During World War 2 (1939-1945), the aircraft carrier became the new symbol of power concerning high seas warfare. The United Kingdom joined other world powers - in particular the United States and Japan - in fielding a sizeable carrier force during the war and the ship type was largely responsible for early Japanese successes and the Allies' resounding triumphs during the Pacific Campaign. This war record officially put an end to the reign of the "big-gunned" capital ships in naval history. In the ensuing decades, the Royal Navy ultimately reduced its carrier force and lost much of its fixed-wing launch capabilities amidst budget constraints and a changing political landscape. The promising "CVA-01" initiative was to begin a new generation of British carriers in an effort to replace earlier, aging types that had been constructed even prior to the War. With two vessels planned, this initiative was ultimately scrapped in the 1966 Defence White Paper review.
In 1967, a new endeavor was put forth calling for a "command cruiser" vessel in the 12,500 ton displacement range. Instead of fixed-wing capabilities - which often required a large ship and proved expensive to construct and maintain - this vessel class would be used to support helicopter launching and retrieval (rotary-wing systems). As many as six "Sea King" Navy helicopters would be utilized simultaneously along a flight deck. The base design then increased in scope and a "through-deck" carrier arrangement was selected which increased displacement to 19,500 tons. The through-deck name helped to ensure that the design would go forward within the political sphere - "aircraft carrier" carrying with it the negative connotation of big and expensive. The greater displacement and dimensions would also allow provision for supporting the navalized form of the BAe "Harrier" Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) strike fighter (known as the "Sea Harrier"). The new ship class was named the Invincible-class and would constitute three vessels led by HMS Invincible and followed by HMS Illustrious and HMS Indomitable.
With HMS Invincible laid down during July of 1973, HMS Illustrious followed when ordered during May of 1976. The third of the class followed in December of 1978 and public pressure forced her to be renamed to HMS Ark Royal. The vessels were commissioned July 1980, July 1982 and November 1985 respectively and, despite their "command cruiser" categorization, these vessels were light aircraft carriers through-and-through.
The straight flight deck characterized the group with the lane set over the portside of the hull. At the bow was a ski jump lifting device installed to assist the fixed-wing VTOL Harrier jets during launching (this structure sat over the portside of the bow section). Helicopter launch areas were also positioned to this side as the island superstructure was arranged to starboard. Several elevators serviced the flight deck and hangar decks below. The complete crew complement numbered 685 with a further 366 serving in the air wing (as part of the Fleet Air Arm - FAA).
Because of the design nature of aircraft carriers in general, onboard armament beyond the air wing was largely defensive. Illustrious' long range reach was through a twin launcher firing the "Sea Dart" surface-to-air missile system. Twenty-two reloads were carried. Close-in defense was through 2 x 20mm Phalanx CIWS installations fore and aft. These were eventually replaced by the "Goalkeeper" system. A pair of single-barreled 20mm automatic cannons rounded out the defensive fit. Beyond the air wing and armament, Illustrious also carried a slew of defensive- and offensive-minded suites - air search radars, missile guidance radars, navigation/direction radars, a now sonar system, echo sounders and chaff launchers.
Illustrious' commissioning was on June 20th, 1982 which saw it appear operationally during the Falklands War with Argentina. This was not by sheer chance for the Illustrious was purposely hurried in its construction and trials to provide a relief vessel for Invincible during the conflict. She entered the active warzone with a complement of ten Sea Harrier aircraft and eleven Sea King helicopters. Nine of the helicopters were fitted with Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) kits while the remaining pair were for the Airborne Electronic Warfare (AEW) role (a typical peacetime air wing consisted of five Sea Harriers and ten helicopters).
Beyond the stated use of Sea Kings, Illustrious eventually fielded various medium-class helicopter types during her career. This has included the Boeing Ch-47 "Chinook" tandem-rotor transport, the Hughes AH-64 "Apache" attack helicopter, the AgustaWestland AW101 "Merlin" multi-role platform, and the AgustaWestland Lynx series. Before the end, she could field up to 22 Harrier strike fighters.
It was eventually decided to field a rotation of two aircraft carriers at any one time allowing the third to enter scheduled refits as needed. At one point, Invincible was considered for sale to Australia (as the HMAS Australia) but this process was cancelled due to the Falklands commitment. Illustrious was eventually brought up to a modernized standard that began with Ark Royal and Invincible followed.
Illustrious was then on station in the Middle East theater during "Operation Southern Watch" which attempted to curtail airborne actions by the government of Iraq, at odds with the West since its invasion of neighboring oil-rich Kuwait. The warship was then on station during the United Nations involvement in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Her next major commitment became Sierra Leone during 2000 and she followed this up with a refit period in 2002 - forcing her to miss all of the coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003. Her services were in play once more, this time in a humanitarian role, while retrieving British citizens from war-torn Lebanon in 2006.
All things changed for the vessel when the aging Harrier line (by this time improved "Harrier II" models) was eventually removed from her flight deck in 2010. From this point forward, the warship was used strictly as a conventional helicopter carrier until she was decommissioned on August 28th, 2014. It is intended that the vessel will be spared the scrapman's torch and set aside for preservation. Her successor is to become HMS Queen Elizabeth, the new generation of British carrier that includes HMS Prince of Wales. Commissioning of these vessels is scheduled around 2016.
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