Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Carrier-Based Fighter Aircraft – Peculiarities & Challenges

by Air Marshal Anil Chopra (r.), DG CAPS

Carrier-based aircraft are designed for operations from aircraft carriers. They must be able to launch in a short distance and be sturdy enough to withstand the abrupt forces of launching from and recovering on a pitching deck. In addition, their wings are generally able to fold up, easing operations in tight quarters.

There are variety of carrier-borne aircraft tasks including air-to-air combat, surface attack, anti-submarine warfare (ASW), search and rescue (SAR), Carrier onboard delivery (COD) transport, weather observation, reconnaissance and airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) duties. These could be fixed-wing or rotary wing aircraft. The vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft can operate from a variety of ships including helicopter carriers, destroyers, frigates and container ships. Other aircraft require a runway. 

Carrier Fighters Evolve

Fixed wing aviation began in 1903. Three distinct categories of naval combat aircraft emerged. The long-range overwater reconnaissance and antisubmarine aircraft operating from shore bases; shorter-range floatplane reconnaissance and fighter aircraft; and finally the ship-borne aircraft. The first flight of an aircraft from ship-deck took place from the deck of an anchored warship (the United States Navy’s USS Birmingham) in 1910. In 1912, there was the first flight from a moving a warship, the Royal Navy’s HMS Hibernia.

In early 1916 the first landplanes (British Sopwith Pups) were flown off the 200-foot (60-metre) decks of primitive carriers that had been converted from merchant ships, and on August 2, 1917, a pilot landed a Pup on the takeoff deck of HMS Furious while the ship was under way. The concept of the true aircraft carrier had been born. By the 1920s there were many ships operating aircraft. As the aircraft carriers evolved, there was a need to evolve specialized aircraft adapted for take-offs and landings from the flight decks.

By the 1930s, ship-based aircraft were fitted under the tail with arrester hooks that engaged cables strung across the landing deck in order to bring them to a halt after landing. Folding wings then enabled them to be taken by elevator to below-deck hangars. Japanese and U.S. aircraft carriers had mixed complements of single-seat fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo planes. 

Naval Aviation Action In WWII

By World War II, air power had become a significant means of prosecuting war deep into the sea. The aircraft carrier would give increased range, and weapon carrying capability far from shores. Meanwhile more and more ships were being lost to enemy air action. The carrier-based attack aircraft replaced the big guns of capital ships as the dominant offensive weapon of naval warfare.

This was first demonstrated by the destruction of Italian battleships at Taranto by Fairey Swordfish torpedo biplanes in November 1940; by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941; and by the decisive Battle of Midway in June 1942, in which surface vessels never exchanged gunfire while U.S. aircraft destroyed four Japanese aircraft carriers for the loss of only one of their own. Sinking of Soviet Destroyer ‘Marat’ by Stuka bomber piloted by Hans-Ulrich Rudel in June 1941, the sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse, were other among many attacks. 

In addition to the Grumman F6F Hellcat, Mitsubishi A6M “Zero”, and modified Spitfires and Hurricanes, notable carrier aircraft of the war included dive bombers such as the U.S. Douglas SBD Dauntless and the Japanese Aichi 99, as well as torpedo planes such as the Grumman TBF Avenger and the Nakajima B5N. Post WWII, the aircraft carriers became much larger. The much larger and modern ones were nuclear powered.

Carrier-Based Aircraft Launch Systems 

Modern carrier-based aircraft use different launch and recovery techniques. Catapult-assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) technique involves aircraft being launched using some form of catapult-assistance for take-off and landing on the ship using arresting wires. Initially, catapults were installed but were used only when the ship was stationary or adequate wind over the deck could not be arranged by sailing into the wind. During World War II the US Navy used a hydraulic catapult. Most modern CATOBAR carriers use the steam catapult.

The United States Navy (USN) also uses linear motor drive instead of steam, called the EMALS. This one is more costly but provides greater flexibility in carrier operations, since it allows the aircraft to operate with higher payloads. Some examples of CATOBAR based ships include the U.S. Nimitz class, the U.S. Gerald R. Ford-class, and France’s Charles de Gaulle. The U.S. Navy launches its E-2 Hawkeye AEW aircraft and C-2A Greyhound cargo aircraft with catapults.

Short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) is a system combining elements of both STOVL and CATOBAR. Aircraft launch under their own power using a ski-jump to assist take-off (rather than using a catapult). These are conventional aircraft however and require arresting wires to land on the ship. The Kuznetsov-class aircraft carriers of the Russian Navy and People’s Liberation Army Navy operate the Su-33 (Russia) and J-15 (China) as STOBAR aircraft. Indian Vikramaditya and the future Vikrant; both will operate MiG-29Ks from similar carriers.

Short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) take-offs are accomplished with “ski-jumps”. STOVL use usually allows aircraft to carry a larger payload as compared to during VTOL use, while avoiding the complexity of a catapult. The best known example is the Hawker Siddeley Harrier Jump Jet, despite being capable of VTOL take-offs, it usually operated as a STOVL aircraft to increase its fuel and weapons load. The F-35B is a STOVL variant. It is similar in size to the F-35A variant, but has only two-thirds the fuel of ‘A’ variant to accommodate the Integrated Lift Fan Propulsion System (ILFPS). The F-35B has no landing hook. The F-35B can also perform vertical and/or short take-off and landing (V/STOL).

Typical Carrier Aircraft Launch & Recovery Cycle

Launch and recovery cycles are scheduled to support efficient use of naval aircraft. Launch and recovery cycles attempt to optimize mission performance for ships flight deck and aircraft storage hangar deck. Larger the numbers that can be in the air at any given time will accrue advantage. Aircraft hangars are positioned on the aft portion of the flight deck, so that readiness to launch into the wind is near immediate. Rapid launch also minimizes the time the aircraft carrier has to deviate from its intended course to conform to wind direction.

When the planes returned from their mission, the aircraft carrier again turned into the wind and recovered the aircraft over the stern. Planes were initially transferred into the hangar deck by elevators to clear the flight deck for the next plane to land. The angled flight decks simplified simultaneous launch and recovery of aircraft. Storage of aircraft on the forward portion of the flight deck while aircraft landing on the aft portion of the flight deck saves operational time. Aerial refueling reduces launch and recovery complexities. 

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Flight Deck Operations

The flight deck requires specialised crew for the different roles. The different flight deck crews wear different colour jackets, float coats or helmets. Some of the key appointments include the air boss, the air officer who controls all air operations within the control zone. There is a catapult officer responsible for all aspects of catapult maintenance and operation.

The Aircraft handling officer is responsible for arrangement of aircraft about the flight and hangar decks. Aircraft directors are responsible for directing all aircraft movement on the hangar and flight decks. The Landing signal officer is responsible for the visual control of aircraft in the terminal phase of the approach immediately prior to landing. The Arresting gear officer Handles arrestor gear operation. 

Modern Carrier-Based Fighter Aircraft In Service

The Sukhoi Su-33 was a carrier-borne aircraft, created from the Su-27. Initially called the Su-27K, it had strengthened undercarriage and structure, folding wings and stabilators, all for carrier operations. The Su-33 has canards and its wings are larger than the Su-27 for increased lift. It also has upgraded engines. It became operational in 1995. In the absence of orders from China and India, only a small number were finally built. 

The Boeing F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornet are twin-engine, carrier-capable, multirole fighter aircraft variants of the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet. The Super Hornet can carry air-to-air missiles and air-to-surface weapons. Additional fuel can be carried in up to five external fuel tanks and the aircraft can be configured as an airborne tanker by adding an external air-to-air refueling system. The Boeing EA-18G Growler is the carrier-based electronic warfare version of the two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet. 

Rafale M is the carrier-borne version of the Rafale. It has a strengthened airframe, longer nose gear leg to provide a more nose-up attitude, larger tail-hook between the engines, and a built-in boarding ladder. Consequently, the Rafale M weighs about 500 kg more than the Rafale C. It is the only non-US fighter type cleared to operate from the decks of US carriers, using catapults and their arresting gear.

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is a single-seat, single-engine, and stealth, multirole combat aircraft designed for both air superiority and strike missions. It also has electronic warfare and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. The F35B is the short take-off and vertical-landing (STOVL) variant and F35C the carrier-based (CV/CATOBAR). The F-35B is used by US Marines, and the F35C by the US Navy. 

The McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) AV-8B Harrier II is a single-engine ground-attack aircraft that constitutes the second generation of the Harrier Jump Jet family, capable of vertical or short takeoff and landing (V/STOL). The aircraft is primarily employed on light attack or multi-role missions, ranging from close air support of ground troops to armed reconnaissance.

While retaining the general layout of its predecessor, the aircraft incorporates a new, larger composite wing with additional hard-points on each side, an elevated cockpit, a redesigned fuselage and other structural and aerodynamic refinements. It has an upgraded version of the Pegasus engine. It can typically operate from small aircraft carriers, large amphibious assault ships and simple forward operating bases. The aircraft saw action in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are being replaced by the F35 variants.

The Mikoyan MiG-29K is the Russian carrier-based multirole fighter aircraft. The program got a boost in the late 1990s when India chose it for the former Soviet aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov (INS Vikramaditya). The MiG-29K joined the Indian Navy in 2009. 45 have been acquired and the last aircraft was delivered in 2017. In 2010 the Russian Navy ordered the MiG-29K to replace its Su-33s. The Indian Navy plans to deploy the MiG-29K onboard its first domestically built carrier, the INS Vikrant.

The Shenyang J-15 is a 4th generation, twin-jet, carrier-based fighter aircraft with Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). It is developed by studying and reverse-engineering the prototype Su-33. China had acquired an unfinished Su-33 prototype, the T-10K-3, from Ukraine in 2001. The fighter features Chinese technologies as well as avionics from the J-11B program. The J-15 is viewed as an interim carrier-based fighter until a 5th generation successor enters service, one that may be based on the J-20 or FC-31 (J-31).

Naval Fighters Under Development

The Shenyang FC-31 Gyrfalcon is a twin-engine, mid-size fifth-generation jet fighter. On October 29, 2021, the modified naval variant of the FC-31, dubbed J-35 by some, made its maiden flight. It is intended to operate from the forthcoming Type 003 aircraft carrier with an EMALS. The naval variant is based on the second prototype of the FC-31, but also includes a catapult launch bar and a wing-fold mechanism.

The HAL-ADA Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) is a canard delta wing, twin-engine, carrier based, multirole combat aircraft currently under development for the Indian Navy. The TEDBF is intended to be used for air supremacy, air interdiction, anti-access/area denial, anti-ship strike and electronic warfare missions. The TEDBF is expected to replace the Mikoyan MiG-29K. The program was officially announced in 2020, in response to the Indian Navy’s insistence on twin engine fighters and lack of support for Naval LCA. A model of the aircraft was displayed at Aero India 2021. The first flight is expected to be in 2026 with service induction by 2032. India would have the Naval AMCA too someday.

The United States Navy (USN) is anticipating to field their first sixth-generation fighters in the 2030 timeframe. The USN’s Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program called the F/A-XX, intended to complement the smaller Lockheed Martin F-35C and replace its existing aircraft such as the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. 

The USN’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program was to develop an autonomous carrier-based unmanned combat aerial vehicle providing an unmanned intelligence and strike asset to the fleet. The Boeing MQ-25 Stingray is an aerial refueling drone that grew out of UCLASS and is a result of the Carrier-Based Aerial-Refueling System (CBARS) program. The MQ-25 first flew on 19 September 2019.

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