This node is intended to discuss the tactical and strategic implications of the ekranoplan wing-in-ground sea vehicle, and its effective uses in modern naval combat
As stated in its home node, an ekranoplan (derived from the Russian 'ekran' - screen and 'plan' - plane) is basically an aircraft that is incapable of flying more than a few tens of metres above the ground or sea. Such craft are kept aloft by means of a curious effect known as 'wing-in-ground' or 'ground effect', by which vortices of air are caught between the wings of the craft and the ground. This creates a violently swirling air cushion that provides partially self-sustaining aerodynamic lift to the vehicle, in much the same way as a hovercraft. The result of this effect is a conventional aircraft restricted to very low altitude, but which can travel at great speed for long periods of time whilst using 40% less fuel burn than an equivalently laden aeroplane. In fact, it was a well known fact among World War II bomber pilots that if a single engine on a craft failed, the plane could still limp home by flying extremely close to the ground or sea, wing-in-ground providing the additional lift.
Although currently being bandied around R&D departments worldwide as a method of greatly reducing the cost of intercontinental travel, the military aspects of wing-in-ground vehicles are possibly far more profound.
Firstly, such craft are very nearly undetectable by standard maritime radar. Flying as they do at height of under 20m, no coastal defence radar platforms are configured to look for them. Similarly, even modern sonar systems cannot achieve a strong enough lock on a WIG-craft to fire a weapon at one. WIG craft can be constructed on any scale, from tiny one-man scout planes to vast 550-ton behemoths like the famous Caspian Sea Monster constructed in Soviet Russia during the Cold War. By comparison, a jumbo jet has a maximum take-off weight of 400 tons. The CSM plane was almost as large as an American B-52 Bomber.
With this in mind, consider the potential of an ekranoplan-equipped naval force. A small one-man 'hunter-killer' vessel could easily be equipped with a complement of short-range anti-ship cruise missiles. Supported by a modified aircraft carrier as a home base, a dozen or so such craft would be capable of destroying an entire Carrier Battle Group, consisting of a dozen or more vessels and hundreds of billions worth of military hardware. An ekranoplan the size of an F-15 fighter plane, costing but a hundred million, could destroy a naval vessel thirty times it's dollar value with ease.
The more powerful application of the ekranoplan aspect is the construction of large planes, the size of modern bomber aircraft. Properly developed, one plane would then possess all the firepower necessary to destroy an entire battle group single-handedly. To compare, a B-52 Bomber can carry up to 60,000lb of payload. The Tomahawk cruise missile, with an effective range of 1,500 miles and destructive potential to level a city block, weighs just 4,190lb.
Consider now the facts regarding future ekranoplan design. These craft are fast, maximum speeds can exceed the sound barrier and almost certainly will with development. They can carry the same armament as a conventional aircraft, including the famous Exocet antiship missile developed by the French. Such missiles can have ranges exceeding one hundred miles, and can sink an aircraft carrier in one or two hits. The ekranoplans themselves are all but undetectable, particularly with the application of stealth technology. Only limited application of radar absorbent materials would be required to render them invisible to all but 'sky-eye' observer planes and satellites. Add to this the high survivability rate of such a craft, compared to a conventional aerial or naval assault, and you have a naval weapons platform of unprecented power. It is highly mobile, stealthy, can carry a payload equal to or greater than any air-based delivery system, and reliably deliver it to the target.
Finally, and possibly crucially, the development of the ekranoplan breaks the grip of financially powerful nations on effective naval warfare. Warships are currently so expensive to build and maintain that only developed nations such as America, Russia and the European nations such as Britain and France can afford to field a sizeable military navy. Of these, only America uses it's vessels regularly in an offensive role. An aircraft carrier with full complement of planes costs over ten billion dollars. A less developed nation with knowledge of ekranoplan design could rapidly manufacture a small, mobile force of over a hundred seaplanes capable of effectively defending the shores of the country against the kind of naval bombardment seen in the Gulf War. Further, in an offensive role an ekranoplan navy could rapidly and silently devastate the maritime forces of any nation on earth in a manner not seen since Pearl Harbour.