How to Drive an Aircraft Carrier
In this, the first of several episodes on the maritime history of airpower, Dr Sam Willis meets three Royal Naval flag officers to discuss the complexities and challenges of commanding and operating aircraft carriers. Sam’s guests are Vice Admiral Jerry Kydd, the current Fleet Commander of the Royal Navy, who served as the very first commanding officer of the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, launched in 2014 and the largest and most powerful vessel ever constructed for the Royal Navy; Rear Admiral David Snelson, who served in the Royal Navy between 1969 to 2006 on both Ark Royal 4 and Ark Royal 5, and was the Commander Maritime
Forces and Task Group Commander for Royal Naval forces in the second Gulf War of 2003; and Rear Admiral Roy Clare who commanded HMS Invincible 25 years ago, seeing operations in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Arabian Sea and The Gulf, with Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force squadrons embarked. They discuss a commander’s responsibilities with regard to aviation and airspace; the thorny issues of logistics, and how to manage fuel, food and spare parts; the formidable challenges of engineering both in terms of air engineering and weapons engineering, including radars, radios and satellite comms; the challenge of commanding people, of training and handing on skills; and the issues of Task Group command – how does a carrier fit into a Task Group? Does the captain of a carrier also act as the Commander of a task Group?
These remarkable insights from the recent (and sometimes very recent) past help us understand the development and use of carriers and airpower from its inception in the first quarter of the twentieth century until today.
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From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.
Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, a very special episode for you today. You will notice that over the next few weeks there will be a number of episodes on aircraft carriers. We have one of our ‘Iconic Ships’ episodes coming up on the carrier Ark Royal (I should say now there have been five Ark Royals in the Royal Navy and the one that will feature as an ‘Iconic Ship’ is the carrier launched in 1937), and two episodes on American and Japanese naval history, focusing on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, and the American invasion of Guadalcanal in November 1942. With so much air power related history coming your way, I thought I would try to find out a little bit more about carriers themselves, and in particular, the formidable logistical challenges of operating and commanding them.
Now here at the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, we pride ourselves in bringing to you the very best people to talk about any particular subject. So to unpick the frankly, bewildering topic of aircraft carriers, today, we have no fewer than three Royal Naval flag officers to tell us about them: two retired and one very much still serving, and all with immense experience of the unique challenges posed by these largest military vessels afloat.
My guests are Rear Admiral Roy Clare, who commanded HMS Invincible 25 years ago: seeing operations in the Caribbean, Mediterranean Arabian Sea and the Gulf with Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force squadrons embarked. He later commanded Britannia Royal Naval College and served in NATO headquarters before retiring to become Director of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and then the Auckland War Memorial Museum in New Zealand. I also have onboard Rear Admiral David Snelson, who served in the Royal Navy between 1969 and 2006 on both Ark Royal IV and Ark Royal V, in 2001 bringing the ship back into operational service after a major refit. And two years later, he became the Command and Maritime Forces and Task Group commander for the Royal Naval Forces in the second Gulf War in 2003. Last, but by no means least, we have Vice Admiral Jerry Kydd, now the Royal Navy’s Fleet Commander, and who served as the very first commanding officer of the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth launched in 2014, and the largest and most powerful vessel ever constructed for the Royal Navy. They all brought different areas of expertise to this fascinating question. I hope you enjoy listening to them as much as I enjoyed talking to them. Many thanks indeed for listening.
David, I think we should start by addressing aircraft. Let’s start by talking airspace and the commander’s responsibilities in relation to aviation.
Rear Admiral David Snelson
Yes, you had to have a three-dimensional awareness as the captain of a carrier. It wasn’t necessarily just airspace and aviation, of course, there might be something in a tactical situation going on, on the surface of the sea and under the sea as well. But in terms of flying, of course, you were flying fixed-wing aircraft in my day in the Invincible class in our royal Harriers, and rotary-wing aircraft, helicopters, (Merlin’s); and they had different requirements. I think the most demanding requirement was recovering, bringing fixed-wing aircraft back to the deck. And realising that in bad weather, they might need to make quite a long approach to be on the centreline of the runway. And so, if you were in a situation where you had to alter course, for shipping or because the wind had shifted, then you have to be conscious of the fact that the aircraft behind you, trying to line up with a deck, would suddenly be displaced if you altered course. So, that was an example of this awareness you needed as you manoeuvred the ship. You needed to know what was going on around you in the air. And for that, you relied, of course, on the air team in particular: information from the ops-room, information from commander air and his team in flight code, and that’s what makes driving a carrier somewhat different to a normal ship.
Fascinating stuff. Roy, do you have anything to add from your experiences there?
Rear Admiral Roy Clare
Well, I’d agree with David that that was always one of the priorities and areas that we focused on. I think particularly when something looked like it would go wrong. And there’s a kind of safe operating envelope for aviation in a carrier, and there’s the wider operational envelope. And if you had one of your aeroplanes whether fixed wing or rotary that needed, the safest possible, that sometimes overlaid what you would do with normal ops. And we certainly had examples of that in Invincible where we had a wind that was perfectly feasible for ordinary operations, but my goodness, you had to react quickly if somebody needed the ideal conditions, particularly if you had two or three of those at once. And we had on the operational deployments that I went on, we had up to twenty-six aircraft embarked: we had RAF and Royal Navy Harrier’s quite different kinds of Harrier, and three different kinds of helicopter. So, just being aware, as David has said, of that at all times, it was one of the many reasons why having a sea cabin, very close to the bridge was actually quite a useful, quite a useful device, being able to get there in what was I think, eleven steps.
Very handy, indeed. Jerry, what Roy was talking about the variety of aircraft there, I think that’s fascinating, is that a problem that you face today?
Vice Admiral Jerry Kydd
It is, and fundamentally flying aircraft from aircraft carriers is inherently dangerous. You know, obviously, the carrier is a moving airfield, it is at sea, and already you’re fighting the environment in so many ways because the weather can be very changeable. But also, you can’t call the fire brigade or any help, you know, you’re offshore and a long way from anywhere. So, the disciplined choreography that aircraft carrier air operations demands are testing. And that requires a whole bunch of professionals. And of course, as David points out, and Roy’s pointed out, we’re mixing fixed-wing aircraft with rotary aircraft and nothing’s changed. So, I moved from the CBS days, the Invincible class through to Queen Elizabeth class. And of course, the numbers of aircraft on that much larger deck have increased. So, it has increased the complexity of the air operations in itself. And also, the number of escorts we have around the Queen Elizabeth class has also increased. And also, now it’s the unmanned systems are starting to come in. And I think the next sort of nought to five years, we’re going to see a rapid increase in unmanned iosr vehicles, you know, carrying a radar airborne and also unmanned refuelling aircraft coming in. So, mixing unmanned and manned aircraft in the circuit around the aircraft carrier at sea will bring an extra different complexity and dynamic to it. So yes, you’re absolutely right, it is going to get more and more complex as we move forward.
It’s almost unimaginable that these things can get more complex, but there you go – unmanned fuelling aircraft!
Rear Admiral David Snelson
Sam, one more brief one, and I think that’s probably the extra frisson that’s brought about by what’s called non-diversion flying. And so, for most particularly fixed-wing operations, from a normal airfield on land, there was almost always another airfield somewhere that the aircraft could go to if your airfield had got a problem. And there were operations in a carrier when you were well away from land when you couldn’t have a diversion. And so, everybody knew the deck had got to be ready, or the aircraft perhaps if it ran out of fuel was going in the drink. And that brought that extra tension to flying. And when at the morning brief, it was announced, this is a non-diversion day, there was an extra tension around the whole team. And that does make a difference.
Fascinating stuff. We’re going to now turn to logistics, which I can only imagine is something of a nightmare thinking of fuel, food, spares, and how is that managed? Roy, you are going to lead us on this.
Rear Admiral Roy Clare
Well, it’s a neat segway from aviation in its way because one of the things that we were able to do in the CBS was to fly and do logistics at the same time. And David has already mentioned that if you’re a non-diversion day, and you’re doing logistics, and you might need ideal wind for one or other eventuality, that’s quite a complex arena, and certainly we had that on many occasions. Because with twelve hundred people in what was the CBS complement with the air wing, that’s quite a lot of food – with the jet flying and helicopter flying and the Olympus turbans in the CBS that’s quite a lot of fuel – and then, of course, the Naafi needed to stock up with all its stuff for everybody to buy – the nutty and the toothpaste. So, you can imagine this was a large-ish village of active, physically active, men and women who needed feeding a lot. So, the logistics plan was extraordinary.
But a couple of quick anecdotes that sort of illustrates the flexibility of the carrier in that arena. The first was a situation up well north of Scotland in very rough winter conditions. And we were at the centre of a task group doing operations. And we had a logistic issue, which was that first of all, we lost the use of one propeller shaft because of a lube oil issue, and so we were on one shaft, and in that design that was to Olympus, turbans to that shaft. But one of the Olympus then went down. So, imagine the carrier at sea, winter, North Atlantic, the centre of the operations really for that task group, and had we had to withdraw would have severely curtailed the operation. So, of course, we didn’t withdraw. And on one engine – on one shaft, you still need to think about logistics. And so, there’s a method of getting fuel, which is to bring the hose over the bow of the ship, often practised in escorts, less frequently so in the carrier, but it worked extremely well. And my goodness, yes, we had to go on flying while we were doing it. So, that certainly got a frisson going in the ops team, I can tell you. But it was a very nice example of redundancy and versatility, and of how logistics must go on whatever.
The other example I wanted to offer you is quite different. We were in the Caribbean (I know it was a tough gig, but somebody had to do it), and we were summoned by fleet headquarters to get ourselves to the Mediterranean as quickly as we could. This was in the period of Saddam Hussein, and we were due possibly to go through Suez and onto the Gulf. So, we got ourselves from Barbados to the Gibraltar straits to rendezvous with Illustrious to do a stores transfer (see there’s the logistics again), but we had to do it in order to match the fleet requirement at an average speed of 29 and a half knots, we did actually manage to do that. But if you do the math on the fuel consumption, we had to pre-position a Royal Fleet Auxiliary halfway across the Atlantic. Fortunately, she was able to get there just in time for us. And we did 30 knots to her – pretty much drive fuel – and 30 knots the rest of the way. And here’s the remarkable thing. Both shafts and all four Olympus kept going throughout. We had no damage even though it was quite sprightly weather (if you’ve never surfed down sea in a carrier, you haven’t really tried) and logistics were the driver of the whole of that. And fleet headquarters did say thank you, but actually, they just expected it to happen and of course, it did. So, the RFA is pivotal and thinking always about the fuel and all the intake, my goodness, and the complexity of aviation. It’s what every ship since Cook and Nelson and all that they’ve all fretted about logistics, but put the carrier aviation on top, and I think even Cook and Nelson might have had to think twice about some of it.
There’s lots of examples of people like Cook and Nelson making rudders out of spars and bits of plank. And you saying that your propeller shaft had gone down. I mean, I’m assuming you don’t have spare propellers. You can’t do anything about that spare propeller shaft. So, your spares only go up to a certain size, I presume? How does that work?
Rear Admiral Roy Clare
I think it’s a really good question. I’m sure that if we’d asked the engineers to make a new propeller they’d have had to go. But it wasn’t actually that kind of problem. Where the shaft line went into the gearbox, there was a lubrication oil issue, which required a particular pump, and we had a spare pump. But I think everybody who runs any kind of machinery knows your spare doesn’t always work. And so, we needed a spare for the spare. And that was what caused that issue. And had we had gone back to harbour it could have been fixed in five minutes. As it was it took a little longer, but we didn’t damage the operation while we were waiting for it.
It’s very, very concerning when something significant, or minor actually, turns out to be incredibly, incredibly important. David, any thoughts on logistics?
Rear Admiral David Snelson
I think it’s – I’d endorse everything that Roy has said and think again, it’s an example of the sort of three-dimensional thinking that you needed in command of an aircraft carrier. You had to have, you know, where is the tanker? Is it with me? Or is it some miles away doing something else? What is the state of the tanker – has it actually got enough fuel onboard? Where’s the next store ship? Will I actually need some more ammunition from an ammunition ship? And all of those things come into your mind. Now it may be that we’ll perhaps come on to this later, that if you’ve got an embarked task group staff, actually they’re doing quite a lot of that thinking – that you don’t let them do all of that thinking – you have it in mind yourself. Modern communications have helped. So, in terms of critical spares for an aircraft or something like that, you can very quickly find out whether that spare exists somewhere. You’ve then got the logistics problem of how can I get it to my ship via an airhead somewhere. And there’s a well-practised routine for that. And quite often, helicopters were needed to go and get a particular critical spare.
Jerry, I’m appalled by this idea of becoming immobile on a carrier because a lot of people out there might assume that an aircraft carrier kind of can still function if it’s stationary. But of course, you need to be able to move and you need to be able to move in relation to the sea and the wind as well, don’t you?
Vice Admiral Jerry Kydd
Absolutely. And the whole point about the aircraft carrier is, one of its USPS, is it can move at combat power from A to B over 1000s of miles. I think this all hooks into the logistics issue that we forget that the Carrier Striker is probably the most complicated military formation to put together, to generate, and then to deploy, and of course, is underpinned by logistics. And I think David and Roy have eloquently described the fuel, food, spares, and ammunition issues. But at the end of the day, the reason why we have these incredibly complicated military formations is to deliver combat power persistently and sustained many 1000s of miles from the UK home base. So, let’s look at the Falklands with HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes to prove the utility of Carrier Striker at range. We need to project power, and my word projecting power with an aircraft carrier is a pretty good way to do it. And that is why with the Queen Elizabeth class, following on from Invincible class, we’ve invested in the Tide-class tankers, and we’re about to invest in some future solid support ships to move our ammunition and food around. But of course, efficiency is now at the heart of aircraft carrier operations. You want to maintain the flight decks tempo you want to keep the ship moving from A to B. Again, I’ll come back to this word choreography, the clockwork nature of what a Carrier Strike Group is, requires this very disciplined, deliberate approach to scheduling of ships and aircraft. And of course, the Queen Elizabeth group, currently now in the South China Sea, has six escorts around it, two Royal Fleet Auxiliaries and the aircraft, well in excess of 40 aircraft, embarked in that force. And that means a huge consumption of equipment and spares and stores. So, logistics critical, and we forget it at our peril.
I think the relationship between the Navy and the RFA is really important, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, because on the one hand, a carrier is independent, it is designed to be independent, but on the other hand, it’s not. As Roy was saying that you had to have an RFA in the middle of the Atlantic to give you fuel. How is that kind of relationship managed?
Vice Admiral Jerry Kydd
Well, I’ll open on that one. I mean, really close. It goes back decades, of course, and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary has served us in peace and war so brilliantly well and so courageously and people think they’re – they are merchant sailors, the end of the day they’re merchant marine, but they’re so closely linked. Often people say they got one foot in the merchant camp and one foot in the Royal Navy camp, and I think that’s absolutely right. But they’re very proud of that difference. And it brings a je ne sais quoi. And something that’s really quite unique about the British naval service is that the Royal Fleet Auxiliary alongside the Fleet Air Arm, the Submarine Service, the Surface Fleet and the Royal Marines, we bring all those firefighting arms together and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary are a critical part of that not least the logistics side.
Roy, could you add to that?
Rear Admiral Roy Clare
Yes. And I think I had in my generation an RFA officer who was doing the Principal Warfare Officers Course, the P Ware Course, alongside us naval people, and on the staff of flag officer’s sea training, I had a colleague who was from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. So, you’ve got that very nice interweaving of the various skillsets and perspectives. And I learned a lot from those colleagues being so closely embedded with us. And of course, I spent time in RFA ships to and got to know many of the captains and their officers. So, I think it’s a close relationship. There are really good diplomatic advantages to having one force, the RFA, under a blue Ensign, or a defaced blue Ensign, because it really does enable certain things to happen geo-strategically and diplomatically that couldn’t happen if they were full-fledged naval vessels. So, we want to maintain both the separateness and the closeness if I could put it like that.
That’s fascinating stuff. David.
Rear Admiral David Snelson
For me, it was the expertise actually of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary officers as well as an extra bonus. I perhaps only appreciated it since I’ve gone and worked more in the merchant marine arena since leaving the Navy. But of course, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary officers would often have trained with one of the large tanker companies say BP or somebody like that – would have done their cadetship in a container ship or a tanker. And they would learn a whole lot of stuff about logistics that the naval officer is unlikely to have learned. And where I really found their value was actually before commanding a carrier. I was also in the Caribbean, that difficult gig when Roy was dashing around the Atlantic, helping the population of an island hit by a volcano, Montserrat, but I had with me a small Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker, and often we needed stuff. And I’d just ring the captain of the tanker, and say, we need this, that and the other and off, he’d go and get it; and he knew where to get it. And of course, he was used to working with ships agents, the port agents, the logistics network that’s round the world, that supports merchant ships. And they tap into that in a way that we in the RN don’t have the expertise. So, the synergy between their professional knowledge as merchant mariners and as captains of warships was a really important synergy and I suspect it is still the same today.
I think that’s eye-opening, actually. I have always thought of the RFA as a huge ship full of stuff, but the point is, it’s more that they know where to get it, isn’t it? It’s extraordinary.
Vice Admiral Jerry Kydd
Sam, could I just come in on the back of David and Roy there? I think the – also how we’re using the Royal Fleet Auxiliary has really evolved over the last sort of certainly last 10-15 years where traditionally they have been moving stuff – fuel and food and stores -around with us in a task group sense. But actually, they’re being utilised much, much more now as our – as the demand signal naval forces grows around the world, we’re starting to use the Royal Fleet Auxiliary much more widely. And I’ll give example at [RFA] Wave Knight right now is in the Caribbean, in fact, has just done a superb suite of drug busts, I think 200 kilos of cocaine taken off the streets yesterday by Wave Knight. So, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary are very much integrated into the Navy now, far more than they ever have been, and I mean that on a relative basis. But the utility of those grey hulls, whilst they wear the Blue Ensign, Blue Defaced Ensign, they are very fundamentally tailored to our missions and tasks around the world. So, they are a really, really helpful part of our force.
Roy, you had a point there.
Rear Admiral Roy Clare
Yes, I just wanted to add to what Jerry was saying, that not to forget their role in aviation for us. And a lot of the RFA’s have decks and I certainly thought the versatility of what we were doing, particularly in the circumstances where perhaps the carrier had to focus on the Sea Harrier and GR7 Harrier operations by RFA, was seamlessly there as a rotary deck from time to time. So, that’s a really important part of it. I think the other thing is the expertise. David touched on this. In the example I gave of heavy weather north of Scotland in the North Atlantic, I was reluctant with only one engine on one shaft to go and do the alongside replenishment. So, when we did the over the bow fuel replenishment, both of us – the carrier and the RFA – were using skills that have been there for generations, it was the way to do fuelling during World War Two. And we’ve all, they and us, have maintained seamlessly that kind of skill set. So, that just literally at the moment of decision, you can expect the kit will be there and the deck crew will know exactly what to do. It’s very impressive how that works.
For us thinking about skillsets, I mean, one of the sorts of confounding issues I can sense from the aircraft carrier is almost all of the engineering challenges. Whether it’s marine engineering, air engineering, weapons engineering, you’ve got radars, radio, satellite comms, all to deal with. David, how is that managed?
Rear Admiral David Snelson
In one sense, of course, it’s delegated. You’ve got certainly in Invincible class a commander in charge of each department: the marine engineering, the air engineering, the weapon engineering and so on. But in another sense, you keep very close tabs on the things that are single points of failure. And Roy’s example of the North Atlantic and losing one shaft gives you exactly the reason why you as the captain, kept your finger on the pulse of what was going on in engineering departments. And I had learnt in previous commands about these single points of failure. So, for me, in Arc Royal, single points of failure, well, there were two gearboxes, one on each shaft, but they were as good as being a single point of failure. There have been problems with gearboxes in the Invincible class. And you knew that if the teeth came off a big pinion, or a bearing went because of lubrication problem, or because it was wiped, then suddenly, you have got a major problem. So, that was a single point of failure that you kept your eye on. Aircraft lifts were another single point of failure. The Invincible class again had some problems with their lifts which were an extraordinary sort of scissor design piece of hydraulic machinery, which opened up the support to the lifts like a pair of scissors, and they had gone spectacularly wrong in the past. And of course, if you lost your lift, which in the Invincible class was in the centre of the flight deck, in the centre of the runway, then you were really constrained. That’s why I think the design of the Queen Elizabeth class is different in that respect. And then things like diesel generators – yes, you had quite a lot of them, but you’d be amazed at how much power you’d need in a ship for everything that was going on. And diesel generators were at the heart of the electricity production. So, there were particular touchpoints in engineering – while you had expertise, you had spares, you had some very good maintainers – you needed to know what the important bits of kit were doing and what their health was.
It just made me kind of realise the whole business of being at sea and how sort of alien and inhospitable that is to engineering. I mean, for those of you listening who have a yacht or even a little rib, they go wrong all the time. And it’s just it’s multiplied, you know, 10,000-fold. Roy, you’ve just been sailing, you were telling me all about it. But did you understand that that kind of sense of concern, knowing that things do go wrong on ships?
Rear Admiral Roy Clare
Every time you put the engine on in a yacht, you feel a sense of concern, I can assure you, and it is no different in a carrier. And in fact, it was quite interesting in the generation of the three of us and carrier operations, we’ve gone from an era with the former Ark Royal, where the fixed-wing capability was extraordinary, but the engineering was in many cases, much more basic. Not to say not complex, but much more basic in generation. In the Invincible class, we were just at the crossroads. The original computer system that drove the operations room in the Invincible class was a space about the size of a double-deck London bus and it had the computing power of about 1/8 of a modern PC sitting on somebody’s desk. And so that contradiction, of course, was migrating and by the time I was in command, and David was in command, we had masses of computing power, completely unforeseen, sitting literally on desktops. And the big space down in – the double-deck bus space – was beginning to be thought about as a multi gym, or something else, because we didn’t need all the physical volume. Now that brought with it, of course, a lot of new challenges. In order to maintain the twenty-four-seven continuity of connection, let’s say globally, for intelligence and seeing a picture and operations, you were often dependent on a microchip somewhere deep in some bit, and you needed the skill both to identify where that was and then it’s back to logistics – you needed the spares back up to make sure you had that microchip or that spare. And those affected radars, radios, satellite communications, display and connectivity. And it was never good enough, I found, to be able to say to fleet headquarters ‘I’m sorry, I can’t speak to you just now the phone isn’t working’, they didn’t really have much tolerance for that. So, it was really important to keep that going.
The sort of almost unimaginable waves of complexity the moment you think about it. Jerry, I have a small boat and this summer I’ve managed to ram it on a sandbank, I’ve broken the propeller, I’ve also broken my navigation system. And then after that happened, my radio broke and then I accidentally pulled the cord on my life jacket. You deal with one problem, and you think you’ve sorted it out. And then unbeknownst to you, the devil of the sea has created another problem which you could never even have imagined coming. Can you associate with that?
Vice Admiral Jerry Kydd
Absolutely. I think the problem of being offshore is you’re on your own, as I said, earlier. And, you know, one problem leads to another and so very quickly you’re in real hot water. But I mean I think on the whole engineering side – absolutely. I think the challenge we’ve got now moving forward, certainly for the Queen Elizabeth class carriers, is this blend for what I call agricultural engineering – oil and grease and gearboxes and shaft lines and engines – through to this digital future which we’re bringing very quickly. And the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, the Lightning, which is a new fixed-wing aircraft, our new carriers are perhaps the last word in what we call ‘fifth-generation engineering’. They are truly space-age and brings with it a whole new suite of complexities of an engineering challenge, where they do self-diagnostics, the aircraft talk to each other, they talk to ship without any human interaction. But on the other side of the coin, we still have engineers who need to test the fuel and grease the wheels and so forth. So, you know, the system of systems now for Carrier Strike Group has become a lot more complicated again, which requires some very, very well-educated young people to come on board be our technicians or engineers on board. But the range of challenge now is much more significant. But I’d like to pick up on David’s point is on the agriculture point, there are these, you’re only as strong as your weakest engineering link and comes back to your propeller piece. But I always find auxiliaries are always the challenge, I used to keep my eye on as an aircraft carrier because you tend to find that most aircraft will operate each day. But it comes down to things like chilled water plants, as well as aircraft lifts that it’s the things that are not very sexy, or not very particularly exciting, they’re the underpinning engineering pieces that you really need to keep running. So, if you lose chilled water or air conditioning, then you are in deep hot water. So, yes, keeping your eye on it as the captain all the time, it’s a real challenge.
It must be quite stressful waking up wondering what’s going to go wrong today.
Vice Admiral Jerry Kydd
Well, you have a lot of good engineering officers who can report to you first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening. So, you keep your finger on the pulse pretty carefully. But yes, I mean, at the end of the day, you know, if you have an accumulation of what we call operational deficiencies, ‘op-deaths’, defects, if you like on the ship, then it does become a real concern. But this is all about judgement and engineering judgement and knowing what you need to take with you to fix stuff, what you need to when you come alongside, and also that last mile, if you need to get a spare part from ashore, that you need to have the flexibility to go in and get it. But fundamentally, this is about having your rucksack well packed at the start of the trip, you take with you what you need. And that’s based on experience and consumption rates and knowing what’s likely to fail. So, you can take the right stores and the right spares with you from the get-go. That’s really important. And that comes from operating carries persistently and around the world. So, as a Navy, you start to know what you’re doing.
Yes, and really highlighting a key point there is that once you’ve got ships in a Navy, I think from whatever period we’re talking about, you can’t stop – ever – because it gets rusty very quickly. And then the people forget what’s going on. It’s really, really important – it’s such a decision for any state to make to create a Navy because they’re in it for the long haul. Roy, we’ve been talking a lot about machines. Let’s talk about the people who operate them.
Rear Admiral Roy Clare
Yes, and I think it’s a really interesting question this one because we’ve had in our minds as we thought about this discussion with you, the continuity and the change; What really is the continuous strand through all of the Navy’s history and what’s changed. And of course, the people are utterly the continuity from beginning to end. And depending on how you frame your history; the Royal Navy has been doing what it does in one form or another for at least 1000 years. And you can find traces of the concern for the quality of people in each of the generations. And some who perhaps haven’t looked at it closely enough, get a feeling that we survived solely on press-ganging. And, of course, that was never true. The Pressgang had a very particular role. And it was, of course, an important part of manning the fleet. But it was not the overwhelming part. And it was true in Nelson’s time that one of the decisive factors in the various combats that he entered in and won was the quality of training and the capability of the people in ships. And one of the fascinating things about Nelson was his letters and the legacy he’s left us in terms of research and study. And he was often writing to his captains about logistics (he wrote to them to about operational matters and the fleet doctrine of operations) but many of the letters were about very basic things, almost you might think to the obsessive degree of reminding captains who probably already knew perfectly well what they had to do. But it was about keeping the people healthy, not altruistically, although I’m sure that was in the mind, but because the healthier they were, the better they fought. Making sure that they were trained well. and when you look at the way in which cannon were operated during, for example, the Battle of Trafalgar, the rate of fire from the British fleet was higher than was achieved by the combined fleet against them. And that was a training bit. And in the collections of the National Maritime Museum, you can find the drill manual that was created for this particular operation, because it took a lot of people.
So, fast forward into the carrier era that we’re discussing, and people are absolutely the fundamental. And I often face questions when I left the Navy to become a museum director, from museum people, what is it that set you up to be a museum director is self-evidently not my PhD in history, but it was an understanding of people. And to the chagrin of the painting’s conservator, I did one day, compare her to the maintainer of the Sea Harrier in Invincible. I said there are very common characteristics here. Both of you are extraordinary professionals with deep knowledge of your trade. And I could no more say launch that Sea Harrier than I could say hang that painting. Because both of you would have extremely good reasons why one wouldn’t fly, and one wouldn’t hang – I think she got over it after a while. But people were absolutely the continuity point. And I think all of us would say that we depended vitally on heads of departments who were in many cases, exceptional and wonderful leaders. But they in turn, right through the chain, depended on a very good level of training and of consistency. And in the era that certainly David and I were commanding the CBS, we had women in the ship’s company, it was still new-ish to the Royal Navy, and I remember standing up in front of my ship’s company, as you do on day one (I took over from Admiral in Forbes in Izmir), so everybody was embarked we had all 1,200 there, the air wing were there – we were heading from there through Suez, so we were operationally ready. And the one thing that I wanted to convey was my complete backing, support, encouragement and leadership for the idea of mutual respect and diversity. And that everybody counted in it in order to make the point because when you stand in the hangar in front of 1,200 people, you are trying to connect at an individual level. And so, this was no highfalutin speech – what it was, was an attempt to get to the ears of everybody. And I said I even had a soft spot for people with ginger hair, and it got the desired giggle (it was a dad joke, I know). But afterwards, the day later, there was a knock at my sea cabin door – so, you’ve got to go up the island, you got to be quite determined to get up there to the sea cabin, and there was a ginger head Stoker, who said with a great grin on his face “Aye, Sir, what’s up with us ginger-haired Stokers then”, so clearly, ginger-haired Stoker had heard, which was completely wonderful. Secondly, he had the absolute confidence to know that he’d go and knock on the captain’s door and tease him about it – I thought that was brilliant. So, there’s nothing wrong with the spirit. But you really depended on that kind of thing.
So, here’s the thing, you go into, as I did, a civilian occupation in the museum, about as far from all of this, as you might imagine, and I think to begin with a lot of people thought, well, he’s going to bring an autocratic top-down leadership style that gets stuff done by telling people what to do. And there is a popular idea that somehow the aircraft carrier captain can stand on the bridge and say, “Go left and go right” and things will happen that way. Well, sometimes go left and go right does work. But it never worked in any other extent. You needed that confidence of human beings believing in the training, believing in the ethos of the service, wanting to be there. I must say it was a great privilege to have an aircraft carrier because you absolutely can’t tell anybody much what to do. You absolutely have to have a proper consensus around the operation is the key – this is what we’re going to do. The communications are vital.
So, two very brief anecdotes to support that I took Invincible into the Gulf (this is after the Gulf War), so we were the first carrier to go into the Gulf we want all the way up to Kuwait and we also went into Saudi. And it was quite, for many people when you think of the average age of a ship’s company it was in its 20s, early 20s, even a ship of that size, and so there was a bit of nervousness about which you could feel. We were going through the Strait of Hormuz; Saddam Hussein was still around. So, what do you do, you do old fashioned leadership things like walk the ship. And I knew that you could make as many pipes as you liked on the main broadcast but if you went and stood outside the Naafi whatever it was you said there would get around the ship immediately. And it was great fun to go and do that about six o’clock in the evening, go and find your way down to the Naafi, way down in the bowels of the ship. And you got that reaction, well, if he’s down here, it can’t be that dangerous up there, or he’s mad – which one is it? And then you’d have the conversation. And they would make up their own mind based on what they saw in your eyes. So, it’s a wonderful sort of continuity of the leadership of eye contact and knowing each other well enough to have that confidence in each other. And then my second anecdote was actually about an emergency that occurred when we had a fire in one of the Olympus modules. And of course, one of the things about the machinery, and we’ve touched on the complexity, is a lot of it is hot, a lot of it is high-speed rotation, a lot of it is subject to need of repair, and sometimes it can burst into flame. And so you do have a very quick reaction needed from a standing fire party. And I was very, always very, confident this would work because we practised it a lot. The fire alarm went – the fire party dressed rapidly – the first two people were in the module, it was a textbook operation, the fire was extinguished. And they came out and it was only then as they took off the fearnought suit on the anti-flash hoods that we realised that just through the luck of that particular set up, that particular watch that day, both the two who went in first were female Stoker’s, both did their jobs spot on right. And you know, we never had to discuss ginger-haired Stoker’s ever again. There was a real empathy and a harmony across the ship’s company, which I think you have to work at, and really lead and know and treasure, but – and don’t take it for granted – but it’s a wonderful continuity. And it’s the future too.
You know, humans, as the most complicated machines of them all, I suppose – the ones that need the most care. David.
Rear Admiral David Snelson
And I think I’d very much endorse what Roy said and build on it. In commanding the carrier, you had foundation stones of training, the investment that the Navy makes in its people. And I’m pretty sure this is still the same today – that the Navy carried if you’d like, an excess of people because you might want 5% of your people at any one time, not in their frontline jobs, but on courses, training for their next job. And that’s something that civilian organisations find difficult to do because it’s an overhead. But it’s an extremely important overhead in the armed services, where you invest in people and equip them for the next job. That is an absolutely vital foundation stone for all these skills that we’ve been acknowledging and talking about. And long may it last.
I think, personally, your own apprenticeship for the job was quite important. And we all came to it via different routes. But I had served in Ark Royal number four, the fixed-wing carrier in the 1970s, as a young lieutenant, but I’d inevitably absorbed things as to how a carrier operated in those days. I then served in two more, as a staff officer operation on Admiral staff embarked in two carriers. And again, I’ve absorbed stuff so that when I came to Ark Royal, I had a pretty good understanding of how carriers operated. Leadership as well, to the teams on board was important. And we’ve talked a lot about this engineering complexity. But when, as Jerry said, your commander marine engineering comes to you in the morning or late in the evening to update you, it’s important that you communicate it to him or to her, what was important to you – the port gearbox – because that needed to get all the way back down the engineering chain. It may well be that a junior maintainer, somewhere working on a piece of equipment in the bowels of the ship really wouldn’t understand the important part that they played in the operational capability of the ship, and there was no reason they would, but it was your job to communicate that down the command chain.
And the final thing, I think, was acknowledging what the maintainers do. The aircraft maintainers in particularly were often working almost all night in the hangar, getting aircraft ready for the next day. And that walking about that Roy mentioned in the Naafi queue or in some of the spaces around the ship. just acknowledging that last night, you knew that such and such a team would work all night to get that Merlin helicopter ready again – the fact that you look them in the eye and thank them was really important. And I used to quite enjoy it when Jerry, who I was privileged to have him as the navigator of Ark Royal, would say on the main broadcast for the second time in a few minutes “Will the captain, please contact the bridge.” And I was somewhere two-deck port talking to aircraft maintainers about that sort of thing. And that was an important part of leadership. And I’m sure Jerry’s done it subsequently in his commands.
Thank you very much David. Jerry?
Vice Admiral Jerry Kydd
Well, I’ll pick up that last point. Having served in both HMS Invincible, under Captain Claire’s command, and also in Ark Royal, under Captain Nelson [lost], my training was excellent. So, yes, it is funny isn’t it, aircraft carriers are complicated. And I think I spent something like 12 years of my career in carriers, both UK and US, and certainly lent on that hugely bringing Queen Elizabeth out as a new class of carrier. But listen, you know, I couldn’t endorse more what Roy and David have said, you know, aircraft carriers are little towns: they operate 24 seven, there’s always something’s going on, they’re a hub of activity. And people are fascinating, aren’t they? Interesting enough in the CBS, in the Invincible class, we had the 23,000 tonnes – Queen Elizabeth class is 70,000 tonnes. But broadly speaking the same size of ships company, and reflecting the fact that people now remain absolutely critical, of course, but innovation: robotics, autonomy, and miniaturisation is starting to creep into the fleet because people are expensive to train, but also to pay and of course, pensions. So, we’re constantly now on the progress bar to try and bring in as much automation innovation as we can to keep the numbers of people on our new ships down. But the Carrier Strike Group right now, based around Queen Elizabeth, has about 3,000 people in that group. And I think something, David when we were in Ark Royal, we had something like 20 nationalities on board, which, oddly enough is exactly the same number as Horatio Nelson had on Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. So, the Royal Navy remains an incredibly diverse system of people anyway. And today, even more so. And of course, on Queen Elizabeth right now we have the Royal Air Force, of course, jointly manning our lightning aircraft, but also the US Marine Corps – we have a complete Squadron on board, which is fantastic – as well as army and civilian people on board. So, carriers are just fascinating human soups of people, the average age remains about 24-25 years old. So old duffers, like the captain, have to reflect that down below, you know, it’s a very different ecosystem. And that culture mix is really fascinating. I always found as the captain, whether in my CVS days or now on Queen Elizabeth, just a fascination of walking around the ship. And as Roy eloquently described, you know, the wonderful nature of people who decide to go away from home for months on end, and aren’t we so lucky, we have people in society willing to do that still. Because being offshore in a warship is odd, you know, against modern society, where you’re disconnected with friends and family, and your Wi-Fi, and your social media, telephone, and so forth. But that in itself creates a really unique culture on board: you’re on your own, you rely on your opo, you rely on your friends. When something goes wrong, like a fire or flood, or heaven forbid, a crash on deck or you lose an aircraft, then that team spirit – that unique, wonderful nature of people coming together – I think is best encapsulated in a warship and never more so in an aircraft carrier, where suddenly 1,200-1,500 people will come together very quickly to sort things out. So, yes, people remain critical to us. We’re a human-based system at the end of the day. As part and parcel of wearing these stripes on my shoulders, as David and Roy have both done, it’s the number one responsibility for any officer is to his people, of all types, all shapes and sizes and all ages. And we are a very rich society and best for it.
I sense a real pride from the three of you to have been involved in aircraft carriers. We’ve got a few minutes left. I just like to talk very briefly before we leave about the issues of command and how the carrier act as a command platform for a task group or task force. David, your thoughts on this?
Rear Admiral David Snelson
The carrier almost always was the centrepiece of a task group, and therefore in charge of a group of ships. In some circumstances, then it was possible that the captain of the carrier would be the task group commander. And so, in addition to all those things that we’ve been talking about, the captain would be thinking about how the ships in the task group were to be deployed. tactically, about the logistics in the widest sense, and so on. More frequently, the carrier would have an embarked one-star Commodore, as the Queen Elizabeth group has at the moment, I think, or an embarked two-star Rear Admiral, which was more the case in the days of the Invincible class. And so, you had that extra layer of command on board.
The Invincible class had been planned to some degree to have an embarked Admiral on board, there was an Admiral’s – there was accommodation for the Admiral, there was accommodation for the staff, there was a flag planning room, which actually had been carved out of the ship’s company dining hall, and there was a flag operations room. So, the where-with-all was there. What was interesting from the people point of view, is the tensions that could produce. And so when you got an embarked flag officer, who was looking at the wider picture of the task group, if the personalities of the admiral and the captain didn’t chime, then you could get tensions. And the stories in the Navy of that happening were legion. And certainly, when I was appointed to be a staff Operations Officer, to an admiral staff, it was one of the things that was in my mind most of all. And I remember going talking to other people of commander rank who had served in the carrier saying “Can you give me any advice? How do I stop the admiral and the captain falling out?” In reality, I didn’t find it was a major problem. Though as the staff Operations Officer, I did spend a lot of time dashing between the flag spaces on five deck underneath the hangar and dashing up to the bridge, and communicating between the admiral in the captain. I then became a captain of a carrier, of course, and only for one operation did I have an embarked Admiral. And I realised how important it was to be alongside the admiral in his thinking so that you knew that you were driving the carrier in the way that he required for the operation that he was delivering. But equally, so that he knew what problems you had, and what your priorities were, in terms of keeping the carrier going. I was then fortunate to be embarked, later as an admiral in a carrier, and hope that I’d absorbed all those lessons. In fact, I got on with the captain of the carrier extremely well and I like to think that we operated pretty much as a duo. So, there was an important perspective there of carrier command that could go wrong if there was a personality clash, or you didn’t communicate properly. But as ever, it was people, and it was communicating and sharing thoughts. And I’m pretty sure it’s working well today in the Far East, Jerry?
Vice Admiral Jerry Kydd
You get a thumbs up there. Roy let’s just hear from you quickly.
Rear Admiral Roy Clare
Yes, I think that’s a very good summary from David. And I think we’ve spoken earlier about how we cut our teeth in smaller ships earlier in our career. And I’d been the commander in command of a destroyer during the Gulf patrol, just towards the end of the Cold War, so end of the 1980s. And we had a Commodore in the area whose job was to be the task group commander across several ships on the patrol, and he was billeted with me – now those who know the type 42 destroyer will know that there was barely room for one captain, let alone a captain and a commodore. And it was very important that we learned how to do that and do it well, because of course, he was, by definition, much more senior than me, much more experienced from a completely different line of trade as it turned out – a different branch and yet we were sharing the mealtimes together, and also understanding each other operationally. And there was nowhere to hide, we had to make that work as human beings. And we did. And it was actually a wonderful way to learn.
Later in the carrier, you are insulated a bit by numbers, but David spoke very well about the relationship between the admiral and the captain. I think that sensitivity must also exist between the members of the staff and the ship staff. And how that works is again, can be pray to human frailty, but mostly, and I would say 90% of the time, it worked really well and there was mutual respect. But an anecdote to show that it was always just near the surface of thinking. We’re in the Mediterranean with the flag embarked and one of the air force Harriers fell in the sea at four o’clock in the morning. And this was, we later discovered, because the pilot had a brain tumour that he was unaware of, and he had a dizzy spell at 4 am. And he was just coming into land. All the sea conditions were good, the wind conditions were good. But as he drew up alongside his orientation failed, the aeroplane inverted and went in the sea. We did get the pilot back. He’s been promoted since then three times in the Royal Air Force and is still serving, and was very grateful for the fact that he was fished from the sea by the Royal Navy – despite the fact that the winch on the helicopter failed and he was dumped 22 times on the way back to the ship, which he thought at the time, I think was a naval joke, it wasn’t, it was a genuine winch failure. But of course, the thing is the embark flag knew exactly his place. A former CBS captain, he called me – I remember about 4:30, on the bridge phone from the admiral’s cabin way down aft in the ship, and he said, “Roy, I’m here if you need me, I won’t be in touch again.” And it was exactly right. I didn’t need him – of course, I needed him – I didn’t need him in the sense of recovering the pilot and recovering, as we did the aeroplane, because, in the course of that, I learned that the GR-7, which has a composite wing, floats. I already found out earlier that the Sea Harrier which doesn’t have a composite wing doesn’t float. In both cases, we got the pilots back. But we managed to get the GR-7 back on deck before breakfast. And then, this is a nice reference to humour and how it still works for you in a ship, our next visit was Barcelona – the following morning – and I said to the chief bosun’s mate, “we need that wreck on the upper deck camouflaging buffer in some way”, “straight away” he said “Sir, I’ll do that straight away”, anyway I looked over the bridge screen about two hours later to see, just before we entered the harbour, that it was covered in a tarpaulin that was pink, purple, red and striped. And it was a bit like saying I’m here. I sent for the chief bosun’s mate, and I said “Buffer”, I said “camouflage!”, he said, “It’s Barcelona football club colours, Sir, they’ll love it.” And indeed, we did get on the front page of the local newspaper for paying a tribute to the Barcelona football club. And nobody really outside the ship knew as a GR-7 on its back with its wheels in the air.
Good. A bit of genius inspiration there. Jerry, you get the last word. How are things going today?
Vice Admiral Jerry Kydd
Yes. It’s interesting how so many things stay the same. In my career, having obviously worked for these two, I’ve been to just about every other – every rank and level of an aircraft carrier and through the staff – through the flag, being the flag captain and also then onto the being the task group commander. So, I just like to reiterate the points already made about the getting along with each other as important and how that really comes from the Carrier Strike Group commander – who currently is a commodore but can be an admiral – setting very clearly his intent for the task group and everyone understanding what he wants. And that really then sets the tone right and the staff relationships with the wardroom of the aircraft carrier. So, fundamentally, I agree. At the end of the day, it’s about understanding what your roles and responsibilities are. So, the flag captain delivering the ship, and the flight deck to the admiral – the commodore – is critical. So, he’s looking inwards making the ship operate and work and deliver. Whereas the staff of course are fighting the external battle and coordinating the task group: the ship’s, the aircraft, to do the job and the mission in hand. But currently, yes, Commodore Steve Moorhouse is our Commodore in charge of our Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group in the Far East. He has with him a Carrier Strike Group battle staff, who are the brains of the deployment, if you like, of about 70 or 80 people. They come from a mix band from the Air Force and the US Marine Corps, of course, in specialists. I think the thing that’s changed a lot over the last 5 or 10 years is the fact we’re integrated much more on a command-and-control sense with all the other domains of land, but also now space, cyber, and the agencies. So, the aircraft carrier has now become much less of a ship than a real node of information. Because information operations, the manipulation of data and digital means, is critical in modern battlespace. And it goes well into space right down to the seabed. And the carrier has to have all that information available to it in the operations room so the admiral or the Commodore can make the right decisions to place the aircraft carrier in the right position but also to support the wider fight in the most appropriate way. So again, this sophistication is digitised battlespace we now have, means the command or control of the aircraft carrier has become really very, very complicated indeed. And that pushes to David’s point about training and making as we get the carrier group together in the UK that you train it up together very carefully so that when you send it around the world it knows what it’s doing. It’s a very complex business because you’re living in a much richer ecosystem now with other actors. And of course, currently, our Carrier Strike Group in the Far East has an American destroyer attached to it, and also a Dutch frigate. So, not only do we have all this space and cyber and the different digital domains, but also you have our allies now completely integrated into that UK Carrier Strike Group. And whilst it’s sovereign, the fact is we’ve delegated a lot of duties to our very close allies. So, all that means that the Carrier Strike Group commander, the Commodore at the moment has a lot on his plate. And he has to have, obviously have a first-class staff around him. And that is why the Royal Navy remains professional and uncompromising on its standards of training, but also in its command control because if you haven’t got the right command or control, you might as well stay at home.
Very, very important place to end Thank you all so much for your time today.
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