Fleet Air Arm
This article refers to the British Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm. Many navies through the world operate a Fleet Air Arm of their own, covered under the article on that navy itself.
The Fleet Air Arm is the operational group of the Royal Navy responsible for the operation of the aircraft on board their ships. The Fleet Air Arm currently operates BAe Sea Harriers and Westland Sea King helicopters. Smaller attack helicopters such as the Westland Wasp and Lynx have been deployed on smaller vessels since about 1960, taking over the roles once performed by fragile biplanes such as the Fairey Swordfish.
The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was first established in January 1914. By the outbreak of the First World War in August, it had more aircraft under its control than the Army's Royal Flying Corps (RFC). The main roles of the RNAS were fleet reconnaissance, patrolling coasts for enemy ships and submarines, attacking enemy coastal territory and defending Britain from enemy air-raids. In April 1918 the RNAS, which at this time had 67,000 officers and men, 2,949 aircraft, 103 airships and 126 coastal stations, was merged with the RFC to form the Royal Air Force.
In 1937 the Naval Air Branch was returned to Admiralty control under the Inskip Award, and soon renamed the Fleet Air Arm. At the onset of the Second World War, the Fleet Air Arm consisted of 20 Squadrons with only 232 aircraft. By the end of the war the strength of the Fleet Air Arm was: 59 aircraft carriers, 3,700 aircraft, 72,000 officers and men and 56 air stations all over the world. The aircraft carrier had replaced the battleship as the Fleet's capital ship and its aircraft were now strike weapons in their own right.
After the war the FAA faced the difficulty of flying jet aircraft from their carriers. The jet aircraft of the era were considerably less powerful at low speeds than propeller aircraft, but propeller aircraft could not fight effectively with the jets in combat. The US Navy, faced with similar problems, built much larger carriers with powerful catapults to launch the aircraft. The Air Arm instead continued with high-powered prop aircraft for a time, resulting in the FAA's being woefully outpowered during the Korean War. Nevertheless, the high-quality pilots put their planes to good use, in one instance a flight of Hawker Sea Furies downing a MiG 15.
Although jets were soon introduced using a catapult system similar to the US, a more "natural" solution was looked for. This led to the introduction of the Hawker-Siddeley Harrier VTOL aircraft, which could be operated effectively from any size of ship. Infighting among the British armed forces during the 1960s led to the outright cancellation of all Royal Navy aircraft carriers, but by sleight-of-hand a new series of cruiser-sized carriers, the Invincible class, were built and equipped with the Sea Harrier. Today the Harrier forms the basis of the RN's fixed-wing strike forces.
Helicopters also became important combat vehicles in their own right starting in the 1960s. At first they were employed on the carriers alongside the fixed-wing aircraft, but as time went on they were also deployed on most smaller ships as well. Today at least one helicopter is found on all ships of frigate size or larger. Wasps and Sea Harriers played an active part in the 1982 Falkland Islands conflict, whereas Lynxes played a significant attack role against Iraqi patrol boats in the Gulf War and Commandos assisted in suppressing rebel forces in Sierra Leone.
The Fleet Air Arm has approximately 6,200 people, which is over 10% of the Royal Navy's total strength. They operate about 200 combat aircraft and over 50 support and training aircraft.
Fleet Air Arm squadrons are named "No. # NAS", where No. is an abbreviation for the word Number; # is a cardinal number; and NAS stands for Naval Air Squadron. The nomenclature used by the FAA is to assign numbers in the 700-799 range to training and operational conversion squadrons and numbers in the 800-899 range to operational squadrons. During WWII the 1700 and 1800 ranges were also used for operational squadrons.
Present squadrons active in the FAA are:
- No. 700 NAS
- No. 702 NAS
- No. 727 NAS
- No. 750 NAS
- No. 771 NAS
- No. 792 NAS
- No. 801 NAS
- No. 814 NAS
- No. 815 FAA
- No. 820 NAS
- No. 824 NAS
- No. 829 NAS
- No. 845 NAS
- No. 846 NAS
- No. 847 NAS
- No. 848 NAS
- No. 849 NAS
- No. 899 NAS
Squadrons that were active at some point include:
- No. 714 Squadron FAA
- No. 811 Squadron FAA
- No. 813 Squadron FAA
- No. 835 Squadron FAA
- No. 836 Squadron FAA
The FAA operate both fixed and rotary wing aircraft. The FAA uses the same designation system for aircraft as the RAF.
Four different types of fixed wing aircraft are operated by the FAA, three for training, and one operationally. Pilot training is carried out using the Grob G115D2. Observer training is done in the Jetstream T2. By far the most famous of the fixed wing aircraft of the FAA is the Sea Harrier FA2. Its primary role is as a fleet defence fighter, but it can also carry out Suppression of Enemy Air Defence missions using ALARM and bombing missions. It is capable of dropping laser guided bombs if another aircraft or a ground observer designates the target. The fourth type is the Hawk T1, which is used to simulate enemy aircraft for a variety of training purposes, from AEW to Fighter Control, to air to air combat for Sea Harrier pilots.
Today the larger section of the FAA is the rotary wing part. Its aviators fly four different types of helicopter, and within each type there are usually several marks which carry out different roles.
The oldest aircraft in the fleet is the venerable Sea King, which performs a variety of missions in several versions. The Sea King HC4 serves as a troop transporter for the Royal Marines. the HAS5U model operates in the search and rescue and utility roles, while the Sea King HU5 is designed specifically for search and rescue work (although it should be noted that the HAS5Us are often called HU5s as well). The Sea King HAS6 is engaged in the anti-submarine warfare role; the HAS6C for assault transport training; and finally the ASaC7 operates in the Airborne Early Warning role on board Britain's aircraft carriers.
Intermediate in age is the Lynx. The Lynx AH7s, serve the FAA in observation and attack helicopter roles. They are in squadrons that, along with the Sea King HC4s, are permenantly attached to 3 Commando Brigade of the Royal Marines. The surface combatants of the Royal Navy have their helicopters provided for the most part by the Lynx HAS3 and HMA8 aircraft. These Lynxes have an anti-submarine role and anti-surface ship role provided by the Sea Skua missile, which was most prominently used to combat the Iraqi navy in the 1991 Gulf War. The Lynx was originally bought for surface combatants that were too small for the Sea King, but now equips all surface combatants of the Royal Navy.
In 2000 the Sea Harrier force was merged with the RAF's Harrier GR7 fleet to form Joint Force Harrier. With the retirement of the Sea Harrier by 2006, the RAF and RN will share the upgraded Harrier GR9 fleet until the introduction of the VTOL F-35B. These new aircraft will operate from the Navy's new CVF carriers, which are expected to be almost three times larger than the current ships and operate around 50 F-35s. In preparation for the introduction of the F-35, the Fleet Air Arm began withdrawing the Sea Harrier from service in 2004 with the disbandment of No. 800 NAS. No. 801 NAS will follow by 2006, leaving fixed wing aviation temporarily in the hands of the RAF. It is planned to reform the FAA fixed-wing squadrons on the Harrier GR9 after 2006.
The newest helicopter in the FAA is the Merlin HM1. This is being bought to replace the Sea King HAS6 is the anti-submarine warfare role, and also to equip some of the surface combatants of the Royal Navy. It is also one of the contenders to replace the Sea King ASaC7s in the AEW role on Britain's planned new aircraft carriers.
- Ray Sturtivant & Theo Ballance, The Squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm, first edition 1994, Air Britain, Kent UK, ISBN 0851302238.