What have aircraft carriers ever done for us?

In this article David Hobbs provides a brief outline of events, crises, conflicts and deterrence, in which fixed-wing aircraft carriers were deployed in support of UK Government policy since 1945.

A brief study of the use of Royal Navy carriers shows that the availability of sea-based tactical aviation adds immensely to the nation’s overall deterrent capability and in several cases, no other form of intervention was initially possible. More significant is the inability of potential aggressors to deter the deployment of aircraft carriers into areas supposedly dominated by land-based aircraft. The myth of vulnerability is belied by experience.

Palestine 1948

Naval aircraft from HMS Ocean covered the final evacuation of British forces from Palestine in May 1948. RAF aircraft had already been evacuated and only carrier-borne naval aircraft were capable of providing the protection required.

Korea 1950-53

HMS Triumph joined the USS Valley Forge to strike at North Korean targets shortly after N Korea attacked the South in June 1950. The British aircraft carriers HMS Triumph, Theseus, Glory and Ocean provided all the UK’s tactical strike and fighter operations throughout the 3 years of the war. RAF involvement in the war was minimal, consisting only of transport flights into safe airfields and some flying-boat MPA patrols in the open ocean off Japan under RN control. Against this, the RN deployed 32 warships into the war zone, of which 5 were aircraft carriers able to project British strike operations in support of the UN over the whole peninsula. During the 3 year conflict, RN carrier-borne aircraft flew 23,000 combat missions during which they shot down a North Korean Mig-15 jet fighter, dropped 15,200 bombs, fired 57,600 three-inch rockets and 3,300,000 rounds of 20mm cannon ammunition against communist ground forces and their logistic support echelons. Besides the intense activities of the operational carriers Triumph, Theseus, Glory and Ocean the activities of the maintenance and repair carrier Unicorn are worthy of note. She carried the first British troops to Korea from Hong Kong in August 1950; these were the 1st Battalion Middlesex Regiment and the Headquarters 27 Infantry Brigade plus their vehicles, equipment and ammunition packed tightly into her hangars. Beside carrying replacement RN aircraft into the war zone, her primary function, she carried more than 6,000 troops together with military stores, ammunition and vehicles. In addition to supporting the RN carriers, she also supported the RAN carrier Sydney and in 1952 she ferried a deck load of British Meteor fighters for use by 77 Squadron RAAF.

Suez 1956

A combined assault on Egypt by British and French carrier-borne and land-based aircraft. In the British Operation Musketeer, the RN deployed 3 fixed-wing carriers, HMS Eagle, Albion and Bulwark plus 2 helicopter carriers, Ocean and Theseus. Because of their ability to gain better position the strike carriers reacted more quickly to calls for action than RAF aircraft in distant Cyprus and Malta which had long transits from their bases, carried less weapons and could spend little time on task. The Suez Campaign provides a striking example of how carrier-based operations are more effective than operations from distant land bases. In 1956 both the RAF and RN were tasked with attacking targets in Egypt, effectively to set up a ‘no-fly zone’ in contemporary terminology. The RAF deployed strike aircraft to bases in Malta and Cyprus, the RN deployed aircraft in the carriers Eagle, Albion and Bulwark which operated about 100 miles off the Egyptian coast. Subsequent analysis of the operations showed that the 161 RAF aircraft deployed flew 820 offensive sorties and the 109 aircraft embarked in the carriers flew 1,237 offensive sorties. Neither figure includes ‘defensive’ sorties by fighters or the considerable input from French carrier and land-based aircraft. Source: Admiralty – Department of Operational research Report Number 34 ‘Carrier Operations in Support of Operation Musketeer’ dated 1959.

Levant 1958

US/UK assistance sought to protect Lebanon and (land-locked) Jordan against Iraqi aggression. HMS Eagle provided support for airborne and amphibious forces deployed into theatre. RAF transport aircraft flying British troops into Jordan were protected by carrier-borne fighters since RAF fighter bases were too far away for their aircraft to be effective.

Korea 1960

UN forces including an RN carrier deployed to the Yellow Sea on exercises aimed at deterring the North from launching a renewed attack on the South. Deterrence succeeded.

Kuwait 1961

British forces deployed to Kuwait to defend it against threatened Iraqi aggression. HMS Bulwark arrived with 42 RM Commando within 24 hours since good intelligence had put her in the right place and used its helicopters to deploy and support them. British troops flown into Kuwait by RAF transport with only what they stood up in – had to requisition vehicles and wait for RN amphibious shipping to bring in more. Strike carrier HMS Victorious took several days to arrive with her battle group from the South China Sea but brought the ‘complete package of power’ that subsequently dominated the area. A single RAF Hunter squadron had deployed to Kuwait from Bahrain but lacked fuel, ammunition, spares and most of all GCI radar coverage other than that provided by Bulwark. RAF transport being used to fly in troops so none available to support the Hunters which left once HMS Victorious arrived. The need for the RN to support RAF aircraft led to the second commando-carrier, Albion, being fitted with better surveillance radar (Type 965).

Confrontation with Indonesia 1963-66

British and Commonwealth supported the Malaysian Government against Indonesian aggression and deployed forces from all 3 Services. The Far East Fleet provided a considerable deterrent against Indonesian escalation and the presence of its strike carriers posed a threat that Indonesia could not counter. Carrier and air group transits of high-visibility international waters such as the Sunda Strait added to their value. The RAF could not provide such a visible deterrent.

East African Mutinies 1964

Following a mutiny by Tanganyikan Army units in January 1964 Britain was asked to provide assistance. HMS Centaur was at Aden and embarked 45 RN Commando; 16/5 Lancers with their vehicles and 2 RAF Helicopters in addition to her normal air group. Subsequent assault a model of how flexible carriers are and how quickly they can act. Another example of RAF being taken into action by an RN carrier. Centaur was capable of launching her normal air group although at times it would have been a ‘squeeze’.

Defence of Zambia 1965-66

Following the Rhodesian UDI in November 1965 the Zambian Government asked Britain to provide air defence against possible attack by the Rhodesians. Deploying an RAF fighter unit and the ground environment to support it took many months and the gap was filled effectively by HMS Eagle which provided fighters, AEW and an effective air defence environment quickly.

Beira Patrol 1965-66

Followed on from above. Britain undertook to enforce UN sanctions preventing tankers from entering Beira with oil for Rhodesia. Only carriers could search the vast areas of sea involved in the months it took the RAF to build up an MPA base and deploy aircraft to it. HMS Eagle and Ark Royal were both involved for considerable periods at sea.

Aden 1967

British forces were evacuated from Aden in November 1967 covered by an RN task force off shore. RAF aircraft were among the forces evacuated and relied on RN carrier-borne aircraft for their defence while they did so.

Belize 1972

A show of strength by Buccaneers from HMS Ark Royal prevented a threatened invasion of British Honduras (Belize) by Guatemala. RAF assets were too far away and could do nothing.

South Atlantic 1982

The UK Government’s own de-brief on the war to liberate the Falkland Islands, Operation Corporate, stated that the operation would not have been possible if the RN had not had the aircraft carriers HMS Invincible and Hermes with their highly-trained air groups. 171 RN aircraft were committed, including Sea Harriers and helicopters, in 14 Naval Air Squadrons, 4 of which were commissioned at short notice with reserve aircraft and pilots who had been in second-line or ‘desk’ jobs in the MOD. Through the operation, they maintained over 90% serviceability for all types, an outstanding achievement. Sea Harriers flew 2,000 operational sorties and shot down a confirmed total of 32 enemy aircraft. They also carried out successful operations against enemy shipping and shore targets. 28 of the RN’s extant total of 32 Sea Harriers were committed and only 2 lost to enemy ground fire; none were lost in air combat. The RAF did deploy a squadron of Harriers to the South Atlantic but in order to do so they needed RN expertise to take a container ship up from trade, STUFT, and convert it in a Royal Dockyard in a matter of days into a one-spot ‘Harrier carrier’ able to take the aircraft to Ascension Island for onward flight into the war zone. They also needed the fully-operational aircraft carrier HMS Hermes and its dedicated air personnel to provide them with the fuel, weapons, workshops and accommodation they needed and to teach them how to operate in an environment for which they had not been trained. Fortunately for the UK, the RN in 1982 still had a sufficiently powerful institutional air ‘voice’ to allow sensible decisions. Without it, the RAF could not have got its tactical air assets into the fight. RN anti-submarine helicopters flew round the clock in all weathers. For example, 820 NAS’ Sea King helicopters flew for 1,560 hours in May 1982, the equivalent of 2 aircraft airborne for 24 hours a day throughout the month. RN Commando helicopters provided the essential tactical mobility for all 3 services.

Kuwait 1991

USN carriers played a big part in the coercive all-arms forces that drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait; HMS Ark Royal operated in the Eastern Mediterranean in a containment role that was not, in the event, used.

Bosnia/Former Yugoslavia 1992-96

RN and USN carriers operated in support of UN and NATO operations in the former Yugoslavia. Carriers were able to position clear of weather which sometimes limited RAF and coalition operations from land bases. The UK Government ordered one carrier to be available constantly in case it proved necessary to withdraw British forces under fire since land-based aircraft could not guarantee to do so and did not have the valuable mix of fighters and helicopters close to the scene of action.

Sierra Leone 2000

HMS Illustrious provided air support for British forces that rescued UN forces in Sierra Leone providing a secure base that could not be located or attacked by the terrorists ashore. A floating base and national command centre.

Iraq 2003

HMS Ark Royal operated in her alternative LPH role with Sea Kings and RAF Chinooks embarked to land RM commandoes on the Al Faw Peninsula.

Mind the gap: 2010-2021

In 2010 an inept government inflicted a ten-year gap in the Royal Navy’s fixed-wing strike carrier capability after the arbitrary removal of HMS Ark Royal and the Harrier squadrons that could have operated from her. It was a self-inflicted error that soon became clear when in 2011 the same government committed the UK to back UN-mandated coalition operations over Libya. The French Navy flew missions from its strike carrier Charles de Gaulle and both the Italian Navy and the USMC flew Harrier missions from flat tops close to the Libyan coast, the latter from USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship. Lacking Ark Royal and her Harriers, which would have been ideal for the purpose, the British were forced to fly long-range missions with strike fighters based in the UK, Italy and Cyprus which required significant logistic support and impressively large air refuelling commitments. They were unsuited to remaining on task for any length of time in order to engage targets of opportunity and could not respond in a timely manner to calls for fire as the situation on the ground evolved. In stark contrast, the sea-based Italian and USMC Harriers were able to fly multiple missions in every 24 hour period, could spend long periods on task and react rapidly to calls for fire. Once engaged and having used their weapons, they could quickly return to their ships to be re-fuelled, re-armed and re-launched. The expensive long-range sorties flown by British land-based aircraft enjoyed none of these advantages.

Emphasising what a truly joint approach by British forces could have achieved over Libya if more sensible policies had prevailed, the Apache helicopters of 656 Squadron Army Air Corps were embarked in HMS Ocean, an amphibious helicopter carrier. They enjoyed all the advantages of sea-borne operations but lacked the radius of action and weapon options of the Harrier GR 9.

In the years that followed, the USN found it difficult to maintain fixed-wing strike carriers in every trouble-spot and AV-8B, later F-35B equipped LHDs often filled the gap especially in the Middle East theatre of operations. This was a task for which Ark Royal or Illustrious with 18 Harriers embarked would have excelled, showing Britain to be a loyal, well-equipped and thoroughly well-trained ally. Instead, the RN had to send hundreds of its pilots, aircraft handlers, meteorological officers and other specialists on loan to the USN in order to keep the art of carrier operation alive while Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales were built. This would have been entirely unnecessary if Ark Royal or Illustrious and their recently-modernised Harrier GR 9s had been retained.

The ‘carrier gap’ provides an object lesson in how not to conduct a maritime-oriented defence policy. Fortunately, the absence of carrier capability is not far away with HMS Queen Elizabeth due to be declared operational in May 2021.


Commander David Hobbs MBE RN (Retd) is a naval historian and author of 22 books with another due out this year. He served in the Royal Navy between 1964 -1997 and qualified as both a fixed and rotary wing pilot flying over 2,300 hours and making 800 carrier landings.