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The Carrier Response And Strike Range Engineering Essay

47. Aircraft carriers are today’s capital ships and the sea-based air capability they support is an indispensable component of war. The Cold War period and the threat of the nuclear capable submarine fleets of the Soviets spurred the US Navy’s concept of sea control, which was exercised by the aircraft carrier. The integral air power of the CTF was utilized to achieve air superiority while providing protection to the fleet. [107] 

48. The shift of focus from Mahan’s grand battles in the high seas to regional theaters was based on the limited utility of carriers in the conventional role after the demise of the Soviet Union as was proven in the Persian Gulf war. [108] The new strategy propounded was maintaining a powerful yet unobtrusive presence that is capable of rapidly adapting to projecting precise power from the sea. This strategic shift not only revamped the force structuring of the US Navy but also dictated the nature of conflicts that the aircraft carriers were utilized in subsequently. [109] 

49. In effect, the big-deck aircraft carrier no longer performs the role of a guardian of the high seas but has become most valuable as a mobile airbase. [110] Hence, the efficacy of operations undertaken by carriers over the past two decades, under the climate of this new strategic thought, need scrutiny.


Carrier Response and Strike Range

50. The rapid presence provided by aircraft carriers in response to crisis situations are an established and undeniable fact. This ability was put to the test when the US armed forces had to initiate Operation Vigilant Warrior. [111] 

51. In a scenario wherein, the force levels of the US in the region was kept to a minimum, the responsibility of rapidly deploying airpower was with the carriers. However, this could not be achieved since the closest carrier was operating in the Mediterranean and was expected to take upto one week to reach the Persian Gulf. [112] Thus the immediate deterrence required by air power before the conduct of routine operations by the carrier could not be achieved. This situation holds true even today for the following reasons:-

The large geographical spread of theatres of operations from the mainland.

The limited increment in range achieved with AAR over sea due to non-availability of land based diversionary fields.

Limited availability of tanker support due to restriction in resources and a multitude of operators requesting refuelling priority. [113] 

Strike missions with a range of 600 nautical miles with a sortie duration of 4.5 hours was achieved by the carrier based strike aircraft in Op Enduring Freedom. However, this could only be achieved after carrying out a minimum of two inflight refuellings each way for completing the mission. [114] 

Tempo of Operations

52. The capability of the carrier to bring to bear operational fires on the enemy is characterized by its ability to deliver fire power and generate high sortie rates. This is expected to shape the battlefield, before the arrival of the land forces, in the early stages of the campaign and significantly impact the result of the conflict. [115] 

53. However, carrier aviation operates under severe limitations of space as compared to the aircraft deployed from fixed bases. The flexibility of multiple runways, taxiways, Petroleum Oil and Lubricants (POL) and weapon storage areas do not exist on the carrier. [116] The flight deck of a Nimitz class of aircraft carrier typically measures 237.7 m x 76.8 m. [117] Hence, operations have to be orchestrated with a high level of synergy to refuel, load, launch and recover the aircraft within these small confines of the flight deck and the hanger deck below. The carrier crew conducts flight deck operations by means of ‘cyclic’ and ‘flex deck’ operations.

54. Cyclic Operations. The carrier executes cyclic operations to overcome the limitations of space, launch and recovery systems in order to maintain a high sortie generation rate. Launch and recovery of aircraft is initiated sequentially on the flight deck when the carrier faces into the wind. The aircraft that have landed are moved out of the landing area so as to not interfere with operations. This results in the aircraft being tightly placed together and prevents conduct of arming and maintenance of aircraft till the entire cycle is completed. [118] The flexibility in the conduct of operations is severely affected due to the following reasons:-

(a) An aircraft has to wait its turn for a launch irrespective of the time that it is ready for operations.

(b) The duration for launch and recovery is dictated by the duration that the carrier points into the wind. The aircraft which have launched early may not have adequate reserve of fuel to recover last. [119] This would entail the aircraft returning with a higher reserve of fuel thus directly affecting combat capability.

(c) Any aircraft going out of phase in the operational cycle due to maintenance delays will not be able to recovery within a short period of time due to parking, taxiing and deck restrictions.

55. Flex Deck Operations. These operations are aimed at reducing the complexity of flight deck operations by keeping the landing zone and launch areas clear for continuous operations. These types of operations are usually not followed since they are labour intensive. The decks are kept clear by reducing the number of aircraft being launched and storing the excess aircraft in the hanger decks below. The overall sortie generation rate is adversely affected by this method. [120] 

Weight of Attack

56. The weight of armament load that can be carried by a strike aircraft is restricted in carrier operations. [121] The reasons are elaborated below:-

The type and launch and recovery system in use. Ex. The CATOBAR system permits the carriage of heavier weapon load and the STOBAR restricts the weapon carriage.

The composition of the air wing as dictated by the size and capability of the carrier. Capability to operate a large number of conventional aircraft on a large carrier would definitely increase the weight of attack as compared to restrictions of operating STOVL aircraft on light carriers.

The aircraft operating from decks are required to return with a higher safety reserve of fuel to cater for cyclic operations and non-availability of alternate landing sites in case of a diversion. This results in a reduction in the amount of weapon load that can be carried onboard.

The amount of weapons carried on board is further reduced to cater for a situation wherein it remains unexpended after a mission. This is done in order to cater to the load bearing capability of the landing gear of the aircraft and the flight deck.


57. The operational experiences of western navies have significantly impacted the strategies followed by other nations. The lessons of these operations have also formed the basis for changes in force structuring. Two operations, Operation Deliberate Force and Operation Enduring Freedom, have been chosen in order to derive lessons that are relevant in our context of operations.

Operation Deliberate Force

58. Op Deliberate Force was executed at a time when the US Navy had changed its strategic intent to shift to littoral warfare, much like the IN desires, after the sub-optimal performance of the carriers in the Persian Gulf War. This operation has been chosen for analysis as it brings out a comparison of the sortie rates in relation to the land based aircraft over both short and long duration of operations.

59. Operation Deliberate Force was an air campaign, launched by NATO forces in Aug-Sep 1995, to degrade Bosnian Serb military effectiveness by striking targets around Sarajevo. The comparative breakdown of the flying effort achieved by the US Navy and the US Air Force during the 11 day period of Op Deliberate Force is tabulated below. [122] 

Sl. No.

Mission Type

US Navy

US Air Force










Precision Strikes




Average utilisation per aircraft per day



Table - 4 Breakdown of Flying Effort of USN and USAF in Op Deliberate Force

60. The comparable utilization rates of both the forces are due to the short duration of the operations. However, if the total period of operations (Jan 1993-Dec 1995), which included the enforcement of a UN mandated no-fly zone over Bosnia, the US Navy flew only 10 percent of the total missions flown by the NATO forces. The US Navy was operating with six CTFs in a benign environment that was within 100 miles of Bosnian airspace. Hence, this low achievement of sortie rate could be only be attributed to constraints associated with carrier operations.

Operation Enduring Freedom

61. Op Enduring Freedom was executed with limited notice and preparatory time, unlike the Persian Gulf War. The targets chosen for strike were placed deep inland and the choice for local basing was extremely limited. This operation has been chosen for analysis since it puts the ability of carrier air power to execute shore strikes to the highest level of test. The capability to synergize efforts to extend reach to the limits of range and endurance when operating exclusively from carriers is an important derivative of this campaign.

62. Op Enduring Freedom was launched on 07 Oct 2001, less than a month from the attacks executed by the Al Qaeda on American soil. The missions were flown over Afghanistan with the intent to comprehensively destroy the Taliban regime in the country. Two separate disciplines were consequently employed in conducting carrier-based strikes. The first of these was the pre-planned interdiction and Battle Field Air Interdiction (BAI) missions. Within one week of the war, the pattern of targets that began to dominate the operations were the time sensitive, fleeting targets of opportunity. [123] 

63. Six CTFs participated in the operations which lasted upto 15 Mar 2002. Due to lack of local basing, the CTFs operated from the North Arabian Sea almost entirely substituted for land based aircraft. The only exceptions being the B-2 and B-52 bombers that had the capability to operate from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Sea based strikes reached a very high level of sophistication in these operations wherein 75% of the missions addressed targets after being told of their location only after launch. 93% of the ammunition dropped was either laser guided or satellite aided like the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). [124] 

64. Each carrier conducted flight operations for roughly 14-16 hours a day. Most of the aircraft flew triple or quadruple deck-cycle missions, with a typical cycle duration being an hour and a half. Further, the time sharing of operations for day and night missions between Theordore Roosevelt and Johm C. Stennis brought out the synchronization with which the operations were conducted. The sustenance power of carriers was established in these operations when Theordore Roosevelt spent 153 days at sea without a port call. The carrier conducted more than five months of extensive strike operations, logged 30000 flight hours and dropped nearly 1.7 million pounds of ordnance. [125] 

65. There was a significant shift in the quantum of sorties flown by naval aviation flown in this operation as compared to any other conducted so far. These are tabulated below:-

Sl. No.





Navy and Marine Corps




Air Force Fighters




Air Force Bombers




Air Force SOF Aircraft



Table – 5 Quantum of Flying Effort of US Force in Op Enduring Freedom


66. The Radius of Action (ROA) of carrier borne aircraft is restricted due to the tradeoffs accrued between fuel and payload carriage. The reasons are given below:-

(a) The ROA of the integral air assets of medium sized carriers, that do not employ CATOBAR systems, is extremely limited. Even high thrust and capable fixed wing platforms, when operating from large sized carriers that are enabled with sophisticated launch / recovery systems do not have the ROA that they would when operating from fixed bases. Thus, the aircraft on board are not utilised to the best of their potential in a strike role.

(b) The presence of a carrier, when operating in the littorals, has to be adequately displaced from the ROA of the enemy’s shore based strike aircraft. Though this ensures adequate early warning and safety to the CTF, it severely restricts the operational efficacy of the carrier based aircraft in executing strikes in the hinterland of the enemy.

(c) This mutually exclusive conflict of interests between fleet survivability and air strike capability defeats the efficacy of utilizing the CTF in projecting power roles.

67. Carrier based air power cannot sustain an adequately high tempo of surge operations that is required in projecting power due to space, logistical constraints and complexities of deck operations. However, the increase in lethality of airborne weapons point towards the capability to execute strategic surgical strikes in the enemy’s territory while operating from international waters.

68. The aircraft carrier, though self-sustained, faces the constraints that are associated with executing independent operations without sustained logistical support. The limited resources, in terms of ordnance and aircraft on board result in stringent asset allocation. This aspect is further aggravated when the carrier, which is expected to undertake multifarious tasks such as ASW, Airborne Early Warning (AEW), force protection and offensive strikes is limited by constraints of construction, configuration and air wing composition.

69. Carriers are required to project power into the mainland where adequate basing is not available. However, ensuring effective utilization in executing shore strikes, especially in depth, can only be achieved by extensive employment of in-flight refuelling resources. This may not be a viable option considering the inherent operational limitations of these assets in hostile airspace and their non-availability.

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