Navies Worldwide Invest In Sea-Based Airpower
By Andy Nativi, Jay Menon, Bill Sweetman
Source: Defense Technology International
April 01, 2012
Andy Nativi•Genoa, jay Menon•New Delhi and Bill Sweetman•Washington
Not that long ago, the number of nations wielding sea-based airpower seemed to be headed inexorably downward. Today, the reverse is true. China is a brand-new member of the club. Brazil is sustaining its membership, a decade after retiring a carrier that the U.K. completed in 1945. India is expanding its aircraft carrier fleet, and the nations that acquired or maintained sea-based airpower with the short-take-off-and-vertical-landing (Stovl) Harrier may renew that capability with the Lockheed Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighter.
However, a common factor for almost all these nations is that they are just starting, or have yet to start, down a long and expensive road. It is not just that carrier-based aircraft are expensive, but that buying fighters and ships is only half the story.
Although public attention is always focused on the construction cost of carriers, its aircraft are a bigger investment. In 2013, the U.S. Navy wants $967 million for its aircraft carrier program and about $6 billion for procurement of carrier-based aircraft (not including Marine Corps F-35Bs). The operating costs involved in training and supporting the carrier's personnel, fuel and aircraft spares and refits are higher still. And the basic math says that you need three carrier groups for every full-time station.
Nations see the cost as justified, as sea trade and offshore resources gain importance and as as the use of insurgency-type attacks for national ends turns land-based deployed forces into targets. The question is whether all would-be carrier club members recognize that building the ship is the initiation fee and that the annual dues are a killer.
Money has already sparked a conflict within the British defense establishment over the aircraft type for the Royal Navy's new carriers (see p. 27). It may not be the last such discussion. With Britain still officially committed to the catapult-arrest F-35C—at least as of late March—Italy is leading the way among sea-based Harrier operators. The carrier Cavour has been designed around the Stovl F-35B.
Italy, Spain and India remain the sole operators of first or second-generation Harrier Stovl fighter-bombers, with Thailand having no longer a real operational capability.
Italy's Cavour is a hybrid vessel. It does not have a well deck but is designed to support amphibious operations. It has a full load displacement of 27,000 tons and is 244 meters (800 ft.) long. Its hangar can accommodate up to 10 F-35Bs, with flight-deck parking for another six F-35Bs and two helicopters.
Cavour illustrates the fact that small carriers must be bigger than they used to be, to sustain real air operations. Compared with Italy's “Harrier carrier,” the Garibaldi, Cavour is 64 meters longer and the flight deck has a total surface of 6,800 square meters (73,200 sq. ft.), with 4,450 square meters devoted to flight operations, versus 1,870 square meters on the Garibaldi.
The Italian navy plans to buy 22 F-35Bs to replace 16 remaining Harriers. Its long-term planning includes acquisition of two large JSF-capable LHDs and an LHA (similar but with no well deck) to replace the Garibaldi and three smaller LHDs. This will allow Italy to have at least one carrier operational at any time.
The Spanish navy is moving from its carrier Principe de Asturias to the large LHD Juan Carlos. It is currently operating 16 EAV-8B Plus aircraft, but would like to buy as many as 20 F-35Bs, budget permitting. The Juan Carlos is estimated to be able to operate no more than a dozen F-35Bs, because of its size and the fact that it has a well deck.
Multiple nations are acquiring large LHDs that could carry F-35Bs. Australia is to commission the LHDs Canberra and Adelaide in 2014 and 2015 respectively, which are based on the Juan Carlos design, even including the ski-jump bow—which is valuable for Stovl operations, but a penalty the rest of the time, since the sloping deck space is unavailable for anything else.
Japan has in service the Hyuga-class destroyer—a 200- meter-long, 20,000-ton vessel that can host 11 rotorcraft, and could lead to an F-35B-capable design. Japan, like Australia, is to acquire the F-35A for the air force. South Korea has yet another Asian navy that is considering building a large LHD, beyond the 18,000-ton Dokdo LPH.
China and India could start a “carrier race” in the Pacific Rim. A dual-role ship class—a large LHA/LHD capable of operating jets—is a cheaper, less politically and strategically sensitive naval vessel that can provide substantial capabilities if fitted with a supersonic, stealth fighter bomber.
The question is how many countries will buy F-35Bs to operate from LHDs. The LHD is a multimission ship that has to carry landing craft, helicopters, troops and vehicles and a command center and staff. Even in a ship of close to 30,000 tons, space is at a premium.
The F-35B is a complex aircraft, as heavy and powerful as a Super Hornet, and will have similar demands for maintenance personnel and space, test equipment, spares and fuel. The U.S. Marines, working with 50,000-ton ships, tried trading the well deck on the LHA-6 and LHA-7 for extra fuel and aviation space, but will not repeat that with LHA-8 and beyond.
Compared with true carriers LHDs have narrower flight decks, which limit the pace of flight operations. Another important factor will be the acquisition and operating cost of the F-35B, which has yet to be defined.
India is taking a different approach to expanding its carrier operations—although it is one that tends to underline India's reputation for a scattershot approach to acquisitions.
Sea trials of the carrier INS Vikramaditya, formerly the Russian Kiev-class Admiral Gorshkov, are scheduled to begin in the Barents Sea on May 29 and last two to three weeks. Its much-delayed handover to the Indian navy is due on Dec. 4.
Major changes to the ship include the removal of cruise missile tube and surface-to-air missile vertical launchers and the installation of a forward flight deck and ski-jump for short-takeoff-but-assisted-recovery (Stobar) operations. The ship can carry 24 MiG-29K/KUBs—developed specially for India—and six to eight Kamov Ka-31 airborne early warning helicopters.
The first MiG-29K/KUB fighter jets are already operating at the naval aviation base at Goa. These are from an initial batch of 11 aircraft ordered at the same time that the carrier deal was signed. India and Russia inked an additional $1.5 billion deal for 29 more MiG-29K/KUBs in March 2010. Delivery of the second batch of MiG fighters will start this year. The contracts include pilot training and aircraft maintenance, including the delivery of flight simulators and interactive ground and sea-based training systems.
These upgrades include a new avionics kit, with the N-109 radar being replaced by Phazotron Zhuk-M radar. The aircraft will also feature enhanced beyond-visual-range combat ability and air-to-air refueling.
The MiG-29K will also operate from India's indigenous aircraft carrier. Construction of the first of these 40,000-ton, 260-meter-long ships, named Vikrant, started in April 2005.
The new carrier will cost $762 million and will operate MiG-29K, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) Naval Tejas and Sea Harrier aircraft along with the Indian-developed HAL Dhruv helicopter.
India has indicated that at least two further carriers of the same or similar designs to INS Vikrant are planned. The first of these, to be named INS Viraat started construction in 2011 and is due to be commissioned in 2017. A $2 billion deal for the purchase of 45 more MiG-29Ks for the new carriers is near signature with Russia.
The only current naval fighters in Indian service—Sea Harriers—have been upgraded with new radar and missile systems and have started operating with air force Ilyushin Il-78 tankers.
A rather different carrier program, meanwhile, is being quietly undertaken in Brazil. In 2000, Brazil acquired the 1963-vintage carrier Clemenceau from France, along with low-use ex-Kuwaiti A-4 Skyhawks. Renamed Sao Paulo, the ship underwent a major refit from 2005 to 2010. Meanwhile, in 2009, a contract was issued to Embraer for a comprehensive upgrade of 12 A-4s, nine being two-seaters and three being single-seaters. The first modified aircraft is due to fly in August, with production deliveries in 2013-14.
The upgraded aircraft have a new full-color cockpit, a head-up display, a new electrical generating system and an onboard oxygen-generating system. Sensors include Elta's EL/M-2032 radar and a radar-warning receiver. They are intended to carry the Brazilian-developed Mectron MAA-1B air-to-air missile, and will be equipped for air defense and surface attack.
Also, last October, Brazil signed a contract with Marsh Aviation to modernize and re-engine four ex-U.S. Grumman C-1A Trader aircraft—the carrier onboard delivery version of the 1950s Tracker—and to provide training and logistics services. Marsh will install new avionics, Honeywell TPE331 engines, and centerline hose and drogue units, on the aircraft, to be redesignated KC-2. Deliveries are expected in 2014. An airborne early warning platform KC-2 is in the plans.
While the Brazilian naval air arm may have a retro look to it, it is not to be discounted. The country is well on the way to developing a full capability for Catobar operations, with definite advantages over Stobar. The Skyhawk is subsonic—but so is any land-based adversary in oceanic operations, unless the pilot feels like walking home. Unlike either Stovl or Stobar ships, the Sao Paulo will have a tanker, literally a life-saver if there are jets in the pattern and the deck is fouled by a malfunctioning aircraft. So far, Brazil's investment has surely been less than the price of a very small number of F-35Bs.
Copyright © 2012, Aviation Week, a division of The McGraw-Hill Companies.
Total MIG29K now 90