Naval Air: A Carrier Too Far

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April 4, 2015: Many nations buy an aircraft carrier as a prestige item and often make it the flagship of their fleet. Smaller nations often find out that this prestige is more than they can afford. A good example of this is Thailand which bought an 11.4 ton carrier (Chakri Naruebet) in the 1990s. This ship, based on Spain’s only carrier the 16,700 ton Principe de Asturias and built in Spain was designed to operate eight AV-8 Harrier vertical takeoff jets and eight UH-60 class helicopters. The Harriers proved to be more expensive to maintain and operate than Thailand could afford and in 2006, nine years after the Chakri Naruebet entered service, the Harriers were withdrawn from service.

This allowed Thailand to add more helicopters (the carrier could handle up to 20 of them) and the ship could live up to its official designation ("Offshore Patrol Helicopter Carrier"). This was not a hard decision to make as most of the Harriers were inoperable within three years of the carrier entering service. Moreover, in the same year the carrier entered service Thailand was hit with an economic recession that led to a cut in the navy budget. This meant that the Chakri Naruebet spent most of the next decade tied up in port. While the Chakri Naruebet was too expensive (especially with a crew of 600) to operate as a patrol ship, Thailand found that it was very useful for disaster relief. In this capacity it served during the aftermath of 2004 Indian Ocean tidal wave disaster and to deal with widespread flooding in Thailand during 2010-11. Aside from that the Chakri Naruebet goes to sea about one day a month for training and most of its helicopters are normally assigned to other duties.

Fortunately the Chakri Naruebet (and Principe de Asturias) were the smallest carriers in use and cheaper to operate than most. The Principe de Asturias was retired in 2013 (after 25 years’ service). The smaller Thai carrier ships has a top speed of 4t kilometers an hour and could stay at sea for about five weeks before needing refueling and resupply. In effect, both ships were “coastal carriers.” Armament consisted of some anti-aircraft weapons.

    
 


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