Large carriers not yet in service
Large aircraft carriers are a growth sector for naval shipbuilding. In a reverse of the gradual decline in operators following the second world war, a combination of recent naval lessons (for UK and France), regained pride (Russia) and new world powers (India, China) has led to a glut in new types.
The Varyag (Chinese name unknown) is the sister-ship of the Kruznetsov. It was uncompleted at the collapse of the USSR and lay in Ukraine for several years before being sold to China. It was not fitted out and missing many key systems including the engines. After being towed to China it has sat in Dalian docks being refitted for several years. The pace of completion has been the source of much speculation with some people saying it’s far from complete whilst others believing she will sail any day. But, with the necessary aircraft to operate from it still to be delivered (Su-33s from China ordered in 2007) China probably isn’t in much of a hurry. Satellite image:
INS Vikramaditya, India
Although it has yet to be completed this carrier is worth comparing as it is rather unique. It is in fact a major rebuild of a Soviet Kiev class helicopter cruiser. Although the ship displaces over 40,000 tons it’s heritage provides for a relatively narrow flight deck. Certain details of its fit are still unknown but it is expected to operate MiG-29K Fulcrum multi-role fighters.
Vikrant class, India
This is Indias indigenous carrier design although it was designed with the help of an Italian shipbuilder and shows a close resemblance to the Italian Cavour design. This is however no reason to knock it! Of similar size to the Vikramaditya, it is much better optimized for flight deck operations thanks to it’s “clean sheet” approach.
Queen Elizabeth class, UK
The British CVF programme calls for the replacement of the three Illustrious class STOL carriers with two large fleet carriers. Uniquely for such large carriers these will be configured as a STOL platform but can be modified to a STOBAR or CTOL configuration.
Gerald R. Ford class, USA
The follow-on to the Nimitz class is the CVN-21 program. These are approximately the same as the Nimitz but feature and extensive modernization and deck rearrangement that moves the island (now with AEGIS phased array radars) further aft and reduces the deck-lifts from four to three.
Others not compared
Russia plans to build several more carriers and China is probably going to start building domestically designed types in the next few years. South Korea and Japan have also built new ‘carriers’ but these are too small for this comparison, being “STOL” carriers. The latest STOL carrier from Italy, Cavour, is extremely potent and intended to operate F-35s which will see the gap between “STOL” carriers and “fleet” carriers diminish. France may or may not purchase a second carrier, based on the British Queen Elizabeth type.
Typical air wings of the future carriers
The most obvious difference compared to the “in service” types is that all carry only multi-role jets.
The fit of the Chinese Varyag is most controversial. All that is known is that 50 “Su-33” fighters have been ordered from Russia. Although the specification is unknown I’d suggest that these will almost certainly have more modern avionics that the older Russia machines, and almost certainly be multi-role. Many people speculated that China would field a twin engine carrier version of the J-10. This does not appear to have materialized and at any rate the twin engine “requirement” for carrier aircraft is clearly not universal. I’ve also added some L-15 advanced supersonic trainers to the air wing. These seem a natural and cheap solution and have been shown at defence shows with short rangeTL-10 anti-ship missiles hinting at a naval use. These would be potent in close-air-support and light strike, as well as emergency air-defence (certainly better than the Brazilian Skyhawks!!).
The Indian warships were slated for naval versions of the LCA combat aircraft but this too seems to have not materialized and an upgraded version of the Russian MiG-29K Fulcrum is being delivered. Although less capable than the latest flankers, these are multi-role and feature a thoroughly modern avionics package.
The British carriers will deploy a cross-service fleet of aircraft including both Royal Navy (Fleet Air Arm; FAA) and RAF F-35B VTOL fighters which will use the ski-jump but land vertically as per the Harrier. Harrier GR-9s will also deploy in the early days of operations as F-35s are still being delivered. Unlike the other carriers the air wing is likely to have an amphibious support emphasis with Apache gunships and huge Chinook and EH-101 transports. Maximum F-35s would be 36 in normal operations but probably fewer on routine deployments (as shown).
The US carrier will carry F-35C fighters and probably still the relatively new F-18E/F Super-Hornet. Exact mix not clear. Possibly USMC F-35Bs may be carried, presumably using a catapult to launch(?) but landing vertically – this might pose operational challenges.
The Varyag will have essentially the same deck layout as the Kruznesov with the probable exception of not having the Granit missile silos in the middle of the foredeck. The Obvious loser is the INS Vikramaditya which has only deck-centre lifts both of which obstruct deck operations, including the ‘basics’ like landing. The island is also sub-optimally placed relatively close to the centre of the ship. By comparison the Vikrant is relatively optimally laid out, showing what a 30,000 ton STOBAR carrier should look like.
The Queen Elizabeth class are interesting in that they will be laid out so that only vertical landings will be practical, although the deck is designed to easily accommodate an angled landing run for STOBAR operations, and the addition of catapults with minimal rebuild for CTOL operations.
Both the British and American carriers will have highly advanced deck management systems that will allow a much reduced deck crew and more efficient operations. This allows the Gerald R. Ford class to reduce the number of deck lifts to three from four. Similarly on both the British and American ship the deck lifts are large enough to carry two jets or a wider aircraft.
Shipboard air defences
We can guess that the Varyag will not be fitted with the same sensors/combat system/weapons as the Kruznetsov. Although China is an operator of both the AK-630 and Kashtan CIWS I expect that the Chinese designed Type-730 is more probable, probably just 4. The VLS silos will probably be welded over and the space used to increase the deck or more likely just for storage because China does not operate any VLS type SAMs that are as short as the Klinok; HHQ-16 is probably about 6m long.
The weapons fit of the Vikramaditya has been the cause of some debate. Although there were reports that the Russian engineers could not find space for the relatively short Barak-I anti-missile missile favoured by the Indian’s, recent photographs show that the rear AAA positions have been raised. This could be to house the vertical magazines of the Grisom missiles for the Kashtan CIWS but this would result in the CIWS being mounted very high and potentially representing a landing hazard. My guess is that the raised section is to accommodate the Barak-I SAM:
The Vikrant class will probably also carry Barak-I but probably more missiles and with three OTO-Melara 76mm guns for added protection (depending on the ammo used the 76mm guns can be regarded as anti-missile defences similar or arguably superior to a CIWS). Some reports indicate that the Vikrant class will have a similar weapons fit to the new Kolkata class air-defence destroyer, but the relatively large size of the Barak-II or Shtil-1 (SA-N-11/SA-17 “Grizzly”) missiles (about 6m long) makes this unlikely IMO.
The Queen Elizabeth class is typically shown in official graphics with three Phalanx 20mm CIWS and 3 (or more?) 30mm crewed guns. It’s going to be disappointing to many Royal navy fans that the ship isn’t better defended, perhaps with Aster-15 (as per Charles De Gaulle) or CAAM (an advanced SAM with active radar guidance and approximately 20km range, similar in concept to the MICA-VL).
The US carrier will carry a substantially better defencive suite than the current Nimitz with the more capable ESSM missile in place of the Sea Sparrow (50km range vs about 15km, anti-missile capability etc).