A Proud Name: The Ark Royal Carriers - Part 4
Welcome to my fourth and final post on the Ark Royal aircraft carriers of the 20th Century. On 24 January this year, a parade was held in honor of the retirement of the present Invincible class HMS Ark Royal. A victim of last year’s SDSR, Ark Royal and her Harrier air wing have been retired from service early, in part to save funds to secure her replacement, the Queen Elizabeth class carriers. Just as her previous name sakes, this Ark Royal has had a dynamic career which saw her role and capabilities adapted several times: command cruiser, ASW carrier, strike carrier, LPH assault ship, and she served as flagship of the fleet.
Invincible Class Light Aircraft Carrier Ark Royal (R07)
Planning for what would become the Invincible-class carrier began in 1966 following the cancellation of the CVA-01 programme, though the some of the requirements can be traced back further than that for an escort helicopter ship. The initial studies recommended a hybrid commando/escort cruiser which could embark a Marine Commando landing force, have a dedicated ASW helicopter force, would be armed with long-range air defence missiles, and have extensive command and control capabilities for a larger task force. Consideration was also given to the possibility of a STOVL (or VSTOL as the concept was then referred to) fighter force for wider area air defence as well as attack and recce missions in support of a Marine landing.
The proposed design was deemed too ambitious however, requiring a ship well in excess of 20,000 tons, and a planning was refocused on a smaller ship which would forgo the Marine Commando capabilities and concentrate on ASW helicopters and command and control, with the expectation of replacing the ageing Tiger class helicopter cruisers.
By January of 1968, three proposals were offered for consideration, with the largest ship design of around 18,000 tons being selected to proceed. The ship, termed a command cruiser, would have a through-deck for helicopter operations, an internal hangar below the flight deck, a Sea Dart air defence missile system, and would be powered purely by gas turbines – the largest ships to be equipped as such.
Meanwhile, the concept of operating STOVL fighters kept cropping up as the Hawker Kestrel/Harrier programme for the RAF progressed through the late 1960’s. Provisions for operating such aircraft alongside the helicopter force were maintained in the design work. The most prominent example of accommodating STOVL fighters was the late addition of a ski-jump to bow.
The ski-jump was developed for the Navy by Lt Cdr D R Taylor, and allowed a reduced deck run by a Harrier during take-off, allowing greater deck flexibility and greater take-off loads. The ship design was modified with a ski-jump, but this happened after HMS Invincible had already been ordered in 1972. The modifications had to be negotiated under a separate contract with the builders. Looking back over the history of the Invincible class, the insistence on maintaining the STOVL capabilities of the ships’ design was proved very wise and far-sighted; imagine if the Royal Navy had only helicopter carriers for the past quarter century. The formal government go-ahead to allow the Navy to procure the navalised Sea Harriers was not taken until 1975, when 34 FRS.1 models were ordered.
Sea Harrier FRS.1s taking-off from Ark Royal (Royal Navy)
HMS Invincible was commissioned in 1980, and served with distinction in the 1982 Falklands War. HMS Illustrious was commissioned in 1982; she had been rushed into service ahead of schedule due to the Falklands War, and was actually commissioned at sea on her way to the South Atlantic to relieve Invincible shortly after the ceasefire was declared.
The third ship of the class was originally to be named Indomitable. The public outcry following the scrapping of the previous Ark Royal however prompted the Navy to rename the third ship Ark Royal in honor of the previous carrier. She was launched at the Swan Hunter shipyard on the Tyne in June 1981 and commissioned into service in July 1985. As the last of the class to be built, Ark Royal would benefit from some of the experiences of her sister ships. She entered service fitted with Phalanx CIWS guns for missile defence, and was built with a steeper 12 degree ski-jump.
Like her sister ships, the Ark Royal was originally tasked as an ASW carrier, operating an air wing of Sea King helicopters and Sea Harriers to protect the North Atlantic sea lanes from the Soviet Navy. Following the end of the Cold War, the Sea Harriers, which performed so well in the South Atlantic the previous decade, continued to prove their worth. The swing-role capabilities of the Sea Harrier allowed the Invincible class ships to transition from sea control duties to expeditionary warfare which the Royal Navy was becoming increasingly tasked.
Ark Royal deployed to the Mediterranean during the 1991 Gulf War in case the conflict expanded and as a guard against possible intervention by Libya, who had proclaimed early support for Iraq’s actions; in the end, she was not involved in any combat operations. In the spring of 1993, the carrier went to the Adriatic in to support the NATO air patrols during the Bosnian War. During this deployment, one of her 801NAS Sea Harriers was actually shot down by a SAM during an attack run on Serbian tanks. The pilot, Lt Nick Richardson, was later recued and went on to write a book about his experiences of that deployment, No Escape Zone.
In 1999, the Ark Royal entered a two-year refit. As with her sister ships, the Sea Dart missile system was removed from the bow in order to free up extra flight deck and magazine space to allow Ark Royal to embark a larger air wing of both Navy Sea Harrier FA2s and RAF Harrier GR7s. This greatly enhanced the offensive air capability of the ship in the expeditionary strike carrier role.
A Harrier taking-off from Ark Royal's ski-jump, while the ship refuels from the fleet tanker RFA Wave Knight (Royal Navy)
In 2002, Ark Royal sailed to Malta’s Grand Harbour in honor of the 60th anniversary of Operation Pedestal, a major British effort to resupply the besieged island in 1942. It was the famous World War II Ark Royal which supported earlier convoy attempts to Malta from her base in Gibraltar, until she was finally sunk by a U-boat in November 1941.
Ark Royal would earn her first battle honors since that World War II ship in the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. Despite the increased Harrier capability following her refit, Ark Royal would go to war not in her primary strike role, but in her secondary LPH role. As part of the British contribution to the invasion, HMS Ocean and Ark Royal sailed to the Persian Gulf to support the Marine assault of the Al-Faw Peninsula. Ark Royal was loaded with RN and RAF helicopters, displacing the normal Harriers, and served as the flagship of the British task force during that conflict.
Ark Royal again took on the role of a helicopter assault ship from late 2006 until 2008, standing in as the fleet’s LPH while Ocean was in refit, resuming Harrier GR9 operations when that ship returned to service. By this time, the dedicated Sea Harrier FA2 had been withdrawn from service and 800 and 801 NAS were reformed with former RAF Harriers. The Government had determined that upgrading the Sea Harrier FA2 would be too costly, and the GR9 offered greater payload capabilities.
The Ark celebrated its Silver Jubilee of service in July 2010. She was supposed to continue in service with her Harriers until 2016, when she would be replaced by the new HMS Queen Elizabeth. The October 2010 SDSR brought her retirement swiftly forward however, and her last cruise concluded in early December, including the last departure of a Harrier from a Royal Navy carrier on 24 November.
Ark Royal celebrating her 25th anniversary in 2010 (Royal Navy)
Ark Royal now awaits her fate. The MoD has stated that all options are being considered. Besides simply scrapping the ship, reported proposals have included everything from selling the ship to another country to turning it into a hotel or casino. Efforts to have Ark Royal turned into a museum ship have also been floated, though any alternative to scrapping seems unlikely. Shortly after the announcement that Ark Royal would be retired early, a campaign began to have the Royal Navy rename one of the future two Queen Elizabeth class carriers as Ark Royal in order to allow the name to carry on into the 21st Century.
Like her previous namesake, the decommissioning of the Ark Royal has signaled an end of an era for Royal Naval aviation. The four Ark Royal carriers have served Britain over a span of 96 years. They were home-at-sea to men and machines from the Royal Naval Air Service, the Royal Air Force, and the Fleet Air Arm, flying eveything from seaplanes to supersonic fighters to jump-jets. The name Ark Royal has risen to become the most famous name in the Royal Navy since the Victory, and has become near-synonymous with Royal Naval aviation. Whatever happens to the current ship, and to the name, there is no doubt that the legacy of the Ark carriers will continue long into the future as a symbol of power, prestige and pride.