The HMS Invincible class of aircraft carriers were designed to replace the early post-war aircraft carriers that were HMS Ark Royal and HMS Hermes. They have had a troubled life, with the government threatening to sell off two of the three carriers before they had even been commissioned. As the carriers were coming into service during the early eighties (HMS Invincible, the first of class, saw action in the Falklands) there were worries about whether Britain would be able to continue its role as a balanced Navy, rather than the ASW wing of NATO.
Arising out of a 1960s design for a 12,500 tonne anti-submarine escort carrier, the first Invincible Class aircraft carrier was commissioned in July 1980. The Invincible Class was designed to serve as the headquarters for a task group and to support short take off aircraft as well as helicopters. Built by Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering (now BAE Systems Marine) at Barrow-in-Furness, HMS Invincible was the first of three Invincible class ships to serve with the Royal Navy. HMS Invincible’s sister ships, HMS Illustrious and HMS Ark Royal, were commissioned in 1982 and 1985 respectively. The development of the Sea Harrier aircraft required the design of the Invincible Class vessels to incorporate a ‘ski-jump’ style flight deck to allow the Harrier to be launched from the ships. The Class also had the capacity to carry up to 7 helicopters.
Developed during the Cold War, part of the requirement of the Invincible Class vessels was to counter the threat of attack by Soviet submarines. As such they were also fitted with the Sea Dart surface-to-air missile system, which was removed during refits of the three ships during the 1990s. v The Invincible design was described as a through deck cruiser in a bid to disguise the fact from the government that it was actually an aircraft carrier, as the Labour government was withdrawing the nation's last big conventional carriers. The through deck cruisers were designed for that great British invention, the vertical take-off Harrier jump jets.
The main machinery of the new HMS Invincible was different to conventional carriers. She had no main boilers or steam turbines but was driven by Rolls-Royce Olympus gas turbines, which were a variant of those used by beautiful Concorde supersonic airliners.
The completion of Invincible involved installing one million components served by 1,000 kilometres of cables and 100 kilometres of pipes. The number of people working on the build in Barrow peaked at 3,500 during the fitting out in Buccleuch Dock, but a total of 35,000 people were involved in sub contractor roles around the country. During its build, the shipyard workforce was around 14,000 compared with 5,000 today. Invincible was the largest warship to be built for the Royal Navy since the 1950s. But it was later superseded by the slightly larger HMS Ocean, a VSEL ship but one which had its hull built at Govan, and was fitted out, named and commissioned in Barrow where, like Invincible, it became a landmark.
In the commemorative booklet for the launch by the Queen on May 3, 1977, the yard said: "Vickers are proud that one more prototype - 'the difficult ships to build' - takes to the water from their Barrow shipyard, giving to the Royal Navy a ship which is in every way designed and equipped for naval operations in the 1980s, a ship that is not only another first of class, but the best which British technology can give the Senior Service." The new carrier's crest was the crown and trident emblem. The brochure also said: "When commissioned and in service, Invincible will have the ability to exercise command and tactical coordination of ships, aircraft and submarines in operational Task Group at Sea."
Little did anyone know that within two years of delivery to the Royal Navy in 1980, Invincible would, with another Barrow carrier, HMS Hermes, be playing a risky but crucial role in the Falklands War. During the 1982 Falklands conflict, the task force had accomplished two of its main tasks by mid-May: the movement of the troops safely to the South Atlantic and the establishment of control of the seas around the Islands. The role of the carriers, HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible, was crucial at this and subsequent stages in providing air defence and the means of attacking enemy ships and ground positions, while their helicopters provided constant anti-submarine protection. The Falklands conflict proved the need for carriers and so the Invincible class were here to stay.
HMS Invincible’s deployment in the Falklands War, 1982, confirmed the importance of the traditional aircraft carrier. During the conflict Invincible, along with older Royal Navy aircraft carriers, was vital in projecting over land and sea its Sea King helicopters and Sea Harrier fighter aircraft. Following the cessation of hostilities, HMS Illustrious was deployed to the Falklands to undertake guard duties.
The carriers were originally designed as "through-deck cruisers", without the now characteristic ski ramp, with the Sea Harrier FRS Mk1 in mind. During operational tests, however, it was discovered that using the ski ramp provided the Sea Harrier with far better performance, allowing it to carry more fuel and weapons, making it a far more versatile aircraft for fleet defense. The upgrade of the FRS Mk1, the Sea Harrier FRS Mk 2 has been a greatly successful fighter, and will continue to do its job for a few more years.
The third of class, HMS Indomitable, was later renamed HMS Ark Royal so as to continue the tradition of having an aircraft carrier in service named Ark Royal. The original Ark Royal was a British galleon of 800 tons built for Sir Walter Raleigh in 1587. She was the flagship of Lord Howard at the battle against the Spanish Armada in 1588. The name Ark Royal was later employed for a British aircraft carrier built in 1937 and sunk in 1941 by the German submarine U81.
Future refits of the Invincible class were to include the removal of the Sea Dart missile system, to be replaced by a weapons lift and increased hangar and deck space.
The number of days the Invincible class aircraft carriers had undertaken at sea in each of five years is shown in the following table:
|Number of days at sea|
|HMS Illustrious||HMS Ark Royal|
|Up to 31 August 2010||3||117.5|
HMS Ark Royal had maintenance periods in 2006 and 2009, as did HMS Illustrious in 2010.
During this period HMS Invincible has been maintained at a state of very low readiness at Portsmouth Naval Base.
During nearly all their time spent at sea, the carriers are operationally deployed in contributing to a wide range of military tasks. This includes periods when they are exercising and training, but excludes the short time spent completing basic sea safety training and carrying out post refit trials. The tasks may include the integrity of UK waters, the defense and security of overseas territories, intelligence collection, defence diplomacy and support to British interests. They contribute to the standing commitments of the NATO reaction forces and provide platforms for wider maritime security operations.
The October 2010 Strategic Defense Review stated that "The Invincible-class carriers were designed principally to meet Cold War threats on the high seas, with short-range jets providing air defence for a naval task group, without the ability to interoperate aircraft with our key allies and whose primary mission was anti-submarine warfare.... The Government believes it is right for the United Kingdom to retain, in the long term, the capability that only aircraft carriers can provide - the ability to deploy air power from anywhere in the world, without the need for friendly air bases on land. In the short term, there are few circumstances we can envisage where the ability to deploy airpower from the sea will be essential. That is why we have, reluctantly, taken the decision to retire the Harrier aircraft, which has served our country so well....
The current, limited carrier-strike capability will be retired. We must face up to the difficult choices put off by the last Government. Over the next five years combat air support to operations in Afghanistan must be the over-riding priority: the Harrier fleet would not be able to provide this and sustain a carrier-strike role at the same time. Even after 2015, short-range Harriers - whether operating from HMS Illustrious or HMS Queen Elizabeth - would provide only a very limited coercive capability. We judge it unlikely that this would be sufficiently useful in the latter half of the decade to be a cost-effective use of defence resources....
We will accordingly: in the transitional period, retain a reduced Tornado fleet, but remove Harrier from service in 2011 as the fast jet force moves to two operational types - Joint Strike Fighter and Typhoon. Retaining the Tornado fleet allows a fast jet contribution to be sustained in Afghanistan and support to concurrent operations which would not have been possible if Harrier was retained instead;....
On 15 December 2010 the Secretary of State for Defence (Dr Liam Fox) stated that: "The White Paper "Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence Review" (Cm 7948), presented to the House on 19 October 2010, explained the Government's intention to make certain changes to the armed forces in order to deliver the force structure we require for the future and to help address the legacy of unaffordability in the defence budget. I am now able to explain more fully those changes that affect the Royal Navy's surface fleet.... We announced that the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal would be decommissioned and accordingly, she will finally be withdrawn from service at the end of this month. We also announced that we would decommission either her sister ship HMS Illustrious or the landing platform helicopter HMS Ocean following a short study into which of these two ships was better able to provide the capability we require over the next few years. This work has now been completed and we have decided that HMS Ocean should be retained to provide our landing platform helicopter capability for the longer-term. HMS Illustrious will be withdrawn from service in 2014, once HMS Ocean has emerged from a planned refit and been returned to a fully operational state. This will ensure that we retain the ability to deliver an amphibious intervention force from the sea and maintain an experienced crew to support the later introduction into service of the new Queen Elizabeth class carrier."
The three Invincible Class vessels served to the end of the Cold War period and two, Ark Royal and Illustrious remained in service, underlining their importance in the Royal Navy’s fleet.
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