HMS Ocean, Illustrious & Royal Navy’s aircraft carrying future

Apache_Helicopter_Takes_off_from_HMS_Ocean_During_Operation_Ellamy_MOD_45153052
HMS Ocean during Operation Ellamy  – Photo by LA(Phot) Guy Pool (taken 2011)

HMS Ocean (pennant number L12) is an amphibious assault ship of the Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH) carrier type. The 21,500 metric tonne (mt) carrier was commissioned in 1998 to provide the Royal Navy with a means to support amphibious landing operations. She has since served as the fleet flagship of the Royal Navy’s Surface Fleet and has won six awards and honours in her name.

Late last year, the Ministry of Defence confirmed that HMS Ocean, our current flagship and only carrier ship, is to be decommissioned in 2018 as a cost-saving measure with no like-for-like replacement. That means that after HMS Ocean is gone, the Royal Navy will not fund a new Landing Platform Helicopter carrier to fill in for her. Thus any amphibious operations after 2018 will have to solely rely on support from the two Albion-class Landing Platform Docks (LPD), HMS Albion (L14) and HMS Bulwark (L15), and three Bay-class landing ship docks (LSD) of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. Although they are capable warships, their lack of a full flight deck reduces their ability to support missions with helicopter or vertical take off and landing (VTOL) aircraft support, which HMS Ocean filled in the gap for. This latest of issues highlights what I believe is the continued spiralling trend of the downfall of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrying capability.

The Royal Navy practically invented the modern day aircraft carrier. A hundred years ago from the year that HMS Ocean is due to be decommissioned, HMS Argus (I49) became the first recognisable aircraft carrier after a lengthy conversion from a ocean liner. The Royal Navy then proceeded to develop one of the first ever ships to be designed as an aircraft carrier from the start, HMS Hermes (95). Throughout the inter-war period and World War II, the Royal Navy remained a competitive carrier-operating navy with the ability to rival the United States Navy (USN) and the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) in terms of power. The  Washington Naval Treaty ensured the RN and USN had the same tonnage of warships. Granted, World War II took its toll on the United Kingdom and the Royal Navy, leading to the ultimate breakup of the British Empire. But even during this economically-hard post-War period, the Royal Navy maintained a significant carrier force throughout the Cold War.

1280px-HMS_Hermes_(95)_off_Yantai_China_c1931
HMS Hermes (95) near Yantai – Photo by US Navy (taken 1931)

All good things must come to and end. This is evident with more depressing news, this time about the last multi-ship class of aircraft carrier in service in the Royal Navy, the Invincible-class. These 22,000mt light carriers came into service in mid-1980s and were comprised of HMS Invincible (R05), HMS Illustrious (R06) and HMS Ark Royal (R07). However, due to recent “budget-cutbacks” forced upon us by the government that was voted in (with 14% of the vote in May 2015), Invincible and Ark Royal have been sold off to Turkey and scrapped for just over £2 million each. A few days ago, it was announced that the recently-decommissioned Illustrious is now being sold off by the government for potential scrapping, against the advisement of the Royal Navy staff and several groups within the public who want to at least have her preserved as a museum ship. As of now, we currently have no dedicated aircraft carriers in service, and won’t have any until 2020 the earliest, when the first Queen Elizabeth-class supercarrier reaches full military/operational capability. That’s six years without a dedicated carrier, and two fucking years without any sort of carrier.

The two Queen Elizabeth-class ships, HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) and HMS Prince of Wales (R09), are currently the only aircraft carriers currently planned to enter service in the Royal Navy’s future, with no word on whether the Ministry of Defence will reverse its decision and develop a new Amphibious Assault Ship of either a LPH or even an Landing Helicopter Assault/Dock (LHA/LHD) in future. The new carriers are impressive in size and tonnage, and are a small step in the right direction, but will ensure the Royal Navy will not reach military parity with its main rivals (or even allies) any time soon. In comparison, the USN has 10 Nimitz-class nuclear supercarriers, 1 Gerald R. Ford-class nuclear supercarrier, 8 Wasp-class LHDs, and  1 America-class LHA, as well as 1 Kitty Hawk-class conventional supercarrier and 3 Tarawa-class LHAs in reserve in case for emergency usage. That’s 24 carriers the USN has at its disposal! Don’t forget they have another 9 Gerald R. Ford-class and 9 America-class ships planned to be built in the next decade or so.

HMS Queen Elizabeth in Rosyth Dockyard
HMS Queen Elizabeth at Rosyth Dockyard – Photo by HMS Gannet (taken 2014)

I do not believe in the value of nuclear armament (the Trident missile system mounted to our Vanguard-class submarines),  but I do believe in continued value of aircraft carriers for expeditionary, humanitarian and defensive/offensive role in the navy. I believe that the Royal Navy can still operate a considerable carrier force under the current economic conditions of the United Kingdom if given the chance. All we need to do is develop an improved fleet structure and cut costs where needed (nuclear armament, wasteful aircraft etc.). It would also help if the government helped rebuild the British shipbuilding industry after is long decline since the end of World War II. Such a task would not only help make Britain more self-sufficient, but also provide more jobs. It’s simple really.

Well, that’s my thoughts on what’s in the news of the Carrier World at the moment. Stay tuned for more!

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