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Air strike--from the sea.

Reaching far beyond the range of naval gunfire, carrier-based aircraft can provide close air support for friendly ground forces and strikes against both fixed and moving targets, operating either in a pre-planned mode or against targets of opportunity. They also have the advantage over land-based aircraft in being deployable well in advance of a conflict, and without overflight restrictions.


As reusable assets, naval aircraft offer lower direct (wartime) operating costs than cruise missiles launched from surface vessels and submarines. Manned aircraft generally provide greater operational flexibility and the prospect of reduced collateral damage and casualties, in comparison with both long-range missiles and drones. However, these gains must be weighed against the risk to the lives of the aircrews and of their being taken captive.

Judged purely on the basis of the ability to find and destroy ground targets, the leader in this field is the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which is operated by both the US Navy and Marine Corps. Powered by two 98 kN General Electric F414-GE-400 afterburning turbofans, the single-seat F/A-18E has an empty weight of 14,552 kg, carries 6780 kg of internal fuel, and has a maximum take-off weight of 29,937 kg. It can land on the carrier at 19,960 kg, allowing a warload of 4490 kg to be brought back, a very useful figure in these times of expensive precision munitions.

The F/A-18E/F is an extensively redesigned derivative of the Hornet, which first flew in 1978 and entered service in F/A-18A/B form in 1983, replacing the A-7 and F-4. It was joined by the F/A-18C/D in 1987. The far heavier Super Hornet, with much better warload radius performance to allow it also to replace the A-6, first flew in 1995 and deliveries began at the end of 1998.

The F/A-18E was first deployed to VFA-115 aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) in July 2002. Its first operational sorties were flown in November of that year with a strike against ground targets in the southern 'no-fly' zone of Iraq. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, VFA-115 dropped 159 tonnes of bombs. Two further Super Hornet units (one with the single-seat -18E and the other with the two-seat -18F) were deployed to the Persian Gulf with the USS Nimitz (CVN-68).

Notwithstanding its excellent strike performance, the Super Hornet is also effective in the fleet air defence and fighter escort roles. With three 1820-1itre drop tanks, it can remain on station for 2.9 hours at 280 km radius, armed with two Raytheon AIM-9s and four AIM-120s. Despite a seven per cent wing section (over twice the thickness/ chord ratio of the F-104), it has a maximum speed of Mach 1.8. It also has a ceiling of over 50,000 ft, and no angle of attack limitations in symmetrical store configurations. It can carry up to five drop tanks, one of which can be replaced by a hose-and-drogue pod to allow it to act as a tanker, replacing the S-3. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, F/A-18E/Fs flew over 400 tanker sorties. Ferry range is 3000 km with three external tanks.

Following the low-rate initial production of 62 Super Hornets, 210 are being produced under the first multi-year (FY2000-2004) programme (MYP-1). At the end of 2003 a second such contract was signed for a minimum of 210 aircraft, to be produced under FY2005-2009 funding at a nominal rate of 42 per year, but allowing for a maximum of 48. The US Navy hopes to fund 42 more in FY2010 and 26 in FY2011, giving a total of 550 Super Hornets. Of these up to 90 are to be completed as EA-18G 'Growler' electronic attack aircraft, replacing the EA-6B Prowler, which is due to be retired in FY2015. The average budgetary unit production cost of the Super Hornet is currently $71.1 million, although this presumably includes spares. Operating and support cost is estimated to be around 70 per cent of that for an F/A-18C/D.

The F/A-18E/F has eleven external hardpoints, including two on the wingtips and three on the fuselage. It can carry up to five 900 kg Boeing Jdams (Joint Direct Attack Munition), six Raytheon AGM-88 Harms or 225/450 kg laser-guided GBU-12/16s, or four Boeing AGM-84 Harpoons, Raytheon AGM-154 Jsows (Joint Stand Off Weapon), Raytheon AGM-65 Mavericks or 900 kg GBU-10/24s. Clearance for the Lockheed Martin AGM-158 Jassm is expected in the longer term. In a typical long-range strike sortie it would carry three tanks, two AIM-9s, two AIM-120s, two Harms, one LGB and one Jdam.

The Super Hornet is going through a series of development spirals. Clearance for the 450 kg GBU-32/35 Jdam is scheduled for 2006, followed by the 227-kg GBU-38 version in 2008. The current F/A-18E/F Block One will be superseded under MYP-2 by the Block Two, featuring an advanced crew station, the Raytheon APG-79 Aesa (Active Electronically-Scanned Antenna) radar in place of the APG-73. Link 16 MIDS (Multi-Function Information Distribution System), and provisions for the Raytheon ASQ-228 Atflir (Advanced Targeting Flir) pod and Raytheon AIM-9X air-to-air missile.

The APG-79 is a low probability of intercept radar with a low cross-section. It is capable of tracking twice as many targets as the APG-73, can exploit the full aerodynamic range of the AIM-120 and will provide high-resolution ground mapping at long range, giving improved accuracy with GPS-guided bombs. It promises a five-fold improvement in reliability over the present radar, and is scheduled for deployment in 2007.

Boeing, evidently with US Navy approval, has indicated that eight Block Two F/A-18Es and four F/A-18Fs will be available for international sales in 2007, at least ten years ahead of the Lockheed Martin F-35, and with less stringent export restraints. Unit flyaway cost is given as approximately $ 54 million, with only $ 400,000 difference between the single- and two-seater.


The US Navy's Hornet family is at present augmented in the strike role by the Northrop Grumman F-14B/D Tomcat, although the latter is scheduled to be retired in mid-FY2007. The manufacturer built a total of 632 Tomcats, of which 557 were completed to the original F-14A standard with Pratt & Whitney TF30 turbofans, and only an air-to-air capability. The F-14A first flew in 1970 and became operational in 1974. Some 79 F-14As were exported to Iran, which has around 20 still airworthy (35 have been cannibalised for spares).

In the case of the F-14B, the TF30s were replaced by 124 kN General Electric F110-GE-400s. The aircraft was given a limited attack capability, and provisions for Tarps (Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System), which houses two cameras and an AAD-5 infrared line-scan sensor. Some 32 F-14Bs were built from scratch and 32 were converted from F-14As. The F-14B reached operational status in 1988.

The F-14D (of which 37 were new-built and at least 18 more were converted from F-14As) has the F110 engines. Tarps and the more advanced Raytheon APG-71 radar. Deliveries began in 1990. The F-14D is basically an air defence and air superiority fighter with a secondary attack capability, a warload of up to 5900 kg, including Mk 80 series bombs, laser-guided bombs and Jdam. It has a maximum take-off weight of 34 475 kg, making it heavier than the F/A-18E/F, but it has a maximum speed of Mach 2.34.


For the close support role, the US Marine Corps's Hornet series is supplemented by the Boeing AV-8B Harrier II, a stovl aircraft with a 110-kN Rolls-Royce F402-RR-408 Pegasus 11-61 vectored-thrust non-afterburning turbofan. Deliveries began in 1983, and operational capability was achieved in 1985. The Harrier II Plus is a further development, also used by the navies of Italy and Spain. It has the Raytheon APG-65 radar of the F/A-18A/B to provide an air defence capability, and it can use the Northrop Grumman/Rafael Litening II targeting pod. It is cleared for the Raytheon AIM-120 medium range air-air missile and the Boeing Jdam GPS-guided bomb series. In addition to new-build aircraft, Boeing is converting 74 US Marine Corps AV-8Bs to this standard. Deliveries began in 1993.

The US Marine Corps currently has seven AV-8B squadrons, each with 16 aircraft, and one training squadron. During the 1991 Gulf War, one AV-8B squadron operated from the Tarawa class amphibious assault ship USS Nassau (LHA-4) and four more squadrons were flown from an expeditionary airfield in Saudi Arabia. Some of these aircraft were deployed forward to sites as close as 65 km to the Kuwait border and operated with turnaround times as short as 23 minutes.

The AV-8B has a maximum take-off weight of 14,515 kg with a 6000-kg warload. Maximum sea level speed is Mach 0.88. In the close support role it can remain on station at 170 km radius for one hour with twelve Mk 82 bombs. The British Royal Air Force equivalent of the AV-8B is currently the Harrier GR7, of which a total of 96 were assembled by BAE Systems in the UK. The RAF Harrier fleet consists of approximately 74 single-seat GR7s and twelve two-seat T10s, of which around 60 are operational. The RAF operates three 14-aircraft squadrons plus one reserve unit. The British version differs from the AV-8B in avionics fit and lacks the 25 mm General Dynamics Gatling gun of the US Marine Corps aircraft.

Some 30 Royal Air Force Harrier GR7s are being fitted with the more powerful Pegasus Mk 107 powerplant (the 11-61), making them GR7As and allowing a maximum take-off weight of 15,420 kg. Rolls-Royce is under contract to modify a further ten Mk 105s to Mk 107 standard, as spares. Around 59 GR7/7As are being given an avionics and weapon systems upgrade, making them GR9/9As. The first GR9 had its maiden flight in May 2003. The same upgrade turns the T10 into the T12, but there is no intention to uprate the engine of the two-seater. To reduce fatigue cracking, the GR9A will have a new composite rear fuselage, based on that of the Harrier II Plus. The weapon systems upgrade includes clearance for the MBDA Brimstone and Asraam, and the Raytheon Enhanced Paveway III and Paveway IV.

Since April 2000 the Royal Air Force Harriers and Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm Sea Harrier FA2s have been assigned to the Joint Harrier Force (JHF). However, based on the UK Strategic Defence Review conclusion that offensive attack capability will be of overriding importance in future naval air operations, the Sea Harrier (which is primarily an air defence fighter and cannot be modified to take the Pegasus Mk 107) is to be phased out by April 2006.

By April 2007 the JHF will be an all-Harrier GR9/9A force, with two Royal Air Force and two Royal Navy squadrons, all home-based at RAF Cottesmore and providing aircraft for the navy's two remaining carriers. These are due to be replaced by the two Future Aircraft Carriers (CVF) in 2012 and 2015. On a similar timescale, Britain's Harrier force will be replaced by the F-35B, providing twice the warload radius performance. It may be noted that there is no two-seat F-35, reflecting much easier handling in stovl operations.


The multi-role Dassault Rafale is powered by two 75 kN Snecma M88-2 turbofans and has a maximum speed of Mach 1.8. It can carry an external load of up to 9000 kg, and has a maximum gross weight of 24,500 kg.

The first carrier-capable Rafale prototype (M-01) had its maiden flight in 1991. Carrier trials began in 1999, and in the same year the first deliveries of the production Rafale M took place, aimed at replacing the Crusader in the fleet air defence role. In September 2004 negotiations were completed on the third production batch, bringing the firm total to 120 aircraft, including 38 for the Navy. A total of 60 Ms (all single-seaters) is planned for the French Navy, and 234 Rafales (including some nuclear strike two-seaters) for the French Air Force. The last Rafale M will be delivered in 2014, and the 294th for the domestic market is scheduled to follow in 2023.

The first French Navy squadron (Flotille 12F) was declared fully operational with Rafales of F1 production standard in June 2004, and the second unit is expected to be operational with F2 standard aircraft in 2007. The F1 aircraft are limited to an air-to-air role, armed with the radar version of the MBDA Mica, whereas the F2 (deliveries of which begin in 2006) will be cleared for air-to-surface attacks with the MBDA Scalp EG cruise missile and the Sagem AASM (Armement Air-Sol Modulaire). The later F3 domestic version will be capable of anti-ship attacks, reconnaissance and nuclear strike. Deliveries will begin in 2007. The nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle will be able to accommodate 32 Rafales, with 20 in the hangars and twelve on deck.


Originally designated Su-27K (K for korabelnyi = shipborne), the Sukhoi Su-33 is now in service on board the 67,500-tonne Admiral Kuznetsov. So far unique among production carrier-capable aircraft, the Su-33 exploits its high thrust/weight ratio and excellent low-speed controllability to combine a ski-jump take-off (having run up to full afterburning thrust with main wheels restrained by chocks that retract into the deck) and a conventional arrested recovery. Relative to the basic Su-27, it has a foreplane, which evidently eliminates the need for thrust-vectoring for low-speed pitch control, an arrester hook, a strengthened undercarriage, improved wing flaps and a folding wing and horizontal tail. The Admiral Kuznetsov provides a twelve-degree ski jump for take-off.

The role of the Su-33 is described as to protect naval forces against air attacks by manned and unmanned aircraft and cruise missiles, and to attack surface targets with unguided weapons. It can also perform reconnaissance missions using a centreline pod, and serve as a tanker in buddy-buddy air refuelling. It is powered by two 125 kN Saturn/Lyulka AL-31F Series Three turbofans and has a maximum speed of Mach 2.16. It can carry a warload of up to 6500 kg. and has a maximum take-off weight of 33,000 kg, although this may apply only to ground-based operations. It seems likely that in the carrier-based strike role, it would take off with the necessary weapons and reduced fuel, and refuel in flight from the centreline hose-and-drogue unit of another Su-33.

In its baseline form, the Su-33 is evidently cleared only for air-to-air guided weapons and unguided rockets and bombs. Sales literature refers to an upgraded Su-33 having the potential to use six 500-kg laser-guided Kab-500L or TV-guided Kab-500Kr bombs, or three 1500-kg Kab-1500s, or six Tactical Missiles Kh-31s or Vympel Kh-29L or Kh-29T, or two Raduga Kh-59M air-to-surface missiles. The Su-33 has been exhibited alongside a 4500-kg Raduga Moskit supersonic cruise missile, which has a range of 250 km.

Pilot training for carrier qualification begins on the tandem-seat Su-25UTG, which was built specifically for this purpose, or (since most of these aircraft were retained by the Ukraine) the Su-25UBP, which is simply an Su-25UB trainer with an arrester hook added. The Su-25UTG reportedly has no armament provisions, but the -25UBP presumably retains an operational capability. However, there is so far no suggestion that either would be used in the attack role, probably because their limited thrust restricts carrier take-off weight.

Soviet interest in carrier-borne fighter operations was first evidenced in 1982, when an Su-27 took off from a runway at Saki in the Ukraine that had been marked out to represent a carrier deck. Two years later an arrested landing was made on the same runway, and a ski-jump take-off was made from a ramp erected on the airfield.

The first of two prototype Su-27Ks flew in August 1987, and in the following year the aircraft was officially designated Su-33. In November 1990 the first deck landing and ski-jump take-off were made from the carrier, then named Tiblisi. In the same year the first production Su-33 had its maiden flight. At the Paris Air Show of 1993 an order for 20 production Su-33s was announced. In late 1994 state acceptance trials were successfully completed, and at the end of 1995 the renamed Admiral Kuznetsov deployed from Severomorsk with eight Su-33s (believed to be one prototype and a batch of seven pre-series aircraft) and steamed to the Mediterranean. Reports suggest that the Russian Navy now has around 36 operational Su-33s assigned to the 279th Shipborne Fighter Regiment, and that the carrier typically has 24 on board.


The RSK-MiG MiG-29K competed against the Su-27K for the Russian Navy order and lost, but was revived by Indian interest. It has been claimed that the MiG-29K has significant market prospects, due to a growing interest in comparatively small carriers, displacing 25,000 to 35,000 tonnes (comparable to the old British Hermes class). Like the Su-33, the MiG-29K employs a ski-jump take-off without thrust vectoring, and returns for a conventional arrested recovery.

The first of two MiG-29K prototypes ordered in 1984 had its maiden flight in July 1988, and was tested from the Admiral Kuznetsov. Following selection of the Su-27K, flight testing of the MiG-29K was discontinued until talks with India began in 1995. A contract worth $1.5 billion was signed in January 2004, covering an extensively refurbished 44,500-tonne Admiral Gorshkov (ex-Baku, a modified Kiev class) carrier and an air wing combining twelve MiG-29Ks, four two-seat MiG-29KUBs, and three Kamov Ka-28 ASW and five Ka-31 AEW helicopters. The MiG-29 part of the deal is thought to be worth around $ 700 million. The contract includes an option on a further 30 MiG-29s to be supplied by 2015, a batch that may relate to India's three planned Air Defence Ships, small carriers which are to be designed and built locally.

On current plans, the Admiral Gorschkov, which was commissioned in 1987 and mothballed in 1994, is to be renamed INS Vikramaditya. It is to be given a 14.3-degree ski-jump and delivered in 2008, replacing the INS Viraat (ex-HMS Hermes), which is to be decommissioned in mid-2007.

The MiG-29K reportedly has an enlarged wing (increased from 38 to 42 sq/ metres), an arrester hook, increased internal fuel and presumably a strengthened undercarriage. The wing and horizontal tail both fold for carrier stowage. It has two Chernyshev-built 81.4 kN Klimov RD-33 Series 3M engines with a 1000-hour mean time between overhauls and a total engine life of 4000 hours, the best figures yet claimed for the RD-33 family. The MiG-29K has a glass cockpit, digital fly-by-wire controls and a Phazotron-NIIR Zhuk-M radar.

Maximum speed of the MiG-29K is Mach 2.07. It has a maximum take-off weight of 18,550 kg, although this may relate only to ground-based operations. It can carry a warload of up to 5500 kg on nine hardpoints. A radius of 1150 km has been reported (obviously in a Hi-Lo sortie) with two Kh-31A/P air-to-surface missiles and a centreline tank. It can also use the Kh-35E and the Kh-29T air-to-surface missiles and the KAB-500Kr TV-guided bomb.

The tandem-seat MiG-29KUB trainer has been reported to have a 22,400-kg maximum take-off weight with a 4500-kg warload. Aside from pilot training it can also be used for reconnaissance and target designation, and as a tanker and an electronic warfare aircraft.

Joint Strike Fighter

On current plans, the stovl F-35B version of the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) will replace the AV-8B and F/A-18C/D in US Marine Corps service (609 aircraft), while the conventional big-wing F-35C version replaces the F/A-18C/D, F-14D and A-6E in US Navy service (480 aircraft). The F-35B is expected to replace the Harrier GR9/9A in British Royal Air Force and Royal Navy service (150), and the AV-8B Harrier II Plus in the Italian Marina Militare service (20 to 24).

The US Air Force is talking of buying (in addition to its conventional F-35As) around 300 extensively modified F-35Bs to replace active service A-10s. The wish-list modifications include a larger wing, internal mounting of the 25 mm General Dynamics GAU-12/U cannon, in-flight refuelling capability by both probe and receptacle and a powerplant optimised for Short TakeOff and Landing (stol) operation. However, there is considerable opposition to the idea of funding the development of a fourth JSF variant.

The 27-tonne F-35 will be the first truly stealthy fighter in the medium-weight class, acting as a complement for the much heavier Lockheed Martin F-22 in US Air Force service. The JSF website indicates that the F-35B will have an empty weight of around 13,925 kg, but Lockheed Martin hopes to reduce this by 1180 kg. This empty weight may be compared to the 10,810 kg of the F/A-18C and the 14,007 kg of the F/A-18E. The Navy's F-35C is shown on the website as having an empty weight of 13,888 kg.

The F-35 is to be powered by a single 181.5 kN Pratt & Whitney F135 or General Electric F136. In the case of the stovl F-35B, some 169.5 kN of jet lift will be provided by a shaft-driven lift-fan, by vectoring the non-afterburning thrust downwards by means of a three-bearing nozzle and the roll reaction controls. Maximum speed is estimated at more than Mach 1.6. Radius of action on internal fuel is given as 835 km for the F-35B and 1100 km for the F-35C.

The F-35 was designed to carry two air-to-air and two precision air-to-surface weapons internally. In the case of the F-35A/C the latter will be 900 kg class, while the smaller bays of the F-35B are designed for 450 kg class Boeing Jdams. The F-35 is probably the first modern fighter with no head-up display, its primary flight display being helmet-mounted, a further development of the Rockwell Collins/ Elbit Systems Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System.

It is planned that the F-35B will have its first flight in late 2007 and enter service in 2012, while the F-35C will fly in September 2008 and enter service in 2014. No two-seat trainer version is planned, as the F-35B will transition between jet-borne and wingborne flight under automatic control, but the US Marine Corps has studied a two-seat electronic attack variant. Unit flyaway price for the F-35B/C is approximately $ 55 to $ 60 million.
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Title Annotation:Complete Guide
Author:Braybrook, Roy
Publication:Armada International
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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