Retro Procurement: Harriers for Luchtburg?

The year is 1993. A small Central American state, wealthy by the sale of unregulated and questionably ethical banking services to nations the world around, finds the firehose of Soviet arms slowing to an occasional drip when the Russians remember they sell weaponry. At the same time, in a newly multi-polar world, with trade opportunities abounding and the demand for questionably ethical banking services skyrocketing, Luchtburg finds itself in ever higher demand. Its interests overseas grow day by day.

Its defense apparatus is poorly suited to overseas interests. Having bought primarily from the Soviets, Luchtburg has a bunch of short-ranged interceptor-type fighters and interdictor-style attack aircraft, little access to smart munitions, and a token navy based around export-model Kilos and various frigates with anti-ship missiles. Not a great force for projecting power around the world, it must be said. So what’s a newly-flush nation to do? Buy weapons from Uncle Sam, of course. Eager to flip a previously-Soviet-friendly nation to to the side of truth, justice, and the American way, the United States invites a delegation from the Luchtbourgish Ministry of Defense to talk about Luchtburg’s future role on the world stage.

The answer, of course, is aircraft carriers. The problem is, Luchtburg might be flush, but it isn’t flush enough to buy a Nimitz-class, and the Americans aren’t selling, either. What the Americans propose instead is this: buy a bunch of the brand-new Night Attack Harriers and two old, recently decommissioned LPHs: USS Iwo Jima and USS Okinawa. No Tarawas are on the table. They still have too much life in them. No Wasps either; they’re too new. The most the Americans will do is maybe build a ski jump onto the Iwo Jimas, and perhaps extend the flight deck a few feet either way.

Is it a good buy?

The Harriers

The Harriers are a no-brainer. They’re pretty much the most recent ground attack aircraft built, support tons of modern American smart weapons, and have no replacement in sight. The latter point is important, given that it means they’ll see future upgrades and maintenance over the years. Luchtburg doesn’t want to buy a dying system, and the Harrier is just hitting its stride.

In the future, the Americans may be open to selling us the AV-8B Harrier II+. The Plus model includes a radar scavenged from old US Navy Hornets, and can carry the new AMRAAM missile. Of course, we aren’t close enough to the Americans for that yet, but having a fighter with modern BVR missile capability would be a huge win for the Luchtbourgish Air Force, even if it doesn’t go supersonic.

Accident rates may be higher for the Harrier than for more conventional aircraft, but the Harrier II is still new, and the Americans are still making airframes and parts. We’ll buy a few extra, and keep a tab open with McDonnell Douglas.

The Iwo Jimas

Now for the Iwo Jima-class LPHs. This is a slightly harder question. At first glance, they look like your standard straight-deck not-quite-aircraft-carrier. Big open flight deck, deck edge elevators, hangar deck of reasonable size. The Harrier is small and the elevators and hangar are sized for biggish helicopters, so from that perspective, the Iwo Jimas are big enough.

They have some downsides, though. For one, they aren’t quite as fast as we might like, with a top speed of 21 knots. For another, they have a slight operational problem, owing to their single-shaft design. Rather than describe it, I’ll quote an evocative passage from Marines & Helicopters:

One characteristic was first noticed shortly after the Iwo Jima left the dock on 5 September 1961 for her initial tests at sea. […]

Obviously such an innovative design was going to have a number of small discrepancies on her first shakedown. The Iwo Jima did. One of the most serious was described in the initial reports as: “serious hull vibrations at high power.” […]

This characteristic vibration was never to be cured in any of the class. At about 15 knots the entire ship began to shake every time one of the blades of the screw took a bite of the water. At that speed it was slight throughout all the ship, but more pronounced in the stern and bow Marine berthing areas. As the speed increased, the vibration increased correspondingly in frequency and severity.

Embarked Marines learned to recognized it and within a short period actually could tell how fast the ship was going by the rattle of the decks. It was as if the builders had given each man aboard the vessel his own private speedometer. As the Iwo Jima and her sister ships reached 21 knots the pounding became more pronounced and was inescapable anywhere on board. To the builders this was “severe vibration at high power.” To all Marines who experienced it, it was “the twenty-one knot thump.”

Amusing, but less than ideal, and perhaps concerning for aviation operations where 20 knots of wind over the deck is already a bit less than might be desired.

Speaking of, just how well is the type actually suited to flying Harriers? Take a look at it from above, and it strongly resembles the later Tarawa type, with the exception of some more rounded deck edges. Take a measuring tape to it, though, and you’ll find that the flight deck is only 600 feet long, against 800 feet on the Tarawa. That’s not so great. How big a deal is it, exactly, though?

In a previous post, I found some reference material on Harrier takeoff rolls and worked through some examples. By the book, with a 20-knot headwind (nearely all the Iwo Jimas can muster), you can fly a 26,000-pound Harrier off of a 500-foot deck. (Figure we’ll leave a 100-foot margin to allow for easier spotting.) The Harrier II’s maximum takeoff weight is some 31,000 pounds. I suspect the book has some margin for error: in DCS, I can pretty readily get a 30,000-pound Harrier off the Tarawa with room to spare.

Still, though, the Iwo Jimas give up a lot of capacity. I think the right decision for Luchtburg is still ‘sure, throw them in’, especially given that, at this stage of their careers, they won’t cost that much more than a Harrier. Luchtburg’s shipyards can get up to speed on aircraft carrier-ish projects by building a ski jump and an aft deck extension to provide a bit more off-the-deck capability.

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