A Taste of the Future

Elements of 656 Squadron Army Air Corps have recently embarked on HMS Ark Royal to take part in the latest Exercise Joint Warrior.

[browser-shot width=”600″ url=”https://www.gov.uk/government/news/army-helicopters-embark-on-royal-navy-flagship-for-exercise”]

This will see 3 Apache attack helicopters operating aboard including their supporting personnel including 120 engineers and maintainers. As well as it being a relatively new experience for the three aircraft and ten pilots, there is also a support crew of 120 engineers and maintainers from 4 Regiment Army Air Corps onboard the Portsmouth-based aircraft carrier.

Apache Helicopter Operations on HMS Ark Royal
Apache Helicopter Operations on HMS Ark Royal
Apache Helicopter Operations on HMS Ark Royal
Apache Helicopter Operations on HMS Ark Royal

What struck me about this, although perhaps nothing unusual in itself, was the fact that a number of complex land based aircraft can be bought aboard and operated in an almost self contained manner.

What does this say for the FAA and RAF operating the F35B on CVF?

Could we operate the F35B in the same way, the RAF fully owning them and moving aboard en-masse with all their associated support and operations crew?

If so, it makes the cost of operating the CVF/F35 combination look a little more palatable.

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Richard Stockley
Richard Stockley
October 3, 2010 10:23 pm

To toy with the possible expansion of capability, I’m sure the Greek Air Force has already experimented with Apache’s on ships in a maritime role.

Could the Longbow radar be intefaced with Sea Skua? Could any radar or weapons techs out there answer that one?

October 3, 2010 11:36 pm

The capability to augment the FAA has always been there whether with RAF Harriers during the Falklands or more recently the RAF elements of JFH, Chinooks and Apache.

But is it not one thing to deploy the RAF or AAC for a short training cruise round the North Sea or operational in a shooting war, and quite another to regularly deploy them on routine six month tours?

Once the novelty of being at sea wears off (probably pretty quick), would the Army and RAF be able to hold onto their personnel if this became routine? After all, if they had wanted to spend life aboard a ship, they’d have joined the Navy in the first place!

Furthermore you just have to look at how infrequently the Army and RAF have made it aboard and the consequently quiet flight decks of Ark Royal and Illustrious over the past 10 years to see that tranferring FAA duties to the other services is not in the naval interest.

October 3, 2010 11:39 pm

The UK Apaches always had a maritime deployment “angle” wedded into their original requirement, hadn’t they?

The difference with RAF and RN Air is of course that the latter can count on shipboard support. So the weather office, comms, cooks, admin, but also security and logistics could be shared with ships/naval task force personnel, and as such naval air sqns (NAS) could be “light”.
The RAF and army aviation sqns usually bring their own cooks and log staff.

Are they interchangeable? To a certain extent very much so. But TTPs differ and sqn roles (not to mention service tradition) also make each a unique entity. So much so that you can’t just plug-in and army/RAF unit aboard a CVF. One of the reasons the navy has its own helicopters and squadron personnel.

On Sea Skua, it uses a different databus and is overall a different fish compared to Hellfire.
However, Brimstone – which is essentially a more modern Hellfire – is able to hit (small) boats as well, and Sea Skua could be replaced by Brimstone as an interservice ATGW/ASM missile.

Or so I’m told.

October 4, 2010 12:06 am

Two remarks :
First, some contributors are playing to the canceled sea apache project
Second, at variance with a LHD, a CVF without plane is nothing …

Richard W
Richard W
October 4, 2010 9:14 am

What struck me was that is apparently takes 120 engineers to service a few sorties by three air craft. No wonder the defence budget is where it is with a ratio of 40 engineers per aircraft.

Tony Williams
Tony Williams
October 4, 2010 9:32 am

I recall reading that there are various issues with operating aircraft designed for land use aboard carriers (although they obviously wouldn’t apply to the F-35B). One example which sticks in the mind is that they may suffer far more from corrosion (all that salty air).

Richard Stockley
Richard Stockley
October 4, 2010 9:38 am

Sea Apache, interesting concept though….


Richard Stockley
Richard Stockley
October 4, 2010 9:46 am

Tony, Salt water corrosion is an inherent problem with aircraft built of Magnesium and Aluminium (or should that be Aluminum to US citizens?).

It can be reduced by regular washing with fresh water and increased inspections, although they will suffer in the long term. For long term deployments modifications should be considered like additional drain holes in the airframe and applying marine paint schemes.

October 4, 2010 11:13 am

Hmmm, I’d always thought running the Apaches off a ship was the plan, thats why I banged on about it so often, even going to far as suggesting C2 container ships have “modules” for an Apache/Staff.
It does make SeaWildCatLynx look a bit pants really doesnt it?

Presumably even a Capital Ship is going to be “put out” is hit by 16 Hellfire/Brimstone missiles isnt it? It might not sink, but I cant imagine it would be in any shape to do much for a while.

Should the Carriers “do” long deployments at sea that arent part of a shooting war?
T23 has to keep sailing the North Sea so needs aircrew who are happy with that.
But I think its reasonable to argue the Carriers should be in port, on training or at war.
They arent patrol vessels.

Richard W
From Marcases post, it sounds like that 120 includes the company cook and the regimental dog.
These dont have to be RAF/AAC personel.

We tend to discuss a single jet RAF a lot.
If we can find someone who wants some more Typhoons, cough Saudi cough (well they’re buying more F15’s) could operate just F35B (or C)?

paul g
October 4, 2010 11:58 am

been doing this for ages for at least 3 years, 9 regt AAC were the first. Also pre apache REME aircraft/avionics techs have gone to sea with aircraft for long periods, up to ’96 847 NAS was stuffed full of army. It reverted back to navy then, however regular stints aboard ocean happen, in fact although going back a few years, it was an army det that went all the way to hong kong as rotary support for the handover. This i know as we kept getting postcards for the crewrooom at wallop!

October 4, 2010 2:45 pm

DominicJ asked “Should the Carriers “do” long deployments at sea that arent part of a shooting war?”

Of course, what is the point of having them otherwise ? You can’t leave them in port until someone pisses you off, its called “training” !

Or put it this way, they are ‘conventional deterrent’ – the big stick the UK government can wave at people, so they need to out there, in fact they need to rely on their modern technology to have a much greater at sea versus in port ratio than any of their predecessors.

Richard W – I had the same WTF? moment at that – 40 maintainers per airframe ! But its probably the AAC taking the advantage of getting people to sea, so I suspect (or hope) that all those maintainers are at least doubled up, just to get the “experience”.

October 4, 2010 4:09 pm

I did expand on the point a little bit

“But I think its reasonable to argue the Carriers should be in port, on training or at war.
They arent patrol vessels.”

The USN has eleven Carriers, when it wants to do a bit of willy waving it can move a CBG around the world.
We might have as many as two carriers, its just not an option available to us except in fairly dire circumstances.
Should they sail over to Oz, say hello and sail back?
Even if they do, we could fly out a new crew, do a crew swap and fly the old one back.

October 4, 2010 7:07 pm

Well since RAF Harrier Gr9’s recently prooved the very same thing as part of exercise Auriga. It would make more sence to have the RAF operate the F35’s from the RN’s carriers… would lessen the bite of the cost a fair bit!

October 4, 2010 7:39 pm

People don’t join the RAF to go to sea. The air group is the ship’s main battery. To be effective they need to be of the ship and highly practised in the operation of the aircraft from a deck. Navy pilots can do the work of airforce pilots but not the other way round. Even the Yanks know this, by US law only aviators can command carriers.

140 bodies to support 3 airframes? The crew of T23 is only about 170. I bet after a week on the lumpy ogin a good number of those 140 (most of whom will have spent their time onboard sealed up without sight of sky or fresh air) won’t be volunteering for sea service again. (I bet it took most of them a week to get used to the MBS. “What did he say again?”)

When these discussion take place always seems to be the Navy giving up something. The Navy needs to give up its aircraft. The Navy needs to give up the Marines. Are the other two services that insecure in what they do? Yet if there is talk of scrapping the RAF it is petty and nonsensical. And the Army need to be reminded that we are surrounded by the sea. Though I have met officers who think they can walk on water and RSMs who can actually walk on water the Army should remember who secures their passage to war…..

October 4, 2010 9:17 pm

Ref: I bet it took most of them a week to get used to the MBS. “What did he say again?

LOL and even ROFL…. I was one of those juveniles who always thought it was funny to ring the bridge when a new Junior Sailor was on watch, to ask them to make “joke” pipes over the main broadcast”

“D’ya hear there, Seaman Staines, laundry” or “Return all squash rackets to the PEI, and balls to the Master at Arms” :-)

Of course the Yanks always win even when not trying to be funny, honestly once heard on the USS La Salle: “Now hear this, after elevator operator, operate your elevator” no, seriously……

October 4, 2010 10:06 pm

An Army General spent a long time in recent years looking hard at whether embarked aviation could be done without Naval specialist aviators. He was a non-aviator and had no axe to grind. It even received some coverage:

The outcome was interesting, but not hugely palatable to the CDS at the time (draw your own conclusions). As such, he was given further detailed ‘Direction’ not once, but three times, and each time re-submitted his report with the same recommendation.

I could rehearse all the old arguments, in the same way as we all could about each of our environments. I don’t think we will ever run out of sea, or for that matter air or land any time soon; as such, I don’t understand the whole ‘we should fly them, no WE should fly them’ conversation and never have. It is JUST DIFFERENT. Not harder, not better, just different.
The only financial factor (at the moment) is that Naval Aviators have tougher harmony rules and fly the same aircraft with fewer engineers per airframe….. For good reasons, which probably don’t apply in other environments. Frankly, a really boring discussion which, like the totemic nature of the Carrier debate itself (which seems to be the only factor in the entire SDSR that the Press can remember and therefore discuss) has lost all linkage with the sums of money involved, or why there are still three thousand horses in the Army. (ARGGG! Darn It! I was doing so well but I just can’t resist……!)

Lord Jim
Lord Jim
October 4, 2010 10:08 pm

I think after 2015 we should buy 8-12 AH-1Z Sea Cobras of the shelf for a FAA/RM support squadron, providing them with a platform designed for shipborne use.

Richard Stockley
Richard Stockley
October 4, 2010 11:09 pm

Lord Jim,

I agree, just to upset the ‘commonality’ brigade. Could we have some Mi-24 Hinds for the AAC as well?

October 5, 2010 8:24 am

“People don’t join the RAF to go to sea. The air group is the ship’s main battery. To be effective they need to be of the ship and highly practised in the operation of the aircraft from a deck”

I think thats less of an arguement with VSTOL aircraft, but the point remains, you can practice Carrier Air Operations in the worst weather imaginable by spending a week on a carrier.

At the end of the day, we might have two carriers if we are lucky, over a year, that gives 24 carrier months
If they each require 4 months refit a year, we have 16 Carrier Months available.
If we want a carrer on R2D2 at all times, thats another 12 carrier months gone, leaving only 4, so at most, the aircrew would spend 4 months on Ship away from home, but in reality, that would be split between both ships, so 2 months.

If the RAF pilots cant hack that, well, resign, train new pilots who dont mind 60 days at sea plus a few other mini voyages.

October 5, 2010 1:57 pm

@ DominicJ

I think you are underestimating what it takes to take a ship to sea. I know you know what I am going to say now but I think it bares saying again. The captain doesn’t turn up on a Monday, start the engines, and sets off. Aircraft squadrons, even RAF ones, have to work up. And bringing ship and aircraft is far from straightforward. With working up, FOST, the deployment itself, and the business of “winding up” the deployment you are looking at period not far off 2 years. That is a big chunk out of junior rating/airman’s time in uniform if (s)he is in for 3years. And for those in for a longer time that carrier experience once earned can’t be lost. So if “we” move to the RAF operating the carrier squadrons the majority of the personnel will spend their whole service career at sea; they might as well have joined the RN. A warship (at sea) isn’t a factory you can’t sub-contract major systems. The aircraft are the ship’s main battery; the ship is more than a floating airfield; the ship has to be fought.

Though I have several books on the FAA I think the best for conveying life in the flying navy is Ward’s “Sea Harrier over the Falklands.” Having RAF Harrier squadrons working off carriers has been successful, but its far from the optimum. It wasn’t hold squadrons and those RAF personnel knew they would be returning to the RAF main stream. It was a novelty.

Even if you put aside the intangible aspects such as culture the life aboard a ship is significantly different to that “enjoyed” by the majority of RAF in their barracks and married quarters. From what I can tell, and I admit it is only anecdotal, some more senior airmen were a bit unhappy with their conditions early on in A-stan. Yes in a ship you have showers, hot meals, etc. etc. but it is a very enclosed life. As those in Service say “It is life in the blue suit and if you can’t take a joke you shouldn’t have joined.”

Perhaps my view point is different as I have spent time around the Navy. I have shared a wet on flight deck with MEMs, ate my meals with WOs, and passed the port in the wardroom at Trafalgar dinners. But I have observed the culture as close quarters and I have done a substantial reading on RN social history. I am familiar with the Army way too. I am too detached from the RAF and all I see mostly is technicians in uniform with inherited traditions.

There are further questions. When the FAA was part of the RAF it suffered. Between that and the gunnery cabal the RN was at a distinct disadvantage when war came. I know I come across as anti-RAF, most of that is very tongue cheek, but I am very, very pro-air power. I want my country to have the best way. I would love for the RAF to have lots of tankers and Typhoons. And I would love the RN to have 3 CVFs with good strong air groups. But in theses times of serve financial constraints the latter is more important the former. It is cheaper and more flexible.

I think it is a bit naive also to expert the services to act differently to any other organisation in human history. Emphasis on the human. We are asking them alone to uphold standards that almost saintly. But how many of us haven’t worked in one department in a job and been envious of another department? Who here hasn’t pushed their own position because it is good for them, and not necessarily the collective good? Clautiwitz says armies are drawn from the people and therefore the armies reflect their peoples.

Let say RAF do get the RN fast air. Who decides how the ship is fought? Who takes the last call? The RAF CAG or the RN ship captain? The services are a lot more democratic than most civilians. The best leaders listen to their subordinates. But there is also disagreement. What if is there is a disagreement? Will the RAF use his informal contacts to apply or will he have formal access to a RAF higher power? In an RN carrier with an RN air group there is single clear chain of command. And yes in theory in joint operations there is the same, in theory. And if the RAF have to follow RN orders at sea, well the air group might as well be RN. If the RAF is at sea and under the command of admirals will there be a reduction in the numbers in the RAF command structure? And if the RAF has the jets why don’t they want the helicopters too? And the helicopters of the AAC? Letting the FAA have fast jets isn’t replicated technical effort. Letting the RAF have naval fast jets will mean a replication in command structure (do weed need more staff?)

October 5, 2010 2:49 pm

X – spot on ! Excellent comment.

For the majority of my time in the RN I was a “skimmer” however I ended my time in the FAA as I changed trades. There is a world of difference between Skimmers who man the carrier and the WAFUS of the squadrons, never mind introducing the RAF to the mix.

However to do my ‘training’ for my new trade I had to spend 6 months at RAF Cosford. As a ‘re-trader’ I was course leader and thus JNCO for a bunch of RAF trainees. Therefore I have been imbued in RAF culture too, and to this day I have Facebook buddies who are ex-Aiframe or Armourer trades.

Although I am sure the RAF groundcrew, and AAC squaddies may (or may not!) enjoy their little cruises, they are not sailors, they are not trained to fight the ship as X noted. They are not damage control and fire fighting trained as all sailors of any trade are.

So Dom, in some respects your just going to have to take our word for it if you can; “just” embarking RAF squadrons as standard practice does not work and cannot form the basis of a long term solution.

October 5, 2010 3:31 pm

Thanks Jed.

I can’t say that I am pro-RN entirely for logical reasons. True objectivity is hard, if ever, achieved.

If you know anything about the services you know that service people are not automatons. If anything they live life to the fullest in a way most civilian wage slaves don’t.

I hope I didn’t come across as too anti-RAF again. I can only speak as I find; I do think compared with the other two the RAF seems to be more of a job (for the lower ranks) than a way of life. I am sure your RAF friends were just as professional as your RN friends.

I would appreciate your thoughts on this.

October 5, 2010 4:08 pm

We still seem to be passing in the night as it were.

Frankly, that it takes 2 years for a carrier to leave port is bollocks, unless your counting the time it takes to breed a pilot. I’m sat looking at the RN deployment map as I write this.
If your telling me that a Carrier AND ITS Crew cant be based in Portsmouth, they must spend three years at sea cut off from human contact, I’m going to have to ask for some evidence.
If it takes the RN three years to plan a week long flight training cruise into the Atlantic the entire organistation needs to be shut down now and its heads court martialed and hung.

“From what I can tell, and I admit it is only anecdotal, some more senior airmen were a bit unhappy with their conditions early on in A-stan.”

I doubt the Army Staff who live in a nice Semi in Germany are thrilled either, deal with it.
When I applied to the RAF of the 20 or so in the room, 19 were wannabe fighter pilots, I liked the look of the Regiment and Accounting.
I doubt everyone of those 19 would go be regular accountants if there was a chance the would be deployed on a ship, some might.

“What if is there is a disagreement? Will the RAF use his informal contacts to apply or will he have formal access to a RAF higher power? ”
Any Campaign in which the Carriers are used will be ran out of Number 10 Downing Street not the Bridge of the Prince of Wales or QE2.

“And if the RAF has the jets why don’t they want the helicopters too?”
Because Helicopters are operational assets on operational vessels that are deployed for long periods of time doing their jobs.
Carriers are Harbour Queens or Vanity Projects unless at war.

“They are not damage control and fire fighting trained as all sailors of any trade are.”
So train them?

I’m not talking about taking an RAF wing that is trained to deploy nuclear weapons from Tornado, and giving them a bus ticket to Portsmouth and the keys to a new F35.
I dont get why this is seen as such a big deal, since its already the case through JFH, which as far as anyone outside the RN is concerned, is an airforce outfit.

We have people, on carriers, who fly aircraft.
I dont see why it would be impossible to call these people “Airforce” instead of “Fleet Air”.

I’m rambling.

October 5, 2010 4:11 pm

Well I am talking bollocks then.

October 5, 2010 9:27 pm

This blog posting over at Aviation Week has some interesting figures in it:


to quote: “Switzerland has a population of 7,733,000. If my arithmetic is correct that means the UDC wants 1 soldier for every 64 inhabitants. France has a population of 64,700,000 and an army of more or less 224,600 (not counting the gendarmerie). That makes one soldier for every 288 inhabitants, just to give you a comparison.”

So, by my rough calculations, UK figures would be:
6,1792,000 total population (a mid-2009 figure from statistic.gov.uk) and British Army as of Jan. 2009 was at: 101,910 (armedforces.co.uk) so thats: 1 soldier per 606 inhabitants !

Perhaps we should be more like the Swiss and go for “armed neutrality” in future……

October 7, 2010 10:59 pm


Comment from article in Daily Torygraph

“I am in love with my vacuum cleaner. He is called Henry. He cost less than £90 and he is the most efficient thing in my household. Not only does he clear my house of dirt, dust and dog hairs, he can also get rid of broken glass, wasps and small half-eaten mammals the cat brings in.

The point of my Henry is that he works. That’s all I really care about. I am a busy working mother with four children. I need appliances that do the job they are supposed to do. I don’t care if they are the most expensive, the most fancy, the most technologically advanced. I just want a vacuum to suck up dirt, all dirt, without giving so much as a hiccup.

This is what Henry does. The children have sat on him. The puppy has chewed virtually through his lead and yet on he goes, whirring round the rooms without ever giving up the ghost. In fact, if Henry wasn’t a household appliance, I’d marry him”.

It seems as i feared we are aboutto destroy the functioning navy to keep the carriers (See same newspaper).

October 10, 2010 11:24 am

Anyone noticed Beedall’s back?