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 Post subject: Korabl Maket and Other Sea Monsters.
Unread postPosted: 29 Apr 2014, 21:49 
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Korabl Maket and Other Sea Monsters:

The Ekranoplan Concept.

By John Ash


On the 1st October 1955, a huge behemoth entered service with the United States Navy:

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USS Forrestal

USS Forrestal was the first 'supercarrier', and she joined the trio of Midway class carriers which preceded her. 4 large slabs of US airbase able to operate in conjunction with older, smaller carriers in any ocean on the planet - Forrestal being particularly formidable, adding value to a navy which was trying to find, let alone maintain, a strategic role in the post-war world and providing the USN with a viable nuclear deterrent.

Heck, the Soviets were terrified at the prospect of facing this hugely expensive ship, and they had no means of matching its capability and/or countering it. The USSR had only ever had one carrier by this point - the salvaged German carrier Graf Zeppelin, and they had sunk it. It would not be until 1967 that anything remotely like a carrier, the Moskva, entered service with Soviet naval forces - and she could only carry helicopters. It would not be until 1975 that the Soviet's first 'carrier', Kiev, with its 12 combat aircraft, entered service.

The threat of these American strike carriers forced the Soviets to think creatively, never failing to impress, Soviet designers developed the Ekranoplan. Led by Rostislav Alexeyev, the Soviet Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau specialised in developing ground effect vehicles such as the Ekranoplan, and once the concept was ready Alexeyev took his proposal to the Kremlin. The military potential for such a craft was soon recognized and the programme received support Nikita Khrushchev. A number of small prototypes were built, most of which were no more than 8 tonnes in weight, and these led to the "Caspian Sea Monster".

Note, I refer to these 'aircraft' as aircraft for ease, but technically Ekranoplans are not aircraft, seaplanes, hovercraft, or hydrofoils. They work to a principle known as ground effect and ground effect is considered to be a separate technology. Although it is worth noting that the International Maritime Organization classifies ground effect vehicles (GEV's) as maritime ships.

The 'Caspian Sea Monster'

The Caspian Sea Monster was a Soviet built Ekranoplane known as the KM - Korabl Maket, officially (Корабль-макет or in English, Prototype Ship). It was once the largest aircraft in the world, and worked by the ground effect principle - generating a cushion of air to almost surf across with its frontally mounted 8 jet engines, allowing the remaining 2 jets in the tail to push the aircraft along. Whilst this was not the first or only ground effect vehicle (as Germany, the US, Australia, China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea have all experimented with ground effect, which had been discovered in the 1920's) it was arguably the most important. This 544 tonne, 90 metre long aircraft was developed by Rostislav Alexeyev. Not much is known about this vehicle however, as the project was so secretive that its water landings were announced as crash landings to mislead the population. The CIA spotting the KM with its satellites and dubbed it the Kaspian Monster.

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Artists impression of the KM.

First flying in 1966, the KM was intended to fly at about 15 feet above the level of the water and use its high speed of 300mph and long range of just shy of 1000miles to hunt down submarines and ships. This website claims that the aircraft had a stop speed of 460mph and flew at 66 feet for 8000 miles but this seems unlikely, although according to the National Research Council in 1999, the Russians were able to reach a top speed of 404mph. The idea was a response to the increasing supremacy of the US Navy in its strike role, especially in the Mediterranean Sea, and also likely response of the growing capability of the Royal Navy and other European navies which focused on anti-submarine work and could close down the North, Baltic and Arctic seas. It was considered as a marine going vessel assigned to the Soviet Navy and prior to the first flight a bottle of champagne was broken against its nose. Officially a special vehicle for the military and rescue teams, what was actually a strike aircraft, had some serious problems such as not being able to safety operate in rough seas and the only example built crashed in 1980.

The crash of the KM would not be the end of Soviet experiments with ground effect however.

The A-90 Orlyonok "Eaglet"

The KM led to the 125-tonne A-90 Orlyonok, or Eaglet, pictured below which first flew in 1972, entered service in 1979, and was retired in 1993. Of the 120 planned, only 5 were built and the order was reduced down to 30 anyway.

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A-90 "Orlyonok" in Moscow

With the support of Minister of Defence Dmitriy Ustinov, despite the failings of the KM, Alexeyev was able to pursue the A-90 which would become the most successful Ekranoplan to date.

The A-90 was born out of the requirement to quickly deploy Soviet soldiers via beach landings into Scandinavia in the event of war, and could carry 2 light armoured vehicles such as BTR's or 200 soldiers. It was armed with a pair of 12.7mm machine guns for self defence or to cover disembarking troops and loading and unloading was assisted by the design of the front of the A-90, which could swing open sideways. It was intended that the A-90's would spearhead an advance instead of the slower, fuel hungry, massive hovercraft used by the Soviets.

Whilst the A-90, like the KM, uses ground effect to fly a few meters above the surface, the A-90 can also fly somewhat conventionally up to about 10,000 feet. It was also amphibious, and powered by the Kuznetsov NK-12 turboprop, which was at the time the most powerful turboprop engine ever made. On the A-90 the NK-12 engine was fitted in the tail. A pair of smaller turbofans were mounted in the nose intended to assist in take off therefore when cruising or when using ground effect they could be switched off. The programme was quite promising, but sadly, two A-90's crashed. The first crash occurred because of the poor quality metal used in the construction of the hull, the alloy used in construction was changed but a second A-90 crashed, these, combined with the earlier crash of the KM severely jeopardised Alexeyev's credibility as a designer and the programme was cancelled.

Again, this was not the end of Soviet/Russian experiments with Ekranoplans. Supposedly, there were plans to put the A-90 Orlyonok back into production with this website suggesting that the aircraft could be used by the agency which protects Russia's maritime borders.

The Lun Class

Regardless of the state of the A-90 in Russian procurement and development, a third Ekranoplan design emerged, the Lun Class.

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The Lun Class Ekranoplan (known as the Duck within NATO, and Lun is Russian for Harrier) was also designed (strangely, considering the previous record of the technology) by Alexeyev. It was used by the Soviet and Russian navies from 1987 to sometime in the late 1990s. It also "flew" by using ground effect at about 16 feet in height but could also fly conventionally at a height of 24,600 feet. The Lun was powered with 8 Kuznetsov NK-87 turbofans, each mounted on forward canards and these enabled the aircraft to achieve a maximum speed of 342mph and a maximum range of 1200miles. The Lun Class Ekranoplans were intended, like the original KM, to attack high value surface vessels such as American or British carriers. The Lun was armed with 6 P-270 Moskit (Mosquito) guided missiles and 4 23mmm cannons (fitted in 2 twin mount turrets), they also boasted a number of sophisticated tracking systems mounted in the nose and tail. Only one Lun was ever built, which entered service the Black Sea Fleet in 1987 and was retired within the next 12 years although no one seems to be entirely sure when. A second version was planned as a mobile hospital and named the Spasatel or Rescuer, it was cancelled despite being close to completion, probably because this was either not it's actual intention, or to budget constraints. The single Lun in service was retired in the late 1990s.

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Sitting unused at a naval station in Kaspiysk

Perhaps sadly for aviation enthusiasts and those working on the programme, Minister Ustinov died in 1985, and his successor Marshal Sokolov axed the Ekranoplan program entirely. Whilst Ekranoplans, once refined, were potentially devastating, the approach of the Gorbachev regime in regards to the West and the end of the Cold War signalled the end of the programme, as the requirement to sink carriers or annex large swathes of Sweden was no longer needed. Not to mention that the all Ekranoplans suffered from poor longitudinal stability, could only use ground effect in the smoothest of seas, and were notoriously hard to reliably navigate from.

Conclusion

Whilst a bold, interesting, and almost pioneering concept, the Ekranoplan concept was fraught with problems. That said, despite being promising, I personally question the ability of these things to take on a carrier group. If the weather allows, a below radar approach can be achieved by ground effect, and possibly conventionally at a lower altitude - but these things were big, really big and would surely be easy to track. Should one have gotten through, would a handful of missiles fired from a single (okay, ideally several) Lun's have been enough to sink a carrier and/or it's group? In the age of early warning, CIWS, and fantastic damage control measures surely any hit would not have been fatal? Not to mention the vulnerability of the Ekranoplan to carrier fighters (although perhaps upper wing mounted AA missiles would have gone some way to protect from this) would surely have put an end to the concept when put into practice.



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 Post subject: Re: Korabl Maket and Other Sea Monsters.
Unread postPosted: 21 May 2014, 16:09 
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The A-90, the transport, seems a bit pointless to me. 2 x BTR, even if missile armed, landing in Sweden or Denmark...



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 Post subject: Re: Korabl Maket and Other Sea Monsters.
Unread postPosted: 28 May 2014, 13:39 
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I see what you are saying, even if massed, which had the A-90 been widely used massing would have been almost certain, that is still not a lot of firepower on its own and it's not like the aircraft is much help either.

However, such an assault would rely on surprise and probably best suited for raids. Had a wider conflict erupted, they'd be used to quickly seize a beach ahead of a larger landing force, or support a VDV force paradropped inland. Any operation would have some form of top cover from ships or aircraft and helicopters.

I'm sceptical of the viability of such a force, but I can see method in the madness!



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 Post subject: Re: Korabl Maket and Other Sea Monsters.
Unread postPosted: 03 Jun 2014, 20:39 
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They don't even look like they should take off, let alone fly at 10,000 feet!


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 Post subject: Re: Korabl Maket and Other Sea Monsters.
Unread postPosted: 29 Sep 2014, 23:34 
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Yeah, it amazes me how such aircraft could reach that altitude.

As interesting as these aircraft are, a decent sized helicopter landing ship with a few tank landing craft and a wing of helicopters would probably be a better option for what the Soviets envisaged.



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 Post subject: Re: Korabl Maket and Other Sea Monsters.
Unread postPosted: 30 Sep 2014, 14:20 
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My kneejerk reaction to that was a lack of money, but these aircraft can't have been cheap either.



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