Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Modern assault helicopter carriers: the aero-amphibious threat under the horizon (part 1)

Although amphibious operations are, compared to land, naval and even air battles, few in history, they often had a considerable impact on the course of conflicts.

Whether it is operations Torche (North Africa), Overlord (Normandy) and Dragoon (Provence) against Nazi Germany, the American landings on the Pacific islands against Japan, or that of Inchon during the Korean War, all helped to reverse the balance of power and considerably influenced the conduct of the war.

Conversely, certain failures, such as the Anzio landings in Italy, or that of the Dardanelles during the First World War, led to a critical stagnation of the military effort, as well as unsustainable losses.

The last major aero-amphibious operation took place in Port Carlos on May 21, 1982, and allowed the Royal Navy to land 4,000 British soldiers for the reconquest of the main island of the archipelago, at the cost of two frigates sunk, HMS Ardent and Antelope, two damaged destroyers, HMS Brilliant and Argonaut, as well as several logistics units which were seriously damaged, RFA Sir Galahad, RFA Sir Lancelot and RFA Sir Tristan, under bombs from the A4 Skyhawks and Dagger of the Argentine Air Force.

The Falklands War saw the Royal Navy's two helicopter-carrying assault ships particularly shine, HMS Fearless and Intreprid, 159 meters long with a tonnage of 12,000 tonnes in load, and capable of transporting 550 Royal Marines and put ashore with their equipment using landing craft and Wessex helicopters.

Since then, the context of amphibious assaults has evolved considerably, in particular due to the proliferation of coastal batteries armed with anti-ship missiles capable of autonomously hitting naval targets within a radius of 40 to 50 km, depending on their elevation, well beyond with the support of remote positioning systems, such as aircraft, drones or ships/submarines.

It is in particular this threat, as well as the presence of numerous underwater mines, which prohibits the Russian fleet from carrying out an amphibious assault on Odessa in Ukraine, which to date only has LST type vessels. forced to approach the coast and beach to carry out the assaults.

In order to respond to this new threat, the US Navy designed, at the end of the 1960s, the first class of assault helicopter carriers, the Tarawa class, capable of carrying out an assault simultaneously using fast barges and heavy transport helicopters, if necessary escorted by combat helicopters, while remaining under cover of the horizon and therefore of opposing anti-ship missiles.

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The Russian fleet in the Black Sea can only rely on LST-type assault ships like the Alligator class, which are forced to come to the beach to deposit the assault forces and therefore expose themselves to fire from Ukrainian coastal batteries.

254 meters long for a tonnage of more than 40,000 tons loaded, the Tarawa had not only a large hangar and a base to accommodate a raft of landing craft and other assault hovercraft, but also a very large aeronautical hangar capable of accommodating more than twenty heavy CH-53 Sea Station and CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters, as well as a straight flight deck of almost 9,000 m² and two elevators to implement these aircraft with a very sustained rate of aerial rotations.

Later, the Tarawa, which had little to envy of the Essex class aircraft carriers of the Second World War, saw part of their helicopters replaced by Harrier combat planes so as to increase their firepower and the support capabilities of the forces engaged in the amphibious assault.

Since then, the concept developed by the Tarawa class has been adopted by many navies, including the US Navy which subsequently developed the Wasp class and recently the America class to maintain this advanced capability, but also the French Navy with the class Mistral, China with the Type 075 and Italy with the new Trieste class, these ships being covered in this article.

A second article will address Spain with the prolific Juan Carlos I class, Turkey with Anadolu, South Korea with the Dokdo and Russia with the upcoming Ivan Rogov class.

United States: LHA America class

Direct heirs of the Tarawa and Wasp of the US Navy, the LHA (Landing Helicopters Assault) of the America class take up their main characteristics with a length of 257 meters for a maximum width of 32 meters and a displacement of 44,000 tonnes under load , i.e. that of the French nuclear aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.

The first two ships of the class, the USS America and USS Tripoli, entered service respectively in 2014 and 2020, are therefore dedicated to the implementation of aircraft, CH-53 Super Station heavy transport helicopters, helicopters of AH-1 Viper attack or MH-60 Knighthawk maneuvering helicopters, but also heavy MV-22B Osprey convertible aircraft as well as AV-8B Harrier II and then F-35B Lighting II combat aircraft with vertical takeoff and landing or short, all of which are implemented by the United States Marine Corps.

In total, the ship can transport more than 25 aircraft, and apparently conclusive experiments have even been carried out to evaluate the potential of these two buildings to play the role of light aircraft carrier by carrying around fifteen F-35Bs. , which is as much as many specialized aircraft carriers.

The first two units of the America class, the USS America and the USS Tripoli, do not have a raft

The 9 other ships in the class, starting from the USS Bougainville, whose construction began in March 2019, are equipped with a base allowing them to implement rapid landing units LCAC (Landing Craft Air Cushion), a hovercraft 27 meters long by 14 m wide capable of transporting 60 tonnes of cargo at 40 knots over a distance of more than 200 nautical miles.

In addition to the foundation, the future ships of the class will also have a field hospital three times more imposing than that deployed aboard the America and the Tripoli, for which numerous concessions have been made in order to increase the capacities of implementation of aircraft.

Unlike the Wasp, the America class ships use propulsion based on two gas turbines of 70,000 horsepower each, supported by two auxiliary turbines of 5,000 hp, allowing them to sustain a speed of 20 knots.

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The US Navy experimented with the use of the USS America as a light aircraft carrier to intensify its response to China's growing power in the Pacific

Beyond the amphibious aspects relatively close to those of the Wasp and Tarawa which preceded them, the Americas were designed to implement the F-35B Lighting II, an aircraft which for the first time gives the US Marine Corps the capacity to seize air superiority above the landing zones, but also to ensure the protection of the assault fleet without having to resort to a US Navy aircraft carrier for this purpose.

The bridge was specially designed to absorb the extraordinary heat release of the F-135 turbojet during the aircraft's short takeoff or vertical landing maneuvers, while having six landing spots for helicopters.

Finally, the ship's self-defense capabilities are significant with 2 RAM CIWS each armed with 24 very short-range missiles, 2 20mm Phalanx CIWS as well as two Evolved Sea Sparrow ESSM short-range anti-aircraft missile launchers and several anti-aircraft missile launchers. small calibers.

China: LHD Type 075

The People's Liberation Army Navy had, at the beginning of the 2000s, a very large assault fleet made up of 28 Type 072 tank transports (4,200 to 4,800 tons) and around fifty Type 073 LSTs/ 74 from 700 to 2000 tonnes.

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Fabrice Wolf
Fabrice Wolf
A former French naval aeronautics pilot, Fabrice is the editor and main author of the site. His areas of expertise are military aeronautics, defense economics, air and submarine warfare, and Akita inu.

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