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 http://www.maritimequest.com/warship_directory/great_britain/pages/aircraft_carriers/hms_ark_royal_r07.htm|
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.