Naval Air: The Royal Navy Exits The Cold War


October 4, 2014: On August 28 th , 2014 the last of Britain's Invincible class carriers, HMS Illustrious, was decommissioned. This comes only three years after Illustrious returned to service after a $60 million refurbishment. At that point the Illustrious no longer carried Harrier vertical takeoff/landing jets. Instead, 20 helicopters were on board and crew size had been reduced to 600. At that time it had already been decided to replace Illustrious with HMS Ocean in 2014. Ocean is an amphibious assault ship that was out of service from 2012 until 2014 for upgrades and maintenance. The 22,000 ton Ocean is now in service. The ship carries 18 helicopters, along with 840 marines and 40 vehicles. Ocean can also operate up to 15 Harriers.

Meanwhile the Royal Navy is looking for someone to adopt the Illustrious as a museum ship. The three Invincible class carriers entered service in the early 1980s and the other two were scraped in 2011 and 2014. All three were originally built for anti-submarine operations against Soviet subs in the North Atlantic. But the Soviet Navy disappeared in the early 1990s and the Invincibles were converted to more varied uses. 

In early 2011, only 18 months after returning to service (after another round of upgrades) another Invincible, the HMS Ark Royal was decommissioned. Thus for a few months Britain had no aircraft carrier in service. The HMS Ocean did not count, as it only carried helicopters. But until the end of the decade, all British carriers will carry only helicopters. That's because in 2011 Britain retired all its Harrier vertical takeoff jets, which were the principal warplanes on the Invincible class carriers.

It was in late 2009 that the Ark Royal returned to service after seven months in the shipyard (for $20 million worth of repairs and upgrades). The Ark Royal also had a $47 million refit in 2006, and a more extensive, $210 million one, in 1999-2001, that resulted in a larger flight deck. The Ark Royal was to remain in service until the first of the two Queen Elizabeth class carriers entered service at the end of this decade. The Queen Elizabeths have been in the works since the late 1990s and the first one is expected to enter service by 2020.

The 22,000 ton Ark Royal entered service in 1985, one of three Invincible class carriers. It carried 24 aircraft and helicopters, and was operated by a crew of 1,100. The most notable aspect of a recent refit was the addition of accommodations for 400 marines. This made the Ark Royal into an amphibious carrier, and it could deliver the marines via helicopter, or boats. Earlier this year, the Invincible was towed to Turkey, where it is being broken up for scrap.

The new "Queen Elizabeth" class carriers are planning on having a ship's crew of 800 (or less) and an air wing complement of 600 personnel. Currently, you need a ship crew of about 2,000 for a carrier that size, plus nearly as many for the air wing. These carriers are going to cost about $5 billion each, and are to be in use for half a century (via periodic refits and refurbs). But the biggest cost will be personnel. Currently, it costs the U.S. Navy a bit over $100,000 per sailor per year. Do the math ($7 billion in crew costs over the life of each carrier.) So the smaller the crew, the greater the savings, and the more you can spend on upgrading the ship, buying new aircraft and the like.

These carriers will haul 34-45 aircraft and helicopters each and be able to handle about 110 flight operations every 24 hours. That's with current aircraft. The F-35C will be the primary warplane on the British carriers. But it's also likely that many, or all, of the next generation of aircraft on these ships will be robotic.





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