With the Scrapping of the Harrier as well as the removal of Ark Royal the UK has been left with out the ability to project fixed wing air power for a decade or more. The Ark Royal is to be paid off immediately and either scrapped or sold. While we are unlikely to need a fixed carrier aviation in the next decade it would be good to be prepared. We also have to consider how to regenerate a carrier capability in 10 years when the new Queen Elizabeth Carrier comes online around 2020.
It is important to note that most of the crew that will serve on Queen Elizabeth in 2020 are still at primary school today. With no carrier available in the next 10 years how will we train these people. More importantly how will we find the senior petty officers, technicians, aircraft handlers etc. The one's we have today will likely be on the dole shortly. Same to with the pilots, are we to expect the RAF tornado drivers to suddenly become naval aviators in 10 years? If we had a core of FAA pilots we could likely supplement these aviators with RAF types but what we are now faced with is starting completely from scratch in 10 years time. That will mean throwing away 93 years of experience in operating aircraft at sea.
There is another option though that we have not yet considered. Ark Royal will likely need a new home. Arguably the ship could go on for another 10 or 15 years with appropriate refits. Her Sea Harrier FA2's are lying in storage unused since 2006. Many of these aircraft were only 7 years old when retired. They still represent a very potent air to air capability. Similarly there GR9 versions have only just been upgraded. Maintaining a fleet of these very capable weapons would be relativley inexpensive for a military with a decent budget.
The opportunity that now exists is to sell Australia (for free) the Ark Royal as well as some of the FA2 and GR9 Harriers. The Australians are not over committed in Afghanistan and the Australian government does not have a massive budget deficit. It would be relatively easy for Australia to under take this.
What is in it for us?
If we transfer Ark Royal and her aircraft to the Australian Navy we could also loan out many of our Navy personnel to them as well. Specifically the carrier specialist like aircraft handlers, weapons loaders and pilots. We could also seconder new navy ratings in the near future to the Australian Navy with a view to having at least a partially trained core of sailors for when the Queen Elizabeth comes online. Also arming a close Allie with a capability such as Ark Royal will help us and the US with containing Chinese ambitions in the Pacific and Indian Ocean. I do not think it would be to difficult to find a substantial number of Ark Royals crew who are presently facing unemployment to transfer to the Australian Navy and keep doing the job they have been doing before in the tropical Pacific. It might be difficult to get these people to transfer back to the RN in 10 years however atleast some of them would come and we would be able to send our new trainees on 1 or 2 year secondments to learn from them between noe and 2020.
Whats is in it for Australia?
The Australians are planning to build two Canberra class LHD's in the next decade. These vessels will likely operate the F35B Lightening II. However Australia has zero experience of operating carriers since World War II. Having the Ark Royal as well as a number of RN personal will allow them to build up their own indigenous capability for the future. Ark Royal can also give them a very potent carrier capability on the cheap and almost straight away. The cost of taking on Ark Royal as well as 12 FA2's and 12 GR9's would likely cost the Australian Navy no more than $400 million per year.