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The role of the aircraft carrier

Independent, formidably powerful, infinitely flexible

Commander Sue Eagles QVRM RD reviews the history of the Royal Navy’s carriers, and looks to a future in which they remain a key strategic resource

From the Middle Ages to the dawn of the twentieth century, the fighting effectiveness of the Royal Navy was dominated by the gun. In the early 1900s, however, the development of the aeroplane ushered in a dramatic new military advantage – the ability to fly above the fleet and see over the horizon.

Aircraft became the eyes and ears of the fleet, extending the striking range of maritime forces far beyond the reach of naval guns. The radical and transformational capability of naval aviation also led to the replacement of the battleship by an entirely new type of warship – the aircraft carrier – as the most powerful capital ship afloat.

Wood and fabric beginnings

The importance of air power was first recognised by the Royal Navy from the earliest use of aircraft at sea. The first four naval pilots completed their flying training in 1911, and the first launch of an aircraft from a Royal Navy battleship was achieved the same year.

The early naval aviators faced many hazardous unknowns but were always experimenting, pushing the boundaries and breaking new ground. Flying wood and fabric biplanes, they launched themselves from temporary structures on the upper decks of warships, attached floats to aircraft, attacked airships with explosives, fired guns from aircraft, dropped torpedoes, sent radio messages to report their findings and even built the first armoured car – to pick up downed pilots behind enemy lines.

Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, and within weeks the Royal Naval Air Service had pioneered the first strategic air raids against Zeppelins in their bases many miles from the sea. The then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, saw the potential of naval aviation from the outset, and the Royal Naval Air Service raid on Cuxhaven in December 1914 was a defining moment in naval history. It was the first attempt to exert sea power upon land by means of the air – ‘projection’, as it is known today. This was the birth of what would become the ‘carrier strike’ concept.

The Royal Navy developed the first experimental seaplane carrier in 1913. Seaplanes could take off from the ship using trolleys, but they could not land back on board. And landing on the sea and being craned back on board was a laborious business. Seaplanes were a hostage to the weather, and losses were high. What was required was a ship capable of launching wheeled aircraft and recovering them again without stopping.

The first aircraft carriers

The first use of aircraft in a sea battle was at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, and the first successful landing of an aircraft onto the flight deck of a moving ship was made by Commander Dunning on HMS Furious in 1917. The impetus of war had advanced the aircraft of 1918 to a weapon of potency – the drawback was the lack of suitable decks from which to operate it.

Most early aircraft carriers were conversions of merchant ships or warships with a ‘flat top’ erected over the superstructure. HMS Ark Royal was the first ship designed and built as a seaplane carrier. She was launched in 1914, to be followed by HMS Furious – but the first true aircraft carrier, with a full-length flat deck and a large compartment below to act as a hangar, was HMS Argus, completed in 1918.

The Royal Naval Air Service fought with great distinction on all fronts during World War 1, winning two Victoria Crosses and numerous awards for gallantry. In four short years, the zeal, ingenuity and endeavour of the early naval aviators had built the RNAS into the finest naval air arm in the world, and by the end of the war it had 55,000 personnel, 3000 aircraft and 103 airships.

Birth of the Fleet Air Arm

Just as naval aircraft were beginning to prove their effectiveness, the Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Flying Corps were combined, to form the Royal Air Force, in April 1918.

This pooling of resources was frustrating for the Royal Navy, because the Admiralty had been at the cutting edge of aircraft development during World War 1.

Although the development of aircraft carriers continued throughout the inter-war years, the specific requirements of embarked naval aircraft fell behind. As a result, in 1939, despite its impressive history of innovation and achievement, the Fleet Air Arm faced going into combat with old and barely adequate aircraft, or new inadequate ones.

The term ‘Fleet Air Arm’ came into being in 1924, and the first ship to be purpose- designed and built as an aircraft carrier, HMS Hermes, was commissioned in the same year. She was the first aircraft carrier to display the two distinctive features of a modern aircraft carrier – the full-length flight deck and starboard-side bridge and control tower.

During World War 2, aircraft carriers and carrier-borne aircraft revolutionised naval tactics and enabled the Royal Navy to play its leading part in the Allied victory at sea. For example, the pressing need to provide long-range air cover in the Atlantic to protect convoys against attack by German U-boats was met by Royal Navy Swordfish crews operating from the pitching, rolling decks of converted merchant ships. These ‘Merchant Aircraft Carriers’ served as a stop-gap measure until escort carriers could be built in the USA. Over 40 Naval Air Squadrons took part in the Battle of the Atlantic, flying some of the most hazardous missions imaginable during the arduous six-year campaign.

As well as protecting Atlantic and Arctic convoys, the Fleet Air Arm played a major role in hunting and disabling the heavily armed German Battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz. In the Mediterranean, too, it proved a tenacious offensive force, relentlessly taking the battle to the enemy, attacking and destroying enemy shipping, harbours, fuel installations and airfields. In the closing stages of the war, carrier- borne aircraft also ensured the successes of the British Far East Fleet against the Japanese.

At its height in 1945, the Fleet Air Arm comprised 78,000 people, 3700 aircraft, 59 aircraft carriers and 56 Naval Air Squadrons around the world.

The post-war years

During the Korean War in the 1950s, no fewer than five Royal Navy carriers delivered formidable fighter air power, flying thousands of missions. The demands of flying from decks of ships require naval aircraft to be robust as well as light to manoeuvre, and the Sea Fury proved particularly successful in high-intensity carrier operations. She was designed specifically for service in carriers, with a strong point for a catapult strop, an arrester hook, folding wings and an energy-absorbing undercarriage – all naval engineering innovations.

Over the next 30 years, development in carrier aviation was rapid. The first jet to enter service with the Royal Navy was the Attacker, followed quickly by the Sea Hawk and Sea Venom. Both the Sea Hawk and Sea Venom were involved in the Suez campaign in 1956, where they more than proved the effectiveness of carrier aviation, being able to remain on station for considerably longer than land- based aircraft operating from Cyprus.

With the introduction of the high-speed strike aircraft of the 1960s and 70s – the Scimitar, Sea Vixen, Phantom and Buccaneer – came many pioneering new technologies that were to make an enormous contribution to the safety and effectiveness of carrier aviation. Among these, the angled flight deck, mirror landing site and hydraulic arrester wires assisted landing, and the steam catapult, powered by steam from the ship’s boilers, launched aircraft with far greater acceleration.

The Cold War and jet aircraft

The Cold War was an important time for the Fleet Air Arm, for in addition to maintaining a constant front-line readiness to engage the forces of the Warsaw Pact, it was a period of huge and demanding transition in carrier aviation capability. During this period naval aviation progressed from the last of the propeller aircraft through to the peak of fixed- wing carrier operations when the Royal Navy eventually acquired purpose-built fighter and strike jet aircraft and anti-submarine and airborne early warning aircraft.

Driven by Cold War tensions and the need to penetrate Soviet naval groups and if necessary deliver a nuclear payload, it was the Royal Navy jets of the 1960s and 70s that really quickened the pace. Naval aviation came of age with the Buccaneer, a long-range strike aircraft built to fly fast and low to avoid detection by enemy radar, and the Phantom, an impressively versatile fighter which had formidable range and performance and was capable of carrying air-to-air missiles and nuclear bombs. The complexity and performance of these aircraft greatly increased the noise levels on a congested flight deck, leading to the invention of the flight deck induction loop communication system, developed by naval and Admiralty engineers.

VSTOL success

Probably one of the Royal Navy’s greatest carrier aviation successes, however, was that of the vertical/short take-off and landing (VSTOL) Sea Harrier, which made its first flight from HMS Hermes in 1978. The innovative vertical take-off capabilities of the ‘jump jet’ were matched only by the capability of the Harrier to take on and out-manoeuvre far faster jets.

When the British task force set out on its 8000-mile journey to retake the Falklands Islands in 1982, it not only faced enormous logistical challenges but was totally reliant on carrier and ship-borne aviation, unlike the Argentinians, who possessed a land-based air force of over 200 aircraft. Despite these odds the Fleet Air Arm played a pivotal role, winning the crucial battle for air superiority and contributing greatly to the successful outcome of the campaign.

During the 1990s, Royal Navy aircraft carriers participated in air strikes against Iraq, Kosovo and Serbia. They were in the front line again in 2001, delivering UK forces into Afghanistan, and in 2003, delivering spearhead forces onto the Al Faw peninsula.

Looking forward

The enduring capability of carrier aviation remains central to Britain’s ability to protect UK interests anywhere in the world. Aircraft carriers are independent, formidably powerful, infinitely flexible, and able to provide a wide range of tailored responses to unfolding crises and potential threats many thousands of miles from our shores.

The great significance of carrier aviation is that a carrier takes its aircraft, fuel, spare parts and aviation workshops with it. It does not have to wait many weeks for support facilities to be established ashore. Furthermore, the deck space can be used to operate everything from jet fighters, helicopters and unmanned aircraft to amphibious and land forces. The ability to land troops ashore and continue to support them many hundreds of miles inland is a key role of the Fleet Air Arm.

The first Naval Air Squadron to operate the F35 Lightning II from the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers will be the Fleet Air Arm’s historic 809 Naval Air Squadron, which flew the Buccaneer in the 1960s and 70s. ‘This squadron number is the golden thread which weaves its way through the proud history of carrier aviation,’ said First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas, ‘telling the Fleet Air Arm jet story from World War 2, through to the Buccaneers flying from the post-war HMS Ark Royal, to the iconic Sea Harrier which served with such distinction in the Falklands in 1982. It could not be a more fitting squadron to deliver the new era of UK carrier strike.’

As mobile airbases from which to mount the widest range of operations, from the offensive punch in battle to global disaster and humanitarian relief operations, aircraft carriers have proved their worth time and time again. And today the Royal Navy is once again in the vanguard of an extraordinary quantum leap in maritime air capability, with the QE class carriers, together with their squadrons of F35 fighter jets and Merlin helicopters, providing a high-readiness joint force capability to meet any contingency anywhere in the world for the next fifty years.