The Fleet Air Arm and naval aviation heritage
Commander Sue Eagles RNR on the golden thread that links the Fleet Air Arm’s heritage with the future of the Royal Navy
From the time the guns fells silent at Trafalgar, the essential task of the Royal Navy has remained unchanged. It upholds the duty of providing security at sea, securing the sea communications of our island nation and protecting our trade and security interests in an unpredictable world.
The Navy’s most devastating weapon
The wealth of London was built on shipborne trade, and seaborne trade remains vital to the United Kingdom. Some may lament that the modern Navy has been relegated to a defence force, as demonstrated by the convoy system in the two World Wars – but they forget the essential role performed by the arrival of the escort carrier, whose duty it was to put aircraft above the Merchant Navy and to hunt the U-boats before they attacked them. Naturally, these carriers were not alone in carrying out their task, and the Royal Navy together with the increased range of shore-based Royal Air Force aircraft provided the vital shield.
But a shield is not enough; defence alone is not enough. Without battle-winning edge to prosecute the threat, our national security is at risk. Our narrow escape from defeat in the Battle of the Atlantic was due largely to the Swordfish crews of the Fleet Air Arm flying from carriers brought into service at the eleventh hour. As HMS Queen Elizabeth prepares to enter service with the Royal Navy next spring, a strategic new class of aircraft carrier once again reminds us of the vital importance and potential of naval air power.
As Admiral Cunningham said in 1940 following the defeat of the Italian Navy at Taranto, ‘In the Fleet Air Arm the Navy has its most devastating weapon.’
Naval aircraft, the eyes and ears of the Fleet, able to operate at sea for long periods – fully worked up in the Royal Navy’s two new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers – will be critical to the United Kingdom and our allies in the decades ahead.
The heritage of the Fleet Air Arm, with its motto, Find, Fix and Strike, provides the golden thread linking the lessons of the past with the future. Defence in the years ahead will depend as never before on our ability to find, fix and finish whatever threatens us by sea.
Naval air power in the future
No one can deny in the present age that air is the predominant medium used to most effectively inflict a decisive blow on the enemy. It is here that our two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, will prove their value to our nation unequivocally. They will make the sea the base from which they can strike with the F-35 and the weapons of the future, at all that threatens the lifelines of our island or the wider global security of our allies. With their great mobility and flexibility they are a formidable threat and deterrent, and they will be an indispensable cornerstone of our naval and maritime capability for generations to come.
In Korea in the 1950s, and again in the Falklands in 1982, the Navy proved its ability to bring carrier air power quickly to bear both before and after troops could be landed. In any such wars in the future, lack of airfields may again necessitate much of the Army’s air support being carrier-based. With increasing asymmetric threats having the very real potential of disrupting oil and food supplies or leaving whole communities isolated and in desperate situations, Britain will again need to show that our arm is long, with the fist at the end of it capable of striking with appropriate force.
In his book The Sea and Civilization: a Maritime History of the World (Atlantic Books, 2014), Lincoln Paine’s guiding principle is that ‘all history is maritime history’, since the sea has been the single most important factor in driving development. ‘Long before the internet, the airliner and the multinational corporation, the ship was the engine of change and globalisation.’ The lessons of our naval aviation history have not only continued to prove Lincoln’s philosophy, but have served to underline that the carrier and carrier aviation has a future as firm as any airfield.
Preserving our naval aviation heritage
The charity which preserves and protects our nation’s naval aviation heritage, the Fly Navy Heritage Trust, based at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton in Somerset, is preparing to fly a wing of historic naval aircraft over HMS Queen Elizabeth as she enters Portsmouth Harbour next year.
The striking power of the F35, and the speed, range and sophistication of her weapon systems, are hardly recognisable beside those of her forebears, the Bristol Scout, AVRO 504, Swordfish, Seafire, Sea Fury, Sea Vixen, Phantom, Buccaneer and Sea Harrier, to name just a few. But the remarkable history of the Fleet Air Arm, the numerous battle honours and technological ingenuity and achievement gained in over a hundred years of flying from ships at sea, will be a proud part of that momentous day – and of a new era of carrier aviation and development far into the future.
Commander Sue Eagles is Communications Director of the Fly Navy Heritage Trust. To find out more about the Trust, its work in keeping our historic naval aircraft flying and how you can support its new brand ‘Navy Wings’, visit www.navywings.org.uk