The British Carrier Strike Fleet After 1945

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The British Carrier Strike Fleet After 1945. By David Hobbs. Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, 2015 re-published in paperback 2020.

Reviewed by Tim Coyle

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Naval aviation has been the catalyst for contentious debate in force development and political circles primarily in the US and Britain, and to a lesser extent, other countries such as Australia for decades.

Internal naval debates over the use and management of naval aviation as support to the fleet, based on battleships, was finally settled by the end of World War Two with carrier aviation ascendent over the obsolescent battleship. However, the years following the war saw renewed battles at political and strategic command levels over what should constitute air power in the nuclear age and whether strategic bombing was the only solution.

The ’Admirals’ Revolt’ of 1949, in which serving US Navy admirals fought presidential and government decisions favouring the new US Air Force Strategic Air Command’s claims for nuclear strike was resolved to the extent that the US Navy proceeded with the construction of a new fleet of aircraft carriers.  However, the story of British naval airpower since 1945 is wrought with examples of operational and tactical brilliance undermined by political and internecine military incompetence and jealousies.

There is no better individual to tell this story than Commander David Hobbs MBE, RN (Retd.). David, well known to Australian Naval Institute members for his regular book reviews, is the author of a suite of books on the RN Fleet Air Arm which have been reviewed in these columns. With 33 years FAA experience as a pilot and naval aviation staff officer in the UK Ministry of Defence, his views are forthright and based on his operational and policy experience. What he has to say in this book is salutary and while the material covered is historical to a certain extent, it has many lessons for today’s force development planners, government officials and policy makers.

The British Carrier Strike Fleet After 1945- first published in 2015 and re-published in 2020 – is three books in one. It is an operational history of the RN FAA from the Korean War through to the Falklands conflict and the decade following. It is also a technical analysis of FAA aircraft and aircraft carriers, both those that entered service and the projects that were cancelled. Hovering malevolently above all this, and striking at its heart, were ill-informed and biased air staffs and blinkered politicians who oversighted the FAA’s decline from the 1970s to the 1990s.

The Korean War demonstrated the RN and RAN (HMAS Sydney 111) naval air squadrons’ (NAS) presence, flexibility and persistence in support of United Nations operations in concert with the US Navy.  The abortive Suez campaign, although a political disaster for Britain and France, again showed FAA NAS effectiveness as the primary airpower force against Egyptian targets.

Hobbs’ coverage of carrier operations culminates in the Falklands War of 1982. Having paid off the fleet carriers Ark Royal, Eagle and Victorious (the latter having undergone an extensive and expensive refit and towed from the dockyard to the scrappers) by 1982, Hobbs’ personal experience of this period highlights the massive and almost ad-hoc, but effective, harnessing of RN and industry resources to assemble a task force centred on HM Ships Invincible and Hermes. The dialogue at a meeting between the First Sea Lord, Admiral Leach, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as news of the Argentine invasion broke in Whitehall quoted in the book is almost laughable 40 years later.

The story of Operation Corporate is well documented and Hobbs recounts the air war conducted by the FAA’s Sea Harriers with extemporised Airborne Early Warning radars fitted to Sea King helicopters.

Hobbs takes us through the political upheaval and shock of the cancellation of CVA-01, the replacement fleet carrier in 1966, the spurious air staff papers seeking a future for the RAF after the nuclear strike V-bomber force was disestablished in favour of ballistic missile submarines and the impractical and wasteful attempts to design ‘small carriers’ – a truly dismal and morale-sapping era.

Happily however, British naval airpower is currently undergoing resuscitation through the entry into service of HM Ships Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, the former currently working up with its F-35B Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing air group in cooperation with the similarly equipped US Marine Corps. The British Government has announced Queen Elizabeth will deploy to East Asia in 2021 thus returning a British naval airpower presence, albeit temporary, to ‘east of Suez’.

Hobbs believes Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales represent a new and exciting era for British naval aviation from 2020; however, he regrets the ships can only operate Short Take-Off and Landing fixed wing aircraft, currently exemplified in the F-35B. A decision not to equip the ships with the advanced electromagnet launch and arrester gear system, as fitted to the new US Navy Ford class carriers, may have been prudent in the short term due to these systems’ on-going developmental issues and huge electric power requirements. However, Hobbs laments the parallel decision not to install C-13 steam catapults and Mark 7 arrester gear as fitted to the US Navy Nimitz class and the French carrier Charles de Gaulle thus rendering the RN ships unable to operate Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Recovery aircraft such as the F-18E/F and the new generation F-35C.

Recent history is replete with failed and wasteful defence projects and Britain is not alone in suffering such misfortunes. We can be critical of past political decisions and ill-informed military professional jealousies. These are human failures, but we can and should learn from them.

Finally, I urge readers to study David’s article in the ANI Review at https://navalinstitute.com.au/modify-lhds-for-f35bs/. It summarises how British past failures may have future repercussions for the ADF.

The British Carrier Strike Fleet Since 1945 is a superb history lesson; “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – writer and philosopher George Santayana.

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