Sections of road that can be used as runways in the event of combat could be a good way to preserve planes and air assets if attacks on airbases appear likely. Photo: iStock

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Standing on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush when it visited the port of Haifa in July 2017, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commented: “We are here on a mighty aircraft carrier of the United States and a few miles from here, there is another mighty aircraft carrier of our common civilization – it’s called the state of Israel.”

The image of Israel as a non-floating but strategic aircraft carrier certainly was not lost on those who paid attention to Netanyahu’s remarks. And, while Israel is strategically important to the United States, the idea of land-based “aircraft carriers” needs more consideration in the age of missiles or even swarms of drones with bombs, something the Russians encountered at their Khmeimim Air Base near Latakia in Syria.

Many countries know that their ability to defend their airspace and protect critical infrastructures and military sites depends on the ability to launch aircraft. If you want to create paranoia as an adversary you only need to demonstrate an ability to render a country’s air bases unusable.

This is a problem that Japan, Korea and Taiwan face given China’s growing missile strength, its improved rocket-strike precision and its ability – in the future – to strike with armored drones. Given that in any conflict surprise and preemption are likely to be part of the operating scenario, these and other countries need to be concerned about how to protect airbases and their air fleets.

Nazis used autobahn as landing strips

In some countries one of the solutions is to use highways to launch fighter planes, instead of relying on fixed bases. During World War II Nazi Germany started using its autobahn as landing strips for fighter aircraft. Before reunification, both East and West Germany continued the practice. Today, at least eight countries can operate from roadways, and practice doing so. These include North Korea, Taiwan, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Poland, Pakistan, Israel and the Czech Republic.  As part of its NATO deployment, the US Air Force can, in certain areas, operate from roadways. Finland has the only air force in the world where all fighter planes are capable of operating from roadways and even, from some frozen lakes.

One of the most interesting examples is in Finland, where the roadways are also equipped with arresting cables and Finnish F-18s have tail hooks, just like the ones on aircraft carriers. Finland carries out at least one such exercise each year on its roadways. 

Arresting cables are not a new development.  The first arresting cable was deployed on the USS Pennsylvania in 1911.

The US Air Force deploys temporary arresting cables at airfields where it operates under wartime conditions.

If roads are to be used by modern fighters they must be suitably reinforced to aircraft take-offs and landings. They would also need places adjacent to the designated roadway where support equipment can be housed. In some cases, roadway operations can be enhanced with shelters to protect aircraft although these too can be targets.

The F-18A, for example, requires a takeoff run of around 1,097 meters (3,600 feet) fully armed. Landing requires from 1,006 to 1,250 meters depending on how much fuel and weapons are on planes. In any such scenario aircraft would be ideally be deployed just before a threat materializes and most would go already configured with weapons and loaded with fuel.

Catapult takeoffs

An aircraft carrier uses an arresting cable for landings and a catapult for takeoffs. Fighters like the F-18 need to have reinforced landing gear and more rigid undercarriages and other structural reinforcements to allow plane to land or fly off a carrier deck. (Some carriers get by without a catapult such as the Russian and Chinese models, but these depend on a carrier deck that is turned upwards like a ski-jump to assist the plane in getting airborne. The other alternative to get around catapults is to use special aircraft like the British Harrier vertical short takeoff and landing jump jet and the new F-35B short takeoff or vertical landing – STOVL – variant, which is a supersonic STOVL stealth aircraft.)

Catapults on US aircraft carriers are steam operated, except for the new USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-21). Catapults can be designed in different ways and have been around at least since the time of Samuel Langley (1903) and the Wright Brothers (1904). During World War II most catapults were hydraulically operated, and some even used gunpowder to produce the energy needed to launch an aircraft. Britain’s Royal Navy used rocket-assisted catapults where a surveillance aircraft (a Hawker Sea Hurricane) was launched from merchant ships.

The steam catapult requires significant space under the deck and an energy source, steam storage to produce the steam needed and a large piston for an aircraft launch. Large carriers often have as many as four catapults so that aircraft can be launched quickly.

Electromagnetic launch system

The Gerald R. Ford is the first large aircraft carrier to be equipped with an electromagnetic rail catapult called the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS).  This system, which is still undergoing testing, takes up much less space than a steam catapult and is far more efficient in operation (wasting far less energy), so it can easily handle a variety of aircraft. The first operational test of EMALS using an F-18A took place on 28 July 2017.

But the electromagnetic launch system is not perfect currently. It has a launch failure rate of up to 10%. Even so, the solution is one that allows non-STOVL aircraft to be used on carriers and may point the way for a land application in the future. China and Russia are both known to be working on an EMALS-type system since their ability to built STOVL aircraft is limited because they lack engine technology. Reliability of the electromagnetic launch system will surely be improved as more experience is gained on the system and improvements are made.

The most interesting possibility for the future is roadway airstrips that use the electromagnetic launch system, which could require a road less than 91 meters long, plus arresting cables for landings. Such a system could greatly enhance the capacity of air assets to survive combat, especially in cases where the enemy seeks to destroy airfields and storage depots with long-range missiles and attack aircraft. Roads that double as a runway could be strategically located away from exposure to enemy air attacks.

Japan, South Korea and Taiwan should consider EMALS for land-based aircraft use.

Being able to use short sections of roadways would boost the number of alternative reserve runways, which would make it harder for an enemy to successful destroy landing fields and aircraft in a preemptive move.  And it would mean that sophisticated and hard-to-maintain aircraft such as the F-35B could best be used at sea rather than on land bases, or the carrier-alternative F-35C could be used, which is less costly and suitable for catapult launches. Also, proven aircraft such as the F-16 and F-18 or even models like Taiwan’s F-CK-1 or Korea’s T-50 could defend a country’s airspace while being far less vulnerable than if sitting at fixed airbases.  

As defense planners evaluate alternatives to protect their countries from attack, the “land-based aircraft carrier” should get serious consideration.

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