23 March 2015

Proving the Harrier Carrier

Admiral Zumwalt, CNO 1970-74
When Admiral Elmo Zumwalt become the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) in April 1970, it was a time of looming fiscal austerity as the Vietnam War commanded the resources of the Department of Defense. In the background of the attention Southeast Asia required of the US armed forces also came a significant build up of the Soviet Navy's submarine fleet. In the event of any outbreak of war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in Europe, the North Atlantic sea lanes would be a vital logistical link between the United States and its forward deployed forces in Europe. Lacking a significant blue water projection force like the American carrier battle groups, the Soviet Navy embarked on a massive submarine build up to not only counter the carriers but also provide a stealthy means of cutting the North Atlantic sea lanes to disrupt the supply of NATO forces in Europe. When Admiral Zumwalt become the CNO, he was juggling both the Soviet submarine threat as well as the Vietnam War. The election of President Nixon meant that an eventual draw down in Vietnam was coming and that Navy needs needed to focus on future threats like the Soviet submarine force. There was a considerable debate on how to do this in light of the massive budgetary drain Southeast Asia had been on the nation. The three previous officers to hold the CNO position were naval aviators- Zumwalt was a surface combatant officer who saw antisubmarine warfare as the key to offsetting the Soviet submarine threat. Some wanted expansion of the super carrier fleet, others like Admiral Hyman Rickover pushed for expansion of the American nuclear submarine fleet. The problem was that all those options were expensive. 

Zumwalt championed what was called the Sea Control Ship (SCS) which was a modern equivalent of the escort carriers of the Second World War. Initial naval studies had looked at destroyer-sized vessels with small flight decks, but by 1972 the SCS concept had evolved into 17,000 ton vessel just under 700 feet in length that could embark sixteen ASW helicopters and five Harriers for self-defense. The SCS would not have catapults or arresting gear as these would drive up the expense as well as the size of the SCS concept. Like an aircraft carrier, there would be a spacious hangar deck but the cost of the SCS would be capped at $100 million which in those days was about a tenth the cost of the new Nimitz class super carriers. The lower cost meant a class of eight could easily be built and quickly to take up ASW patrols in the North Atlantic. 

The USS Guam under way with her Harriers
With the support of the Secretary of Defense, Zumwalt had the helicopter assault ship USS Guam (LPH-9) transformed into an interim Sea Control Ship to demonstrate the concept in 1972. The USMC's recent acquisition of the AV-8A Harrier for close air support dovetailed perfectly into Zumwalt's SCS concept. Given that one of the major reasons the Marines wanted the Harrier was for its flexible basing away from air base runways, the deck of an amphibious assault ship was just as good as any dispersed basing scheme for Marine Harriers. VMA-513, the first Marine Corps Harrier squadron, became operational with the AV-8A the year prior and were selected to form a detachment to deploy on the USS Guam. The pilots working with naval engineers working on the SCS program created a Frensel lens landing aid that floated in oil for self-stabilization and projected a glideslope from the deck of the Guam. The Harrier detachment operated off the Guam for a total of over 170 sorties in day and night with the initial workups taking place off the coast of South Carolina near VMA-513's base at MCAS Beaufort. After this first phase, the Guam then deployed to the rough sea conditions of the North Atlantic and the AV-8As performed flawlessly. Despite being primarily close-air support tasked, VMA-513 worked on air combat tactics including the use of vectoring the nozzles in forward flight (VIFFing) to increase the maneuverability of the AV-8A in a dogfight. Wired to also carry AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, the AV-8As during the Guam deployment to the North Atlantic even made intercepts of Soviet Tu-95 Bear and Tu-16 Badger maritime reconnaissance aircraft. 

Though the deployment aboard the USS Guam was successful in proving the SCS concept, it was Admiral Zumwalt's retirement in 1974 that ended the SCS program despite preliminary contracts being issued to shipyards for SCS vessels. Zumwalt's replacement, Admiral James Holloway, was a naval aviator and Rickover student. Given Admiral Rickover's tremendous influence in the Navy, his opposition to the SCS concept ended the program in 1974. Despite the end of the SCS, the Marines continued to send Harrier detachment to sea to gain shipboard operating experience. In 1976, for example, Harriers embarked with the air wing of the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt to develop ways of integrating V/STOL operations during launch and recovery operations. 

AV-8A Harriers on the aft of the flight deck of the USS Nassau
But that wasn't quite the end of the Sea Control Ship concept in the United States even though the Royal Navy commissioned the Invincible class V/STOL carriers, with the lead ship HMS Invincible launching in 1977. In early 1981, the NATO allies had pointed out that US wasn't honoring its defense commitment to have two aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean. Tensions in the Middle East at that time meant one of the Mediterranean carriers was in the Indian Ocean, leaving on a single carrier in the Mediterranean. At a meeting on an unrelated matter in Washington, the Secretary of the Navy, Commandant of the Marine Corps and the CNO came to discuss issue and the question arose if the defense commitment could be met if some Harrier squadrons were deployed on one of the new Tarawa-class amphibious assault carriers. VMA-231 had just returned from a shipboard deployment during a NATO exercise when they got word they'd be heading back out on the USS Nassau (LHA-4). They were paired up with another Marine Harrier squadron, VMA-542, that was recalled in short order from training at Twentynine Palms in California. With VMA-231 having recent shipboard experience, they took the lead in transforming the USS Nassau into a big Harrier carrier. Since no previous vessel since the USS Guam SCS trials in 1972 had operated so many Harriers as an air wing, the Navy augmented the deck crew of the Nassau with those with experience on the super carrier fleet. The notice for the two squadrons to deploy was short (the commander of VMA-231 told his superior that they could go to sea in 48 hours or as soon as an amphibious assault ship was available) that the whole concept was worked on at sea as the USS Nassau transited the Atlantic for the Mediterranean. By the time the reached their operational patrol area, the crew could launch eight Harriers in only 100 seconds and recover the same number of Harriers in just over two minutes. Because the Harrier wasn't as dependent upon the wind over the deck as conventional aircraft on a large super carrier, the Nassau's battle group had a great deal of tactical flexibility for maneuver during the flight operations than what would normally be the case for a conventional carrier battle group. The Sixth Fleet that was in charge of Mediterranean operations was impressed with the Marines' work and the ad hoc air wing spent 103 days on patrol before being relieved by a conventional carrier battle group. During the patrol, the Nassau's air wing screened for the USS Saratoga off the coast of Libya and participated in exercises to demonstrate the Harrier's ability to surge sorties against land targets. Using a bombing range in Tunisia, the two Marine Harrier squadrons surged sixty sorties in eight hours. The Nassau deployment had a great influence on two NATO allies that would eventually get their own Harrier carriers- Spain and Italy. Today, Marine AV-8B Harrier IIs routinely deploy as part of the Aviation Combat Element (the air wing of an amphibious assault ship) at sea. 

Source: Harrier II: Validating V/STOL by Lon O. Nordeen. Naval Institute Press, 2006, pp 33-38. Aircraft Carriers: A History of Carrier Aviation and Its Influence on World Events 1946-2000 by Norman Palomar. Potomac Books, 2008, pp 294-295. Photos: Wikipedia, Rolls Royce, USMC.


  1. Another interesting article. Thanks!

    Typo: Frensel should be Fresnel.

    1. Thanks for catching my error! Appreciate the comments- glad you enjoy the blog. Next article is going up on 2 April. Stay tuned!