The 1966 Defence White Paper and the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) were both initiated by Labour governments and witnessed first a lapse and then the reinstatement of big deck carriers in the Royal Navy.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Kelvin Curnow. Kelvin’s particular area of interest is naval aircraft and aircraft carriers. He is a keen writer and over the past fifteen years he has had a number of articles published in different journals.
Under the Labour government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson the Defence Secretary Denis Healey led the 1966 Review. It came to the conclusion that Britain would no longer undertake unilateral military action and that while initially committing to maintaining a British presence in Malaysia and Singapore a consequent financial crisis led to a reversal of this decision.
A subsequent rundown of the RN’s strike carrier force saw three decommissioned; HMS VICTORIOUS (1968), HMS EAGLE (1972) and HMS ARK ROYAL (IV) (1978) while HMS HERMES was converted to a commando carrier at Devonport Dockyard between 1971-3. HERMES was subsequently refitted at Portsmouth from 1980 to June 1981, during which a 12° ski-jump and facilities for operating BAe FRS.1 Sea Harriers were incorporated.
Retired from service on 12 April 1984, at 28,000 tonnes HERMES could have been the last carrier of significant size to be operated by the RN. This was not to be, for the Blair government’s SDR led by then Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson set down a number of key decisions one of which was to replace the three Invincible class carriers with two ships which would be larger and more flexible than the earlier vessels.
This decision was based on the premise that the UK should be able to respond to a major international crisis requiring a large military effort while concurrently maintaining an overseas deployment on a smaller scale. On 25 July 2007 Defence Secretary Des Browne announced the order for two new Queen Elizabeth class (QEC) aircraft carriers. The two ships, HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH (QE) and HMS PRINCE OF WALES (PoW), were commissioned on 7 December 2017 and 10 December 2019 respectively marking the end of a thirty year hiatus in the operation of large strike carriers by the RN.
The decisions which witnessed first the removal of strike carriers from the fleet and the current renewal of big deck carriers, together with combat experience which influenced the design of the QEC give important insights into current and future of carrier aviation.
HMS ARK ROYAL (IV) AND CARRIER AVIATION IN THE 1970s
For most of the 1970s ARK ROYAL (IV) symbolised British sea power, albeit one which was at best superficial. From 1970 she took to sea with the most formidable air-wing ever assembled on the decks of a RN carrier comprising: 12 McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG.1s; 14 Blackburn (Hawker Siddeley) Buccaneer S.2s; 4 Fairy Gannet AEW.3s; 6 Westland Sea King HAS.1s; 2 Westland Wessex HAR.1s; and, 1 Gannet COD.4. This was a balanced air wing capable of undertaking air defence (Phantom), long-range strike and reconnaissance (Buccaneer), airborne early warning (AEW – Gannet), anti-submarine warfare (ASW – Sea King) and carrier on-board delivery (COD – Gannet) missions. Approximating to just under half the size of United States Navy (USN) carrier air wings (CVWs) the ARK’s aircraft were nevertheless of equal capability until the appearance in 1974 of the Grumman F-14A Tomcat on American carriers.
The one aircraft which stood out in RN service was the Buccaneer which had a top speed of Mach 0.85 at sea level and a range of 2,300 miles. Originally designed to attack Soviet Sverdlov class cruisers with either nuclear or conventional weapons approaching under the ship’s radar horizon, it was a testament to the aircraft’s design that it finished its career in the first Gulf War laser spiking targets for Panavia Tornados using the Westinghouse AN/AVQ-23E Pave Spike laser designation pod. These missions would often end in the Buccaneers themselves self lasing targets before destroying them with their own Paveway II laser-guided bombs (LGBs).
If the Buccaneer was a success story ARK ROYAL itself, despite its imposing appearance, especially with its air-wing parked on deck, presented a far less happy picture. The ship spent half her service life of twenty-four years being modernised, refitted and repaired despite which she remained in very poor material condition throughout her career suffering many defects and mechanical failures. Comments by those who served on the ship painted a very bleak picture of the ship’s physical state, particularly towards the end of her service life. If it had not been for the decision announced in the 1996 White Paper to cancel the CVA-01 carrier ARK ROYAL would have been retired in 1972. It is ironic that the RN’s most powerful air-wing put to sea on a carrier in such poor condition when a far better alternative was available. This was HMS EAGLE, sister ship to ARK ROYAL. Although both suffered from the fact their construction had begun in World War II (WWII) and consequently had extensive corrosion and obsolete power trains, at the time of her decommissioning EAGLE was considered to be in better material condition. The decision to retain ARK ROYAL was based on the fact that to modify EAGLE to permit Phantom operations would have cost £25–30 million. These were modifications which had already been carried out on ARK ROYAL and in February 1972 the Conservative Defence Secretary, Lord Carrington, considered the overall manpower and cost requirements of operating both ships was beyond the UK’s resources, especially given that ARK ROYAL was expected to be available to the end of the 1970s with only two short refits.
In addition to its general better overall material condition EAGLE had a far superior sensor fit than any RN carrier. The primary sensor was the Type 984 3D S Band radar which had been developed by the Admiralty Signals Research Establishment (ASRE). The radar was mounted on a fully stabilized mechanically rotated platform revolving at 4.6 or 6 revolutions per minute. The most advanced radar of its type in the world at the time of its introduction, the Type 984 featured a large circular microwave lens. The radar measured the longitudinal position, latitudinal position and altitude of a target. It did this by employing five simultaneously scanning pencil beams fed by three cavity magnetrons with the top feed being a fixed horn for long-range search beam.
A key component of the Type 984 system was the Comprehensive Display System (CDS), an electromechanical computer that developed aircraft tracks in a semi-automated mode. The system could track forty-eight aircraft while continuing to scan for new contacts. Additionally, the radar could perform the air-traffic control function.
The Type 984’s detection range against a large high-flying aircraft was typically 210 mi (330 km) although against small low-flying aircraft this could fall to as low as 46 mi (74 km). ARK ROYAL possessed a very poor radar fit-out in comparison, relying on two Type 965R long-range radars with their two distinctive AKE ‘double bedstead’ arrays. The Type 965 was to prove disastrously inadequate in the Falklands War proving itself unable to detect low-flying Argentinian aircraft, a fact which contributed to the loss of both HMS SHEFFIELD and HMS COVENTRY. It could be speculated that the Type 984 would have been effective in detecting Argentine attacks had it remained installed on HERMES and not removed in 1972.
TO THE FALKLANDS
With the demise of the RN’s strike carriers the responsibility to provide air cover to the task force sent south to retake the Falkland Islands from their Argentinian invaders fell to HERMES and HMS INVINCIBLE. In order to understand the decision to reinstate strike carriers as part of the RN’s order of battle, it is necessary to examine important lessons learnt as a result of the conflict. Of note is that there were three British built carriers which took part in the war, those of the RN and the Colossus class carrier ARA VEINTICINCO DE MAYO.
On 2 May 1982 the Argentine carrier attempted to launch a wave of Douglas A-4Q Skyhawk jets after her Grumman S-2 Trackers detected the RN task force. Prospectively, what would have been the first battle between aircraft carriers since WWII did not take place because the VEINTICINCO DE MAYO could not find sufficient wind over the deck. This was an important lesson arising out of the Falklands War. Aircraft carriers equipped with Catapult Assisted Take Off Barrier Assisted Recovery (CATOBAR) equipment as the means of launching and recovering aircraft were more constrained by weather in conducting operations than Short Take Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) aircraft operating off ski-jump equipped ships. The often argued contention that Phantoms flying from ARK ROYAL (had she been available) would have provided almost total air superiority over the Falklands belies the fact that weather conditions and sea states would have prevented their launch on many occasions.
The Sea Harriers were not bound by such conditions and could operate outside the parameters imposed by weather on aircraft flying from carriers equipped for CATOBAR operations.
The lack of adequate radar warning during the Falklands War is often discussed. Particular reference is made to the lack of an AEW aircraft and inevitably this leads to a discussion about the Gannet AEW.3. Arguments are made that this aircraft would have made a substantive difference to the air war in that it could have provided early warning of incoming raids and provided direction to the defending fighters. However, just as the Type 965P was a WWII design and was found to be lacking, the Gannet’s AN/APS-20A was of a similar vintage and suffered from several major shortcomings not the least of which it had poor performance against clutter. In conditions of a high sea state and over land the radar was blind. Lacking an on board processor the two observers on the Gannet were presented with a raw radar picture which required highly skilled interpretation to be of any use at all. The appalling weather conditions around the Falklands, the fact that the Argentinian attacks were carried out at extremely low level and that many were routed over West Falkland, calls into question the efficacy of any deployment of the Gannet to the Falklands if indeed it had been possible. The initial response to provide organic AEW cover, the Sea King AEW.2, suffered from the same shortfalls as the Gannet. Equipped with the Thorn-EMI ARI 5980/3 Searchwater LAST (Low Altitude Surveillance Task) radar the Sea King’s usefulness was limited in that just as with the AN/APS-20A Searchwater could not detect targets either over land or in the littoral. Both were strictly ‘blue water’ radars.
Without doubt the Sea Harrier was the greatest success of the Falklands campaign. They were able to generate an exceptional mission rate. A total of 1,335 combat sorties were flown during the 45 days of air combat operations beginning 1 May 1982. This is an average of 1.41 sorties per day. Together with an availability rate of over 90% they were able to provide a capability well above the numbers embarked. During the Falklands conflict twenty-eight Sea Harriers attained air superiority over the combined forces of the Fuerza Aérea Argentina (FAA – Argentine Air Force) and Comando de Aviación Naval Argentina (COAN – Argentine Naval Aviation) totalling some 130 aircraft. Outnumbered ten to one the Sea Harriers shot down twenty-one Argentine aircraft for no loss. Without their presence many more personnel and ships would have been lost.
But despite its success shortcomings were recognised. On 28 August 1982 HMS ILLUSTRIOUS arrived in the South Atlantic with 809 NAS (Naval Air Squadron) on board. These aircraft had been modified to address the inadequacies in range by adding drop tanks of 190 gal capacity and in combat persistence by adding twin Sidewinder rails. The other major issue concerned the inability of the of the Blue Fox radar to look down, especially over land. This would be addressed with the advent of the Sea Harrier FA2 equipped with the Blue Vixen Medium Pulse Repetition Frequency (MPRF) pulse Doppler radar which possessed a true look-down/shoot-down capability. Hence, from the Falklands War the lessons learnt dictated that any Sea Harrier successor would need to combine range, combat persistence and excellent sensors to ensure air dominance.
THE 1990s and 2000s
Post the Falklands War and up until 2010 saw both a high point and its nadir in the number of carriers operated by the RN and the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) in general. Until her decommissioning on 3 August 2005 INVINCIBLE represented the lead ship in her class the others being HMS ILLUSTRIOUS and HMS ARK ROYAL (V). Each of the vessels was significantly modified and updated during their service lives and were capable light carriers. In addition to the three Invincible class carriers, from 1998 onwards the RN also possessed the Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH) HMS OCEAN giving the service access to a significant number of oceangoing aviation capable ships not seen since the 1960s. In 2000 the RN possessed a substantial force of forty-seven Sea Harrier FA2s, a mixture of new build and aircraft rebuilt from FRS.1s. In terms of capability, if not numbers, this was the most significant fighter force the RN had operated including the period it operated Phantoms.
In addition to the FA2s the Invincible class also put to sea with RAF BAE Harrier GR7s, with a mix of anything up to sixteen aircraft plus three helicopters deployed on a carrier. Operating RN and RAF aircraft together in a combined force was formalised on 1 April 2000 when the Royal Navy’s two Sea Harrier FA2 squadrons and the RAF’s four Harrier GR7/7A squadrons were placed under a single command structure within RAF Strike Command given the appellation Joint Force Harrier (JFH). In 2006 the Sea Harriers were retired and the number of Harrier squadrons was reduced to four including 800 NAS. On 19 October 2010, as part of the Cameron government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), it was announced that the Harrier squadrons would be disbanded and HMS ARK ROYAL (V) withdrawn from service, effectively ending Britain’s sea going airpower for a decade. At the beginning of the 2000s the RN possessed three light carriers, with two operational at any one time and the ability to put thirty-two front-line fighters as well as Airborne Surveillance and Control (ASaC) helicopters to sea. A potent force, particularly considering that the RN also had thirty-two escort vessels available. The SDSR decimated the RN and unlike the earlier SDR did not into account the contemporary security environment; rather it was essentially a cost cutting exercise.
NEW CARRIERS FOR A NEW ERA
A comparison with the RN’s previous largest carrier is telling indicating that QE weighs 17,000 tons more than ARK ROYAL (IV), is 104 ft (31,6 m) longer and has a beam that is 69 ft (21 m) wider. Despite the misconception that in its role as a strike carrier QE’s normal load out of twenty-four F-35Bs is inadequate, this compares favourably to that of ARK ROYAL (IV) which carried only an additional two fighter/strike aircraft. Moreover, while the Phantoms and Buccaneers were superb aircraft in their day the capabilities possessed by each do not in any way match those of the F-35B. As discussed below, the capabilities of the Leonardo Merlin HM2 Crowsnest ASaC helicopter will provide a capacity which exceeds that of any RN aircraft which has previously operated in that role. The QEC will additionally operate Boeing Apaches and Leonardo Wildcat HMA2s in the maritime attack helicopter role, Leonardo Merlin HM2s in the ASW role, Leonardo Merlin HC4/4A assault helicopters and Boeing Chinook transport helicopters. Together the CVW represents the most powerful naval aviation force the RN has ever operated.
The QEC programme experienced delays due to mismanagement and budgetary cutbacks. The situation was exacerbated with the decision by the Cameron led coalition government, announced in the 2010 SDSR, that PoW would be converted to CATOBAR configuration with QE placed into reserve for later conversion. The F-35C variant of the Lightning would be purchased in place of the F-35B. Spiralling costs meant that by 2012 the decision was reversed and both carriers would be completed in STOVL configuration. According to the Cameron government the two main advantages offered by a CATOBAR carrier were interoperability with the UK’s principal allies, the USA and France, and the prospect of buying and operating the Northrop Grumman E-2D Hawkeye off the QEC.
Interoperability between allies is attractive; however it is not without its considerable difficulties. There are questions about operating the F-35C off the FS CHARLES DE GAULLE (CdG) given that she has two 246 ft (75 m) C13‑3 steam catapults, a shorter version of the 325 ft (99 m) C-13-1 catapults installed on American Nimitz class carriers. These may be of insufficient power stroke to launch the aircraft. Moreover, if Dassault Rafale Ms and F-35Cs were cross decked during an operation akin to that of Operation Odyssey Dawn over Libya in 2011, neither type could undertake operational sorties from the other nation’s aircraft carriers. British carriers would not hold a spares package or weapons to permit operations of Rafales and conversely CdG on the same basis could not operate F-35Cs. Additionally, different rules of engagement apply for each country, hence gaining permission to allow strike missions from the decks of each other’s aircraft carrier would be problematic.
If RN F-35Cs flew from United States Navy (USN) carriers a source of spares would not be an issue. Nevertheless, UK aircraft would be operating with a unique range of weapons not used by the USN. Moreover, the rules of engagement under which the British and American forces operate are dramatically different and in itself would again present a considerable hurdle. In theory interoperability and the ability to cross-deck are very attractive propositions. In reality, especially in a ‘hot war,’ there are no advantages.
It is often raised, that the QEC (especially on the twitter page of the UKDJ) are carriers without aircraft, hence they are of little value. This view fails to appreciate that if it were not for their untimely withdrawal 2010, the Harrier GR9/9As were due to continue in service until at least 2018 and be available for initial operations off QE until the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning entered service.
Operating both aircraft simultaneously is an approach used by both the United States Marine Corps (USMC) and Marina Militare (Italian Navy). If the original timetable had been adhered to Harriers would have operated from the decks of QE and PoW providing an invaluable and fully amortised platform for operational and training purposes until the F-35B was available in sufficient numbers. One commentator has noted that the option to complete the QEC in STOVL configuration was partially driven by the decision to operate GR9/9As off the carriers. It is of further interest to note that had there not been a significant slippage in the F-35 programme it was expected that the aircraft would replace the Sea Harrier from 2012 and Harriers from 2015 which coincided with the expected in-service dates of the two QEC carriers.
Programme slippages coupled with poor political decision making ensured that none of these plans came to fruition, hence to deride the QEC class as ‘aircraft carriers with no aircraft’ is a naive misunderstanding of the reality, and does not appreciate that for government mismanagement their decks should have initially been lined with Harriers.
The design of QEC reflects important lessons learnt from the Falklands War. Experience demonstrated that success was not reliant on the size of the CVW but on the number of sorties generated. The QEC will be capable of generating a maximum of 110 sorties per day and up to 420 sorties over five days, 33% more sorties per plane per day than the Nimitz class. Another valuable understanding arising from the Falklands was that the availability rate of the Sea Harriers partially outweighed the size of the Argentine air forces. In Operation Lightning Strike, the RAF’s F-35B deployment to Cyprus in May 2019, a serviceability rate of 95% was attained.
The size of a flight deck gives maximum flexibility for the operation of the CVW was another lesson learnt from the Falklands War. With HERMES able to operate 16 Sea Harriers, 10 Harrier GR3s and 10 Westland Sea Kings she was able to prove herself more flexible and capable than the smaller INVINCIBLE which operated a maximum of 12 Sea Harriers and 10 Sea Kings. Initially the proposals for what was to become the QEC centred on designs of 40,000 tons. Any images published of the 42,500 tonne CdG demonstrate that thirty Rafales parked on the flight deck would make arming, fuelling, launching and recovery logistically very difficult. In comparison the flight deck of the QEC will have ample space, even with thirty-six F-35Bs aboard.
Questions remain about aerial refuelling the F-35Bs which have a range shortfall in comparison to the other F-35 variants. The USMC are going to address this situation by equipping their MV-22 Bell-Boeing Ospreys with the probe-and-drogue V-22 Aerial Refuelling System (VARS). Extending the operational radius of the F-35B using organic in-flight refuelling is no longer an expensive luxury, but has become an operational necessity. With the threat of longer ranging ant-ship missiles (AShMs), and long-range bombers launching cruise missiles against a carrier battle group (CBG), destroying the threat as early as possible is the pre-eminent means of survival. This was certainly the strategy employed by the RN using the ARK ROYAL’s Phantoms and Buccaneers. Since retiring Supermarine Scimitars and Buccaneers from the aerial refuelling role the RN has occasionally re-visited the possibility of an organic air-to-air refuelling capability. Post the Falklands War it was proposed that retired Harrier GR3s carry buddy refuelling stores. In the brief period that the F-35C was being considered the RN enquired of Lockheed Martin if the fighter could be equipped with a buddy refuelling store.
Offsetting range problems with the F-35B can be partially achieved by the employment of the MBDA SPEAR 3 (Select Precision Effects At Range Capability 3) 87 mi (140 km) range land-attack and anti-ship air-launched lightweight cruise missile. Also compensating for the aircraft’s range deficiency is the MBDA Meteor air-to-air missile which possesses a range of 80 nmi (150 km) and a 32 nmi+ (60 km+) No Escape Zone. Lastly, it should be noted that despite the criticisms of the F-35B’s operational radius its radius of action is a full 115 nmi (213 km) greater than that of the USN’s principal strike fighter the Boeing F-18F Super Hornet, with both carrying maximum fuel and payload.
The Sea King ASaC7 was equipped with the Searchwater 2000 pulse Doppler radar which is being refitted to the Merlin HM2 using ten palletised systems, and can be employed by any of the thirty HM2s currently in service. The radar offers excellent clutter suppression and overland, air and surface tracking in a single sortie. Often denigrated in comparison to the performance of the Hawkeye the Merlin will nevertheless have potent capabilities. The radar can track 250 air and surface contacts simultaneously while the system can receive an additional 300 tracks via Link 11 and Link 16. It has a range of 85+nm (160+km). (Some reports put this as high as 199 nm [370 km].) With a range of 518 mi (833 km), endurance of 5 hours and service ceiling of 15,010 ft the Merlin has sufficient performance to be an effective ASaC aircraft capable of providing a comprehensive air picture.
A portent for the future came in the form of an online commentary written by General David H Berger USMC which questioned the service’s need for ‘Vehicles, aircraft, and systems that the service can neither afford to procure or afford to sustain over their anticipated lifespans’. This could be taken to read that going into the future STOVL designs such as the F-35B and V-22 cannot be financially supported nor because of cost replaced. Given that the F-35B will possibly be the last STOVL fighter that will be built CATOBAR carrier operations will be the only option for the future. From the outset the QEC was built as an adaptable design able to be converted to CATOBAR operations at some point in the life of the ships. Lessons will need to be learnt from the misstep of 2010, particularly in respect to calculating the cost of converting both carriers to CATOBAR configuration. Despite the abandonment of the conversion of PoW for CATOBAR operations it remains that both carriers can have catapults and arrestor gear installed. The questionable arguments presented against the conversion centred on cost, and that the carriers had some empty spaces that could notionally be used to take Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) and Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) equipment but no detailed design work had ever been done regarding such a conversion. By 2012 the Ministry of Defence claimed price of the EMALS and AAG and related equipment had risen by more than £200M to £577M over two years.
This was at odds with information provided by US Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition, Sean J Stackley to the then Defence Procurement Minister Peter Luff stating that the price of the was equipment £458 million, furthermore promising the US would underwrite any further cost risk. Beyond cost, speculation surrounds BAE’s interest in keeping the carrier as a STOVL design because both it and Rolls Royce have a greater investment in the F-35B than in any other version of the fighter. When a replacement is eventually considered the possibility of the BAE Tempest being converted for carrier operations is miniscule. There is a greater possibility, if for no other reason on the grounds of cost, that the Tempest programme will be merged with the Dassault/Airbus Future Combat Air System (FCAS) also under development as a sixth generation fighter. In this respect it is of note that a variant of the FCAS will be manufactured for operation from the CdG and its replacement. CATOBAR operations may therefore be the only way ahead for the RN and the foresightedness in specifying an adaptable design for the QEC will have proven to be the right decision.
After concerns about both the cost and whether or not one of the QEC would be either mothballed or sold, these have now been allayed. The prospects for the vessels now look bright, depending of course on the upcoming defence review. With the considerable outlays involved both with respect to the carriers and the aircraft they carry, the prospective fifty year life for the former will more than outweigh the substantial resources expended on the project. Big deck carriers have an intrinsic quality and usefulness not applicable to smaller ships. To the question ‘would ARK ROYAL (IV) have made a difference in the Falklands?’ the answer is a resounding no. Obversely the presence of a QEC aircraft carrier would have proven to be an invaluable and overwhelming war-winning asset.
 Oliver Stewart, Could keeping HMS Ark Royal have prevented the Falklands War? https://ukdefencejournal.org.uk/hms-ark-royal-strategic-rather-just-tactical-asset-falklands-war/ In the comments section salient observations are made by those who served on the carrier.
 Richard Harding (ed.), The Royal Navy, 1930-2000: Innovation and Defence (London: Frank Cass, 2005), p.256.
 Norman Friedman, Fighters Over the Fleet: Naval Air Defence from Biplanes to the Cold War (Philadelphia, PA: Casemate Publishers, 2016). In this book the author provides valuable insights into British radar developments and notes that in the 1960s these were far more sophisticated than their American counterparts.
 David Hobbs, ‘The Airborne Surveillance and Control (ASaC) Sea King Mk 7’, The Navy, Vol. 67 No. 1 (Jan-March 2005), pp. 22-5. At: http://navyleague.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/The-Navy-Vol_67_No_1-Jan-2005.pdf
 Jeffrey Ethell and Alfred Price, Air War South Atlantic, (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1983), p.26.
 Natasha Marhia and Chloe Davies, ‘A Force for Good’, National, European and Human Security: From co-existence to convergence (London: Routledge, 2013), p.73.
 Peter E. Davies and Anthony M. Thornborough, The Harrier Story (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1996), p.115