On 22nd July HMS Illustrious entered Portsmouth for the final time flying her paying off pennant and formally decommissions on 28th August after 32 years service. The passing of this ship marks a significant moment for the RN. It is always sad when a warship that has served the nation for so long is retired but it also marks the start of a ‘rock bottom’ period. 2014 – 2020 will see the RN in a deep trough of major ‘capability gaps’ mainly stemming from the decisions of the 2010 defence review.
HMS Illustrious had a unique start to her career. Second of the Invincible class aircraft carriers, she was in the latter stages of construction at Swan Hunters on the Tyne during Falkland’s war of 1982. An outstanding effort by the shipyard workers saw the ship delivered 3 months ahead of schedule and pass sea trials with minimal defects. The Falklands experience highlighted the danger posed by sea skimming missiles and the RN quickly obtained the automated Phalanx CIWS from the US. Illustrious was the first European warship to carry the system, still in widespread use today. Illustrious actually commissioned in the North Sea on her way to the Falklands although the conflict was over when she arrived. Relieving HMS Invincible in August 1982, she provided continuity of air defence until the airbase on the islands was operational. Illustrious eventually returned to the UK, visiting the US on the way home where the triumphant Royal Navy was fêted by the Americans. Her formal commissioning ceremony was held alongside in Portsmouth on 20th March 1983.
Born from the ashes of the CVA aircraft carrier project cancelled in 1966, designed on a shoestring budget the Invincibles and their Harriers just managed to keep the RN in the aircraft carrier business. In many ways they were the class that defined the Royal Navy surface fleet from the 1980s to the start of the 21st Century and achieved a great deal, given their small size. Illustrious played her part in the Cold War defence against the Soviets in the 1980s but was mainly involved in exercises and ‘showing the flag’. In 1986 she was the flagship for the RN’s worldwide ‘Global ‘86’ deployment which saw her attend the Royal Australian Navy’s 75th anniversary review in Sydney. She nearly didn’t make it, suffering a major gearbox fire off the Isle of Wight just after leaving from Portsmouth and at one point consideration was given to abandoning ship. Fortunately she survived and the gearbox was repaired in time for her to rejoin the deployment.
In the late 1990s all 3 Invincibles, including HMS Illustrious operated in the Adriatic enforcing the no-fly zone over Bosnia. The Harriers flying from the carriers were often able to operate when the weather at bases in Italy precluded land-based NATO aircraft from operating. Lusty was at sea in the Persian Gulf when the September 11th terrorist attacks took place in 2001 and spent an extended time ready to land Royal Marines if required. Largely due to the timing of her major refits, Illustrious was not involved in either the 1991 or 2003 Gulf Wars. In 2006 she assisted in evacuation of UK Citizens from Beirut during the conflict with Israel. In 2008 she featured in the Channel 5 documentary ‘Warship’ leading the Orion ’08 deployment and the struggle to keep her ageing machinery going was apparent even then.
Over their lifetime the Invincibles evolved from helicopter anti-submarine ships to ‘sea control ships’ and then to small ‘strike carriers’ but with the loss of the Harriers in 2010, Illustrious reverted to a helicopter carrier. Since completing her final refit in 2011 her main task was the UK’s ‘on-call carrier’ available as an amphibious helicopter landing ship as part of the ‘Response Force Task Group’. In 2013 she was in the Gulf when ordered to make fast passage to Singapore to take on stores and then to the Philippines to assist in disaster relief operations in the wake of hurricane Haiyan. Her last major act was Exercise Deep Blue – embarking 9 Merlin Mk2s to practice the anti-submarine role her designers originally envisaged for her. Before entering Portsouth she carried out a ‘steam-past’ symbolically handing over the ‘on call helicopter carrier’ role to the unfortunately unready HMS Ocean, (still working up after her refit was completed 3 months late).
Calls for service life extension
In 2010 the RN was forced to choose between retaining HMS Illustrious or HMS Ocean and chose to retain the newer ship with smaller crew and running costs. There have been many calling for the RN to keep Illustrious in service until HMS Queen Elizabeth is operational sometime around 2020. Although this would be desirable it does not reflect the financial reality imposed by government. The costs involved in keeping such an old ship going start to rise exponentially – costs which could only be met by making cuts elsewhere. Lusty carries a lot of legacy equipment eg. she is the last ship in the fleet with Olympus gas turbine engines. Extending her life would not only involve another major refit but maintaining the training pipeline and logistical support for a further 6 years. Many spare parts are no longer available, in 2013 she suffered a fire in an electrical breaker unit and there was a scramble to get a replacement part from her sister ship Ark Royal which was already being broken up on a beach in Turkey. There is also a significant manpower shortage that will be eased in the short-term by decommissioning Lusty. Her crew can help fill gaps across the fleet and many of them will be needed as HMS Queen Elizabeth starts to build up her ships company.
Preserved for the Nation?
Perhaps stung by the anger at the scrapping of HMS Ark Royal, the MoD have stated they wish to see “HMS Illustrious preserved for the nation” The MoD is not actually offering to fund her preservation, rather examine proposals from private companies or organisations. Although it would be great to see her preserved, it is hard not to be pessimistic about the long-term future of such a project. She would be the largest warship or vessel of any type preserved in the UK. Finding suitable berthing and an income stream to support the required maintenance has been a struggle for several much smaller vessels. What is probably the ‘leading bid’ for has come from Hull City Council who want to berth her in the city’s docks next to ‘The Deep’ aquarium for ‘about two years’. Opening to visitors in early 2017 to coincide with Hull’s year as the UK City of Culture, she would serve as a conference and education facility. The Council are obviously serious about the project having already spend £150,000 preparing the bid.
A more ‘left field’ proposal is from BMT yachts who want to see the ship substantially rebuilt to serve as a “Commonwealth Yacht” to serve as a vehicle for promoting trade, international events and humanitarian work. Although a British humanitarian ship is an excellent idea, whether Illustrious is the ideal platform for such a project is questionable, not to mention the expense of a major rebuild and ongoing operating costs.
- HMS Illustrious Pinterest Photo board
- Royal Navy carrier to be retired (BBC)
- Mercy Mission to the Philipines – in the finest traditions of the Royal Navy
- Exercise Deep Blue – photos media coverage (Storify)
- HMS Illustrious to be retired in August (Portsmouth News)