British Aircraft Carriers: Design, Development and Service Histories

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British Aircraft Carriers: Design, Development and Service Histories. By David Hobbs. Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, 2013
Reviewed by Dr Gregory P. Gilbert
“These ships will have a flexible and adaptive capability that has the potential to serve the nation well in a range of likely scenarios, but it will take firm leadership, ingenuity and determination to achieve it”. David Hobbs (p372) concerning the new carriers Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales.

BRITISH Aircraft Carriers is a magnificent book which provides a concisely written and well-illustrated compendium of the warships that have maintained their status as the world’s capital ships for over 75 years. It is a large work (489 x 465mm) with 384 pages of detail including appendices, bibliography, glossary and index. There are many illustrations, suitably positioned with accurate captions, but the colour Admiralty drawings reproduced in the centre of the book are amazing. For anyone wishing to see framed original 1948 drawings for HMAS Sydney (III) you need to check out the walls of the RAN’s Centre for Maritime Engineering (CME) in Pitt Street, Sydney.

Despite what some believe, and the reluctance to debate aircraft carriers in the Australian context since 1982, aircraft carriers will remain the arbiters of sea power of the 21st century. Since the formation of the Royal Air Force in 1918 there have been many prophets who have prophesised the demise of the aircraft carrier, most recently due to the development of anti-ship ballistic missiles by China, however the roles and functions of naval aircraft carriers have endured.

Claims that aircraft carriers are inherently vulnerable are blatantly untrue; even though, as with any weapon system, aircraft carriers can indeed be defeated. This is important as an aircraft carrier that is poorly designed, developed to inappropriate restraints set by financial wallahs, and then operated by uninformed commanders will fail in combat. To avoid such mistakes we need to understand and learn from history, something which British Aircraft Carriers sets out to do.

The author, Commander David Hobbs, MBE, RN(Rtd), is well known to the ANI membership. Hobbs is the leading historian of British carrier aviation, who retired as a Fleet Air Arm pilot after 33 years before working as the Curator of the FAA Museum. As one would expect, his love of the subject comes through with pride in this book. But David Hobbs provides much more than just a collection of technical facts about British aircraft carriers. Hobbs provides detailed service histories for each vessel, including details of peacetime deployments whether on exercise, as a deterrent or just showing the flag in the naval diplomacy role. This includes the British Commonwealth and Indian aircraft carriers of the post-war period.

Hobbs explains how such carrier designs evolved over time with characteristic British features, good and bad, arising from lessons learnt from actual experience. In order to better understand carrier design, Hobbs also reviews unbuilt carrier designs and concurrent foreign carriers. Carrier-borne aircraft and their operation is considered in detail, as are 21st century carrier-borne aircraft and unmanned aircraft effectively leading the reader to the latest carrier considerations.

A few examples will help to highlight why this book is relevant to Australians. The seaplane carrier Ark Royal (1914), which took part in the 1915 Gallipoli campaign, is described in detail, as is the Ben-my-Chree. The later vessel was sunk after Turkish gunfire from shore batteries started fires and explosions which became uncontrollable. This incident, the only loss of a British carrier in World War I, led to the development of better armour, safer fuel storage and handling, as well as improvements to fire and damage control by the ship’s crew. These typified the passive survivability inherent in British carrier design – something which will be familiar to the veterans of HMA Ships Sydney (III) and Melbourne (II).

The story of the maintenance carriers Unicorn, Pioneer and Perseus is also illuminating. During the Abyssinian Crisis of 1935 it was calculated that a single carrier could lose up to 20 per cent of its air group lost or damaged beyond repair in a single operation. An additional 10 per cent would require major repair well above that capable onboard an average operational carrier.

These best guess statistics were largely confirmed in 1945 during sustained carrier operations by the British Pacific Fleet – not to mention the large requirements for replenishment of aviation munitions and fuel. The maintenance carrier experience is well worth considering in light of the need to support the new Adelaide class LHDs. Several years ago there was talk about Australia purchasing a third LHD for logistic support however this never eventuated.

David Hobbs records how the British Government and Royal Navy have prevaricated over policy concerning carrier strike capability over the last 30 years. Even since the contract to build two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers (each over 60,000 tonne) was awarded in 2007 there has been considerable movement on whether these vessels will have a full strike capacity or not. The brave decision to accept a ten year capability gap in British aircraft carriers in order to save money for when the Queen Elizabeth and F-35 aircraft will be fully operational — around 2020 — is already demonstrating policy limitations as international crises adversely affecting Britain’s interests have only intensified. The carrier decision, when associated with reductions in US submarine capacity and the increasing anti-access warfare capabilities, contributes to a perceived window of opportunity for military action by those nations hoping to challenge Western naval supremacy.

The success or otherwise of this British policy will be one to watch. Also the success or otherwise of the future French second aircraft carrier PA-02, which will be based upon the Queen Elizabeth class carriers but with a fixed-wing strike capability, will be of interest. The Australian Government should at least consider acquiring a strike carrier similar to the French PA-02 to fulfil our maritime strategic needs. Unfortunately this nation has very few subject matter experts able to make informed decisions when it comes to the air-side of sea control and carrier strike. British Aircraft Carriers should help to inform such a debate – in my opinion, a debate that should be happening now.

British Aircraft Carriers also includes development information that is not found anywhere else in the literature. David Hobbs examines the political and naval decisions that impacted upon the development of carriers from the earliest pre-1914 seaplane carriers to the carriers currently under construction. And he does not hold back on criticism when it is deserved. For example, when he concedes “that cynics who say that the British Government has never really understood naval aviation and actually constitutes its worst enemy may have a point”, Hobbs is only highlighting the fluctuating British carrier programs since 1945 that have often ended paying much more for limited capabilities due to political interference, grand-standing and insular Service thinking. The last chapter ‘The Royal Navy’s Future Prospects: The Author’s Afterwords’ is particularly pertinent. One hopes that the message does not continue to fall upon deaf ears.

British Aircraft Carriers is an outstanding highly informative reference work. It is a masterpiece which should be on every naval person’s bookshelf. It is a pleasure to read and a pleasure to own.

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