Review: The Age of Invincible

Well, I'll start this off by stating that I actually finished this one a few days ago, and am currently ploughing through Andrew Rawnsley's 'The End of the Party', an excellent account of the second and third terms of the last Labour Government. I've got about a hundred pages to go – it is an extremely long book, more than eight hundred pages – and I'll be sure to put out a review when I'm done. Also some celebrating as I pass the half-way point; the last few days have been rather all over the place, slowing my progress a bit, but after the weekend I hope to return to the writing pace I was making earlier in the month. Still, half a novel in ten days ain't bad!

Back to the book at hand, though. Ostensibly, this book discusses HMS Invincible, and to a lesser extent her sister ships, which from the mid-1980s until today have been the only aircraft carriers in the Royal Navy. There is plenty of information about the ships and their deployments...but the context is not from an engineering standpoint, but rather from a political one – which, I should clarify, is exactly what I expected and wanted when I bought the book in the first place. I always intended it primarily as research for the 'Alamo' series.

Essentially, the one common assessment – for right or wrong – that has suggested the strength of a navy since the Second World War has been the presence of aircraft carriers. During the war, especially in the Pacific, the aircraft carrier was the iconic heart of the fleet; the battleships that had been expected to serve in that function found themselves of only limited use, technology having moved rapidly ahead of them – more rapidly than the steel for their construction could be cut.

The United States – despite some surprising early questions – was always destined to end up with a substantial carrier force, and throughout the Cold War maintained a significant fleet. It fell in numbers somewhat, but the individual carriers increased in size and complexity as the decades went on. Their fleet set a numerical standard for others to match, but by the 1960s, most of the nations that had adopted carrier aviation were beginning to drop out, either officially or on a practical basis. The Soviet Union never really treated it seriously; their carriers were designed for very specific functions related more to fleet protection than to power projection, the primary role for carriers in the Western world at that time.

Basically – when the time came for the British Government to build new carriers to replace the worn-out ones that had been constructed during World War II, they balked at the price, and instead moved to adopt a strategy of using 'island bases' around the world to project power and to protect the Royal Navy at sea. (The problems inherent in such a strategy would be obvious in the Falklands, where it took a titanic effort to simply drop a few bombs on a runway at Port Stanley.) The edict came down – no new aircraft carriers to be constructed.

This was not the end, however, and instead – as this book ably shows – the Royal Navy essentially had to sneak aircraft carrier capability through the back door. The concept of the 'through-deck cruiser' was created, a vessel that was designed to operate helicopters...but which with some inexpensive modifications could also operate VTOL aircraft. Which the British just happened to be the best in the world at making. (You can tell when a non-American plane is really good; the Americans buy it! That doesn't happen if there is any realistic alternative...but it happened for the Harrier.)

So the three 'Invincibles' were born, though they went through numerous funding and political crises – to the point that Invincible herself was offered to Australia as a replacement for its carrier, going out of service – just prior to the Falklands. That war prevented the sale of HMS Invincible, of course, and saw that the Royal Navy would have a brief resurgence in funding to keep it going past the tender mercies of John Nott...though now it faces a similar problem. (Well chronicled, though of course with the story not yet completed, in the same author's work 'Britain's Future Navy'.)

This book presents the political arguments well; there is an obvious bias in favour of the Navy in these pages, but the author doesn't tend to let it get in they way – well, not too much, anyway. The spectre of the feast of the full-size carrier that was cancelled prior to the design of Invincible is present throughout most of the book, and though the author has an obvious regard for the ships, there is a general 'what if...' wistful air on occasion. Very much well worth a read, though, and certainly recommended.

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