WARSHIPS IFR Editor Iain Ballantyne recalls a visit to Ark Royal during a dramatic mid-1990s deployment to the Adriatic in which she suffered one of her Sea Harriers shot down. He feels that, even nearly two decades on, the exploits of the British fleet’s Invincible Class ships off the war-torn Balkans demonstrate an understanding of carrier power the Cameron coalition fatally lacks. He also ponders the lessons of Britain’s failed attempt to deploy a makeshift assault carrier to the Adriatic in the 1990s, which resulted in HMS Ocean, a ship that was nearly axed from the Royal Navy in late 2010.

Ark Royal during a RAS with the fleet oiler RFA Olwen in the Adriatic, spring 1994

Ark Royal during a RAS with the fleet oiler RFA Olwen in the Adriatic, spring 1994. Photo: Iain Ballantyne.

Fully armed Sea Harriers waiting to launch from Ark Royal for missions over the Balkans

Fully armed Sea Harriers waiting to launch from Ark Royal for missions over the Balkans. Photo: Iain Ballantyne.

Bosnia burned as Ark Royal loitered off the Balkans, taking her turn in providing the ultimate fail-safe for British UN soldiers on a difficult mission to keep the peace between the warring factions ashore. Should the troops be attacked and find themselves in need of Combat Air Support (CAS), she was ready with her strike jets, and if the call came for a speedy withdrawal from the conflict her helicopters would assist with the rescue.

When a SAM downed a Sea Harrier from Ark Royal over Gorazde in spring 1994, during fierce fighting between Serbs and Bosnian Muslim forces, there was a real sense of shock and astonishment. No British naval jet had been lost in combat since the Falklands War, more than a decade earlier. Previously media interest in the Royal Navy’s carriers off the Balkans - Ark Royal shared the role with Invincible - was at a low ebb, but when Lieutenant Nick Richardson’s Sea Harrier went down in flames, during a brave low-level bombing run against a Serb tank, suddenly everybody wanted to be aboard the British naval flagship in the Adriatic.

Fortunately I was already on my way there, and so - despite pressure from the national press to have a lowly regional newspaper defence reporter chucked off the media team visiting Ark Royal - I helicoptered aboard as preparations were being made to pluck Lt Richardson from the battlefield.

Having managed to eject and scramble to Bosnian Muslim positions, the intrepid Fleet Air Arm pilot was now in the temporary safe keeping of an SAS team. Soon we saw Lt Richardson returned to the Ark, welcomed with great joy by his fellow aviators and sailors of the carrier.

Back in the early 1990s the UK’s government still regarded the Royal Navy as the first line of defence, understanding that the ability to deploy a Carrier Strike Group (CSG) to the Adriatic was a powerful gesture of commitment to stopping the slaughter ashore from getting any worse.

Lt Richardson’s adventure and the loss of a Sea Harrier was evidence that the Royal Navy’s mission was one in which there might be risks. It also showed that the Sea Harrier’s ground attack capability was limited and that perhaps it might be an idea to send the more capable, and ground attack configured RAF Harrier to sea, too (something that happened before the end of the 1990s).

The effect of the British, and other nations’, naval presence off the Balkans was not always immediately apparent. Aside from providing a backstop for UK ground forces, the idea was to deprive the Serbs, and other factions, of the fuel and arms they needed for their respective ethnic cleansing campaigns. How much worse would it all have been without the presence of Ark Royal and other British and allied warships, such as Invincible (which I also visited in the Adriatic) exerting pressure off the Balkans?

It must be remembered that this was an era, in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War ending, and the Allied campaign to eject Iraqi troops from Kuwait, when even the loss of a single British soldier posed considerable political risk for the government. The UK was not accustomed as it is today, to seeing its young servicemen and women regularly coming home in coffins. Nobody wanted to get bogged down in a shooting war in the Balkans that might cost hundreds of British lives to no appreciable impact on the end result, which would anyway have to be a negotiated settlement.

Initially, in late 1992, the Tory government of the day tried to backup British UN forces by deploying a squadron of Sea King Mk4 helicopters to Split in Croatia. Then, in early 1993, it deployed a naval task group led by the Ark Royal, plus the RFA Argus aviation training ship standing in as an assault carrier, with commandos and light artillery embarked. To transport the troops and their guns ashore, if needed to reinforce British UN forces ashore, Sea King Mk4s were embarked aboard the Ark alongside her Sea Harriers. The fact that accommodation in Argus was makeshift and that the ship was not designed for the role made her far from ideal, the ludicrous situation of the vessel being pulled from stand-by off the coast of Croatia due to blocked toilets illustrating the need for a new assault carrier.

The squalid conditions, and the appalling smell, aboard were something else I experienced first-hand during a visit to UK naval forces in the Adriatic. The commandos were furious at what they were being forced to endure. The requirement for a ‘proper’ Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH) had been there since the mid-1980s when the last such vessel, Bulwark, had been retired from service.

The new assault carrier would be HMS Ocean, which entered service in 1999, but which in 2010 was under threat of being mothballed and possibly sold to a foreign fleet as part of the coalition’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). In the end it was decided to keep Ocean in service and decommission the last surviving Invincible Class carrier – HMS Illustrious – by 2014.

The fact that John Major’s administration was prepared to deploy carrier task groups to the Adriatic from 1993 until 1995 showed a much more thorough grasp of Ark Royal’s worth as a power projection ship than today’s coalition. Ark’s jets were risked in harm’s way for some effect.

It was therefore strange to hear Prime Minister Cameron declare the Ark and her sister ship Illustrious despite ample operational evidence, were of limited use when he set out the logic of the SDSR. For arguably, among the greatest hours of the Invincible Class carriers were surely post Cold War operations? Their ability to project power was enhanced by repeated refits, to enable them to embark both Sea Harrier fighters and RAF ground-attack Harriers, as well as provide a more effective amphibious assault platform.

From Invincible’s launching of Sea Harriers on Combat Air Patrol over southern Iraq, which I also witnessed in the late 1990s, to the Ark’s final moment of combat glory sending ashore Royal Marines to kick down the door into Iraq for the coalition invasion in 2003, surely their continuing relevance has been obvious? Not to David Cameron and whoever advised him to immediately get rid of the Ark Royal and her Harriers. It is an error of epic proportions and shows a sea blindness in political circles that is deeply disturbing.

Sea Harrier is parked forward on the Ark’s flight-deck

April 1994: After landing a Sea Harrier is parked forward on the Ark’s flight-deck. Photo: Iain Ballantyne.

  • For more commentaries and news analysis SUBSCRIBE to WARSHIPS IFR today!