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The Last Of The Invincibles
by James Dunnigan
July 29, 2011

The last of Britain's Invincible class carriers, HMS Illustrious, has returned to service after a $60 million refurbishment. The ship no longer carries Harrier vertical takeoff/landing jets. Instead, 20 helicopters are on board, and crew size has been reduced to 600. Illustrious will only serve for three years, and then be replaced by the HMS Ocean, an amphibious assault ship that is going to be out of service until then for upgrades and maintenance. The 22,000 ton Ocean carries 18 helicopters, along with 840 marines and 40 vehicles. Ocean can also operate up to 15 Harriers.

Three months ago, only 18 months after returning to service (after another round of upgrades) the HMS Ark Royal was decommissioned. Until Illustrious returned to service this month, 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 Britain recently 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.

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.

Although construction has begun on the two Queen Elizabeths, the growing number of cuts in the defense budget may cause cancellation of one, or both, of the new carriers.

 


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