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Sea Harrier Down Under

This article has been kindly provided by Graham Mison, who is in the process of producing a screensaver for Visitors to Graham's own site can download other screensavers and see details of his Harrier CD-ROM. Text and photographs are copyright © Graham Mison.

Australia, almost an operator - by Graham Mison

When the Australian Government began looking for a replacement for the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne in 1970 it commissioned a study which eventually reported in 1973 to the then Defence Minister Mr Lance Barnard that land based alternatives ( P3 Orions and air-to-air refuelling for the F-111C ) would be preferable due to costs. This recommendation wasn't acted on before the Constitutional crisis of 1975 saw Gough Whitlam's Labour Government replaced with Malcom Fraser's Liberal-Country Party coalition Government, seen to be a more 'defence friendly' one that reversed some of the cuts to spending in that area.

The Navy's push for a replacement carrier continued and in early June 1977 Captain I. Richards RAN was appointed Aircraft Carrier Project Director. On 30 June 1977, while HMAS Melbourne was in UK waters for the Queens Silver Jubilee, the 2-seat Harrier demonstrator G-VTOL landed on her deck ( RAN representatives were also onboard the Ark Royal on 3 February 1963 when Bill Bedford landed Hawker P.1127 XP831, marking the first vertical landing by a fixed wing type on an aircraft carrier ). This demonstration and several others through the '70s by USMC AV-8As kept the Harrier in view of the RAN.

The Navy Office called for companies to register their interest in a possible carrier contract from 2 November 1977, the envisioned roles included ASW, air defence, disaster relief and long range recon. Embarked aircraft were listed as between 12-15 helicopters and a number of 'Harrier' type jets. Some 16 companies expressed their interest. By 5 October 1979 three contracts of AU$150,000 had been let for design work and costing. These were to Litton-Ingalls for their LPH, Italcantieri for the Garibaldi class ship and Empressa Naciaonal for the Spanish Sea Control Ship. The Invincible class had been submitted but was considered too large and expensive as a price of around AU$500 million for the carrier and AU$400 million for aircraft had been set.

Sea Harrier FRS.1 XZ495 Sea Harrier FRS.1 ZD582
Sea Harrier FRS.1 XZ495, coded 003, on HMS Invincible December 1983 in Sydney Harbour while with 801 NAS. She was the only one on board when the ship was opened to the public - the other four had flown to NAS Nowra. Twin AIM-9L launchers are of note.
Sea Harrier FRS.1 ZD582, coded 124, of 800 NAS taken at Hawker deHavilland's main hanger at Bankstown Airport on 11 October 1986. She had embarked from HMS Illustrious which was in port as part of the 75th Anniversary celebrations for the RAN.

On 9 September 1980 Defence Minister Killen advised the Australian Parliament that the Government had decided to go ahead with a replacement for HMAS Melbourne, at first to operate only helicopters with a decision on a fixed wing type put off to 1983. The choice was narrowed down to either the Spanish Sea Control Ship or the LPH. Further contracts of AU$500,000 each were awarded for further studies. However, the applecart was upset on 16 June 1981 when an article appeared in the London Daily Telegraph newspaper stating that the Invincible class carrier Ark Royal was on offer to Australia at a reduced price as it was considered surplus to Royal Navy needs. When a sales team from the UK arrived in September 1981 the ship on offer had been changed to the Invincible with a price of AU$324 million, this was rejected and they put another offer of AU$283 million on the table - this was said to be the cost price of building her in 1980. The Invincible offer was taken up by the Australian Government and with modifications to weapons systems, fuel storage, air-conditioning, communications and fire fighting equipment the total cost of the ship (to be named HMAS Australia) came in at AU$478 Million. This was seen as a bargain at 1981 prices after inflation was taken into account.

Sea King and Wessex helos were to make up embarked airpower but with a ski-jump on the bow the purchase of either Sea Harriers or a radar equipped derivative of the AV-8B was seen as a sure thing at sometime in the future and a deal to lease a number of Sea Harriers was reported on. Of course, the flying of the Royal Australian Navy white ensign on the Invincible was never to be, as the Falklands war showed that Britain needed all three of her carriers. On 1 June 1982 Prime Minister Fraser advised the British Government that the sale of Invincible to Australia could be cancelled if they so wished. The Australian Defence Minister Mr Ian Sinclair travelled to London to discuss this and on 13 July he announced from London that the British Government would not be selling Invincible. For a time the Argentine junta had done what the anti-carrier groups hadn not been able to do.

However, in Australian defence circles the Falklands proved the flexibility of carriers and, to the surprise of many, that the Harrier wasn't just a 'show pony', although at first sortie rates and other information were not taken seriously. With the Melbourne having been decommissioned on 30 June and the sale of the Invincible cancelled Australia had no need for front-line naval aircraft such as the A-4G Skyhawks and S-2 Trackers and these were absorbed into their respective training squadrons to await a decision on another carrier. With the hard won lessons of the Falklands still being absorbed the Royal Navy settled on a three carrier Navy which would mean that HMS Hermes would be surplus when HMS Ark Royal entered service in 1984, so an offer was made to the Australian Navy to purchase Hermes for slightly more than the price of the Sea Harriers and modifications to operate them if an order was placed for a new build 'Invincible' class ship. Australia put off a decision until after the upcoming general election in which the Labor Party, led by Bob Hawk, won.

On the day the new Government was sworn in, March 11 1983, the new Cabinet decided against purchasing a new carrier. The carrier debate didn't go away however, and several local ideas were looked at including converting a container ship to a helicopter carrier and a smaller Army support ship, all with the stated ability to work with Harrier type aircraft. The fixed wing aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm during this time were marked for disposal, the Skyhawks were eventually sold to New Zealand with an extensive list of spares for the bargain price of AU$28.5 million in 1984. The argument over a replacement carrier and then the decision not to purchase one saw an exodus of experienced aircrew from the FAA, many going to the RAAF and Army, with some resigning and going overseas to join the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm. Among them was John Siebert, who had flown A-4 Skyhawks. He took up a position with the RN FAA flying Sea Harriers and when HMS Invincible visited Sydney in December 1983 he flew one of the four Sea Harriers of 801 Sqn. that disembarked to HMAS Albatross at Nowra - his old base! He'd also been an exchange pilot to the USMC flying AV-8As. The sight of Invincible passing the slowly rusting hulk of HMAS Melbourne in Sydney Harbour bought forth many a comment on what could have been.


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