An aircraft carrier is typically the heart of any modern naval fleet. Though the world is most familiar with American-style supercarriers, there are in fact a variety of aircraft carriers with varying missions in service around the world. Today we’ll talk about the tiniest aircraft carrier, Chakri Naruebet.
In service with the Thai navy, the Chakri Naruebet was laid down on July 12, 1994, and launched a year and a half later in 1996. Built by the Spanish firm Bazan, the ship used a similar design to Spain’s Príncipe de Asturias light helicopter carrier.
The Chakri Naruebet measures 600 feet (182.6 meters) with a beam of 72 feet (21.9 meters) and a full-load displacement of 11,485 tons. By comparison, an American Nimitz class carrier- easily the most recognized carriers in the world – measure 1,092 feet (332.8 meters) with a beam of 253 feet (76.8 meters) and a full-load displacement of 104,600 tons.
The Chakri Naruebet has a compliment of 455 crew with an additional 146 air crew, while a Nimitz carries a crew of 3,300 with an aircrew of 3,000. While a Nimitz carrier is nuclear powered with an output of 260,000 horsepower – the Chakri Naruebet is, as most other light aircraft carriers, equipped with twin gas turbine and diesel engines, for a total output of 50,687 horsepower.
The Chakri Naruebet’s gas turbine and diesel engines give it an estimated range of 10,000 nautical miles at 12 knots, with a maximum speed of 26 knots and a cruise speed of 16 knots. A US Nimitz by comparison has a cruising speed of 30 knots, with a classified top speed and a range that is technically unlimited as it requires refueling only once every 20-25 years.
The Chakri Naruebet is considered a light aircraft, or helicopter carrier, capable of carrying a maximum of 6 Harrier jump-jets and 6 support helicopters. Its flight deck includes a 12 degree ski-jump designed to help get its Harriers into the air. Ski jumps are a notable design feature in several other aircraft carriers, including full-size ones such as the Chinese Type 001- though in those cases the ski-jumps are a necessary feature due to a lack of a powerful take-off assist catapult system or weak jet engine designs.
Ski jumps may help get aircraft into the air with shorter runways, but they severely limit an aircraft’s range and offensive capabilities by limiting the amount of fuel and extra weapons that can be equipped, as weight becomes a serious consideration.
A steam or electromagnetic catapult system such as that in use by American carriers overcomes these limitations by accelerating an aircraft to great speed and assisting it in achieving lift.
The Chakri Naruebet offensive and defensive armament is limited to three six-cell Mistral launchers. The Mistral is a short-range anti-aircraft missile that can also be used to intercept incoming sea-skimming missiles. Equipped with a 6.6 lb (3kg) warhead loaded with tungsten balls, the Mistral is designed to detonate just ahead or behind its target,
and shred it with a shotgun-blast-like barrage of shrapnel. Unfortunately, due to its range of 2.6 miles (4km), the Mistral offers little to no protection against modern airborne threats or supersonic and hypersonic anti-ship missiles.
While a Mistral missile can be linked to remote infrared guidance, it lacks the ability to be guided to its target by more powerful shipborne radar systems, and has only an infrared seeker with which to track its target, which could make it potentially spoofable by enemy countermeasures such as flares.
By comparison, the American Rolling Airframe Missile has terminal guidance capabilities allowing it to link up to radar from friendly ships or aircraft, as well as both thermal and radiation seekers, letting the missile home in on the heat signature and active radar of an enemy target.
While the maximum range of the RAM is classified, it is known to be at least 5.6 miles (9 kilometers), or twice the range of a Mistral missile. The Chakri Naruebet does have provisions to install a single eight-cell launcher for the Evolved Sea Sparrow missile, though no plans currently to actually do so.
Sea Sparrows are featured prominently on American carriers, with each typically carrying three to four launchers. With a range of 31 miles (50km) and a classified speed known to be over Mach 4, Evolved Sea Sparrows are a formidable mid-range air and missile defense weapon. They use both infrared and radiation seekers much like the Rolling Airframe Missile, and can sync with a launching ship’s target illumination radars to be guided to a target.
As long as the Thai Navy delays installing its single cell of Sea Sparrows, the Chakri Naruebet cannot hope to enter into combat against any modern foe and survive. As the flagship of the Thai Navy, the Chakri Naruebet’s main role is to conduct surveillance and enforcement of Thailand’s Exclusive Economic Zone, aid in search and rescue operations, provide command and control and air support.
Yet with such limited armaments, the Chakri Naruebet could hope to add little to a firefight versus a more capable foe- its aging compliment of Harrier jets and lack of support electronic warfare assets would make its aircraft easy pickings for modern anti-air defenses on other ships or adversary aircraft.
Unable to keep enemy aircraft or ships at bay with its Harriers alone, and lacking a meaningful anti-air/anti-missile defense system, the Chakri Naruebet itself would be a sitting duck for hostile forces. As such, the Chakri Naruebet rarely takes to sea, and when it does, it is usually to carry members of the Thai Royal family- earning it the designation from defense analysts around the world as the most expensive royal yacht ever built.
So, does the Thai navy really need an aircraft carrier, or is the Chakri Naruebet merely a ‘prestige ship’ meant to be a showpiece for the Thai royal family?
What do you think? Do let us know your thoughts in the comments! While you think about it watch this awesome video by The Infographics Show about the Chakri Naruebet.