(and successive governments) have been united in supporting the concept of
aircraft carriers as part Britain’s defence mix but have differed on the
detail. With two Queen Elizabeth Class (QEC) carriers now under construction,
the question we face is do we operate two carriers or one and what balance of
carrier strike and expeditionary assets should be included.
Sadly, almost from its inception, the
debate about how these two ships will be utilised has been confused, even
undignified. Mention the subject in Parliament and one is immediately drawn
into the weeds about the type, performance, and cost of the aircraft that will
finally replace our iconic Harrier.
Whilst optimised to deliver Carrier
Strike, they can also function as a transportable maritime garrison and perform
a variety of roles from Littoral Manoeuvre to crisis response/humanitarian
tasks. Indeed in an age of reduced defence budgets this new size of ship,
accompanied by the right assets, could set an international standard in how a
versatile aircraft carrier of the future should operate.
Britain’s position as a global player with a military power of the
first rank will differ depending on the number of carriers brought into
operation, their availability, and how they are equipped, commanded and able to
adapt from war fighting through to conflict prevention and peacekeeping
roles. This may seem a profound
statement to make in the week Parliament voted against a punitive military strike
in Syria, but these carriers will affect
Britain’s status, influence, interdependence and vulnerability, not just
immediately but over the next few decades where Government and Parliament may
(through choice or obligation) opt to act very differently indeed. The carriers will therefore play a lead role
in tackling emerging threats and would also counter the demise of our historic
qualitative and quantitative military advantage as the conduct of asymmetric
Of course, we cannot predict the
future but we can ensure that, from an operational perspective the hardware,
software and human resources incorporated into these ships have the built-in
agility to adapt to evolving techniques, technology and likely tasks. Returning to the F-35B (STOVL variant) as
the preferred choice of Joint Strike Fighter for the QEC will save money and
ensure an earlier operational start date.
However, the impact on the carrier deck’s functionality, which service
‘owns’ the aircraft and the mix of aircraft (including unmanned aerial systems) used in the Littoral Manoeuvre role has yet to
be determined and requires urgent examination.
to the second carrier (at a cost of £65m a year) sends a powerful message of
intent to potential adversaries (state and non-state) and also our allies,
particularly the US, allowing us in turn to employ greater leverage on their
own decision making. It will elevate
Britain’s ranking as Europe’s senior military power, allowing us to speak with
more authority and indisputably lead the debate in both NATO and the EU on
defence and security matters.
Operationally a second carrier would Guarantee
a 24/7 carrier capability and provide additional versatility for example US carriers in the
Indian Ocean provided 30% of the missions over Afghanistan. A single
carrier would only be at sea two thirds of the year placing enormous demand to
remain continuously in the carrier strike, rather than littoral/expeditionary
mode. This was illustrated by the single French carrier which provided 40% of
all allied air sorties during the Libya campaign until it was withdrawn for
scheduled maintenance before the campaign was complete.
availability of a single carrier would fail to justify the investment of 48
F35B. It would also prevent the Royal Marines from working up leading edge
expeditionary skills using state of the art marinised equipment and transport.
This cannot happen efficiently if their logistical air and ground support is
reliant upon ‘borrowed’ green rotor capability, provided at short notice, with
no time to train and for limited duration.
At 65,000 tonnes, the QEC carriers
cannot be directly compared to the smaller US Wasp / America class
(displacement is 45,000 tonnes) or the Nimitz/Ford class (100,000 tonnes) used
by the US Marines and US Navy respectively.
Consequently, there is little precedent for how these British ships
might function and thus, there is a rare opportunity to develop a new strategic
maritime capability. This opportunity will only be harnessed if convention and
prejudice are set aside and future technological possibilities are
recognised. Too often, familiar delivery
platforms (fast jets) are over-emphasised, rather than considering what the
final package (the Precision Guided Munition) is required to deliver. Why
deploy an F35, to fire the storm shadow missile, for example (range 500km), if
it could be launched from a Merlin helicopter or a marinised drone?
Following the billions of pounds already spent on its procurement and
build, the annual running cost for a second carrier compare favourably to that
of a British air base (for example RAF Marham: £144m) and is a relatively small
price to pay for the degree of strategic influence and operational
capability it will bring. Considering the number of engagements (both war
fighting and peace keeping) Britain is likely to experience over the lifetime
of these carriers, the net increase in capability which a second carrier
offers will more than pay for itself.
Full Report: Leveraging UK
Carrier Capability: A Study into the Preparation for and Use of
the Queen Elizabeth-Class Carriers in