Aircraft carriers of the Royal Australian Navy

Aircraft carriers of the Royal Australian Navy

The Royal Australian Navy, while significant in the Asia-Pacific region, has never been a major global force. As with many smaller navies after World War II, the RAN made a decision to develop a naval air arm and operate aircraft carriers. Due to the expense of naval aviation and Australia's changing defence priorities the RAN's last carrier was retired in 1982.

Pre-World War II

The navy's experience with aircraft at sea actually began prior to the Second World War, with the commissioning of the seaplane carrier, HMAS "Albatross". "Albatross" was commissioned in 1929 and served for four years in the RAN before being paid off into the reserve in 1933. During her time in service she followed the normal uneventful pattern of the peacetime naval vessel of the 1930s on the Australia Station – winter cruises to New Guinea, New Britain, and surrounding islands, spring cruises to the southern states, exercises, training and long periods in Sydney Harbour. Her complement of Supermarine Seagull amphibians were crewed and maintained by personnel of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). She was eventually transferred to the Royal Navy in 1938 as part payment for the cruiser HMAS "Hobart". [cite web |url=|title=HMAS "Albatross" (I) |accessdate=2008-09-05 |work=HMA Ship Histories |publisher=Sea Power Centre - Australia ]

World War II

While the Royal Australian Navy did not operate any aircraft carriers during World War II, each of the RAN's heavy and light cruisers was equipped with a single seaplane operated by No. 9 Squadron RAAF. Due to the Allied air dominance of the areas in which the cruisers operated, the surviving Australian cruisers had their seaplane catapults removed in 1944 and No. 9 Squadron was disbanded at the end of the year. [Wilson (2003). Page 227.]

During late 1944 and 1945, the British Pacific Fleet was based in Australia. In order to support the Fleet's aircraft carriers, the Australian government constructed a number of airfields and other facilities to support naval aviation. Many of these facilities (including HMAS "Albatross", the RAN's main air station) were later used to support Australia's post-war carriers.

In mid-1944 the Australian Naval Board considered the acquisition of carriers for the RAN and in February 1945 the Royal Navy offered to transfer the light fleet carrier HMS "Ocean" to Australia. [Wright (1998). Pages 55-109.] This offer was turned down by the Australian Government, however, as the RAN was not able to man the ship at the time and the cost of the carrier would have been deducted from the payments Britain was making to Australia for its assistance in supporting the British Pacific Fleet. [Wilson (2003). Pages 234-235.]

Post-World War II

World War II saw a number of squadrons of the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm being crewed exclusively by Australians.Fact|date=December 2007 Their experience led the Australian government to make the decision to form an air arm for the RAN. At the same time, a review by the Australian Government's Defence Committee held after World War II recommended that the post-war forces of the RAN be structured around a Task Force incorporating three aircraft carriers. [Donohue (1996). Page 33.] Initial plans were for three carriers, with two active and a third in reserve, although this was reduced to two following funding cuts: the British light fleet carriers "Majestic" and "Terrible" of the "Majestic" class were purchased in June 1947 for the combined cost of AU£2.75 million, plus stores, fuel, and ammunition. [Donohue (1996). Pages 38, 45-47] As "Terrible" was the closer of the two ships to completion, construction was finished without modification, and she was commissioned into the RAN on December 16 1948 as HMAS "Sydney".Hobbs (2007). p. 5.]

"Sydney", with an air wing of Hawker Sea Fury and Fairey Firefly aircraft, served as the flagship of the fleet for seven years, and participated in the Korean War. Work progressed on "Majestic" at a slower rate, as she was to be upgraded with the latest technology and equipment to allow the operation of jet aircraft, including an angled flight deck, steam catapult, and landing signal lights.Donohue (1996). Page 94] Hobbs (2007). p. 6.] The delays in finishing "Majestic" led the Royal Navy to loan "Colossus" class carrier HMS "Vengeance" was to the RAN from 13 November 1952 until 12 August 1955 to cover "Majestic"’s absence. [cite web |url= |title=HMAS "Vengeance" |accessdate=2008-09-05 |date= |work=HMA Ship Histories |publisher=Sea Power Centre - Australia] In 1954, further funding cuts saw the two-carrier navy reduced to a single operational aircraft carrier, with the second re-roled as a transport and training ship.

"Majestic" was completed in 1955, and she was commissioned into the RAN as HMAS "Melbourne" on 28 October 1955.Hall (1982). pp. 72-73.] At that time, "Sydney", which remained unmodified and thus incapable of supporting jet operations, was reclassified as the training carrier, before decommissioning into reserve in 1958. At the time of commissioning, "Melbourne"’s air wing included Sea Venoms and Gannets, but was upgraded in the late 1960s and early 1970s to consist of A-4 Skyhawks, S-2 Trackers, and Westland Sea Kings.Bishop & Chant (2004). p. 62.] The carriers' only involvement in the Vietnam War was in non-combat roles: "Sydney" was recommissioned as a fast troop transport and made 23 voyages to Vietnam, with "Melbourne" escorting her on four occasions. [Gillett (1980). pp. 47, 51.]

"Sydney" was again decommissioned in 1973 and sold for scrapping, while "Melbourne" continued in her operational role. In 1981, she was scheduled for a long refit.ANAM (1998). p. 251.] However, a decision was taken by the government during this refit to replace her with a new carrier. After considering a modified American "Iwo Jima" class amphibious assault ship, an Italian "Giuseppe Garibaldi" class carrier, and a Sea Control Ship design that later became the Spanish Navy's "Principe de Asturias", the RAN accepted an offer from the Royal Navy to purchase HMS "Invincible".Stevens et al., p. 226.] Stevens et al. (2001) p. 227.] The carrier would have been renamed HMAS "Australia" and handed over to the RAN in late 1982, but the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina, and the subsequent deployment of "Invincible" as part of the British task force, led to the cancellation of the sale, as the British defence report that had marked "Invincible" as surplus to requirements was shown to be flawed. The older and larger HMS "Hermes" was offered instead, but the decision was declined due to manpower and operating costs. [Stevens et al. (2001). p. 228.] The 1983 election in Australia, which saw a change of government, led to the cancellation of plans to replace "Melbourne".Wright (1978). p. 173.] The carrier was sold to China for scrap in 1985, although the People's Liberation Army Navy used "Melbourne" to develop plans for her own aircraft carrier and to train pilots in carrier operations. [cite journal |last=Storey |first=Ian |coauthors=Ji, You |year=2004 |month=Winter |title=China's aircraft carrier ambitions: seeking truth from rumours |journal=Naval War College Review |volume=57 |issue=1 |pages=77–93 |id=ISSN|0028-1484 |url= |accessdate= 2007-11-13 ]

After "Melbourne" was decommissioned, the Fleet Air Arm was restricted to helicopters operating from frigates and support ships. The RAN's aviation capabilities were boosted in the late 1990s with the commissioning of the two "Kanimbla" class LPAs, each of which are capable of operating four S-70 Blackhawk or three Sea King helicopters. While the LPAs are primarily amphibious transports, their large helicopter capacity means that they could be used as anti-submarine helicopter cruisers, along similar lines to the French helicopter cruiser "Jeanne d'Arc". The LPAs have operated in this role during exercises. [cite web |url= |title=816 Sqn - HMAS Kanimbla 2004 |accessdate=2008-09-05 |author=Sub Lieutenant Matt Gilks |year=2005 |work=Navy Annual 2005 |publisher=Royal Australian Navy] The "Adelaide" and "Anzac" frigate classes are capable of carrying and operating helicopters, as are several classes of support ship utilised by the RAN.

The future

Up to the present, the Australian government has not shown serious commitment to regaining fixed wing flight capabilities for the RAN. However, a major project to re-equip the navy will see a pair of "Canberra" class ships constructed. These ships are planned to be utilised in the amphibious assault, command, transport and air support roles. Two designs were chosen to compete for this - the French "Mistral" class and the Spanish Buque de Proyección Estratégica. Both of these are fitted with a full length flight deck and island superstructure, giving them the appearance of small aircraft carriers, although the Spanish variant of this design, which has an integral ski jump for STOVL aircraft, will actually operate fixed wing aircraft in a light carrier role for the Spanish Armada. In 2007, the Spanish design was chosen by the Australian government as the basis of the "Canberra" class. The RAN initially rejected proposals to purchase F-35B Lightning STOVL aircraft in addition to its order of conventional F-35A's and planned to only operate Army and Navy helicopters from these ships, [Borgu (2004). Page 11.] [cite news |first=Nicholas |last=Stuart |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Navy hopes fly, but aircraft carrier still off radar |url= |work=Opinion |publisher=The Canberra Times |date=28 August 2007 |accessdate=2007-12-17] although in March 2008 the RAN was reported to have requested that the government purchase a third "Canberra" class ship to utilize for fixed wing operations and VTOL aircraft. The government was reported to be unlikely to approve this request, however. [cite news |first=Ian |last=McPhedran |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Royal Australian Navy's wish list of $4b |url=,21985,23426308-662,00.html |work= |publisher=Herald Sun |date=2008-03-25 |accessdate=2008-03-26] The two ordered ships, to be named "Canberra" and "Adelaide", are due to enter service in approximately 2012 and 2015 respectively.

Comparative statistics



* | oclc = 36817771
*cite book |last=Wright |first=Anthony |title=Australian Carrier Decisions: the acquisition of HMA Ships Albatross, Sydney and Melbourne |origyear=1978 |edition= |series=Papers in Australian Maritime Affairs (No. 4) |year=1998 |month=June |publisher=Sea Power Centre |location=Canberra |isbn=0-642-29503-4 |id=ISSN|1327-5658

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