On 22nd July HMS Illustrious entered Portsmouth for the final time flying her paying off pennant and will formally decommission after 32 years service in August. The passing of this ship marks a significant moment for the RN. It is always sad when a warship that has served the nation for so long is retired but it also marks the start of the rock bottom period 2014 – 2020 which will see the RN in a deep trough of major ‘capability gaps’ mainly stemming from the decisions of the 2010 defence review.
HMS Illustrious had a unique start to her career. Second of the Invincible class aircraft carriers, she was in the latter stages of construction at Swan Hunters on the Tyne during Falkland’s war of 1982. An outstanding effort by the shipyard workers saw the ship delivered 3 months ahead of schedule and quickly pass through sea trials with minimal defects. There remains a strong bond between the ship and the people of Tyneside to this day. The Falklands experience highlighted the danger posed by sea skimming missiles the RN quickly obtained the automated Phalanx CIWS from the US and Illustrious was the first European warship to carry the system which is still in widespread use by many navies today. Illustrious was actually commissioned in the North Sea on her way to the Falklands. The fighting was over by the time HMS Illustrious relived HMS Invincible in August 1982 but she provided continuity of air defence for the islands until the airbase on the Falkland’s was operational. Illustrious eventually returned to the UK, visiting the US on the way home where the triumphant Royal Navy was fêted by the Americans. Her formal commissioning ceremony was held alongside in Portsmouth on 20th March 1983.
Born from the ashes of the CVA aircraft carrier project cancelled in 1966, designed on a shoestring budget the Invincibles and their Harriers just managed to keep the RN in the aircraft carrier business. In many ways they were the class that defined the Royal Navy surface fleet from the 1980s to the start of the 21st Century and achieved a great deal given their small size. Illustrious played her part in the Cold War defence against the Soviets in the 1980s but was mainly involved in exercises and ‘showing the flag. In 1986 she was the flagship for the RN’s worldwide ‘Global ‘86’ deployment and saw her attend the Royal Australian Navy’s 75th anniversary review in Sydney. She nearly didn’t make it, suffering a major gearbox fire off the Isle of Wight just after setting off from Portsmouth and at one point consideration was given to abandoning ship. Fortunately she survived and the gearbox was repaired in time for her to rejoin the deployment.
In the late 1990s all 3 Invincibles, including HMS Illustrious operated in the Adriatic enforcing the no-fly zone over Bosnia. The Harriers flying from the carriers were often able to operate when the weather at bases in Italy precluded land-based NOTO aircraft from operating. Lusty was at sea in the Persian Gulf when the September 11th terrorist attacks took place in 2001 and had spent an extended time ready to land Royal Marines if required. Largely due to the timing of her major refits, Illustrious was not involved in either the 1991 or 2003 Gulf Wars. In 2006 she assisted in evacuation of UK Citizens from Beirut due to conflict with Israel. In 2008 she featured in the Channel 5 documentary ‘warship’ leading the Orion 08 deployment and the struggle to keep her ageing machinery going was apparent even then.
Over their lifetime the Invincibles evolved from primarily helicopter anti-submarine ships to ‘sea control ships’ and then to small ‘strike carriers’ but with the loss of the Harriers in 2010, Illustrious reverted to a helicopter carrier. Since completing her final refit in 2011 her main task was the UK’s ‘on-call carrier’ available as an amphibious helicopter landing ship as part of the “Response Force Task Group”. In 2013 she was in the Gulf when ordered to make fast passage to Singapore to take on stores and then to the Philippines to assist in disaster relief operations in the wake of hurricane Hyian. Her last major act was Exercise Deep Blue – embarking 9 Merlin Mk2s to practice the anti-submarine role her designers originally envisaged for her. On 21st July she carried out a ‘steam-past’ symbolically handing over the ‘on call helicopter carrier’ role to the unfortunately unready HMS Ocean, (still working up after her refit was completed 3 months late).
Calls for service life extension
In 2010 the RN was forced to choose between retaining HMS Illustrious or HMS Ocean and chose to retain the newer ship with smaller crew and running costs. There have been many calling for the RN to keep Illustrious in service until HMS Queen Elizabeth is operational sometime around 2020. Although this would be desirable it does not reflect the financial reality imposed by government. The costs involved in keeping such an old ship going start to rise exponentially – costs which could only be met by making cuts elsewhere. Lusty carries a lot of legacy equipment eg. she is the last ship in the fleet with Olympus gas turbine engines. Extending her life would not only involve another major refit but maintaining the training pipeline and logistical support for a further 6 years. Many spare parts are no longer available, in 2013 she suffered a fire in an electrical breaker unit and there was a scramble to get a replacement part from her sister ship Ark Royal which was already being broken up on a beach in Turkey. There is also a significant manpower shortage that will be eased in the short-term by decommissioning Lusty. Her crew can help fill gaps across the fleet and many of them will be needed as HMS Queen Elizabeth starts to build up her ships company.
Preserved for the Nation?
Perhaps stung by the anger at the axing and scrapping of HMS Ark Royal, the MoD have stated they wish to see “HMS Illustrious preserved for the nation” The MoD is not actually offering to fund her preservation, rather examine proposals from private companies or organisations. Although it would be great to see her preserved, it is hard not to be pessimistic about the long-term future of such a project. She would be by far the largest warship or vessel of any type preserved in the UK, finding suitable berthing and an income stream to support the required maintenance has been a struggle for several much smaller vessels. What is probably the ‘leading bid’ for has come from Hull City Council who want to berth her in the city’s docks next to ‘The Deep’ aquarium for ‘about two years’. Opening to visitors in early 2017 to coincide with Hull’s year as the UK City of Culture she would serve as a conference and education facility. The Council are obviously serious about the project having already spend £150,000 preparing the bid.
A more ‘left field’ proposal is from BMT yachts who want to see the ship substantially rebuilt to serve as a “Commonwealth Yacht” to serve as a vehicle for promoting trade, international events and humanitarian work. Although a British humanitarian ship is an excellent idea, whether Illustrious is the ideal platform for such a project is questionable, not to mention the expense of a major rebuild and ongoing operating costs.
- HMS Illustrious Pinterest Photo board
- Royal Navy carrier to be retired (BBC)
- Mercy Mission to the Philipines - in the finest traditions of the Royal Navy
- Exercise Deep Blue – photos media coverage (Storify)
- HMS Illustrious to be retired in August (Portsmouth News)
In part 1 we examined the ill-founded criticism of the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers. Now lets talk about what they are actually for.
1. Cover for naval task group
Although primarily referred to as ‘strike carriers’, traditionally aircraft carriers first duty is to provide air cover for naval task groups. Without fighters in the sky, both naval and merchant ships are vulnerable to aircraft and missile attack. However good ship-based air defence systems may be, they are no substitute for carrier-based fighter cover. History confirms the folly of naval fleets that relied on air cover from a land-based aircraft. Even if the land-based airforce is dedicated to the task, it is extremely difficult to ensure the right number of aircraft in the right place to protect the fleet at all times. The RN has been devoid of its own fighter cover since the retirement of the Sea Harrier in 2006 and until this capability is restored, cannot be risked against foes with any kind of serious airforce. The carrier can also operate helicopters which, in co-ordination with supporting frigates, can provide anti-submarine protection. The naval task force, once secure under it’s own integrated air cover and anti-submarine screen can then conduct any number of different missions (some of which are included below).
2. Platform to launch strikes on coastal and inland targets
The strike carrier will provide a global reach, a ‘big stick’ to back up foreign policy. Since more than half of the world’s population lives within 200Km of the sea and the majority of the world’s largest cities are on the coast, strike aircraft have a great ability to influence events. Carriers allow the UK to fight its enemies at arms length and can do most of what UK land-based strike aircraft do but with a vastly greater reach.
3. Platform for the launch and support of amphibious landings by troops
The carriers will have accommodation for 250 marines and could pack in a lot more troops under austere conditions for short periods. Able to land troops rapidly with embarked helicopters the carrier can serve as a lynchpin as an amphibious operation (Although this concept is something of a compromise and it would be far preferable for the RN to have a dedicated helicopter assault ship – HMS Ocean replacement)
4. Flexible and mobile, able to re-reposition and re-role in response to events
Experience since 1945 suggests that unpredictability is the norm for the UK’s military involvements. Almost all of the conflicts involved naval air power. Their mobility and flexibility give our leaders a powerful tool to maintain our interests. Able to cover more than 500 miles in a day, they can quickly reposition in response to events and threats. They can also quickly re-role, potentially flying strike missions one day and operating as a humanitarian relief hub the next.
5. Base for the delivery of humanitarian aid
Carriers are the ideal platform for the rapid delivery of aid following natural disasters. As ‘first responders’ they can deliver aid teams and equipment quickly and to inaccessible locations. The carriers themselves have an extensive onboard medical facility to cope with military or civilian casualties.
6. Able to ‘poise’ and demonstrate political will without resort to force
Aircraft carriers have been and will be used to influence events without firing a shot. An aircraft carrier sitting in international waters just off the coast of a nation will exert particular pressure, shaping events without the escalation implicit in deploying soldiers on the ground or even intrusions into sovereign airspace.
7. Flagship for command and control
8. Platform for intelligence gathering and recconisance
The carrier’s aircraft and surveillance helicopters will provide critical surveillance around a naval task group, providing early warning and assessment of threats. Aircraft flying from the carrier have the potential to search both visually and by radar, hundreds of square miles per day.
9. Avoids many of the constraints in using foreign airbases
Aircraft carriers avoid the constraints of complex and potentially lengthy international negotiations, agreements for the basing of aircraft on foreign soil. Carriers can deploy rapidly to international waters as and when government decides, unhindered by wishes of ‘host nations’. The carrier task group is also self-sustaining carrying its own logistical support with it. This avoids the lumbering circus of HGVs and multiple heavy lift aircraft flights required to move the equipment & personnel needed to support land-based aircraft.
10. Visible symbol of prestige
It maybe unfashionable to say this with our increasingly unreal European mindset of soft power-only foreign policy, but carrier ownership gives a nation highly visible symbol of prestige and commands respect. Although liberals may dismiss such things as a “big boys and their toys”, actually everyone in the UK benefits to some extent from living in a nation that is still a global power, however faded. Sometimes it maybe for reasons of self interest – guaranteeing our trade routes and access to resources or it maybe being a force for good – keeping the peace, protecting allies or fighting oppression. Carriers are a significant asset that keeps you at the ‘top table’ with a voice and influence on world events.
* In the past some naval advocates have over-stated their case and we recognise that aircraft carriers are clearly not; a panacea that makes all land-based combat aircraft or bases irrelevant, able to stay on station indefinitely, invulnerable or the answer to domestic terrorism and ‘asymmetric’ threats.
- Carrier countdown (Part 1): Debunking the hype, misinformation & nonsense
- HMS Queen Elizabeth: Is She Worth The Money? And What Use Will She Be? (Dan Entwhistle)
- Why Does Britain Need Aircraft Carriers? (phoenixthinktank.org)
- UK admiral’s plea for second carrier (timesofmalta.com)
- Farewell HMS Illustrious good & faithful servant
- Carrier countdown (Part 2): Their point, purpose and power
- Carrier countdown (Part 1): Debunking the hype, mis-information & nonsense
- Outlook on current ‘hot topics’ for the Royal Navy.
- The spectre of Scottish independence – implications for the Royal Navy
- HMS Alliance to be re-commissioned into active service with the Royal Navy
- The case for building a British hospital ship