Defence Industry

The Global Aircraft Carrier Perspective
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Issue Vol 21.4 Oct-Dec2006 | Date : 30 May , 2012

Navies have Aircraft Carriers to provide instantly available air power to fleets at sea.  The number of aircraft carriers that a Navy requires derives from how many are needed during war to counter adversaries and also whether their peacetime presence in areas of national interest has to be permanent or occasional.

In the 1939-45 World War, Japan had strategic interest in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Britain had strategic interest in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. America had strategic interest in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. America, Japan and Britain had a large number of aircraft carriers. The Soviet Union and China had no strategic oceanic interest and hence no carriers.

During the Cold War from 1946 to 1991, America had two strategic naval objectives. The first was to encircle from seaward the Soviet Union, Communist China, North Korea and North Vietnam. The second was to prevent the Soviet Union from disrupting the movement of tankers carrying oil from the Persian Gulf to the rest of the world.

During this war, Japan’s aircraft carriers inflicted heavy damage. By the end of the war, American carrier-borne aircraft had sunk Japan’s carriers. America emerged as the world’s dominant naval power and took over the global oceanic naval responsibilities that Imperial Britain had assumed from 1815 onwards after Europe’s Napoleonic wars.

After this World War, Britain disposed of its surplus aircraft carriers to India and other countries, each of whom started its naval air arm with a single, second-hand, British aircraft carrier.

During the Cold War from 1946 to 1991, America had two strategic naval objectives. The first was to encircle from seaward the Soviet Union, Communist China, North Korea and North Vietnam. The second was to prevent the Soviet Union from disrupting the movement of tankers carrying oil from the Persian Gulf to the rest of the world.

Encirclement required the permanent presence of American aircraft carriers in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, in the Mediterranean Sea and in the South China Sea. Ensuring uninterrupted oil supplies required their occasional presence in the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf.

These prolonged distant deployments and the need for speedy redeployment to distant trouble spots led America to develop nuclear propulsion for its aircraft carriers.

In the 1960s, the Soviet Union decided that its national interest required oceanic presence and it began constructing aircraft carriers. Britain and France built fewer, smaller carriers.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 ended the Cold War.  America, emerged as the world’s sole superpower and, along with Britain and France, reviewed the number and type of carriers they would need in the early decades of the next century. Communist China also decided to acquire aircraft carriers.

The ensuing perspective till 2020 deals mainly with selected navies likely to operate their carriers in the Indian Ocean. The overview at the end makes a mention of the remaining navies and also takes note of helicopter carriers.

Contemporary Aircraft Carrier Design

Aircraft carriers have to be designed for the type and numbers of aircraft to be operated. In round figures, naval carrier borne aircraft have a life of 25 years. Aircraft carriers are designed for a life of 50 years. Aircraft carrier design has, therefore, to cater for operating two generations of carrier-borne aircraft.

Naval carrier-borne aircraft are usually navalised variants of Air Force shore-based aircraft – they cost less because of the economies of scale in development and production. In special cases like Airborne Early Warning (AEW), a naval variant has had to be developed separately.

An aircraft carrier is a floating airfield. Aircraft are launched by a catapult; they land by engaging their tail hooks in one of the arrestor wires spread across the rear end of the flight deck.

To operate Short Take-off/Vertical Landing (STOVL) combat aircraft, the carrier has to have a ski jump at the front end of the flight deck to assist short take-off  –  this dispenses with the need for a catapult. Vertical landing dispenses with the need for arrestor wires. Dispensing with the catapult and the arrestors reduces the length of the carrier and, therefore, hits tonnage and cost. In this case, the airborne early warning task has to be performed by dedicated AEW helicopters.

To operate longer range, heavier armed, combat and AEW aircraft, the carrier needs to have both catapult and arrestor gear – the length of the carrier increases as does its tonnage and cost.

Given the uncertainty of which type of aircraft would be operating 25 years into the future, carrier design has emerged in three variants:

  • One is STOBAR – Short Take-off but Arrested Recovery. In this case, the tonnage of the carrier can be kept low by foregoing the catapult and retaining arrestor wires for the aircraft to hook on to. However, it would never be possible to retrofit a catapult.
  • The other is CATOBAR – Catapult Assisted Take-off but Arrested Recovery. In this case, the carrier initially has a ski jump and arrestors to operate the present generation of aircraft in the STOBAR mode.  It would also be long enough to retrofit a catapult for the next generation of aircraft in the CATOBAR mode.
  • A third hybrid variant is a carrier having a STOVL ski-jump with an angled flight deck, catapults and arrestor wires. This design permits operation of STOVL fighter aircraft and CATOBAR AEW aircraft.

American Aircraft Carriers

From the 1960s onwards, the American Navy has invested heavily in large, nuclear propelled aircraft carriers carrying a large number of high performance combat aircraft having advanced weapons and systems. The rationale has been

  • Global strategic interests
  • Coercive and deterrent effect when deployed to a trouble spot.
  • Ability to operate the largest possible range of aircraft in the widest possible range of roles.
  • Ability to operate offensive aircraft abroad when foreign basing may be denied.
  • Instant availability of all required space and infrastructure for air operations. Where foreign bases are available for land-based combat aircraft, they are not always available early in a conflict and infrastructure is often lacking.

The nuclear powered carriers of the 1970s Enterprise class were followed by the super-carriers of the Nimitz class, of which nine have been built. Construction of the last carrier of this class commenced in 2001 – it is expected to commission in 2009.

The Nimitz Class

These 100,000 ton super-carriers have a maximum speed of 30 knots (56 km per hour) and, being nuclear powered, almost unlimited range.

Their typical air wing comprises 20 to 24 aircraft for air-to-air combat or ground attack; 20 to 24 aircraft for air defence of the carrier and its accompanying strike group; 14 aircraft for all-weather bomber attack; 5 aircraft for electronic warfare; 8 aircraft for anti-submarine warfare; and 4 helicopters for search-and-rescue and for anti-submarine warfare. Other aircraft on board include support aircraft and vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) Harrier attack aircraft used by the US marines

Of the total manpower of 5700 on board a carrier of this class, 3,200 operate and maintain the ship and 2500 operate and maintain the air wing.

The CVN 21 Class

The Nimitz class is going to be followed by the CVN 21 class. Three of these 100,000 ton super-carriers are envisaged for delivery in 2015, 2018 and 2021. Construction of the first ship is to commence in 2009 and be delivered in 2015.

Whilst retaining the basic hull design of the preceding Nimitz-class. the CVN-21’s updated features include a newly designed nuclear reactor, “stealth” design to reduce radar profile, electromagnetic catapults and improved arrestor gear. The tentative cost, at today’s prices, is estimated as 8 billion dollars (approximately 36,000 crores).

In view of the high cost and the 50-year life of these “next generation carriers”, the US Navy researched many key areas. Two of the major ones were:

  • It carried out an unprecedented survivability test. The aged aircraft carrier USS America was subjected to a month-long bombardment to understand how much damage a super-carrier could withstand before succumbing to battle damage – she was eventually scuttled in May 2005. The lessons of this test are being incorporated in the design of the CVN 21 class.
  • To reduce manpower costs by extensive use of automation, condition-based maintenance, changes in operational procedures, semi-automatic refuelling and servicing of aircraft, material movement devices, semi-autonomous gravity-compensated weapon handling devices and automated damage control systems and components, modern equipment, and new materials. The aim is to reduce the number of officers and sailors required to operate and maintain the carrier and its air wing to about half that of the 5700 of the Nimitz class.

Russian Aircraft Carriers

By the 1980s, the Soviet Navy (now the Russian Navy) had three 42,000-ton Kiev class aircraft carriers – Kiev (1975), Minsk (1978) and Novorossiysk (1982). They were designed to operate VTOL YAK 38 aircraft, analogous to the British Sea Harriers that had entered service in other navies in the early 1980s.

The fourth ship of the class, Baku (1987), was a larger 44,500-ton angled deck improvement on the Kiev design to operate the YAK 141 supersonic V/STOL version of the earlier YAK 38 aircraft. Due to financial constraints, development of the YAK 141 was stopped and Baku’s air operations were limited to KA 27 helicopters.

The successors to the Kiev class were the two larger 67,000-ton angled deck carriers  –  the Tbilisi later renamed Kuznetsov (1991) and the Varyag. Both were designed with a ski jump for launch and arrestor gear for recovery of the navalised variants of Air Force SU 27 and MIG 29 aircraft.

In 1988, construction had also commenced of the Ulyanovsk, an 85,000-ton, nuclear powered successor to the Kuznetzov class.

  • With the end of the Cold War in 1991 and Russia’s ensuing economic crisis:
  • The Kiev class carriers were placed in reserve.
  • Varyag’s construction was interrupted. She was structurally complete but without electronics.
  • The half-completed Ulyanovsk was scrapped.
  • Development of the supersonic YAK aircraft was discontinued.
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