rec.aviation.military Frequently Asked Questions
(Please note that my address has changed since the last posting)
Subject: B.11. Saab JAS 39 Gripen
Development of the JAS 39 Gripen (JAS = Jakt/Attack/Spaning =
Fighter/Attack/Reconnaissance; Gripen = Griffon) began in 1980. It is a
light multirole fighter, intended to gradually replace all versions of the
Saab 37 Viggen and Saab 35 Draken in Flygvapnet (Swedish AF) service;
development and production is carried out by IG-JAS, a consortium led by
Saab. The first prototype flew on 9 December 1988; development has been
delayed by the loss of two aircraft in crashes attributed to faults in the
digital flight control software. The programme remains intact, however,
and the Swedish government has confirmed its order for 140 production
aircraft (including 14 two-seat JAS 39B conversion training aircraft).
Saab has high hopes for export success with the Gripen; the Swedish
government has agreed to a slight relaxation of the export restrictions
that made the Viggen a non-starter outside Sweden. An agreement with
Britain was signed in February 1994, under which British Aerospace (which
assisted Saab in the design of the Gripen) will market the aircraft; BAe
will probably also be involved in production.
Vital statistics (JAS 39): length 14.15 m, span 8.40 m, empty weight 5800
kg, max weight 9526 kg, max speed 2336 km/h (Mach 2.2), range 600 km; power
plant: one 80.50 kN Volvo Flygmotor RM12 augmented turbofan; armament:
27mm cannon, wingtip AAM rails, 6 hardpoints.
Subject: B.12. Shenyang J-8/F-8
Development of this large interceptor, the first jet fighter designed in
China to enter service, began in 1964. The first prototype flew on 5 July
1969. Production of the J-8I began in July 1979; about 100 were delivered
to the AFPLA before production ended in 1987. The J-8I resembled a
scaled-up MiG-21 (J-7), with a tailed delta configuration powered by two
engines fed from a single annular nose intake, carrying radar in the
centrebody cone (it resembled Mikoyan's experimental Ye-152A, although,
contrary to some early reports, it was not based on that aircraft). The
more advanced J-8II was developed in the early 1980s, the first prototype
flying on 12 June 1984. It differed externally in having two side intakes
(similar to an F-4 or MiG-23) and a solid nose with a much larger radome.
A plan to fit American avionics, including an advanced radar, fell through
in the early 1990s; however, the J-8II has entered production anyway,
carrying a Chinese SR-4 "lookdown-shootdown" radar. Both versions have
been offered for export, as the F-8I and F-8II, but there have been no
takers so far.
Vital statistics (J-8II, estimated): length 21.59 m, span 9.34 m, empty
weight 9820 kg, max weight 17800 kg, max speed 2336 km/h (Mach 2.2), ferry
range 2200 km; power plant: two 65.90 kN Wopen 13A-II augmented turbojets;
armament: one Type 23-3 twin-barrel 23mm cannon with 200 rounds, 7
hardpoints, max external load 3500 kg.
Subject: B.13. Yakovlev Yak-41 "Freestyle"
Design of the Yak-41 (or possibly Yak-141; see below) began in 1975; the
first prototype flew in March 1987, followed by a second in April 1989.
Tests were conducted on the aircraft carrier _Admiral Gorshkov_. In April
1991, one of the prototypes set several records for VTOL aircraft; it was
displayed at the Paris Air Show shortly afterwards. One prototype was lost
in a crash (attributed to pilot error) on the carrier in November 1991,
after which development was suspended (due to lack of funds rather than any
problems with the aircraft); the surviving aircraft was mothballed.
Yakovlev have recently announced their intention to restart development of
the Yak-41, apparently as a result of renewed interest from the Russian
Ministry of Defence (a similar revival of the twin-turboprop Yak-44 AEW
aircraft is also being considered). A more advanced version, the Yak-41M
(Yak-141M?), has also been designed, with the emphasis now on Air Force
rather than Navy service. This version has an extensively modified
airframe, with a strong emphasis on stealth (there is a distinct
resemblance to the F-22), a much more powerful engine, and more fuel and
payload. The "Freestyle" has been referred to as both Yak-41 and Yak-141;
it appears that one designation refers to the standard fighter and one to
the single prototype modified for record attempts, but there seems to be
some uncertainty as to which is which.
Vital statistics (Yak-41/141?): length 18.36 m, span 10.11 m, empty weight
11650 kg, max weight 19500 kg, max speed 1800 km/h (Mach 1.7), range 2100
km; power plant: one 152.00 kN Soyuz R-97V-30 augmented turbofan, two
RD-41 lift jets; armament: 30mm cannon, 5 hardpoints, max external load
Subject: C.1. Why is the "stealth fighter" called F-117 instead of F-19?
Nobody really knows for sure. It's been suggested, and sounds plausible
(but there's no real evidence), that it was called F-19 to start with, but
the number was changed as a security measure after the open press started
using that designation in the early 1980s (the aircraft first flew in 1981,
but wasn't revealed to the public until 1988). Why they picked F-117 as
the new number is a mystery; there are three main theories, any of them
The first theory has it that the "stealth fighter" (actually it's a bomber;
see below) was flying from the same bases as the small fleet of captured
Russian aircraft that the USAF flies; these are believed to use the
nonexistent designations "F-112", "F-113" and so on as a cover, and the
F-117 just happened to be the next number in sequence.
The second theory claims that the aircraft was using the call sign "117"
(possibly for reasons connected with the above, or possibly just an
arbitrarily assigned number) on some of its early test flights, and the
number just happened to stick (presumably for lack of any other
designation); when Lockheed got around to printing pilot's manuals for the
aircraft, they were labelled "F-117", and from then on it became official.
The third theory is that there isn't any reason; the Pentagon just picked a
number at random.
The mythical "F-19" may have been part of a "leak identification" project;
it's common practice in many "black" projects to create several false
stories and track down leaks by watching to see which one gets out.
There's also the separate question of why it was given an F-series
(fighter) designation at all, when it's clearly a light bomber with
essentially zero air-to-air capability; it should have an A-series (attack)
or B-series (bomber) number. Again, the Pentagon isn't telling, but a
favourite theory here on the Net is that the USAF, being dominated by
former fighter pilots, couldn't bear the idea of its most glamorous plane
having anything but a fighter designation...
The F-117 has been popularly known as "Nighthawk" for some time; the Air
Force made the name official on 24 June 1994.
Subject: C.2. Does the USAF have a hypersonic spyplane called "Aurora"?
Maybe. Here's the evidence.
In 1985, a censor's error let an item labelled "Aurora", with no further
explanation, appear in that year's Pentagon budget request, with a
reference to "production funding" for 1987. It was located next to the
operating budgets for the SR-71 and U-2. The Pentagon refused to comment
on the item, and it has never been mentioned since.
In 1986, the US government sealed off large areas of land around the top
secret Groom Lake base in Nevada. Many new buildings have been built at
Groom Lake during the 1980s, and intense activity continues. The
government is currently (mid 1994) in the process of taking over more large
areas of land around the base, in order to make it impossible to observe
the base from publicly accessible land. The extensive security measures
imply that some very important and very secret activity is going on there.
Officially, the USAF won't even admit that the base exists.
In February 1988, the _New York Times_ reported that the USAF was working
on a stealthy reconnaissance aircraft capable of Mach 6. The story was
attributed to "Pentagon sources".
In August 1989, Chris Gibson, an oil exploration engineer and former member
of the Royal Observer Corps, was working on an oil rig in the North Sea
when he saw an unusual formation of aircraft pass overhead. It consisted
of a KC-135 tanker, two F-111s, and a fourth aircraft of a type that Gibson
(an expert on aircraft recognition) had never seen before. Seen from
below, it appeared to be a perfect triangle, slightly larger than the
escorting F-111s, with a leading edge sweep angle of about 75 degrees. It
was completely black, with no visible details (unlike the F-111s), and
appeared to be taking on fuel from the KC-135.
In early 1990 the USAF retired its fleet of SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft;
the official reason given was that satellites could now perform all
strategic reconnaissance missions required by the Pentagon. Many observers
consider this explanation to be suspicious, for several reasons. First,
satellites exist in limited numbers and fixed, predictable orbits; surely
there will always be a requirement for high-speed reconnaissance missions
at short notice, which could only be performed by an aircraft like the
SR-71. Second, the cost of running the SR-71 fleet was only about 7 per
cent of what the Pentagon spends on satellites; it would still be a good
investment even if only as an emergency backup. Third, the USAF never
raised the slightest objection to the plan to replace manned aircraft with
unmanned satellites, which is highly unusual behaviour for an organisation
composed almost entirely of pilots.
At about the same time, _Aviation Week_ carried reports from witnesses who
had heard an incredibly loud aircraft taking off from Edwards Air Force
Base in California late at night. Some of them referred to a pulsing sound
with a period of about one second.
On several occasions from June 1991 to June 1992, sonic booms were heard
over southern California. They were not produced by any officially
acknowledged military flight (which are always careful to remain subsonic
over urban areas). The booms were powerful enough to show up on the
seismographs operated by the US Geological Service, and the times of
arrival of the sound at various points allowed fairly accurate calculation
of the course and speed of the aircraft responsible; the USGS had already
demonstrated this by tracking incoming space shuttles. The aircraft were
headed northeast, over Los Angeles and the Mojave Desert, towards either
the Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada or the nearby Groom Lake base. The
speeds involved ranged from Mach 3 to Mach 4.
In February 1992, _The Scotsman_ reported that an RAF air traffic
controller, in November 1991, had seen a radar blip emerge from the base at
Machrihanish, Scotland, and quickly accelerate to Mach 3. When he called
Machrihanish to ask what had happened, he was told to forget it.
In May 1992, a photographer snapped some strange contrails over Amarillo,
Texas; the trails appeared to have been produced by a high-speed aircraft,
and resembled "doughnuts on a rope". A few days later, similar trails were
reported over Machrihanish.
All this appears to add up to a hypersonic aircraft, with a cruising speed
around Mach 6, being operated by the USAF from Groom Lake, Nevada, Edwards
AFB, California, and Machrihanish, Scotland, since about 1988
(Machrihanish, by the way, is due to be closed in 1995). The aircraft
described by Chris Gibson matches several design studies of hypersonic
aircraft in the 1970s and 80s, which came up with a triangular planform
with a sweep angle of 75 degrees. The engines appear to be rocket based
combined cycle (RBCC) engines, an advanced hybrid of turbojet, ramjet, and
rocket. Unclassified studies from the US, Japan, and Russia have
investigated RBCC engines for hypersonic propulsion; such engines would be
extremely loud on take-off, would produce a pulsing sound with a frequency
on the order of one second, would leave contrails resembling "doughnuts on
a rope", and should theoretically have a maximum speed not far above Mach
6. The most likely fuel for an RBCC engine would be methane; given the
assumptions of methane-fuelled RBCC engines, Mach 6 cruising speed, and
intercontinental range, the resulting aircraft would indeed be about the
size of an F-111.
Does this aircraft exist? We don't know for certain, but the
circumstantial evidence is certainly persuasive.
Incidentally, the aircraft (if it exists) is almost certainly not called
Aurora. Even if the mystery item in the 1985 budget did refer to this
project, the name would probably have been changed after the security leak.
But Aurora is the only name anyone has, so we continue to use it as a
Recently (mid 1994) there are moves afoot in the US Senate to reactivate
three SR-71 aircraft (possibly in connection with the Korean situation).
It was reported (from what sources is unclear) that the Blackbird successor
programme had collapsed "after consuming several hundred million dollars".
This has been interpreted by some to suggest that the "Aurora" was a
This conclusion seems doubtful, for several reasons. First, the "successor
programme" referred to was supposedly under development when the SR-71 was
retired in 1990 -- but if the evidence is to be believed, the "Aurora" was
already flying by 1989. Secondly, judging by the costs involved in
programmes like the B-2, an aircraft in the Aurora's class would cost
billions to develop -- carrying the programme as far as the actual flying
hardware that seems to exist would have consumed a lot more than "several
hundred million dollars".
This suggests that the Blackbird successor referred to in the Senate
reports was either completely mythical (an attempt at disinformation), or a
different aircraft to the "Aurora". The price tag suggests something less
ambitious, perhaps something more in the SR-71's own class (if so, perhaps
the successor, rather than being a technical failure, was simply cancelled
in favour of the more capable Aurora).
[Most of this information comes from Bill Sweetman's book _Aurora_]
Subject: C.3. What's a TR-3?
A report in _Aviation Week and Space Technology_ in mid 1991 described a
"triangular flying wing" reconnaissance aircraft, developed by Northrop
(now Northrop Grumman) from 1982, designated TR-3A and nicknamed "Black
Manta". According to the report, the aircraft had a length of about 13
metres, wingspan of about 19 metres, and a range of 5600 kilometres; it had
been deployed for trials to Alaska, Okinawa, Panama, and the UK, and a few
had been employed in Desert Storm in the reconnaissance role. The aircraft
was apparently developed from a Northrop technology demonstrator known as
THAP (Tactical High Altitude Penetrator), which first flew in 1981 and was
similar in design, but slightly smaller. After this report, however,
nothing more was heard of the TR-3 for two years.
In 1993, Steve Douglass, an amateur "stealth watcher" who keeps an eye on
the USAF's "black" programmes for a hobby, took a videotape of an aircraft
landing at White Sands Missile Range. Enhancement of the image revealed a
formerly unknown aircraft, almost certainly the TR-3. Apart from having a
curved trailing edge, it resembled a scaled-down B-2 (or a Horten IX; see
section E.1). It appears to be a single-seat, twin-engine, approximately
triangular flying wing, which fits the description given in the earlier
report. You can find more details, including an artist's impression based
on the video images, in the February 1994 issue of _Wired_.
Of the various "black" aircraft supposed to be flown by the USAF (see also
section C.2), more solid evidence exists for the TR-3 than any other, and
its existence seems virtually certain. Although it's difficult to judge
the exact size of the aircraft from Douglass's image, the dimensions quoted
in the original report are plausible.
Subject: C.4. Why wasn't the B-1 or B-2 used in Desert Storm?
The B-1s weren't used for several reasons. First, their primary mission is
(or was at the time) strategic nuclear strike; Pentagon policy was to keep
them in the United States as part of the strategic triad. Second, at the
time (January 1991) the B-1s had not yet been fully cleared for tactical
operations with conventional weapons. Third, there was no need for them --
the aircraft already available, notably B-52s and F-117s, were perfectly
capable of the required missions, and sending B-1s over wouldn't have added
enough capability to be worth the extra maintenance involved. Fourth, in
late 1990 most of the B-1 fleet was grounded anyway, due to engine
No B-2s were in service at the time; only a single prototype was flying.
Subject: C.5. Is fighter X better than fighter Y?
This is the kind of question that gets discussed all the time, but doesn't
really have an answer.
First, best for what? Every fighter is designed with a particular set of
requirements in mind. "Fighter" is a fairly general term that covers a
multitude of missions. A Tornado F.3 or a MiG-31 is an excellent
long-range interceptor, but you wouldn't want to send one of them up
against an F-16 or an Su-27 in a dogfight.
Second, the aircraft itself isn't the only factor involved, or even the
most important one. Put two aircraft of similar (or even somewhat
different) capabilities up against each other, and by far the most
important factor is the relative skills of the two pilots. It's widely
believed that superior pilot training was the main reason why American F-86
Sabres consistently gained air superiority over technically superior
Russian MiG-15s in the Korean War.
Third, even apparently identical fighters can differ enormously in their
electronics fit; and in modern fighters, the electronics is at least as
important (not to mention expensive) as the airframe. Export versions of
fighters are normally much less capable in the electronic sphere than the
equivalent models for the home air force, even when the aircraft have the
same designation; does anyone expect the F-16Cs exported to, say, Egypt to
be anywhere near the capability of the F-16Cs in USAF service? Older
aircraft can be upgraded to modern electronic standards at a fraction of
the cost of new fighters, an option increasingly popular in these days of
tightened defence budgets (for example, the RNZAF recently upgraded its
Skyhawk fleet with a radar and avionics suite equivalent to that of the
Most of the modern generation of fighters are fairly similar in
performance. Leaving out specialised interceptors such as the Tornado and
MiG-31 mentioned above, if almost any two modern fighters came up against
each other in a dogfight, pilot skill would certainly be the main deciding
factor. We can (and certainly will) argue endlessly about the relative
merits of, say, F-16 vs Sea Harrier, or F-22 vs Su-35 (both the subject of
recent discussion on this newsgroup; Harriers versus conventional fighters
is a particularly hardy perennial), and there are real differences there;
but such technical details are not the the most important thing in combat.
Subject: C.6. Why was the YF-22 chosen over the YF-23?
When the Lockheed YF-22 and Northrop YF-23 were unveiled in 1990, it was
generally believed that the two companies had made different trade-offs
among the various design requirements. The YF-23 appeared to be optimised
for stealth, with its trapezoidal wings, butterfly tail, and generally
futuristic appearance (the distinct resemblance to the fictional "Firefox"
attracted a lot of comments). The YF-22, on the other hand, had a more
conventional appearance; although it was obviously designed with stealth in
mind, there was a definite resemblance to the F-15 it was intended to
replace, and the impression was of an aircraft designed for manoeuvrability
first and stealth second. The YF-22 had thrust-vectoring jet nozzles,
while those of the YF-23 were designed to hide the engines' infrared
signature from below.
In April 1991, the YF-22 was selected for production. According to the
USAF, neither aircraft showed any clear advantage in either manoeuvrability
or stealth. The reasons given for the choice were that the Lockheed
aircraft was better designed for maintainability, had more potential for
future development, and was slightly cheaper.
An unconfirmed report has it that one factor was the fact that the YF-23
had its internal AAMs "stacked" in its bays, while the YF-22's missiles
each had a bay to themselves; this meant that, on the YF-23, a malfunction
in one launcher might prevent the launch of another missile in the same
There remains a popular opinion that the reasons given were bogus, and that
a preference for manoeuvrability over stealth was the real reason for the
choice. However, there is no obvious reason why the USAF should want to
lie about its reasons, and it seems likely that the external appearance of
the two aircraft wasn't as good a guide to their capabilities as many
[From Mike Spick & Barry Wheeler, _Modern American Fighters and Attack
Aircraft_, and magazine reports]
Subject: C.7. Did someone buy Grumman?
Yes. Northrop took it over in May 1994, and is now known as Northrop
Subject: C.8. Why do recent articles refer to the "Lockheed F-16"?
General Dynamics sold its military aircraft division to Lockheed in
December 1992. Although readers of this newsgroup probably associate GD
with aircraft like the F-16 and F-111, the company has always been
primarily a shipbuilder, and has now decided to concentrate exclusively on
Lockheed, in turn, is about to merge with Martin Marietta to form Lockheed
Subject: C.9. Whatever happened to the F/A-16?
At one time the USAF had a plan to replace its A-10s with F-16s fitted with
a version of the Avenger cannon. This was tested during Desert Storm, when
F-16As of the 174th Tactical Fighter Wing were fitted with GPU-5 pods on
their centreline pylons, and given the new designation F/A-16A. The GPU-5
contains the GAU-13 cannon (a four-barrelled version of the seven-barrelled
GAU-8 Avenger 30mm cannon fitted to the A-10) and 353 rounds of ammunition.
If the tests were successful, there were plans for a fleet of F/A-16Cs with
the same armament.
The tests were a disaster. Precision aiming was impossible for several
reasons: the pylon mount isn't as steady as the A-10's rigid mounting; the
F-16 flies much faster than an A-10, giving the pilots too little time
approaching the target; the tremedous recoil from the gun shook the plane
around badly; and some essential CCIP (continuously computed impact point)
software was unavailable. They ended up using it as an area weapon,
spraying multiple targets with ammunition, producing an effect rather like
a cluster bomb. It took only a couple of days of this before they gave up,
unbolted the gun pods, and went back to dropping real cluster bombs.
The F/A-16C plan was quietly forgotten. The USAF still has plans to
replace the A-10 with F-16s, but they no longer involve 30mm gun pods (or,
apparently, a designation with an "A" in it).
[Thanks to Kevin Au for posting most of this information]
Subject: C.10. Why do some aircraft have gold-tinted canopies?
Gold-tinted canopies have been noticed on the EA-6B and the F-16C/D.
Officially the purpose of this treatment is classified, but discussion on
the newsgroup has brought general agreement (based on unclassified sources
and hints dropped by pilots) that the gold coating is a shield against
electromagnetic rdiation (mainly radar). On the EA-6B, the coating
protects the crew from the powerful emissions of the Prowler's jamming
pods; on the F-16C/D, it reduces the aircraft's radar signature, by
reducing reflections off the complex interior shape of the cockpit. The
coating is a very thin layer of actual gold metal, not a gold-tinted paint.
Other aircraft, such as the F-15E and F/A-18C/D, have a distinct greenish
tinge to their canopies. This is a different coating (on the inside of the
canopy rather than the outside) that reduces internal reflections to help
visibility. Several newsgroup readers report having similar coatings on
their glasses, so it's not exactly a secret.
Subject: C.11. Why do USAF aircraft have tailhooks?
To help stop the aircraft in the event of brake failure, or some similar
accident leading to a runway overrun. Just past the end of many military
runways, you'll find an arrester cable strung across the field. The cable
(unlike those on aircraft carriers) isn't attached to anything firm;
instead, each end is linked to a long chain, which just drags on the
ground. The idea is to slow the aircraft down in a reasonable distance;
the tailhooks on Air Force fighters are smaller and weaker than the
superficially similar hooks on Navy planes.
The inevitable next question, "Does this mean Air Force planes could land
on a carrier in an emergency?", has been discussed at length in this
newsgroup. It has been conclusively established that, no, an Air Force
fighter could never land on a carrier because, first, its landing gear is
likely to break in the much heavier touchdown required for carrier landings
(sink-rate figures quoted in the newsgroup give an F-15's main gear roughly
a fifty-fifty chance of taking a carrier landing without breaking); second,
even if it could get on the deck in one piece, the weaker AF tailhook would
break when it caught the Navy arrester cable; and third, even if the
aircraft was physically capable of it, Air Force pilots aren't trained in
the highly specialised and difficult art of carrier landings.
It has been pointed out that, if the USAF thought there was even the
slightest chance of ever being able to save one of its planes by landing it
on a carrier, it would have been tested on the mock carrier deck at
Patuxent River; the fact that this has never been tried is pretty solid
evidence that the Air Force engineers (who would presumably know) are
certain it can't be done.
The F-16Ns used by the US Navy as adversaries in training have the standard
Air Force tailhooks and undercarriage, and are definitely not carrier
The RAF pilots who learned to operate from carriers in a few weeks on the
way to the Falklands are a different matter entirely; they were flying
Harriers, and of course most of the above is irrelevant to VTOL aircraft.
Some training was still required, of course, but the requirements are very
different, both for the aircraft and the pilots. (As one Harrier pilot put
it: "It's much easier to stop and then land, than to land and then try to
A few land-based aircraft have been flown from carriers with minimal
modification, notably the Lockheed C-130 Hercules and U-2. Both of these
were fairly special cases involving aircraft designed for very low speeds
(and, in the case of the Hercules, rough landings) from the start.
On 30 October 1963, a USMC KC-130F made several carrier landings and
take-offs on the flight deck of USS _Forrestal_, in a series of tests
intended to determine whether it would make a good COD (carrier on-board
delivery) aircraft. The only modification was an anti-skid braking system.
The aircraft made several landings and take-offs, with no use of arrester
gear or catapults, and performed well (the pilot, Lieutenant James H
Flatley III, was awarded the DFC for his part in the tests). However, it
turned out that the Hercules would have been unable to fit in a carrier's
hangar deck, so the smaller Grumman C-2 Greyhound was developed instead.
Modifications to the U-2 involved the addition of an arrester hook and a
strengthened landing gear (the U-2 already had folding wings). In 1964 two
modified U-2As, designated U-2G, were flown from USS _Ranger_; the tests
were successful, and several modified aircraft were apparently flown from
carriers by the CIA during the 1960s (the service version may have been
designated U-2J). In 1969, a similarly modified U-2R was flown from USS
_America_, but this does not seem to have led to any service use.
Land-based aircraft have been successfully modified to be carrier-based;
the modifications involved, when the aircraft is a fast jet, are extensive.
It isn't just a matter of adding a tailhook and new landing gear; most of
the airframe needs to be redesigned. The best known example in the West is
the BAe/MD T-45 Goshawk, the US Navy's new trainer, based on BAe's Hawk.
The Russians have had some success in adapting several fighters and attack
aircraft for carrier service. Carrier tests were made by modified MiG-29
and Su-27 fighters, and by trainer versions of the Su-25; the naval MiG-29K
was cancelled, but the Su-33 (based on the Su-27K) and Su-25UTG have
entered service. A report of an early MiG-29K being torn in half on its
first attempt at a tailhook arrest gives a hint of the difficulties
Subject: C.12. What's the composition of an aircraft carrier's air wing?
Most of the questions along this line refer to the US Navy's carriers, so
I'll discuss them first, then cover other countries.
* United States: The US Navy currently operates thirteen aircraft
carriers, although at any given time at least two are undergoing refit.
The oldest carriers in service are the two surviving members of the 79250
tonne Forrestal class (CV-60 Saratoga and CV-62 _Independence_). CV-41
_Midway_ (the last of its class) was retired in 1992, AVT-59 _Forrestal_
and CV-61 _Ranger_ (also Forrestal class) in 1993 (_Ranger_ is mothballed
for the Ready Reserve Fleet). USS _Saratoga_ is due to be decommissioned
in September 1994, leaving the US Navy with twelve carriers until USS _John
C Stennis_ becomes operational in 1996.
These are followed by three 81775 tonne Kitty Hawk carriers (CV-63 _Kitty
Hawk_, CV-64 _Constellation_, and CV-66 _America_), and the USS _John F
Kennedy_ (CV-67), the sole vessel of its class, and the US Navy's last
conventionally powered carrier. _Kennedy_ will be used as a training
carrier after 1995.
The first nuclear powered carrier was the 93970 tonne USS _Enterprise_
(CVN-65), launched in 1961; this was followed in 1975 by the first of the
93300 tonne Nimitz class, which consists so far of CVN-68 _Nimitz_, CVN-69
_Dwight D Eisenhower_, CVN-70 _Carl Vinson_, CVN-71 _Theodore Roosevelt_,
CVN-72 _Abraham Lincoln_, and CVN-73 _George Washington_, to be followed by
CVN-74 _John C Stennis_ (to become operational in 1996, replacing
_America_) and CVN-75 _United States_ (in 1998, replacing _Independence_).
A ninth Nimitz class vessel (CVN-76, not yet named) has been authorised,
and a tenth (CVN-77) will be requested. The ships from CVN-71 on differ
slightly from the first three (displacing 96836 tonnes), and are sometimes
considered a separate class (Roosevelt class).
In principle, the air wings embarked on the carriers are interchangeable;
actually, the slightly different capabilities of the various carrier
classes mean that this cannot quite be achieved in practice. Three
slightly different types of carrier air wing (CVW) are currently in use.
The "Conventional CVW", currently (mid 1994) the most common, consists of
nine squadrons. There are two VF fighter squadrons (with twelve F-14
Tomcats each), two VFA fighter/attack squadrons (twelve F/A-18 Hornets
each), one VA attack squadron (ten A-6E Intruder attack aircraft and four
KA-6D tankers), one VAW airborne early warning squadron (four E-2C
Hawkeyes), one VAQ electronic warfare squadron (four EA-6B Prowlers), two
anti-submarine squadrons (one VS with eight or ten S-3B Vikings, and one HS
with six SH-3H Sea King or SH-60F Ocean Hawk helicopters), and two C-2A
Greyhound COD (carrier on-board delivery) transport aircraft. Total
complement is 86 or 88 aircraft.
The USN is progressively switching to the "Transitional CVW", which
consists of ten squadrons. It is essentially the same as the "Roosevelt
CVW" described below, except that the two VA and one VS squadron each
consist of only eight aircraft, and most HS squadrons have the older
composition of six SH-3Hs. Total complement is 82 aircraft, or 84 if the
newer HS squadron is present.
The "Roosevelt CVW", taking its name from the carrier on which it was first
deployed, is expected to become standard by the turn of the century. It
consists of ten squadrons. There are two VF fighter squadrons (ten F-14
Tomcats each), two VFA fighter/attack squadrons (ten F/A-18 Hornets each),
two VA attack squadrons (ten A-6E Intruders each), one VAW airborne early
warning squadron (five E-2C Hawkeyes), one VAQ electronic warfare squadron
(five EA-6B Prowlers), two anti-submarine squadrons (one VS with ten S-3B
Vikings, and one HS with six SH-60F Ocean Hawk and two HH-60H Rescue Hawk
helicopters), and two C-2A Greyhound transports. Total complement is 90
aircraft. A variant of this, tested in one air wing, replaces one of the
F-14 squadrons with a third F/A-18 squadron.
Strictly speaking, the C-2s belong to separate units and are assigned to
carriers individually; they are not officially part of the carrier's air
The A-6 will be retired before the end of the 1990s. The attack role will
be taken over by additional F/A-18s, including the considerably enhanced
F/A-18E/F series. The F-14 will also gain an air-to-ground role, and
probably a change of designation to F/A-14. The new standard CVW, circa
2000, will probably have four squadrons of F/A-18s.
In addition to its giant carriers, the US Navy also operates a number of
smaller helicopter and VTOL carriers; the aircraft aboard these are
operated by the US Marine Corps. The oldest belong to the 18300 tonne Iwo
Jima class, built between 1961 and 1970 (six ships; LPH-3 _Okinawa_, LPH-7
_Guadalcanal_, LPH-9 _Guam_, LPH-10 _Tripoli_, LPH-11 _New Orleans_, and
LPH-12 _Inchon_; LPH-2 _Iwo Jima_ was retired in 1993). Normal complement
is four AH-1T/W Cobras, 20 CH-46D/E Sea Knights, four CH-53D Sea Stallions,
and four UH-1N Iroquois; they have occasionally carried Harriers, mainly on
The five ships of the 39300 tonne Tarawa class were built from 1976 to 1980
(LHA-1 _Tarawa_, LHA-2 _Saipan_, LHA-3 _Belleau Wood_, LHA-4 _Nassau_, and
LHA-5 _Peleliu_). Complement is four AH-1T/W Cobras, 12 to 16 CH-46D/E Sea
Knights, six CH-53D Sea Stallions or CH-53E Super Stallions, and four UH-1N
Iroquois. Like the Iwo Jimas, they have sometimes carried Harriers.
The five ships of the 40530 tonne Wasp class (LHD-1 _Wasp_, LHD-2 _Essex_,
LHD-3 _Kearsage_, LHD-4 _Boxer_, and LHD-5 _Bataan_) entered service
beginning in 1989. These are intended to be dual-role ships, carrying
different complements of aircraft for the assault role or the "sea control"
role. The assault complement, which will probably be the more common,
consists of 30 helicopters (an unspecified mix of AH-1W Cobras, CH-46E Sea
Knights, CH-53D Sea Stallions, CH-53E Super Stallions, SH-60B Seahawks, and
UH-1N Iroquois) and six AV-8B Harrier attack aircraft. In the sea control
role, the ships become true aircraft carriers, with 20 AV-8B Harriers and
four to six SH-60B Seahawk helicopters.
* Argentina: The Argentine Navy's single carrier, the 20000 tonne
_Veinticinco de Mayo_ (25th of May) was originally a British carrier of
World War II vintage, being laid down in 1942 as HMS _Venerable_; it also
saw service with the Netherlands (as _Karel Doorman_) before being bought
by Argentina in 1968. The ship played no part in the Falklands War of
1982, being withdrawn to port after the sinking of the _General Belgrano_.
In 1986 it was laid up for a complete refit; the ship has yet to return to
sea. Although Argentina operates the Super Etendard strike aircraft,
designed for carrier service, early tests indicated that it would be
unsuitable for use with the _Veinticinco de Mayo_ (presumably because the
aircraft were designed for the larger French carriers), and Argentina's
Super Etendards have always been operated from land bases. The carrier's
combat wing originally consisted of A-4Q Skyhawks, which have since been
retired; however, Argentina has recently bought 54 A-4Ms from the US, and
it seems likely that some of these will be aboard when the carrier sails
again. The Argentine Navy also has six S-2E Trackers, re-engined with
turboprops. The future air wing of the _Veinticinco de Mayo_ will probably
consist of about six A-4Ms for light attack, five S-2ETs for outer-zone
anti-submarine warfare, three or four SH-3D/Hs for inner-zone ASW, and two
Alouette IIIs for plane guard and search and rescue.
* Brazil: Brazil's single carrier, _Minas Gerais_ (also originally
British, starting life as HMS _Vengeance_, a sister ship to Argentina's
carrier), was laid up in 1987. The original plan involved a catapult
refit, but the ship was recommissioned in October 1993 with this left
undone, although she does have new boilers and electronics. The former air
wing comprised six to eight S-2E Trackers (now re-engined with turboprops)
and four to six SH-3E Sea Kings in the anti-submarine role, plus two Bell
206B Jetrangers and two or three HB.350 Esquilos (licence-built Ecureuils)
for utility duties; it seems to be more or less unchanged. Plans to build
a larger, 40000 tonne carrier, with an air wing including a navalised AMX,
appear to have been abandoned.
* France: The French Navy currently operates two 33223 tonne carriers,
_Clemenceau_ and _Foch_, commissioned in the early 1960s. They carry 16 to
20 Super Etendards in the strike role, about 7 F-8E(FN) Crusader fighters,
four Etendard IVP reconnaissance aircraft, six Alize ASW aircraft, and a
handful of AS.365F Dauphin helicopters for plane guard and SAR duties;
these are often augmented by a few Lynx ASW helicopters. The Etendard IVPs
are expected to be retired in 1995; the F-8s, originally expected to be
retired fairly soon and temporarily replaced by F/A-18s pending the arrival
of the Rafale M, will now soldier on until the Rafale enters naval service
in 1999. The Alizes are nominally scheduled to be retired in 1998, but in
fact are likely to survive into the next century. Two Grumman E-2C Hawkeye
AEW aircraft have been ordered, with an option for two more.
France's two current carriers are intended to be replaced by two 35000
tonne nuclear powered carriers, _Charles de Gaulle_ and _Richelieu_; the
first was launched in April 1994, while the second, originally planned for
2004, is likely to slip to 2009 (or possibly be cancelled altogether). The
air wings will be similar to those of the existing carriers, probably
consisting of 16 to 20 Super Etendards, about 10 Rafale M fighters, two
E-2C Hawkeye AEW aircraft, possibly a few Alizes, and the same complement
* India: The Indian Navy's first carrier was the 19512 tonne INS _Vikrant_
(originally laid down in 1945 as HMS _Hercules_, but sold to India before
its completion in 1961). It originally carried Sea Hawk fighters and Alize
ASW aircraft; the Sea Hawks were retired in 1979 and the Alizes were
relegated to shore duties in 1990. The present complement of the _Vikrant_
consists of about six Sea Harrier Mk 51 fighters, six Sea King Mk 42B
ASW/ASV helicopters, and three Sea King Mk 42C utility transport
helicopters. In 1987 the Indian Navy acquired a second carrier, the 29000
tonne INS _Viraat_ (formerly HMS _Hermes_), which currently carries an air
wing of the same composition. The _Viraat_ is somewhat larger than the
_Vikrant_, however, and its Sea Harrier complement is expected to be
enlarged. India has plans to build two or three new carriers in the near
future, probably carrying new combat aircraft (candidates include the
Russian MiG-29K, Su-33, and Yak-41).
* Italy: The Italian Navy operates a single carrier, the 13452 tonne
_Giuseppe Garibaldi_, launched in 1983 and commissioned in 1987. Its air
arm is still in training, but is planned to consist of 16 AV-8B-Plus
Harriers in the fighter/attack role and 18 SH-3D Sea King ASW helicopters
(possibly including some AEW variants). The Sea Kings will eventually be
replaced by EH.101s. The Italian Navy intends to acquire a second carrier
in the same class, and possibly a third.
* Russia (and the former USSR) (see also C.13): The USSR's first serious
attempt at seagoing aviation were the two 19200 tonne helicopter carriers
of the Moskva class, _Moskva_ and _Leningrad_, the first being launched in
1967; these carry 15 to 18 Ka-25 helicopters of various subtypes.
They were followed in 1976 by the first of the 43000 tonne Kiev class,
which eventually numbered four ships (_Kiev_, _Minsk_, _Novorossiysk_, and
_Baku_; the last was later renamed _Admiral Gorshkov_), and carried the
USSR's first V/STOL aircraft, the Yak-38. The air wing originally
consisted of twelve Yak-38F/M strike fighters, one Yak-38U trainer, and 15
to 20 helicopters of the Ka-25 and Ka-27/28/29 families. The first three
of these carriers were retired in the early 1990s, along with the entire
fleet of Yak-38s; the one surviving ship, _Admiral Gorshkov_, now carries
only helicopters. The four ships were actually divided into three
subclasses, _Novorossiysk_ and _Baku_/_Gorshkov_ differing from the first
two ships, and from each other. _Novorossiysk_ was designed for a larger
air wing, although by the time it entered service, the Yak-38 was falling
out of favour, and it probably carried extra helicopters rather than
fixed-wing aircraft. _Gorshkov_ carried a still larger air wing, and was
designed with the (now cancelled) Yak-41 in mind; the actual capacity of
the ship's hangars has never been released, but it probably carries about
35 to 40 aircraft or helicopters.
The USSR's first conventional carrier, the 67500 tonne _Tbilisi_ (later
renamed _Admiral Kuznetsov_), was launched in 1985. It was originally used
for sea trials of a variety of naval aircraft prototypes; the aircraft
types involved have now been narrowed down, and the _Kuznetsov_ is now
involved in training of naval pilots and crew. When it enters full
service, it is expected to carry an air wing of about 50 to 60 aircraft,
comprised of about 20 Su-33 multirole fighters, perhaps another 10 to 20
strike aircraft of unknown type (probably another Su-27 derivative), a few
Su-25UTG trainers, and the usual assortment of Ka-27/28/29/32 helicopters.
The Yak-44 AEW aircraft has been cancelled (but a revival is being
considered); a Ka-32 helicopter has been seen with what appears to be an
_Varyag_ (formerly _Riga_), sister ship to _Kuznetsov_, was left incomplete
at the Nikolayev shipyard; Russia, after dithering for several years,
finally decided not to buy the ship, and (after failing to sell it to
anyone else) the Ukrainian government has ordered it to be scrapped. The
third large carrier, the 75000 tonne, nuclear powered _Ulyanovsk_, was
never completed and has already been scrapped.
* Spain: Spain's only current aircraft carrier, the 16700 tonne _Principe
de Asturias_, was commissioned in 1989 to replace the aging 13000 tonne
_Dedalo_. The design was based on the Sea Control Ship concept, developed
in 1974 for the US Navy but then abandoned. It carries six to eight AV-8B
Harrier strike aircraft (expected to be upgraded to AV-8B-Plus standard,
with air-to-air radar), six to eight SH-3H Sea King helicopters (mainly in
the ASW role, but also including one or two AEW versions), and four to
eight AB.212ASW helicopters.
* United Kingdom: The Royal Navy's three 20600 tonne Invincible class
carriers (_Invincible_, _Illustrious_, and _Ark Royal_) were originally
designated "through-deck cruisers", to get around political attempts to
prevent the RN from operating carriers. At any time, two of the carriers
are in service while the third undergoes refit. The two active air wings
normally each consist of nine Sea Harrier FRS.1 strike fighters (to be
replaced by the more advanced FA.2 version), nine Sea King HAS.6 ASW
helicopters, and three Sea King AEW.2A AEW helicopters. The composition of
the Sea King complement varies to meet the requirements of particular
missions, often including the HC.4 assault transport version.
A new helicopter carrier, HMS _Ocean_, was ordered in 1994.
[Most of this information comes from Lindsay Peacock's article in the June
1993 issue of _Air International_, and from _Modern Warships_ by Tony
Gibbons and David Miller, and _Modern US Navy_ by John Jordan; thanks to
Simon Shpilfoygel for additional information on the Russian carriers, and
to Robin Lee for recent updates]
... Ross Smith (Wellington, New Zealand) <av...@meanmach.actrix.gen.nz> ...
"Being in the air farce and navy means you only get to kill people by
remote control, which takes some of the fun out of it."
(Steve Kieffer-Higgins, in alt.tasteless)