Longevity of RN Ships


Hello everyone,

I have recently visited the San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum onboard the USS Midway. Having never been on a large naval vessel it was a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable experience. The ship served in the active fleet for 47 years from 1945 to 1992, which prompts my question: Why do the US Navy seem to get a longer service life from their ships (particularly the carriers) than the RN?

The post-WW2 Ark Royal was commisioned in 1955 and retired in 1978 (23 years) and Eagle was about the same. Invincible was commisioned in 1980 and decommisioned last year (25 years). The 1985 Ark Royal is projected to retire in 2015 (30 years). In contrast the USN is still operatiing Kittyhawk which commisioned in 1961 and is scheduled to be retired in 2009 (47 years). Other carriers of her vintage also served for over 40 years and those that didn't were victims of downsizing.

My thoughts as to the possibilities are:

1. The numerical strength of the USN fleet means that the ships are not worked as hard as their RN counterparts.

2. The strength in numbers also allows the ships to be absent from the fleet for longer periods for refit and they receive more radical improvements.

3. The US Navy can afford to buy exactly what it wants in the first place and so the ships are worth updating and retaining. (eg if the RN had CVA01 in 1970 would it still be in service in 2010?)

4. The US designs are simply more robust, which again is probably down to money.

5. The US ship designs are subject to less political interference.

Any thoughts?


Lantern Swinger
I think you're right with all but No4 of your theories. I think you'll find that, in terms of watertight integrity, UK ships are about the best in the world - US ones are tinny in comparison.
I also think the USN (as you mention in No5) is able to contract the design and build from one source at a time and not worry about sharing out the contracts to please various concerned parties - their contractors will just carry on whether they get military contracts or not. That would save a lot of time and end up with better-built ships for the job. Their Carriers, for instance, can just be built to launch whatever aircraft they might foresee operating in the following 30 years - no need to adapt too much as they're big enough to cover all eventualities.
You're right about having flexibility in numbers and not wearing out the ships too quickly. It also must help that they seem to spend less time in the North and South Atlantic than the RN - I'm not saying the rest of the world is like a millpond, but the Yanks do seem to spend a lot of time around coasts. Isn't their Med Fleet bigger than their Atlantic Fleet?


Lantern Swinger
How does QE2 compare? 40 years on and still gleaming and very unlikely to pay off to scrap for many years yet.

I'm sure there are veterans out there who bemoan the passing of the ships of their era, as I've often heard blazered old salts visiting Pompey who look at the external plating of more modern RN vessels and comparing its likelihood of withstanding attack very poorly to "their" ships.

Do I also remember the Type 21's having a problem with boundary cooling during fires?

The General Belgrano was an ex-US ship but, even if she would have gone down anyway, poor damage control was undoubtedly a contributor to the speed of her loss.
The American Carriers were/still are built of heavy plating. I remember a visit to the JF Kennedy in 75 off of Naples. The decks were about 3''steel amoured, equivelent to 5'' un-amoured I think. Due I expect to WW2 American carriers suffering such damage from Kamikaze aircraft. So another copy from the British.
The RN ships now are so thin you can see your footprints on passing up the main Drag.
Bottom line its down to cost, The Ark was rushed out of refit in 1970 at Guzz as their Lordships thought the Labour Goverment was about to scrap her. Work on all other units in refit, including Opportune, stopped dead while all dockies were sent over to the Ark.

Since WW11 ships have been paid off early or new builds cancelled to reduce manpower, training, seatime, fuel, food, stores, ammunition, administration all the costs involved. It still happen today with good ships on the trot in Pompey to save money at a time it is claimed out forcs are stretched to the limit.

Yanks have the money and ships in depth. We are not prepared to spend the money and failure to build or retain units since WW1 do not have the depth.



War Hero
ID - It's a bit more complex than that. There are a number of reasons why the Midway (and other US carriers stuck around for so long, but the main one is that they've all undergone extensive rebuilds. The Midway had at least two major reconstructions (see link below for some piccies of the changes). Most of the Forrestal and Kitty Hawk classes also underwent a major SLEP programme in the 80s, which was design to give them another 15-20 years of life.


The refits for the US ships are way beyond anything applied to our CVS, which tend to be based around removing embuggerances to FW ops remaining from the old dipper carrier concept of operations they were bought to do.

Structurally, ships are designed against an assumed service life and include margins for weight growth, corrosion etc and result in a set of build scantlings (plate and section thicknesses). Once built, the only way to extend beyond the assumed service life is to replate the ship which is horrifically expensive and may be inadequate to support the weight increase incurred through-life. This is different to the armour plate applied to the US ships (which doesn't absorb structural load, but does add to the weight).

More importantly, systems become obsolete or unsupportable as the equipment wears out, manufacturers go bust or stop the product line and therefore the ships become much more expensive to support. The US have got round this so far simply by throwing maintenance money at their ships (which are worked at lot harder than the CVS - typical US carrier deployments are 9 months plus at 5000nm from their home base, with the next deployment nine months after that!). However, even the USN is now recognising that it can't keep doing this. The Navy want to retire John F Kennedy (the most recent oil-fired CV) as it's basically knackered and costs an arm and a leg to support - they're even taking a risk on the number of carriers they have in the future just to get her off the books. However, the Congress and Senate have mandated that they keep JFK in service to maintain the number of decks at 11.

Theoretically, we could do the same with CVS, but to what end? They can't operate a big enough air group to be really useful, they won't be able to operate the F-35 (or whatever we end up buying) and they are difficult to use as LPH because they have no dedicated assualt routes capable of taking your average Royal and his bergen from assembly point to the Flightdeck.

The US are lucky, in that their carrier contractor (Newport News - part of Northrop Grumman) have had a steady build rate over the last couple of decades and so at least know what a real carrier looks like and have some idea of what it costs. On our side of the pond, neither BigAndExpensive or Thales Naval have ever built a ship of this type and are struggling. The MoD themselves are not technically competent in this area themselves, and can't give credible guidance, which has led to a number of design errors and blind alleys. The cumulative effect of these factors is a massive degree of uncertainty (particularly wrt cost) which will only get worse as MoD prevaricates. In short, no-one's in charge.

CVF is not a particularly complex ship in terms of technology - you just have to know what you're doing to start with. Best solution would be to stop agonising about the cost and crack on and build them. If they're big enough (and they are just about big enough now), then they'll be able to operate all likely aircraft and minor problems can be fixed later.

End of rant!


War Hero
Must agree you only have to look at the size of the new carriers I have always said the old Ark could not get under the fourth rail bridge so why on earth build them in rosyth? You cant get them out! So straight away a problem just one of the problems kicking in at once.
Oh god president blair (wish I could make it a smaller b) is on the news blurting his crap, is even now trying to tell us everything is the best it has ever been


Lantern Swinger
As already stated, the biggest problem these days is obsolescence. Most of the UK manufacturing base no longer exists so spares are a problem hence Italian switchnoard bits in Type 42s.

And the CVS, well I can't really describe their most serious problem in here , but its big, blue and full of cogs and has a finite life because it is overloaded.

It was never designed to run around all day at flying speed. DBGI were contracted to build a cruiser gearbox with an operating profile that would see it only spending 20% of its life above 85% power.

Then they changed the ships name from cruiser - to carrier and the OPPROF changed with it. Oh dear - broken gearboxes galore after only a few years running

Its a bit like buying a Lada and driving it like a Ferrari !

To make ships last longer requires a whole new design ethos which simply doesn't exist here any more - Sorry but its the truth. These days, long term means a year !


War Hero
Although this might be true (particularly for the T22s and the T23s) the harsh truth is that we can't even man them ourselves, at least not within the current budget set by oh so generous Gordon.

As for the rest, if you've been near Portsmouth recently, it's hooching with ships on the disposal list - Fareham Creek trots looks like a Falklands reunion as Cardiff went out there last week to join Glasgow, Fearless & Intrepid. Newcastle is also out there, with Leeds Castle, Invincible, Sir Tristram & Grey Rover all in the basin awaiting disposal (although Invincible is nominally at R10). Even 1 basin is full with the NI Hunts and three Sandowns that we're flogging to the Latvians / Estonians, some form of Ian anyway.

None of those ships (possibly excluding Invincible & LC) are in good nick. In fact they're knackered, corrosion and cracking everywhere, recabling required and as pointed out by ChiefTiff, half the kit on board is unsupportable.

Far better IMHO to keep what is supportable and hope their Lordships FIGHT to keep numbers to match the commitments, rather than patch up old ships to keep numbers.
Pity we don't give up buying British. As a Sea Rider I see plenty of foreign ships. The British shipyards don't learn and since there is no competition we end up with sub-standard platforms. Even the South Africans have spaking new German Meko 200s which make T45 look dated. The Turkish Meko 200s (Built under licence in Turkey) are 10 years old and make the newest T23 look 20 years old. It is not only on the outside that the Meko is better. Maybe things will change and BAE will have to find someone else to buy their equivalent of an Austin Metro!

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