The British Carrier Strike Fleet After 1945. By David Hobbs. Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, 2015 – re-issued 2020.
Reviewed by Jack McCaffrie
Note: This book was reviewed in the previous ANI Newsletter by Tim Coyle. Jack McCaffrie’s review offers further comments and assessments on this superb book.
David Hobbs, a retired Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm pilot, is deservedly very well known for his writing on British naval aviation. In this very substantial and well-illustrated work he tracks the turbulent evolution of British naval aviation, from the end of the Second World War to the entry into service of the new Queen Elizabeth class carriers.
The focus of the book is very much on the offensive strike role of the aircraft carrier in Royal Navy (RN) service, but it also takes account of the other roles of carrier aviation. This is important because one of the main thrusts of the author’s case for naval aviation is the great flexibility and versatility of carriers and their embarked air groups.
While the book tracks the Fleet Air Arm’s fortunes chronologically, it does so through three main themes. Firstly, the author demonstrates that changing government policy and a succession of Defence reviews have undoubtedly been the main influence on the Fleet Air Arm. Secondly, the book shows clearly how technological development both in aircraft and ships and their systems, have provided challenges and opportunities for the RN. Thirdly, the book argues that a succession of operations, warlike and otherwise, have demonstrated repeatedly, but not necessarily to the full benefit of the RN, the ongoing value of naval aviation and the carrier strike fleet in particular.
From the early 1950s, a succession of Defence Reviews and other major political decisions impacted heavily on the size and shape of the RN. They were brought about by changing geopolitical circumstances, in turn the result of Britain’s reduced and still reducing economic situation. The author covers these events in some detail, repeatedly emphasizing the lack of understanding by British politicians of matters naval, and especially matters aircraft carrier. He also criticizes, quite fairly, the failure of some in the RN leadership to address that problem satisfactorily.
Of the really significant reviews, that conducted immediately after the Korean War and the subsequent 1957 review, were the first to jeopardise the standing of the carrier strike fleet. Duncan Sandys was Minister for Supply during the first review and made it clear that he was not a fan of aircraft carriers. Nevertheless, as Minister for Defence during the 1957 review he proved to be amenable to sound arguments from Admirals Mountbatten and Lambe, First and Second Sea Lords, respectively. But as the author points out, success was short lived, primarily because of the decision to place the nuclear deterrent in submarines, thus bringing the Royal Air Force (RAF) into more direct competition with the Navy for other air strike functions. David Hobbs describes vividly the high-level negotiations, doubts of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Carrington, specious Air Force arguments and ultimately the failure of the RN to take up a sensible compromise RAF proposal, which would have saved the project to build CVA-01.
On 14 February 1966 the government cancelled CVA-01. This led ultimately to the gradual winding down of conventional carrier aviation in the RN and to the convoluted decision making within the RN and government that generated the ‘through deck cruiser’ concept of which Invincible was the first ship, as well as the associated short take off and vertical landing aircraft. Another low point for the RN’s strike carrier ambitions came with the Nott Review, finalised in 1981, which saw Invincible offered for sale to Australia not long before the ship was needed for the Falklands War.
The book deals at length with the most recent Defence reviews beginning with that of the Labor government in 1997 which sought to develop a joint force capable of extended distant operations, breathed new life into the strike carrier argument and eventually led to the two Queen Elizabeth class carriers now entering service. Even then however, the road was not smooth and budget cuts led to the loss of the Harrier fleet in 2006 and the last of the through deck cruisers in 2010 – years before the new carriers would be ready.
The sections of the book devoted to ship and aircraft development provide a fascinating insight into the challenges associated with the introduction of new technologies and the intersection of politics, operational needs and funding. David Hobbs explains in some detail but in separate chapters, the initially ground-breaking but later confused and compromised carrier developments leading to the current Queen Elizabeth class. The British-inspired angled flight deck, and mirror landing sight remain fundamental aspects of conventional carrier design but are not fitted to the new RN carriers. The steam catapult (also missing from the new RN carriers) is slowly being replaced by electrically powered versions.
The author also explains the Admiralty attempts to keep the cruiser force in being by adopting ships smaller than carriers but capable of carrying up to eight helicopters (and which the RN tried to foist on the RAN) and the impact it had on the then current arguments for retention of the strike carriers. He also explains the compromised design of the Invincible class through deck cruisers, including poor flight deck utility and limited storage for ammunition. The most fascinating part of this treatment of technological development is undoubtedly the explanation of the developments leading to the Queen Elizabeth class. The author lays out in almost excruciating detail the design convulsions which ultimately saw the ships completed with straight deck and ski jump rather than with catapults and arrestor wires. This decision limits the ships to operating only short take off and vertical landing (STOVL) fixed wing aircraft and helicopters.
The story of aircraft development is similarly marked with products of varying success and of course the gradual but growing reliance on foreign designs. The author chronicles the introduction of helicopters, their development to include the adoption of anti-submarine warfare and airborne early warning capabilities. What stands out in this is the relatively straightforward process when existing designs are adopted, as was the case for the RN with the line of Sikorsky/Westland helicopters from the Whirlwind.
There were also some notable fixed wing successes despite the less than stellar performance of some local designs such as the Scimitar strike fighter. David Hobbs describes the development of the Saunders Roe SR53/SR177 jet (and rocket) powered fighter in the 1950s. This aircraft apparently showed great promise and was being considered by other navies also, before Defence Minister Duncan Sandys, without reference to the Navy, announced its cancellation while on a visit to Australia. Undoubtedly the outstanding locally designed strike aircraft was the Blackburn Buccaneer low level strike aircraft, which had useful range and weapon load and represented RN acknowledgement of the vulnerability of high-level attack well before the RAF. Ironically, the aircraft were ultimately transferred to the RAF.
For the best part of four decades now the RN has relied on STOVL aircraft for its strike and fighter capability; first with the Sea Harrier and now with the F-35 Lightning II. The book covers in some detail the introduction of the Sea Harrier, from its earliest conception as the P1127, which the RAF did not want and in which the RN was not initially interested. It also describes the aircraft’s finest hour – the Falklands War.
The most fascinating aircraft development story in the book is however that of the F-35 and David Hobbs details the incredible complexity as well as potential capability of the aircraft. He also notes the almost equally incredible cost. One wonders what options the RN might have if the aircraft does not live up to expectations or if it cannot be bought in sufficient numbers.
Throughout the book, from the Korean War to Iraq in 2003, the author repeatedly makes the point that carrier aviation is inherently flexible and versatile. He also hammers home the point that when a carrier, its air group and support ships arrive in an area of operations its aircraft are ready for immediate action. By contrast, he also points out, repeatedly, that land-based aircraft are not so easily deployed and supported.
Although the Suez Crisis in 1956 was a political disaster for Britain, the RN carrier force performed very well operationally, with strikes and close air support well- coordinated with ground forces. Furthermore, the RN and Royal Marines (RM) conducted the first ever helicopter-borne assault. By contrast the initial RAF deployment to Cyprus and bomber operations, were poorly planned and coordinated, something which the author discloses at some length.
Operations in Southeast Asia in the early 1960s are also used to demonstrate the flexibility and deterrent effect of carrier aviation. Both in Borneo in 1962 and then during Confrontation, RN helicopter squadrons operated from commando carriers and ashore, in support of the RM. The presence of Victorious and other carriers was noted by Indonesian authorities. Similarly, the author notes the excellent performance of embarked Sea Harriers during the Balkan operations in the Adriatic in 1994 and contrasts their ability to react quickly and to avoid at least some of the weather problems with RAF land-based operations.
Undoubtedly, the operation that most effectively makes David Hobbs’ case was the Falklands War in 1982, which would not have been possible without the embarked air power provided by Invincible and Hermes. While the author acknowledges the successful integration of RAF Harriers into the embarked effort, he is not a fan of the concept; arguing that unless the same squadrons are used repeatedly there is a constant training and adaptation task that diminishes efficiency and effectiveness.
The British Carrier Strike Fleet After 1945 is a very substantial work which covers its subject thoroughly and is a most rewarding read. The political background to many momentous decisions is laid out clearly, with a focus on the naval implications. Developments in aircraft carrier and aircraft design are explained in enough detail for the keenest of aviation buffs. Finally, readers are left in no doubt as to the value of embarked naval aviation in the recent past and its potential utility for many years to come.