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Carrier comeback: Investing in power projection

07 November 2017 Jane's Editorial Staff

Established and emerging maritime powers are continuing to invest in big-deck aircraft carriers. Richard Scott reports.

This is an extract from an article from Jane's Defence Weekly and is available via Jane's Defence Equipment and Technology Intelligence Centre.

The aircraft carrier became established as the pre-eminent naval power-projection asset during the Second World War, yet for much of the period since 1945 there has been fierce debate over the military value and cost-effectiveness of organic fixed-wing naval air power.

Critics have argued long and hard that the high cost associated with carrier construction, workup, operation, and support does not translate in terms of cost or mission effectiveness and that an aircraft carrier consumes disproportionate force structure through its requirement for accompanying escorts and afloat support. Furthermore, the primacy and cost of the carrier may adversely affect investment in other capabilities.

Cost is not the only stick used to beat the carrier. Some commentators argue that the carrier and its air group are increasingly put at risk by advanced and proliferating anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threats. They further contend that land-based strike aircraft and long-range cruise missiles represent a viable alternative to the naval air wing, characterising the aircraft carrier as an arcane and potentially vulnerable leviathan in a new age of asymmetric adversaries and cyber warfare.

However, proponents have remained equally convinced that the carrier and its embarked air group continue to offer a uniquely mobile, flexible, reconfigurable, and truly independent platform for sustained operations at reach. These advocates further claim that the carrier, through its ability to enable the projection of tactical air power independent of access, basing, and overflight rights endures as a 'platform of necessity' in an era of expeditionary operations where host-nation support may be unavailable or comes with significant political and/or military constraints and risks attached.

Supporters also contend that the aircraft carrier must be recognised as a political instrument by which to demonstrate diplomatic posture and military resolve. In that sense it can be seen as an embodiment of national prestige - indeed, a mechanism by which to exert political influence on the world stage - as much as a pure instrument of naval power.

What is undeniable is that the business of generating and sustaining fixed-wing air power from the sea is costly and complex. Much more than just a floating airfield, the aircraft carrier and its embarked air wing only realise their potential from an intricate choreography - blending equipment, manpower, training and rehearsal, organisation, procedure, infrastructure, and doctrine - that must function coherently to deliver a safe and effective capability.

The air group is the weapon system of the carrier, so the primary metric by which to quantify its output is the sortie generation rate (SGR). This is conditioned by a whole host of interacting factors, including the following: the size of the air group; the number of aircrew; aircraft maintenance intervals; fuelling and preparation on deck; the number of aircraft maintainers or number of aircraft that can be maintained simultaneously; sortie duration; the preparation, delivery, and loading of ordnance on the flight deck; the movement of aircraft between the hangar and flight deck; the positioning and re-positioning of aircraft on the flight deck; launch and recovery cycles; air traffic control; aircrew rest periods and limits on aircrew cumulative flying hours; the number of days that sorties need to be flown; mission pre-briefing and post-briefing time; and underway replenishment at sea.

Operations must in turn be supported by a comprehensive strike planning and air-management infrastructure. This places significant demands on connectivity and bandwidth and the provision of organic facilities to enable the timely exploitation of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance feeds.

Furthermore, the carrier and its air wing do not operate in isolation, but deploy as the centrepiece of a carrier group that will typically also feature anti-air and anti-submarine escorts, as well as afloat support shipping. That group will also require support from a submarine and long-range maritime patrol aircraft.

Therefore, the big-deck carrier club brings high costs of admission and membership that few navies can afford. Over the past half century Argentina, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands have all elected to divest, or have found themselves unable to sustain, a carrier capability owing to resource shortfalls and/or material obsolescence.

Brazil has found itself the latest nation to exit fixed-wing carrier operations, with the Marinha do Brasil announcing in February that it had abandoned plans for the modernisation and service life extension of the carrier Sao Paulo (ex- Foch ). This decision reflected the age and material condition of Sao Paulo and the costs, technical risks, and extended timeframe that would have been associated with the modernisation of a ship that is already more than 55 years old.

The introduction of navalised short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft from the 1970s onwards offered a means by which to take air power to sea - albeit with limitations - without the full costs associated with conventional catapult launch but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) methods. India, Italy, the Soviet Union, Spain, and the United Kingdom all went on to acquire STOVL carriers and air groups.

Thailand was also briefly a member of the club, having acquired a handful of AV-8S Harrier fighters from Spain in the late 1990s attendant to the procurement of the small carrier Chakri Naruebet . However, these were retired in 2006, leaving Chakri Naruebet operating helicopters only.

The United Kingdom has found itself devoid of a fixed-wing carrier capability since the retirement of HMS Ark Royal in 2010. With the support of the US and French navies, it is in the midst of regenerating a carrier strike capability with the objective of achieving an initial operational capability (IOC) by the end of 2020.

China's People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), meanwhile, has become the latest navy to join the handful that operate large-deck carriers. In common with Russia and India, it has adopted short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) as the operating method for the embarked fixed-wing air group. STOBAR requires aircraft to launch under their own power over a ski-ramp at the end of the flight deck while recovery is performed using arrestor wires.

This is an extract from an article from Jane's Defence Weekly and is available via Jane's Defence Equipment and Technology Intelligence Centre. Learn more.

Jane's Editorial Staff
Posted 7 November 2017


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