plan, dated 8 December 1939, is for a 12,000-ton standard displacement ship with a main battery of three 8/55 guns and a secondary battery of eight 5/38 guns (six specified in the table). Ship’s waterline length is 640′. The data table leaves other characteristics blank, and the plan is annotated Void – sec. batt arr. changed. The scale of the original drawings is 1/32 = 1′. The original plan is in the 1939-1944 Spring Styles Book held by the Naval History and Heritage Command.

“Proposed Flight Deck Cruiser, CF-2 Preliminary design plan prepared for the General Board during the final effort to develop a flight deck cruiser (CF).”

NHHC S-511-5

This plan, dated 31 January 1940, is for a 12,200-ton standard displacement ship (14,560-ton trial displacement) with a main battery of six 6/47 guns, a secondary battery of four 5/38 guns and an aircraft complement of 36 scout-bombers. Ship’s dimensions are waterline length 640′; waterline beam 67′; draft 22′. The powerplant has 100,000 horsepower for a speed of 33 knots. The scale of the plan and side elevation drawings is 1/32 = 1′. The original plan is in the 1939-1944 Spring Styles Book held by the Naval History and Heritage Command.

As noted by Global Security:

In 1933 Retired Admiral Hilary Jones called the ship “a hermaphrodite – neither a real cruiser nor a real airplane carrier. It has all the weaknesses of both and none of the efficient characteristics of either.” Admiral Joseph M. Reeves, commander-in-chief of the United States Fleet, summed up the case against the flying-deck cruiser in a memo to the General Board dated 08 October 1934 “Each study shows it to be a hybrid type entirely unsuitable as a cruiser or a carrier.” The idea of the flying deck cruiser, though kept alive until 1940, finally disappeared into the land of what-might-have-been.

Of course, the Navy did turn actual cruiser hulls into light carriers, sans armament (the Independence-class), while the Japanese did convert some battleships (Ise and Hyūga) into hybrids during the War.

The Brits even flirted with the idea for their canceled 52,000-ton Lion-class battleships. On 8 January 1941, Rear Admiral Bruce Fraser, Third Sea Lord and Controller of the Navy asked the DNC to work up a hybrid aircraft carrier based on the Lion-class hull, these included versions with a top flight deck and either 6 or 9 BL 16-inch Mk II guns as well as batteries of QF 5.25-inch Mk I dual purpose guns and smaller 2-pdr pom-poms.

The British carrier-battleship pipe dream C. 1943

Further, in the Cold War, the Russians produced the ill-fated and relatively unsuccessful Kiev-class of carrier-battlecruisers while the British billed their Invincible-class “harrier carriers” as through-deck cruisers, a concept that the U.S. experimented with in the 1970s as a “strike cruiser” for VSTOL aircraft, but never got off the ground.

Soviet Kiev-class “Aircraft Carrier” Novorossiysk, more cruiser than flattop.

HMS Invincible with her Sea Harrier airwing, more flattop than cruiser…

The U.S. “strike cruiser” concept of the 1970s, which never grew beyond the model phase.

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.

5847322839_80b4a4a790_z

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)