Plane Sailing

When warships and warplanes go off to die – a comparison

Author’s note. I wrote this well over a year ago when the Tornado fighter jet flew for the last time after 40 years of service. This week’s decommissioning of HMS Bristol and the dismembering of ex-HMS Berkeley, and associated outpourings of grief, reminded me that I never published.

It occurred to me during the various celebrations and flybys to record the demise of the venerable Tornado that ships of the Royal Navy never depart for the breaker’s yard with such, if any, fanfare. ‘You can’t do a fly past in a ship’ seems like an obvious reason but I wondered if there was a more profound reason. Spoiler – there isn’t.

The naval example that bares most comparison to the Tornado is the Type 42 Destroyer. The first of these, HMS Sheffield, was commissioned in 1975. The last, HMS Edinburgh, decommissioned in 2013; an innings of 38 years – not dissimilar to that of the Tornado. There are other similarities. In terms of operational capability, the decommissioning HMS Edinburgh may as well have been a different ship from the commissioning HMS Sheffield such were the improvements in performance in key equipment over time. These included the infra-red seeker on her surface to air missiles (Sea Dart), the command system (ADAWS Mod 3.1) and the targeting and indication radar (996). Reassuringly, the smell back aft remained constant… These hardware improvements, when combined with a relatively simple (if thirsty) propulsion chain and decades of improved understanding both at sea and ashore, made it a pretty capable platform by the end. There were similar improvements in the Tornado’s operational capability during its lifetime I am sure, and for similar reasons.

And yet the Type 42 as a class of ship, for so long the backbone of the fleet and with numerous operational honours to its name, just melted away. No fanfare, no diamond formations, no burned pianos. One problem is that ships’ decommissioning dates are staggered over a longer period than their airborne counterparts. HMS Manchester and Gloucester were laid off in 2011, Liverpool and York in 2012 and finally Edinburgh in 2013. A formation tour of the UK would have to be done years before the final ship decommissioned which would be odd. Taut programmes (and probably superstition) would also prevent it. The only option, therefore, would be to do something with the last of class, but what? In the case of HMS Edinburgh, ambition was high, particularly from within the Type 42 Association. Frustratingly for those involved, this was met by both a lack of budget and a sense that one should keep quiet about the loss of yet more ships. Thus, a small party was thrown, attended by the duty Rear Admiral, and that was that. Compare this to the star count at various Tornado decommissioning events and the difference is stark. Post party, Edinburgh was slowly and inexorably drained of her lifeblood – her people – and thus dwindled away to nothing; a hulk. Being towed out of base port was next. Historically this is usually accompanied by reporting on the demise of the Navy and that’s it, at least until someone posts a picture of it being chopped up on a beach somewhere with an “I can see my cabin” caption attached:

So, what happens when the Type 23 (eventually) decommissions? There will surely be no budget for that either and if replacing a class of ship with fewer hulls is a source of embarrassment then, well…it will be embarrassing. Maybe it shouldn’t be – the RAF certainly didn’t think it was. Who is right? Is it just an example of how the two services do their non-operational business differently? Or is it literally just the practicalities of it and the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ nature of naval business? Certainly the lack of opportunities like this to reach a wider audience has frustrated the Royal Navy’s PR department since before it even had one.

In conclusion, one thing is for sure: comparing two revered British military capabilities, so similarly improved over their lives, so similarly loved and with similarly proud heritages leads one to the rather disappointing conclusion that aircraft go with a bang and ships with a whimper…and there’s very little that can be done about it.

Postscript. There is one hope though, oddly enough from our submariner siblings. It’s just possible that they are planning the mother of all steam-pasts but, as usual, haven’t told anyone yet:

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