In the 1960s CVA-01 aircraft carrier was to be the first of a class of fleet carriers that would have replaced the Royal Navy's existing aircraft carriers, most of which had been designed before or during World War II. CVA01 was intended to replace HMS Victorious and HMS Ark Royal; CVA02 and CVA03 would have replaced HMS Hermes and HMS Eagle.
Official drawing of the CVA-01
|Succeeded by:||Invincible class|
|Length:||925 ft (282 m)|
|Beam:||184 ft (56 m)|
|Draught:||33 ft (10 m)|
|Propulsion:||6 Admiralty boilers with 3 Parsons steam turbines providing 135,000 hp (101,000 kW) to three shafts|
|Speed:||30 knots (56 km/h)|
|Range:||7,000 nautical miles (13,000 km)|
|Complement:||3,250 plus airgroup|
|Armament:||1 twin Sea Dart Guided Weapon System 30 launcher, 4 × Sea Cat GWS 20|
|Armour:||unspecified for side and underwater protection|
|Aircraft carried:||Up to 50 aircraft, with the planned airgroup having 18 × Phantom FG.1; 18 × Buccaneer S.2; 4 × Gannet AEW.3; 4 × Sea King HAS.1; 2 × Wessex HAS.1 (SAR), probably with 1 × Gannet COD.4|
|Aviation facilities:||2 catapults (reduced from 4), 2 lifts, 1 hangar 650 ft (200 m) by 80 ft (24 m)|
Due to the 1966 Defence White Paper the project was cancelled, along with the proposed escort Type 82 destroyers. Inter-service rivalries, the huge cost of the proposed carriers, and the difficulties they would have presented in construction, operation, and maintenance were prime reasons for cancellation. Had these ships been built, it is likely they would have been named HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Duke of Edinburgh.
In the 1960s, the Royal Navy was still one of the premier carrier fleets in the world, second only to the US Navy which was in the process of building the 80,000-ton Kitty Hawk-class aircraft carriers.
The British fleet included the fleet carriers Ark Royal and Eagle, and two much smaller carriers, the completely reconstructed Victorious, and the much newer light carrier Hermes both with 3D Type 984 radar and C3 but limited to air groups of 25 aircraft, at the most 20 fighters and strike aircraft and 5 helicopters or alternatively 16 fighters and strike aircraft and 4 AEW Gannets turboprops and 5 helicopters. A fifth carrier, Centaur, was modernised to the minimum standard to operate 2nd generation Scimitars and Vixens in 1959, but was never satisfactory or safe for operating nuclear strike aircraft and was a purely interim capability, while Eagle was refitting.
While all four of the Navy's large carriers were capable of operating the S.2 version of the Blackburn Buccaneer strike aircraft, only Ark Royal and Eagle were realistically big enough to accommodate both a squadron of Buccaneers (up to 14 aircraft) and a squadron of F-4 Phantoms, which the Royal Navy intended to procure as its new fleet air defence aircraft. With the remainder of the air group this would give a total of approximately 40 aircraft, which compared poorly to the 90 available to a Kitty Hawk class ship. The increasing weight and size of modern jet fighters meant that a larger deck area was required for take offs and landings. Although the Royal Navy had come up with increasingly innovative ways to allow ever larger aircraft to operate from the small flight decks of their carriers, the limited physical life left in the existing ships (only Hermes was considered capable of reliable and efficient extension past 1975), and the inability of both Victorious and Hermes, the most effectively and expensively modernised of the carriers, to operate the F-4 or an effective and useful number of Buccaneers, made the order of at least two new large fleet carriers essential by the mid 1960s.
Once the Chiefs of Staff had given their approval to the idea of new carriers being necessary, in January 1962, in the strategic paper COS(621)1, British Strategy in the Sixties, the Admiralty Board had to sift through six possible designs. These ranged from 42,000 to 68,000 tons at full load. The largest design, based on the American Forrestal class, had space for four full sized steam catapults, but was rejected early on as being significantly too costly, particularly in terms of the dockyard upgrades that would be needed to service them.
The advantages of size were immediately apparent; a 42,000 ton carrier could only hold 27 aircraft, while a 55,000 ton carrier could carry 49. This was an 80% increase in the size of the airgroup for a 30% increase in displacement. Even with these smaller designs cost was a serious issue. The Treasury and the Air Ministry were pushing for a new set of long-range strike aircraft operating from a string of bases around the globe. For the former this appeared a cost effective solution for the East of Suez issue, and for the latter it meant that the Royal Navy would not get a majority of the defence budget. As a result, by July 1963 it was announced that only one carrier would be built.
The CVA-01 would have displaced 54,500 tons (although the ship was said to displace 53,000 tons "in average action condition"), with a flight deck length (including the bridle arrester boom) of 963 ft 3 in (293.60 m) The size of the flight deck, combined with steam catapults and arrester gear would have enabled the carriers to operate the latest jets.
The aircraft complement would have included 36 Phantom fighter/ground-attack aircraft and/or Buccaneer low-level strike aircraft, four early-warning aircraft, five anti-submarine helicopters and two search-and-rescue helicopters.
The large 'Broomstick' radar dome above the central island on the carrier was planned to be a Type 988 Anglo-Dutch 3D radar, which would subsequently be fitted on the Royal Netherlands Navy Tromp-class frigates, although this would not have been fitted to the final carrier as Britain pulled out of the project.
By early 1963 Minister of Defence Peter Thorneycroft announced in Parliament that one new aircraft carrier would be built, at an estimated cost of £56 million, although the Treasury thought that the final cost was likely to be nearer £100 million. This was based on the carrier using the same aircraft as the Royal Air Force, the Hawker P.1154 supersonic V/STOL aircraft (a larger version of what would become the Hawker Siddeley Harrier). After the General Election of October 1964, however, the new Labour Government wanted to cut back defence spending, and the RAF attacked the Royal Navy's carrier in an attempt to safeguard first its BAC TSR-2 strike/reconnaissance aircraft and then its proposed replacement, the General Dynamics F-111, from the cuts.
The new Government, and by extension the Treasury, were particularly concerned about the size issues involved, as these were fluctuating quite frequently. They therefore demanded that the Admiralty keep to 53,000 tons. With the navy unwilling to alter the size of the carrier and its airgroup accordingly the difficulties spiralled, and the final tonnage was much more likely to be nearer 55,000 tons. The design issues also increased, including dramatically reduced top speed, deck space, armour and radar equipment. When the Cabinet met in February 1966, the new Secretary of State for Defence, Denis Healey, strongly supported the RAF and their plan for long-range strike aircraft, by now the F-111, partially due to the costing issues of running fleet carriers, and partially due to opposition to a strong British military. This meeting resulted in the 1966 Defence White Paper. In this paper the CVA-01 was finally cancelled, along with the remainder of the Type 82 destroyers that would have been built as escorts, of which only HMS Bristol was eventually completed. Instead plans were made for the modernisation of Eagle and Ark Royal. The final chief designer of CVA-01 said that by the time project was cancelled, so many design compromises had been made because of size and budget restrictions, that the whole project had become risky. The following year, a supplement to the review marked the ending of a global presence with the withdrawal of British presence East of Suez. The year after, the F-111 program was cancelled.
One argument about the cancellation of CVA-01 states that the RAF moved Australia by 500 miles in its documents to support the air force's preferred strategy of land-based aircraft. Regardless of the story's veracity, the principal reason for the cancellation was that the Defence Review board believed adequate cover could be better provided East of Suez by RAF strike aircraft flying from bases in Australia and uninhabited Islands in the Indian Ocean, rather than by a small carrier fleet in the 1970s which would have still included Hermes. The Review asserted the carrier's only effective use was to project British power east of Suez. The Review again asserted, without evidence, that the RN carriers were too 'vulnerable' for the RN's other major theatre in the North Atlantic. When the British government later decided in 1967 that it would withdraw from east of Suez, the case for carriers weakened further. The 1966 Review stated that the ability of RAF to cover 300 miles offshore was enough for the 1970s, regardless of the RAF'S contested claim to be able to provide air cover out to 700 miles. The cancellation of 150 TSR2 aircraft by Labour in mid 1965 was the basis of the RAF's argument for the 'island hopping strategy'.
Subsequent Royal Navy carriers
Eagle and Ark Royal
The cancellation of CVA-01 was planned to be compensated for by the minimum updating of both Eagle and Ark Royal to enable them to operate the 52 F-4 Phantoms ordered to fly from CVA-01 and Eagle. However, a later decision was taken to completely phase out fixed-wing flying in the Royal Navy by 1972 in line with withdrawal from "East of Suez"; Victorious was withdrawn just prior to the start of what was intended to be her final commission in 1969, while Hermes was paid off for conversion to a "commando carrier" in 1971.
At the time of the announcement, Ark Royal was beginning a reconstruction with an austere refit of radar systems, communications, partial electrical rewiring and fittings needed to allow operation of the Phantom (despite the fact that it was a worse base for such a conversion than Eagle), and it was deemed unacceptable either to cancel the much needed work, or to spend such a large amount of money (approx. £32m) for less than three years continued use. A change of government led, as a consequence, to retain Ark Royal following her 1967–1970 refit, but not to proceed with a refit of Eagle, in spite of the estimated cost of providing her with fittings and blast deflectors to operate Phantoms being only £5m. Eagle was decommissioned in 1972, partly due to damage inflicted in a partial grounding a year before; repairs would have probably required a minimum 18-month refit in 1972–1973 at a cost of around £40 million to operate till 1977. Many of the second squadron of F-4 Phantoms intended for Eagle were immediately transferred to the RAF. Eagle remained officially in reserve as a source of spares to maintain Ark Royal until 1978, but could never have been brought back into service.
"Through Deck Cruiser"
The Royal Navy did not however completely surrender aircraft carrier capability, despite the eventual withdrawal of Ark Royal in 1978. The concept of the "through-deck command cruiser" was first raised in the late 1960s, when it became clear that there was a good chance of the Fleet Air Arm losing fixed-wing capability. The "through-deck cruiser" name was chosen to avoid the stigma of great expense attached to full-size aircraft carriers, with these 20,000 ton ships having significantly less fixed-wing aviation capability than the planned CVA-01 carriers. However, they were to function as part of combined NATO fleets, with a primary mission of providing Cold War anti-submarine patrols in the north-east Atlantic Ocean, in support of the American carrier battle groups.
In order to ensure the safety of the battle group around the "cruiser", the facility to carry the Sea Harrier was added at a late stage of development, the intention being that it could give the battle group the capability to intercept Soviet aircraft without having to rely either on land based or US Navy interceptors. The ultimate result of this was the Royal Navy being able to deploy carrier-based aircraft during the Falklands War. One officer who worked on the CVA-01 believed, however, that had the United Kingdom "built two or three ships to this design, they would now [in 1999] be seen to have been the bargain of the century and they would have made the Falklands War a much less risky operation" due to greater functionality.
The United Kingdom has returned to the fleet carrier idea, with the construction of a new generation of aircraft carriers larger than the cancelled CVA-01s. The two new carriers are named HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. The contract for these vessels was announced on 25 July 2007 by the Secretary of State for Defence Des Browne, ending several years of delay over cost issues and British naval shipbuilding restructuring.
- I. Sturton. CVA01. Portrait of a Missing Link in Warship 2014. Conway. London(2014), p30.
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