Monday, 10 September 2012

Scrapping the ARK ROYAL - a sad end, but a proper one...

On Monday 10 September the MOD confirmed what had long been the most likely outcome for the future of HMS ARK ROYAL. She will be towed to Turkey in 2013 and recycled into new use, in the same manner as her sister ship HMS INVINCIBLE. At the same time the MOD has announced its intention to offer up HMS ILLUSTRIOUS for preservation by interested parties once she leaves service in 2015.

There has been something of a hue and cry about this in the media, mainly railing against the notion that ARK ROYAL is to be scrapped and not sunk as a reef, or otherwise preserved. Some commentators are linking the scrapping of the vessel to the decline of the Royal Navy, and see it as a sad end to UK carrier airpower. In reality all that is occurring is that ARK ROYAL is going three years earlier than planned, while ILLUSTRIOUS is extended by three years. Nothing else has changed in terms of hull disposal policy – these dates have been set in stone for years.

In reality the decision to scrap ARK ROYAL was all but inevitable. When one considers the thousands of ships built for the Royal Navy over the last century, and how few remain afloat in a preserved condition, there was little doubt about her final end. Some have asked why not scrap her in the UK, and give work to British yards. While a laudable idea in theory, in reality there is very little ship recycling going on in the UK – HMS INTREPID was done in Liverpool some years ago, but when one considers the huge controversy over the US ‘ghost fleet’ that would have been recycled in Hartlepool, it is clear that scrapping vessels in the UK is more effort than economically worth. The fight against environmentalists, and Daily Mail style headlines implying that ship breaking could cause cancer or increase illegal immigration means few companies can make money out of it. When one drives into Portsmouth now the once legendary Pounds Ship breakers, which was usually home to a veritable flotilla of ex warships and submarines is now a shadow of its former self.

The decision to move ARK ROYAL to Turkey for scrapping is probably the best outcome. The work can be done quickly and efficiently and will generate maximum return for the taxpayer, and perhaps more importantly the most limited cost and liability. While the idea of using ARK ROYAL as a diving wreck or heliport seemed tempting, the MOD may have found such options either lacking in credible long term finance – begging the question as to what happens next to the hull. Imagine if ARK ROYAL had become a heliport in London, and the operation had then gone bust. The final destination of the former hull may have been of more concern to the MOD, which is unlikely to welcome an ex carrier hull floating to parts unknown. Similarly preparing the ship for becoming a diving reef could expose the MOD to unwanted costs, and liability as the vessel was prepared to be sunk. Scrapping her provided the most cost effective and guaranteed method of disposal, without leaving a nasty bill or liability for the taxpayer.

ARK ROYAL returning home (Copyright

Museum Ships?                                                                                 

The idea of offering up HMS ILLUSTRIOUS to conservation groups is intriguing, but could pose a real challenge. Humphrey loves museum ships, and has spent many happy holidays, particularly in the US visiting some of the world’s most famous preserved warships. But, he remains immensely cynical that an aircraft carrier museum would work in the UK.

If ILLUSTRIOUS were to be preserved, the question is, where would she go? Relatively few ports have room for a 22,000 tonne aircraft carrier, and even fewer have berths where she can be safely left for the long haul without interfering with marine traffic. Those that do are often not in natural tourist destinations, and no matter how much interest there may initially be, it is hard to see the venture making sufficient profit in the long haul.

This is the major problem that the UK has with its maritime heritage. Those private museum ships, such as HMS CAVALIER or HMS PLYMOUTH have long struggled to make sufficient funding to stay afloat. HMS CAVALIER took nearly thirty years to find a long term home, and was nearly scrapped on several occasions. PLYMOUTH is likely to go for scrap as there is no credible business plan that will keep her going. In the UK the most successful maritime collections seem to be those in Portsmouth, where the collection of VICTORY, MARY ROSE and WARRIOR (soon to be joined by CAROLINE) provide a world class collection of maritime vessels, and also HMS BELFAST. The former Royal Yacht Britannia is also doing reasonably well too.

Those who would seek to run ILLUSTRIOUS as a museum need to consider many challenges – how to turn an operational warship into a profit making museum which is safe to run, and which costs the bare minimum to run. Warships are not designed as museums, and require major work to run safely, and facilitate visitor access. When one considers the rabbit warren of a CVS hull, and even the basic challenge of getting a steady stream of visitors onto the Island and Bridge without causing major traffic jams, it does seem a real challenge.

Based on the USS INTREPID museum, then the ILLUSTRIOUS museum would probably only have the Island, hanger, ops room, flight deck and some messing open to visitors, with the possibility of the engine rooms too, plus ancillary spaces along  the way. What this means is that most of the ship won’t actually be open to visitors or useable, but it would require some form of maintenance to keep running. There would be a challenge to build a credible aviation museum too, which would enable some aircraft to be parked in the hanger or on the flight deck.

Without wanting to sound too depressing, but it is hard to see how such a museum ship will make sufficient money to cover their costs and the long term challenges of keeping a hull in the water for the indefinite future. One only has to look at the issues surrounding much of the so-called USN ‘museum fleet’ such as the USS OLYMPIA or the USS TEXAS to see that decades old warships require major work to keep afloat. Whoever takes on the ILLUSTRIOUS would be committing themselves to a very long term project, which would require vast amounts of maintenance and support to keep going.

Personally this author feels the best museum to UK carrier aviation exists already at the Fleet Air Arm museum in Yeovilton. Here one can see a replica of a carrier flight deck, and also some of the world’s finest collection of historical aircraft in one location.  It is hard to see how an HMS ILLUSTRIOUS museum could top this. Indeed, Humphrey would suggest that the only way the ILLUSTRIOUS would succeed as a museum is if she was brought into the Royal Navy museum at Portsmouth as part of the historic ships collection, and used as the Cold War memorial to post war RN vessels. Space does exist in the dockyard at the Railway jetty, and this is on part of the waterfront that the RN could easily give up if it chose to reduce its footprint in the dockyard area. This way there would always be a carrier in Portsmouth, and it would provide an absolutely world class historical museum, and provide some wider financial support to keep the venture afloat. Beyond this option it is hard to see a museum ship working, and an all but inevitable sad end would surely follow.

Humphrey would be delighted to see ILLUSTRIOUS preserved, as a very young toddler he watched her sail from the Tyne to sail to the Falklands, and as a teenager he visited her on Navy days. Although he’s never been to sea with her, she remains an iconic naval vessel, and one that has many fond memories. But, his greatest fear is of watching a proud vessel slip into a terminal decline, unable to be maintained and loved, and instead ending up forlorn and abandoned on a quiet dock. In the worst case, it would arguably be far better to scrap her and let her memory live on, or sink her at sea for target practise than the indignity of decline.



  1. I'd far rather see Lusty and Ark scraped than moulder away in some sort of living death. In any case the day the three Vinies were laid down it was inevitable that they would go to the breakers at some point.
    Scrapping is the fate of most ships.

  2. Good post.

    Indeed, I'd rather the scrap-mans torch finish her than a be a big grey sorry forlorn relic, much like a certain russian Vtol carrier in China...struggling by, selling those funny fly navy stickers...

    Though i do hope Endurance, when released from service, could become a museum piece, she'll follow suit.

  3. It all depends on whether it (a museum attempt) is done properly. The successful ones in the UK are all based around a wider construct (eg Belfast / IWM, Warrior / Historic Dockyard Portsmouth, Cavalier / Chatham Historic Dockyard). Without that wider construct, museum ships in the UK invariably struggle - Plymouth, Bronington, Onyx, U534 at Birkenhead, the varied attempts to get hold of HMS Whimbrel and the Save the Vengeance (Minas Gerias) campaigns all failed as they had no core source of funding.

    HMY gets on very well largely because they can charge ludicrous amounts of money for private dinners for Russian Oligarchs and the like as well as conference centre revenue.

    Location is also important. If you aren't in London or where there is a significant museum / tourist presence already, you're going to struggle.

    On the other hand if you never try, you never succeed, which is why it is at least heartening that MoD has announced that the opportunity will exist to try and save Lusty, giving time to try and set up a credible plan, rather than the usual last minute appeals to sentiment.

    If a suitable berth can be found - and it is far from certain that the RN would give up SRJ in Pompey, which really is the only credible berth, then the major challenge is likely to be making whatever compartments are opened suitable for disabled access to a degree that will satisfy the Equality bods and the H&S mafia.

    As far as aviation exhibits go, you could walk across to the hangars at Sultan and pick up an entire cold war collection to fit in the hangar. Junglie and Dipper Wessex, Wasp, Sea Kings of all varieties, SHAR, there's even a pre-prod Merlin. Given the future of Sultan is a little uncertain, there's an opportunity there. Cobham Hall at the FAA museum also has a few aircraft in the reserve collection that could benefit from a wider viewing.

    The aspiration ought to be something like USS Intrepid, or the USS Midway museuam at San Diego, both successful and financially well-supported. We did after all invent teh carrier and most of the subsequent enabling tcehnologies. JV twixt the Naval Museum, the FAA museum and an industrial benefactor perchance?

  4. I agree with Not_a_Boffin.

    I'm all for Illustrious being preserved, but only if a suitable location can be found and credible investment is in place from the start.

    Like the idea of her hosting a selection of Cold War era aircraft, as long as she has a SHAR of course!

  5. There's no use comparing it with US examples. The US is short of interesting tourist destinations, so contrived ones often work well. In Western Europe we have much more choice of interesting places to visit.

  6. A couple of years back an MP asked the MOD how much it cost to look after one of these pocket carriers when it was non-operational. The MOD used Invincible as an example and pointed out that it cost them £50k a year in electricity cost along just to have her moored to the dock. They weren't spending anything on her maintenance either.

    People might like the idea of having these things as museums etc, but they are horribly expensive and impractical to run. This is before you even get to the issues of paying docking fees and doing conversion jobs. The US keep theirs going with bucket loads of cash. Thus the only people that can usually afford these things are other navies. If no one is interested, then the ships get scrapped.

    1. Just as a point of order, the USN (or DoD) do not fund any of the five carrier and numerous other ship-based museums in the US.

  7. Hows about some sponsorhip? Stick the old girl around Greenwich Pier and - lo-and-behond - we have a Fleet-Museum.

    Ladies and Gents; I give you HMS Illustrious [Virgin]! Any empty spaces can be given over to those tight Japanese hotel cabins. Teenagers and tourists would fill the voids (on short-term leases) with a gusto...!

  8. I do love the throw away phrases by the MOD. Scrapping a useable warship is good value for taxpayers, really?

    Oh well lets hope the 'UK plc' is in the same position as the former Soviet Union was in the 80s' It's own bureaucratic delusions and total lack of any oversight led to it's downfall.

    The continual justification of every decision taken - good or bad - is the real problem here. Nothing is perfect in life and certainly not in the complex field of defence issues. However, there seems to be no actual responsibility taken for any multi million/billion pound mistakes, and I'm sure we all have our favorites. My personal one the SA80 as I used it in the TA years ago

    No excuses should be allowed for that one - if we as a nation can't actually make something as simple as a rifle then god help us in a real WW2 level of conflict.

    Did any one involved get shown the door? I don't mean golden handshake and early retirement either. Does the head of a department that dreamt up something as stupid for example, the refurb of old Pumas that will actually be more expensive than new Blackhawks, still get to keep that nice MOD pension?

    Not surprisingly, with this dull and venal culture sitting at the heart of the establishment, this dangerous undermining of our nation's real power seems set to continue.

  9. Museum ship? Like it. Cover the deck and maybe hangar in old FAA planes and helicopters. Shut off all the parts that aren't going to be shown to the public. The only reason such a ship would cost a fortune in electric while moored would I suspect be because of the high number of systems that all needed to be kept "alive", in case of future use. Surely a museum ship would attract far less of a bill on the leccy?

    @ Anon,
    "something as stupid for example, the refurb of old Pumas that will actually be more expensive than new Blackhawks"
    -- I strongly doubt that. You realise that the US is only able to purchase additional helicopters at such a cheap price because essentially all it needs is the airframe and the kit needed to fly it?

    They don't need spares, because they have a mountain of them. No need for more engines, got plenty of those too. They have all the training pipelines set up, supply chains set up, all the expenses that the UK would have to invest in to bring Blackhawk here.

    The Blackhawk fallacy just never seems to die, despite the fact that it's been picked apart all across the web for about 3 years now.

    1. I based that price on the Global Security website

      I consider it to be well informed, but I'll accept the price could be a lot higher. The quoted cost of the Puma refrub is nearly £8 million each, according to the Eurocopter press release


      Now I do support British industry supplying our forces, no question of that. However I cannot understand how we have ended up with so many expensive failures, yet no one has taken any of the responsibility.

      SA80 is a prime example - it has a very similar history to the sten An initially poorly constructed weapon using mass production techniques, that later developed into an effective weapon.

      The sten gun was developed in an emergency wartime situation and can be forgiven it's limitations. The SA80 took years and millions of pounds to develop in peace time yet was a poor rifle - at least in the original form.

      There really is no excuse for it.

    2. Anon,

      Sorry, forgot about this.

      Blackhawk would cost far more than £8 million each. They're expensive bits of kit, and once you count all the spares, simulators, initial training etc it would result in a total program cost for a similar number of aicraft far in excess of what we've paid for Puma, for a very similar capability.

    3. Consider that even the US is buying UH-60's for $21.3m in 2012 (and that's without all the additional fixed costs of buying a new type with new supplies, training etc, and the lack of tax revenues from buying foreign) :

  10. If we really want to spend money on a mueseum ship at the moment Plymouth or Caroline are the two that need it and deserve it. I love lusty, my dad served on her. But these two served the defining wars of there times. Jutland and the Falklands.

  11. I'm not sure I'd be in favour of a "straight" museum ship, certainly not one with lots of aircraft on it to further increase costs. As has been mentioned, the economics are tenuous as it is. Simply being a museum isn't enough - I'd rather have a living ship being used for something else than a dead hulk. You want to go down the route of using it as a venue - a nightclub in the hangar, bungee-jumping off the skijump, go-karting on the deck, whatever.

    Sir H asks what happens if the company goes bust? I'm sure you could structure a deal so that the MoD retains some kind of "golden share" so that the MoD have a say in the event of someone wanting to sell it to China as a "casino".

    As for location, the obvious place would be somewhere that used to be a big-ship port which no longer has much traffic - Liverpool, the Tyne, Bristol, Greenwich???