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Refighting the Falklands War (2012): Aircraft Carriers and air cover

The Royal Navy Invincible-class aircraft carri...

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In 1982, Britain was able to send two Aircraft Carriers to the South Atlantic – Invincible and Hermes. The Royal Navy was also safe in the knowledge that it had one more aircaft carrier close to completion – Illustrious – and another that could in theory be regenerated in the long term, Bulwark. But even then, it was felt that two flat tops was nowhere near enough.

Fast forward thirty years, and Britain is in a very perilous situation when it comes to the provision of naval air cover. The on-duty strike carrier role was retired in the SDSR, leading to the decomissioning of HMS Ark Royal, and the re-roling of Illustrious to LPH. This effectively means that Britain is unable to project air power by sea.

Retaking the Falklands without air cover would be problematic to say the least. Even if Mount Pleasant and Port Stanley runways were disabled – either by under runway munitions or Tomahawk strikes – the Islands are still well within range of Argentine jets flying from the mainland. And even though the Argentines did not replace their considerable losses in 1982, and for the most part are flying outdated airframes, their air presence would still present a considerable threat to any task force in the South Atlantic without air superiority.

The interesting thing is, that in 1982 the task force did not gain what you might term complete air superiority prior to the land campaign. The Harriers gave a very good account of themselves against anything that the Argentines could launch, but they were not able to completely prevent attacks on the landings at San Carlos, nor Exocet strikes such as that on the Atlantic Conveyor. In that respect, the 1982 campaign did show that you can win a land war without air superiority. Not that such an approach is advisable, of course.

So what alternatives are there to carrier-based air support? The Type 45 Destroyers have been much vaunted for their anti-air capability, and whilst I am not completely au faix with their technology, most commentators describe them as being very capable. The Sea Viper system could probably provide very effective defence against Argentine aircraft. Although designed as an aircraft carrier escort, without a carrier to play goalkeeper to, they could be freed up for picket duty such as the Type 42 Destroyers were in 1982. Not to digress, of course – we’ll look at Destroyers in more detail later.

We are told that Ark Royal is technically at ‘extended readiness’, but believe me, it would be a miracle if she sailed again – practically all of her fittings have been ripped out. And the Dockyard really doesn’t have the workforce the make her ready with any kind of urgency.  Added to which, the expertise and experience to operate a carrier at sea would be lacking, not to mention the fact that only a handful of Sea Harriers are in storage.

By the turn of the next decade, however, things could change dramatically. IF they come in on time and on budget, the Queen Elizabeth class carriers could be a real game changer – I wouldn’t fancy being an Argentine pilot with a naval air wing of F35′s floating in the South Atlantic, technologically far in advance of anything that the Argentines can offer up. But until then, any planning has to take place on the basis of not having carriers. In that respect what options are available? Much has been made of defence co-operation with France, but I find it hard to believe that the French would lend us Charles de Gaulle to provide air cover for a Task Force. I just can’t see French Rafale pilots risking their hides for a war that really isn’t theirs. In the same respect I cannot see the Americans getting involved to the extent of lending us a carrier.

One option that has been mooted – and it really is an outside bet – is the possibilty of somehow getting together a carrier air group from Sea Harriers in storage at Culdrose, and other Harriers that haven’t yet been sold or stripped down. In all honesty, I don’t know enough about how many there are, and how feasible this is. But I know it is something that has been discussed elsewhere, as has the possibility of Britain somehow acquiring second hand Harriers from elsewhere – perhaps India – as an interim measure if the need arose. Interesting thought, but I’m not sure its something that we could rely on. It would require a protracted conflict to give the time to get a carrier up to speed, whether that be Illustrious from the LPH role, or re-comissioning Ark Royal.

New intensity has been shed on the aircraft carrier situation by recent events since the SDSR, particularly in Libya. Although Britain managed to contribute to the NATO operation quite effectively – with air assets flying from Britain and Italy, and ships in the Med – you can bet that there will have been more than a few curses in Whitehall that we couldn’t send Ark Royal loaded with Harriers. According to unconfirmed reports, the RAF even requested the use of an Aircraft Carrier to cut down on flying time and operating costs. Whilst land-based aircraft are nice to have, they are subject to basing costs and air space and overflight issues. An aircraft carrier can go wherever it is wanted or needed. And whilst we managed ok without one, France and Italy – both much closer to Libya – still deployed theirs. In other situations,

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Busy times in Portsmouth Naval Base

HMS Gloucester (D96) photographed leaving Port...

HMS Gloucester (Image via Wikipedia)

It’s a busy time coming up for naval movements in Portsmouth.

All sources suggest that the American Aircraft Carrier USS George HW Bush WILL be visiting Portsmouth next weekend. She will be accompanied by the Arleigh Burke class Destroyer USS Truxtun and the Spanish Alvaro de Bazan class Frigate Almirante Juan de Borbon. the Spanish Frigate has been in the US with the Bush Strike Group for the past few months taking part in work-up exercises. I’m enquiring with tour boat companies to see if any offer trips out into the Solent to look round the Bush, although I might not be able to make it due to a moving girlfriend that weekend!…. If not I’m sure I’ll get some pics from the shore at Stokes Bay. The shops and bars in Portsmouth will be rubbing their hands waiting for 6,000+ thirsty and hungry yanks!

In other news, on Monday HMS Gloucester makes her final entry into Portsmouth before decomissioning later this year. The Type 42 Batch 3 Destroyer has served with the Royal Navy for over 20 years. My Grandad actually worked on her when she was built, when he was a painter at Vosper Thorneycroft‘s yard in Woolston. We looked round her at Navy Days a few years ago, and I can confirm that he didn’t miss any bits ;)

HMS Quorn left Portsmouth last Sunday for a 2+ years stint in the Gulf. Royal Navy minesweepers spend a few years at a time in the Gulf, saving on time travelling there and back. The crews rotate for 6 months at a time. Quorn is a Hunt Class minesweeper, with a GRP – glass reinforced plastic – hull.

In amongst all of the Royal Navy ships decommisioning, the RFA’s going out of service have been all but forgotten. But the Landing Ship Largs Bay left Portsmouth weeks prior to a refit before making her way to the Australian Navy. RFA Bayleaf has been dumped into 3 Basin pending scrapping, and RAF Fort Austin – a Falklands veteran – looks to be on her way to the scrapyard. A smaller Navy means a smaller RFA.

In other scrapping matters, Exeter, Nottingham and Southampton are in the trot of Fareham Creek awaiting the scrapyard, and Manchester and Gloucester are soon to replace them. The four Type 22 Frigates recently decomissioned will probably make their way to Portsmouth soon too.

And we’re expecting PolarBjorn – the new HMS Protector – to arrive in Portsmouth sometime in the early summer too.

All in all a busy period. I’ll try and get out with my camera as much as I can. And one of the bonuses of having a girlfriend from the West Country is that a few trips to Plymouth might be in order ;)

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Warships: Interational Fleet Review

HMS Liverpool, a Royal Navy Type 42 Batch 2 ai...

HMS Liverpool, en-route to Libya

I’ve just picked up the latest copy of this fascinating magazine. As usual it makes for a measured, insightful but pointed read.

Iran has recently sent warships through the Suez Canal, after signing a defence pact with Syria. Transit through the canal is governed by the Egyptian Government, and the post-Mubarak leadership broke a tacit agreement with Israel and the US to not allow Iranian vessels through. The pact with Syria and the prospect of Iranian vessels in the Mediterranean – especially off the Israeli coast -changes the strategic picture in the Middle East somewhat.

The Magazine also highlights the folly of the Government’s Defence Cuts, in that the Royal Navy Frigate leading the British contribution to the sea blockade of Libya, HMS Cumberland, is due to come home to decomission soon. The ship we are sending to relieve her, HMS Liverpool, is an elderly Batch 2 Type 42 Destroyer, which is also due to be scrapped within a couple of years. France, meanwhile, has sent its Aircraft Carrier Charles de Gaulle, and Italy has been using its significant amphibious capability. Britain appears increasingly impotent, especially when consider that even China has sent a Warship. However old and labour intensive they are, the Type 22′s are extremely capable ships, and they are not being replaced. An editorial takes Cameron’s SDSR to pieces, arguing that its credibility has been torn to shreds by events in Libya. Britain is now a second rate player on the European-international stage.

Elsewhere, the new Australian Aircraft Carrier HMAS Canberra has been launched at the Navantia yard in Ferrol, Spain. Based on the Spanish ship Juan Carlos, she and her sister HMAS Adelaide are officially termed Landing Helicopter Docks (LHD).  They have enough space to operate two dozen helicopters, a ski-ramp and the potential for operating VSTOL jets (Australia is purchasing Joint Strike Fighter), and an amphibious dock to the rear. At well over 20,000 tons she is much larger than anything the mother country has built for years, and represents a quantum leap for Australia, both in terms of size and capability. Something Britain could really do with.

Finally – and some might say amusingly – we get a round-up of the UK independence party‘s Defence manifesto. And interesting reading it makes too. They propose to retain British Forces completely under national control, and to maintain a fleet of – wait for it:

  • 3 Aicraft Carriers
  • 4 Ballistic Missile Submarines
  • 12 Nuclear Attack Submarines
  • 11 Destroyers
  • 20 Frigates
  • 6 Amphibious vessels
  • 21 Minewarfare vessels
  • 7 Offshore Patrol Vessels
  • 55 Strike Fighters
  • Retain 3 Commando Brigade

This sounds impressive. But remember, this is essentially what we had only 10 years ago anyway. This extensive building programme would cost a lot, but would generate jobs and boost the shipbuilding industry, and would guarantee the future of jobs at bases such as Portsmouth, Devonport and Rosyth. How to fund it? Well, UKIP suggest stopping our annual international aid bill of £10bn to countries that have space programmes, aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. Sounds loopy, but there are grains of truth therein.

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HMS Invincible to leave Portsmouth for the last time

HMS Invincible, one of the Royal Navy's flagsh...

HMS Invincible in happier days (Image via Wikipedia)

The Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Invincible is due to leave Portsmouth for the last time later this week.

At 0800 on Thursday (24 March) she will be towed out of Portsmouth Harbour on her way to the breakers yard in Turkey. She has been laid up in No 3 Basin in the Dockyard for almost 6 years, after being decommisioned in 2005. She was sold to a Turkish shipbreaker earlier this year after an ebay-style auction. It seems she is being sold off in order to clear space for her sister ship HMS Ark Royal, who decommisioned last week.

It really is the end of an era with the departure of Invincible. She first arrived in Portsmouth in 1981 brand-new from the shipbuilders. My Dad was working in the Dockyard at the time and worked on her when she was dry-docked for the first time, apparently one of the underwater sonar transducers took an accidental dink that needed fixing.

I really hope that people turn out to mark Invincible’s departure. Amongst all of the political sprawling for brownie points with the departure of Ark Royal, we should never forget the role that she played in the Falklands War in 1982. Men died flying Sea Harriers from that ship. What a pity that the Harrier’s have been scrapped, so she cannot even get a flypast to see her off. But then again I doubt the Government or the MOD will want to make a big deal out it.

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A carrier-less Royal Navy

HMS Ark Royal was today formally decommissioned in a ceremony in Portsmouth dockyard.

Here’s a poser – when was the last time that the Royal Navy was completely without a conventional strike carrier flying fixed-wing aircraft? I’ve got an idea when, but interesting to see what you guys come up with!

Have a good air-cover-less weekend everyone!

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More ridiculous calls over Ark Royal name

There have been more ludicrous calls by elected representatives to name one of the new Aircraft Carriers HMS Ark Royal. Portsmouth North MP Penny Mordaunt has written to the Defence Secretary Liam Fox to suggest that one of the new Aircraft Carriers is called ‘Queen Elizabeth, the Ark Royal’.

Ms Mordaunt, who is a naval reservist and sits on the parliamentary defence committee, wrote: ‘It is almost unthinkable that there should be a Royal Navy without an Ark Royal, whatever the historic precedents.’

This quote shows a breathtaking lack of grasp of history. Ships names come and go but the Royal Navy sails on regardless – that IS the historical precedent. The irony is, she talks about Ark Royal being such an indispensable name on the one hand, presumably thanks preceisely to its history – but then says something like ‘whatever the historical precedents’.

A recent poll conducted by the Portsmouth Evening News showed that over 90% of local people – many of them either serving, ex sailors or naval families – thought that the name Ark Royal should be allowed to rest for a while. I quite agree. As I have written before, the Royal Navy has a vast history covering hundreds of proud names – why the fixation on just one? Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales are fine, historic names in their own right. It is NOT ‘unthinkable’ to not have an Ark Royal – the Royal Navy went without one for hundreds of years from the days of the Spanish Armada to the mid Twentieth Century. Why does no one mind about their not being an Illustrious, or an Invincible?

The Royal Navy would get on just fine without an Ark Royal. This myth that Ark Royal is such a historic name only came about thanks to the late 1970′s TV programme Sailor in any case. Soon we’re not going to have enough ships to keep every name that we have become attached to.

I’m not sure why politicians keep banging on about the name issue. I could understand if they thought it might win them some popularity and some votes. But its been proven that the vast majority of people do not mind. Either that or people have enough intelligence to realise when politicians are trying to buy their votes with cheap publicity stunts.

All this effort is being expended by politicians on a side-issue, at the same time as the armed forces are being decimated by Government cuts. The lack of priorities is quite distasteful. Lets forget about names and focus on equipment; on manning; on structures and on funding.

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Portsmouth’s WW2 Heroes – progress report

I’m off most of this week to work on my forthcoming book ‘Portsmouth’s Second World War Heroes’, and I thought you might all like a progress report.

I’ve almost finished the research needed for the Royal Navy-based chapters, which make up almost a third of the book. This week I have been mainly looking at the three Portsmouth Battleships – Royal Oak, Hood and Barham; Pompey-based submariners, Boy Seamen, and Lieutenant-Commander William Hussey.

In Portsmouth we’re blessed with a fantastic Naval History Collection in the Central Library. This includes a huge range of published books, including many you would be hard pressed to find in any other public library. There are also extensive runs of Navy Lists, the Mariners Mirror, the Naval Chronicle, and all manner of other specialist journals. The Naval Collection is based in the brand new Portsmouth History Centre on the second floor of the library. There you can also find the Local Studies collection, which contains things such as street directories, electoral registers and local books. And something I’ve found particularly useful is the Portsmouth Evening News on microfilm.

I’ve found some stuff I didn’t already know – a good account of the loss of Able Seaman James Miller GC on HMS Unity, accounts of what happened to many Pompey men sunk on the Royal Oak in particular, including some stories from the Evening News from those who were bereaved. There is a poignant photograph in the Evening News a couple of days after the Royal Oak was sunk showing navy womenfolk queuing up outside the Naval Barracks for news of their loved ones. And finally, I’ve discovered a first-hand account of how Lieutenant-Commander Bill Hussey DSO DSC and Bar died.

Research done, now to write it up… Next – the Army!

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Busy time in Portsmouth Dockyard – for scrap, anyway…

Yesterday’s Portsmouth News highlighted how busy the Naval Dockyard in Portsmouth is going to be in the coming months. Not in terms of actual, serving ships, but in terms of rusting hulks that are to sail no more. The disposals section of the MOD must be a lot busier than any other department right now.

HMS Invincible has been rusting in 3 Basin for almost 6 years now, and is due to be towed to Turkey for scrapping soon. Her place will be taken by the soon-to-be decomissioned HMS Ark Royal. Alongside her are several RFA’s. The other Aircraft Carrier, HMS Illustrious, will be gone by 2014. In ‘the trot’ of Fareham Creek right now are the decomissioned Type 42 Destroyers Exeter, Nottingham and Southampton. They are bering hurriedly offered for sale in order to create space for more ships that will be leaving service soon. One more Type 42 – Manchester – is due to leave service in the next year, with the other four remaining ships in the class going by 2014. The four remaining Type 22 Frigates – Cornwall, Campbeltown, Cumberland and Chatham – are all due to decomission and be moved to Portsmouth awaiting disposal. And then we also have the stricken HMS Endurance, very unlikely to ever sail again. And one of the Albion Class ships will be placed at ‘extended readiness’, which may well find the ship in question tied up in Portsmouth, as Pompey seems to be the Navy’s dumping ground of late.

Actually, the ships due for disposal and/or scrapping effectively equate to a whole Naval Task Force – two aircraft carriers, one front line landing ship and one auxiliary landing ship, eight air defence destroyers, four frigates, and several auxiliaries. Thats MORE ships than the UK has contributed to many major conflicts since 1945.

Portsmouth Dockyard will be looking more like a giant version of Pounds Yard soon. A very sad state of affairs.

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The vagaries of warship naming

HMS Ark Royal (R07)

Image via Wikipedia

I didn’t think it would take long. There have already been calls for one of the Royal Navy’s new supercarriers to be renamed HMS Ark Royal. Even though a poll in today’s Portsmouth News showed that 94% of people asked did NOT want a new Ark Royal right away.

Personally, I just cannot agree. The names selected for the two ships – Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales – are fine, historic names. Classes of ships should all have logical names that follow a pattern. To have one ship names Ark Royal and another named something completely random would make no sense at all.

The problem is, there is a precedent. The current Ark Royal (RO7) was due to be named HMS Indomintable, alongside her elder sisters Invincible and Illustrious (both, incidentally, names as famous as Ark Royal, if not more so). But the popularity of the old Ark Royal, helped by the TV documentary Sailor, led to an outcry demanding that one of the new Invincible class carriers should be named Ark Royal in her honour. Sadly, in this case their Lordships made a rod for their successors backs.

A quick glance at Colledge and Wardlow’s Ships of the Royal Navy shows that the Royal Navy has literally hundreds of famous and proud names that it could call upon. The Navy had so many ships in years gone by, that it pretty much had to scrape the barrell for names – how else could you explain the fearsome sounding HMS Beaver? I remember a few years ago the letters that flew back and forth in the Navy News and Portsmouth News, complaining that sailors were expected to go to war in ships named after furry little animals or plucked from the road atlas of Great Britain.

If we really want to talk names for Aircraft Carriers, then we have plenty to choose from – Courageous, Glorious, Eagle, Hermes, Furious, Victorious, Formidable, Implacable, Indefatigable… I might have been tempted to go for Glorious and Courageous, both ships sunk in the Second World War, or Perhaps Invincible and Hermes in tribute to the Falklands War.

Reportedly the naming of the new Type 45 Destroyers aroused controversy. The previous class of Destroyers, the Type 42′s, were named after British cities. This was great for building up links with the respective city. Wisely, the Royal Navy decided to carry on with the ‘alphabet’ system of ship naming for Destoyers and Frigates. As the last sub-batch of the Type 22 Frigates were given ‘C’ names, the Type 45 became the ‘D’ class – Daring, Dauntless, Diamond, Defender, Dragon, Duncan. All historic, brave sounding names. Yet some of the cities who had been twinned with the old Type 42′s threw their toys out of the pram, refusing to take up links with the new ships and insisting that there should be an HMS ‘insert name of city here’.

There are some even more random naming controversies. HMS London, a Type 22 Frigate launched in 1984, was originally due to be called HMS Bloodhound, but was ‘renamed at the request of the Lord Mayor of London’. Aww, diddums. Her sister ship HMS Sheffield was originally to be called HMS Bruiser, and another sister HMS Coventry was supposed to be Boadicea. Bloodhound, Bruiser and Boadicea are all fine names. Perhaps we can understand the sentiment of naming ships after vessels that were sunk in war, but is rushing to rename ships of another class really a dignified way to do it?

I’m surprised that we haven’t had calls to name the new Antarctic icebreaker HMS Endurance. The Navy has been brave in announcing that she will be called HMS Protector, an old South Atlantic ship name with heritage and also sounds formidable. Who says that it absolutely has to be called Endurance anyway? A change of name makes a welcome change from the not so great publicity regarding the ship in recent years.

But please, let the name Ark Royal rest in dignity for a while, ready to sail again in years to come. Ship names should be a case of ‘the king is dead, long live the king’. The Royal Navy and the Ministry of Defence should issue a statement as soon as possible to shoot down all the spurious brownie point chasing. It’s quite distasteful.

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Ark Royal open day report

Ark Royal on Victory Jetty

Today’s Portsmouth News reports that over 11,000 people visited HMS Ark Royal over the weekend, taking a lost opportunity to visit the ship before she is decomissioned. I went with my Girlfriend and Dad. We had planned to visit some of the Historic Dockyard afterwards, but in the event only had time to go round the Mary Rose Museum – after a restorative Hot Chocolate of course!

The queue snaked all the way back from Victory Jetty right back through the Historic Dockyard, and at times almost reached the Gosport Ferry at the Hard. If anyone doesn’t know Portsmouth, that is a very long way. All in all we had to queue for over an hour just to get on, then queue round the ship just to get off again.

The famous ski-jump

There wasn’t even much to look at or see. A Merlin and a Gazelle on deck (what exactly a Gazelle has got to do with Ark lord only knows), and in the hangar we had the ubiquitous displays of firefighting equipment and suchlike, like on every ship at every Navy Days ever. It’s extremely boring standing round on a ship for hours on end, even more so in January.

The end of a famous ship deserved so much better. I guess the Ark is a victim of her own popularity, it wouldn’t have been so bad if 1) it had been in the summer, and 2) it had hadn’t been so crowded. If the RN had got its planning right it would have ensured that Ark Royal was at Navy Days in Portsmouth last year, ensuring a welcome publicity coup and a much more fitting chance to say goodbye.

Hopefully with her being decomissioned soon at least the Ark Royal brownie points bandwagon will cease. In more than one place I’ve seen an article about the Ark, accompanied by a picture of the OLD Ark Royal. Have people been getting a piece of the Ark circus while they can?  We’ll see when Illustrious retires from service in 2014 (or earlier if Dave and Boy George decide) and what kind of a send-off she gets. Invincible, a Falklands veteran, left service in 2005 with barely a whimper.

Hells Bells? :P

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Ark Royal to open to the public one final time

The Royal Navy’s flagship HMS Ark Royal will be open to the public one final time over the weekend of 22 and 23 January. Her decomissioning will also be marked by a parade and ceremony in Portsmouth Guildhall Square on the Saturday.

About 250 sailors from the Portsmouth-based aircraft carrier – which is being decommissioned in March – will parade through the city on January 22 to celebrate the close affiliation between the warship and its home port. A Royal Marines band will lead the parade which starts at Paradise Street (near the city centre Tesco) at 11.20am. The crew will march to Guildhall Square via Commercial Road, past Portsmouth and Southsea train station and under the civic buildings.

A special service will then take place including speeches from Ark Royal’s Commanding Officer Captain Jerry Kyd, Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, Cllr Paula Riches and Leader of the council, Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson. Ark Royal’s padre, the Rev Martin Evans, will close the service with prayers. The event will conclude with Captain Kyd presenting the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, Cllr Paula Riches, with a ship’s white ensign. The service is expected to finish around midday when the city council will host a reception for the ship’s company and their families in the Guildhall. The parade leaves Commercial Road at 11.15am, and the ceremony in Guildhall Square lasts until 12 noon.

Ark will be open to visitors at Victory Jetty in Portsmouth Naval Base between midday and 4pm on Saturday 22 January and 10am and 3pm the following day. Areas open on board will include the hangar, flight deck and operations room. I’m not sure what kind of state the ship will be in, as when I went past the Hard the other day I could see Containers on deck – I wonder if they’ve started stripping her out already? Entry to the jetty will be through Portsmouth Historic Dockyard’s main entrance at Victory Gate.

Also on Saturday members of the ships crew will parade on the pitch at Fratton Park before the Portsmouth-Leeds United game. Leeds is the Ark’s adoptive city, and the ship also has an affiliation link with Leeds United Football Club.

As much as it is welcome to see the efforts being made to recognise Ark Royal, I hope the same efforts are made to honour HMS Illustrious when she is decomissioned in several years time. For some reason the name ‘Ark Royal’ has a cache of brownie points. As loved as she is, there are plenty of other fantastic ships that have gone off to the breakers yard without a murmur – Fearless and Intrepid, for example, and then we have some of the Falklands veteran Type 42 Destroyers.

It’s a welcome chance to take a last look at a famous ship, however. I’ve never actually been onboard Ark Royal. Whenever theres a Navy Days that I can get to it always seems to be HMS Illustrious on show!

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Ark Royal

British Aircraft Carrier Class Invincible: HMS...

Invincible Class - two down (Image via Wikipedia)

Sadly I missed Ark Royal coming into Portsmouth this morning, having been snowed in at my girlfriend’s place in Felpham, just outside Bognor Regis (of King George V ‘Bugger Bognor!’ fame, or less famously Albert Steptoe‘s “but Harold we always go to Bognor!”).

By all accounts it was a bit of a non-affair, not many boats to welcome her in, and I’m sure the crowds were much smaller than they would have been in more clement weather. I’m told that the Harrier flypast didn’t happen either.

All this was probably quite convenient for the Government, who would probably far rather that the Royal Navy’s decommissioned flagship went quietly and without a fuss. It’s a sad day for the Royal Navy, for Portsmouth and for Britain. It’s squeaky bum time for the next ten years, hoping that nothing happens that calls for naval-projected air cover – because we won’t have any.

In other Carrier-based news, HMS Invincible has been put up for auction on the MOD‘s disposal website… in true ebay style the auction ends early in January 2011, and viewers of the website can even ‘add to cart’ the 20,000 ton warship!

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Ark Royal to enter Portsmouth for the last time

HMS Ark Royal (R07)

HMS Ark Royal (Image via Wikipedia)

HMS Ark Royal is due to enter Portsmouth Harbour for the last time on Friday morning.

The Royal Navy’s flagship, due to be decommissioned as part of coalition budget cuts, will arrive in the Solent tomorrow morning, unusually entering via the Needles and sailing past Yarmouth, Lepe, Cowes, and Lee-on-Solent before anchoring up overnight for the usual assorted top brass, flunkies and hangers on to visit.

She’s due to pass the Round Tower at around 0940 on Friday morning. The best spots are likely to be along the hot walls in Old Portsmouth (the Round Tower will be packed), although Gosport will be a good spot due to the layout of the Aircraft Carriers deck, which means that the view from port is better as she enters harbour.

Weather permitting there will be a Harrier flypast, in what is likely to be one of the last public flights by the soon to be decommissioned jump jet.

It will be a sad sight indeed, after Portsmouth has become used to seeing brand new warships arriving, and throughout seeing flagships returning from war, almost always victorious. My parents were onboard a tug when HMS Hermes came back from the Falklands. How times change.

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Last Harrier takes off from Ark Royal

The last Harrier jump jets took off from HMS Ark Royal yesterday. Click here to watch video footage on the BBC website.

The four Harrier GR9′s effectively marked the end of naval aviation as we know it, by taking off from the soon to be decommissioned flagship in the North Sea. The last take off comes over 30 years since the first Sea Harrier landed on the deck of a Royal Navy warship, and 28 years since the Sea Harrier was at the forefront of the fight to retake the Falkland Islands.

Lt Cdr James Blackmore was the last Harrier pilot to take off from the iconic ski-jump:

“It is amazing. I watched a Harrier hovering over Chatham dockyard when I was eight years old and I am now fortunate enough to be flying the Harrier today… It’s an amazing aircraft, superb to fly and just very enjoyable.”

Captain Jerry Kyd said there was a tear in his eye when the last Harrier left. He showed extraordinary tact in the following statement:

“It was an emotional moment and also one of real pride as we look back over 25 years service to Queen and country… No naval officer wants to see any ship decommissioned early and she is a fine vessel and she has a fine history. She is at the peak of her efficiency but one understands that very difficult decisions have to be made across government.”

I wonder what Captain Kyd REALLY thinks?

Petty Officer Andrew Collins, 26, from Glasgow, described the situation in the usual directness of the British sailor:

“HMS Ark Royal is like the girlfriend you hate and you only realise you loved her when she has binned you.”

After a short visit to Hamburg in Germany, HMS Ark Royal is due to enter Portsmouth Harbour for the last time on Friday 3 December. Port movements are only announced 24 hours in advance, but looking at the high tides that day, I would predict that she will arrive sometime around 9am or shortly after. Expect a Harrier flypast and tugs spraying water cannons, as well as huge crowds thronging old Portsmouth.

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Admirals urge re-think on Harrier axing

A group of former senior Royal Navy officers have today urged the Government to rethink its plans to scrap HMS Ark Royal and the Harrier fleet. In an open letter to The Times Admiral Lord West of Spithead, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Julian Oswald, Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham, Vice-Admiral John McAnally and Major-General Julian Thompson argue that the recently announced defence cuts “practically invite” Argentina to re-invade the Falklands, and that such an invasion would be a national humiliation on the level of the fall of Singapore during the Second World War. Julian Thompson and Lord West in particular have got more of an insight into this matter than most, having been the commander of 3 Commando Brigade and HMS Ardent respectively in 1982.

Building on Lord West’s recent speech in the House of Lords, the letter goes on to explain that the Tornado fleet will need re-engining in 2014, at a cost of £1.4bn – roughly the savings expected from scrapping the Harrier. They are quite right too that the Harrier can take off from much shorter airstrips, has a much quicker response time, is better at providing close air support, and can remain in service until 2023 with little investment. At risk of sounding like a broken record, the Harrier vs. Tornado face-off clearly had more sinister agendas going on behind the scenes than mere defence and cost-cutting.

Finally – and most pertinently, in my view – the Admirals point out that the last Treasury-driven Defence ’10-year-rule’ came in the inter-war period (prompted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a certain Winston Churchill), and history tells us the folly of that particular policy. I wrote some time ago about the historical parallels between the current Government’s 10 year naval aviation gap and the catastrophic 10-year assumption between the wars. Any aggressor almost always has the initiative; take for instance the Falklands invasion in 1982, and to a lesser extent Germany in 1939. If you leave your defence planning dormant until a threat emerges, the threat has the initiative and will already be on top of you before you have any chance to respond.

There are two kinds of threat: an immediate unidentified threat (such as the Falklands), or the looming threat which is prone to being ignored by weak politicians (such as Hitler in the 1930′s). There’s never much you can do specifically about an unidentified threat specifically, apart from making sure your forces are flexible enough to react quickly if needs must. But wilfully ignoring clear and looming threats is at beat folly, and at worst treasonable.

And the comments from the Defence Minister Nick Harvey are naive in the extreme. Four Eurofighters, an infantry company and an obsolete Destroyer are not a defence against invasion. They’re a better tripwire than in 1982, but a tripwire none the less. The potential for reinforcing British forces in the Falklands is minimal now, and will be non-existent after the SDSR’s effects have hit home. That is the key point that Harvey fails to grasp – if anything were to happen in the South Atlantic, we could do virtually nothing beyond what we already have there.

And while we’re talking about naive politicians, how about the Defence Secretary’s comments recently about how Argentina is a vibrant peace-loving country playing a full role on the international scene – hasn’t he heard any of Mrs. Kirchner’s rants over the past few years? Has he not heard about Argentina’s plans to acquire a landing ship from France? Its the same country, with the same kind of Malvinas complex and social problems as in 1982. Sure, Argentina may not be governed by a military junta, but can you take seriously any ‘democracy’ where the President is the last President’s wife? South America is clearly an un-predictable and volatile part of the world.

A Government getting its military history from the Janet and John books whilst wearing rose tinted glasses. And its policy from an ideology that places swingeing cuts over protecting its citizens. Will Dave and Boy George backtrack? Somehow I doubt it…

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