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HMS Invincible (R05) visits Norfolk
HMS Invincible visits Norfolk, Virginia, USA.
Class overview
Builders: Swan Hunter
Vickers Limited Shipbuilding Group
Operators:  Royal Navy
Preceded by: Audacious class fleet carrier
Centaur class light carrier
Succeeded by: Queen Elizabeth class
In commission: 11 July 1980
Completed: 3
Active: HMS Illustrious
HMS Ark Royal
Laid up: HMS Invincible
General characteristics
Displacement: 20,700 tons
Length: 209 m (690 ft)
Beam: 36 m (120 ft)
Draught: 8 m (26 ft)
Propulsion: 4 x Rolls-Royce Olympus TM3B gas turbine COGAG, providing 97,000 hp on 2 shafts
Speed: 28 knots (52 km/h)
Range: 7,000 nautical miles (13,000 km)
Armament: 2 × 20 mm anti-aircraft guns
3 close-in weapons systems
Aircraft carried: 20 or more, including
Harrier aircraft
Sea King and Merlin helicopters
Aviation facilities: 168 m axial flight deck
Bow 13° ski ramp

The Invincible-class is a class of light aircraft carrier currently serving with the British Royal Navy. Of the three vessels of this class, HMS Illustrious and HMS Ark Royal are in operation, with HMS Invincible decommissioned from service and in reserve until 2010.



The Invincible class has its origins in a sketch design for a 6,000 ton, guided-missile armed, helicopter carrying escort cruiser intended as a complement to the much larger CVA-01-class fleet aircraft carrier.[1] The cancellation of CVA-01 in 1966 meant that the smaller cruiser would now have to provide the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) taskforce with command and control facilities. Two new designs were prepared for this requirement;[1] a 12,500 ton cruiser with missiles forward, six Westland Sea King helicopters and a flight deck aft, somewhat similar to the Vittorio Veneto of the Italian Navy and a larger 17,500 ton vessel with a "through-deck", nine Sea Kings and missiles right forward. By 1970, the "through-deck" design had advanced into a Naval Staff Requirement for an 18,750 ton Through-Deck Command Cruisers (TDCC).[1]

In February 1963, the Hawker P.1127 VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft had landed and taken-off from the carrier Ark Royal and the subsequent Hawker-Siddeley Kestrel had undergone trials from the "Commando carrier" (an aircraft carrier operating helicopters) HMS Bulwark. It was therefore perfectly possible that the new "cruisers" could be used to operate VTOL aircraft.[2] Politics, however, determined that the new ships were carefully termed "through-deck cruisers" and not "aircraft carrier" by the RN; the cancellation of CVA-01 was intended to mean the UK's abandonment of aircraft carriers for good.

Economic problems in the UK in the early 1970s delayed progress on the new ships, but the design continued to evolve. The order for the first ship was given to Vickers (Shipbuilding) on 17 April 1973.[3] By now, the design was for a 19,000 ton "CAH"[1] (helicopter carrying heavy cruiser, styled after the U.S Navy Hull classification symbols) with up to fourteen aircraft and a Sea Dart missile launcher on the bows.

Finally, in May 1975, the Government authorised the maritime version of the Hawker Siddeley Harrier,[1][3] which was successfully developed into the Sea Harrier. This meant that the design was reworked again to include a small complement of these VTOL aircraft. In order to launch a heavily-laden Harrier more efficiently by STOVL (short take-off vertical landing) from the comparatively short - 170 m - flight deck, a 'ski-jump' was developed. The slope was initially 7° when incorporated into Invincible and Illustrious and 12° for Ark Royal. The class also has, since 1976,[1] a secondary role as an helicopter carrier, or LPH, in the reinforcement of NATO's Northern flank in Norway. In 1998 HMS Ocean, with a hull form based on that of the Invincible class, was commissioned specifically for this role.

HMS Invincible in 1991

After the 1982 Falklands War, CIWS guns were added to the design. Illustrious had them fitted at the last minute before commissioning, Ark Royal had them added as a normal part of the building process, and Invincible had them fitted during her first overhaul after the Falklands. Initially, Invincible and Illustrious were fitted with two Vulcan Phalanx units; these have since been replaced with three Goalkeeper systems. Ark Royal has the three Phalanx CIWS systems she was fitted with when built (she can be easily distinguished from her sisters by the Phalanx's distinctive white "R2-D2" radome). Electronic countermeasures are provided by a Thales jamming system and ECM system. Seagnat launchers provide for chaff or flare decoys. As part of upgrades during the mid 1990s, all three ships had the Sea Dart removed, with the forecastle filled in to increase the size of the flight deck.

Construction Programme

Pennant Name (a) Hull builder Ordered Laid down Launched Accepted
into service
Commissioned Estimated
building cost[4]
R05 HMS Invincible (a) Vickers Armstrong, Barrow.[5] 17 April 1973 [3][5][6] 20 July 1973 [5] 3 May 1977 [5] 19 March 1980 [7] 11 July 1980 [5] £185,500,000 [7]
R06 HMS Illustrious (a) Swan Hunter [5] May 1976 [5] 7 October 1976 [5] 1 December 1978 [5] 18 June 1982 [7] 20 June 1982 [5] £215,400,000 [7]
R07 HMS Ark Royal (ex-Indomitable)[5] (a) Swan Hunter [5] December 1978 [5] 14 December 1978 [5] 2 June 1981 [5] 2 July 1985 [8] 1 November 1985 [5] £332,900,000 [8]

Falklands War

Prior to 1982, Invincible's air group consisted purely of Sea King HAS.5 anti-submarine helicopters and Sea Harrier FRS.1 aircraft. Typically, nine Sea Kings, and four or five Sea Harriers were embarked. This was due to the fact that the originally envisioned mission for the ships was to provide the heart of ASW hunter-killer groups in the North Atlantic during a war against the Soviet Union. In that context, the main weapon of the carrier would not be its fighter aircraft, but its ASW helicopters. The fighters were on board to shoot down the occasional Soviet maritime patrol aircraft nosing around the ship and its escorts.

The Falklands War changed that posture, since it proved that Britain needed to retain the capability to use carrier air power in its traditional role of power projection, both over land, and against enemy fleets. The Falklands War saw Invincible, and the larger and older HMS Hermes filled to capacity with both the Sea Harrier and the Royal Air Force Harrier GR3 ground attack variant of the aircraft, along with ASW helicopters. The RAF Harriers proved to be a temporary aberration at the time. However a permanent addition to the usual air group was made due to lessons learnt during the war: the Sea King AEW2A (Airborne Early Warning) version. Illustrious carried the first examples of the type when it was rushed south in the aftermath of the Falklands War to relieve Invincible of its guard duty around the islands.

HMS Illustrious (right) with the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis

In the aftermath of the Falklands, the typical air group was 3 AEW Sea Kings, 9 ASW Sea Kings and 8 or 9 Sea Harriers. Analysis of the Sea Harrier's performance during the war lead to the requirement for an upgrade, approval for which was granted in 1984. Initially to be known as the FRS.2, the Sea Harrier FA2 entered service on 2 April 1993, deploying on Invincible to Bosnia in 1994. The FA2 featured the Blue Vixen radar which is described as one of the most advanced pulse Doppler radars in the world. The Blue Vixen formed the basis for the Typhoon's CAPTOR radar. The FA2 carried the AIM-120 AMRAAM. The final new-build Sea Harrier FA2 was delivered on 18 January 1999. Other improvements were made to the class during the 1980s and early 1990s, with probably the most important being the increase of the ski jump angle on Invincible and Illustrious to match the 12° slope of Ark Royal.


HMS Invincible undergoing overhaul and modernisation.

In recent years, three other changes have been made. One was the removal of the Sea Dart system, creating an increased deck park for aircraft. The Sea Dart magazines were converted to increase air-to-surface weapons stowage, and new aircrew briefing facilities created under the extended flight deck, both to support the embarkation of RAF Harrier GR7s as a routine part of the air group. The ships have all also been fitted to handle the new Merlin helicopters. The HM1 variant of the Merlin has replaced the HAS6 variant of the Sea King in the carrier-borne ASW role. Since the integration of the Harrier GR7, typical deployments have included 7 or 8 of those aircraft, pushing the Merlin onto the carrier's escorting Fort class replenishment ship.

The two most recent wartime deployments of the class have seen them in their secondary LPH role, as it was officially judged that Sea Harriers could provide no useful role in the missions. During those deployments, the class has embarked RAF Chinook helicopters, in lieu of their fixed wing complement.


The Sea Harrier was officially retired on 1 April 2006. From now until the decommissioning of the ships, their principal weapon will be the Harrier GR9 flown by two Fleet Air Arm and two RAF squadrons. Invincible was decommissioned in July 2005, and has been mothballed (available for reactivation on notice) until 2010. Ark Royal has taken over as the Flagship and is planned to be decommissioned in 2015, Illustrious in 2012, as two new, much larger Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers are brought into service. They are expected to displace around 65,000 tonnes each - more than three times the displacement of the Invincible class.


  • Length: 689 ft (210 m)
  • Beam: 118.1 ft (36 m)
  • Draught: 28.9 ft (8.8 m)
  • Displacement: 16,970 tons standard; 20,710 tons full load
  • Crew: Ships crew: 650. Air crew: 350. Capacity for additional 500 royal marines[9]
  • Power: 4 x Rolls-Royce Olympus gas turbines (COGAG) 100,000 shp (75 MW), 8 Paxman Valenta diesel generators.
  • Speed: 28 knots (52 km/h), 18 knots (33 km/h) cruising
  • Range: 7,000 nmi (13,000 km) at 18 knots (33 km/h)

The Paxman Valenta power units used for electrical power generation are similar to the engines originally used in the British Rail Class 43 HST Power cars

Ships in class

HMS Invincible (R05)


HMS Illustrious (R06)


HMS Ark Royal (R07)

Ark Royal

See Also

The United States designed the Sea Control Ship to serve a similar role, and whilst none were actually built, a number of foreign small aircraft carriers were based on the concept including:[11] the Thai Chakri Naruebet, the Italian Giuseppe Garibaldi and the Spanish Principe de Asturias.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Vanguard to Trident; British Naval Policy since World War II, Eric J. Grove, The Bodley Head, 1987, ISBN 0-370-31021-7
  2. ^ Hansard HC Deb 26 March 1969 vol 780 c303W Cruisers (V/STOL Aircraft)
    "Mr. Wall asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether the new cruisers will operate vertical/short take-off and landing aircraft; and when it is expected the first will be ordered.
    Mr. John Morris No decision has yet been taken whether vertical and short take-off and landing aircraft should be operated at sea. It is too early to say when the first of the new cruisers will be ordered."
  3. ^ a b c Warships of the Royal Navy, Capt. John E. Moore RN, Jane's Publishing, 1981, ISBN 0-7106-0105-0
  4. ^ "Unit cost, i.e. excluding cost of certain items (e.g. aircraft, First Outfits)." Text from Defences Estimates
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Gardiner, Robert Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1947-1995, pub Conway Maritime Press, 1995, ISBN 0-85177-605-1 page 501.
  6. ^ Hansard HC Deb 04 March 1977 vol 927 c337W, this lists Invincible as ordered in financial year 1973-74, the explanation for this is given in the following source:
    Hansard HC Deb 24 November 1977 vol 939 cc869-70W Question to the Secretary of State for Defence about contracts, 24 November 1977.
    For the first ASW Cruiser (HMS Invincible) the planned order date when tender invited was February 1973. The contract was placed in April 1973.
  7. ^ a b c d Hansard HC Deb 23 October 1989 vol 158 cc357-8W Question to the Secretary of State for Defence asking him to list the Royal Navy vessels built in each of the past 15 years, showing the cost of each and the yards in which they were constructed, 23 October 1983. The second part of this may be found at Hansard HC Deb 23 October 1989 vol 158 cc358-61W.
  8. ^ a b Hansard HC Deb 23 October 1989 vol 158 cc358-61W Question to the Secretary of State for Defence asking him to list the Royal Navy vessels built in each of the past 15 years, showing the cost of each and the yards in which they were constructed, 23 October 1983. The first part of this may be found at Hansard HC Deb 23 October 1989 vol 158 cc357-8W.
  9. ^ Invincible Class
  10. ^ "Lebanon evacuation gathers pace". BBC News Online. 18 July 2006.  
  11. ^ Sea Control Ship -

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