Photos at link
Mar 31, 2021,07:00am EST|
The World’s Weirdest Aircraft Carrier Just Reappeared Near Singapore
by David Axe, Forbes Staff
I write about ships, planes, tanks, drones, missiles and satellites.
An Indonesian navy patrol boat steamed into the narrow Singapore Strait on Sunday to intercept and shadow a Thai navy task force sailing west to east through the strait.
The maritime escort mission itself was not unusual—navies in the crowded, volatile region routinely shadow each other’s ships. What was notable about the Sunday sortie was the composition of the Thai task force.
For in addition to a frigate and a corvette, the Thai flotilla included the world’s weirdest aircraft carrier—HTMS Chakri Naruebet. The 599-foot flattop so rarely leaves her home port of Sattahip, in eastern Thailand, that any appearance in international waters is kind of a big deal.
Thai navy leaders had stars in their eyes when, in the early 1990s, they paid a Spanish shipyard nearly $300 million to build Chakri Naruebet. Modeled on the U.S. Navy’s sea-control ship concept from the 1970s, the Thai flattop is not big. In fact, she’s the smallest aircraft carrier in the world, displacing just 11,500 tons—slightly more than an American destroyer.
Along with the ship, the Thai navy acquired nine ex-Spanish first-generation Harrier jump jets. The idea was for Chakri Naruebet, her Harriers and a complement of helicopters to patrol Thai waters, enforce territorial claims, help out during natural disasters and, during wartime, control the crowded seas between Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, The Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand.
But the high cost of maintaining any flattop—even a small one—quickly disrupted the plan. Merely fueling up Chakri Naruebet’s diesel-and-gas powerplant reportedly costs nearly $50,000. That’s a lot of money for a navy that spends only $400 million annually to support 130 vessels and 70,000 people.
The 1970s-vintage Harriers went into storage in 2006, leaving Chakri Naruebet without fixed-wing planes. The flattop stayed in port for most of her first 20 years of “service,” usually sailing just one day a month to keep her 600 crew current.
While pierside in Sattahip, Chakri Naruebet is open to the public, inevitably leading to derisive characterizations of the vessel as the world’s most expensive tourist destination.
But the flattop’s engines still work. Her crew retains some proficiency. She’s got space for the navy’s eight H-60 helicopters. She might not be the most fearsome warship in Southeast Asia, but she’s got potential. When the Thai navy’s planned purchase of two Chinese submarines for $700 million fell apart last year, the fleet eagerly redirected some of the allotted funding to Chakri Naruebet.
So it should come as no surprise that the flattop made an appearance in the Singapore Strait on Sunday. She and her two escorts reportedly were traveling from a naval base in western Thailand through the strait to a second base in eastern Thailand. Chakri Naruebet’s appearance among the cruise ships, tankers and container ships off Singapore prompted both an Indonesian naval sortie and a burst of excited media coverage.
It was as though a steely sea monster suddenly had surfaced again following a long slumber. If the funding holds, sightings of the world’s weirdest aircraft carrier might not be so rare in coming years.
« Back to index