A Strategist retrospective: two views of the Royal Navy’s new carriers

These posts were orignally published on 11 and 14 Dec 2012 respectively.

(The Strategist will return with new material on January 6, 2014 – Ed.)

A pilot climbing into the cockpit of a Sea Harrier FA2, on the upper deck of HMS Illustrious, an Aircraft Carrier, as she sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar.

1. Getting carried away (Harry White)

In last Wednesday’s Autumn Statement, the UK’s Chancellor George Osborne has clung, all white knuckles, to austerity with a commitment that would make Calvin proud. But as Osborne tries to sell painful belt-tightening to the British people, across Whitehall the Ministry of Defence is making at least one large spend which seems hard to justify—the new Queen Elizabeth class carriers.

Britain’s Carrier Strike capability (the carriers, and the planes to operate from them) will be expensive. The estimate released before April’s decision to revert to the Short Take-Off Vertical Landing version of the Joint Strike Fighter was at least £6.2 billion (AUD$9.5 billion). At more than 65,000 tonnes—almost three times the displacement of the Illustrious class they’ll replace and the largest ships the Royal Navy has ever operated—these are formidable pieces of hardware. As such, they will be symbols of national pride for a country that has naval traditions deeply embedded in its psyche. The problem is that they are unlikely to deliver a strategic benefit that justifies the price tag, no matter how impressive they look. (A fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Britain’s comedians.)

Like any element of force structure, the strategic value of the carriers rests on the situations in which they could be usefully deployed. And that’s the problem—it’s hard to find many of those. Carrier deployment would only be the right option for the UK in situations which get a tick next to each of the following criteria:

  • The UK can provide an acceptable level of security for the carrier itself. In peace-time, it is hard to think of Britain genuinely risking one, so that starts to look a lot like sea control.
  • The forces on the carrier(s) are likely to achieve the operational effect that produces the desired strategic result—and no other force elements can do so.
  • The United States isn’t sufficiently invested in the situation to deploy one of its own carriers.
  • The strategic objective the UK is trying to achieve is worth the price-tag.

That leaves a vanishingly slender set of problems for which a British carrier would be the best solution. The Libyan crisis provides an example of a scenario which didn’t meet criterion two. In the words of Reuters, ‘nature’s own aircraft carrier, Malta (immune to rough seas and mechanical failure) proved a perfectly good operations centre from which to manage rescue efforts’. But even if that hadn’t been the case, are we really suggesting that rescue and disaster relief operations tick box number four? There are likely to be better ways to spend $9 billion.

Some problems clearly fail criterion three. For example, if things got out of hand in the Persian Gulf or South China Sea, American interests and superior resources would render the need for a British carrier moot. The list goes on, but the only scenario that has a reasonable chance of satisfying the first two criteria is another Falklands conflict. And while the British government may, on behalf of its citizens, decide that that specific objective validates the carrier program, it seems like a stretch.

It’s a deceptive issue, because our tendency when asked ‘are the carriers worth the money?’ is to list the things they could be used for—and that’s a long list. It’s instinctively comforting, but flawed. You could answer ‘a spectacular place to have a party’ and it would be a perfectly good answer, even though it ticks none of our boxes. The question that Britain really needed to ask was ‘are carriers be the best way to achieve our strategic objectives for the money’?

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the 65,000 tonne Queen Elizabeth class carriers will be vast and expensive symbols of national (and naval) pride, rather than the practical means to protect Britain and its interests. That’s especially tragic for a Britain beginning to fear a lost decade. If I were George Osborne, I’d consider asking loudly for a more rigorous analysis of the relationship between the cost, operational benefits, and strategic benefits of the UK’s large defence spends.

Harry White is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of the UK Ministry of Defence.

2. Reader response (James Goldrick)

Harry White’s contribution on the UK carrier program highlights a number of the flaws in the UK’s current approach to its defence capabilities. But he seeks to ask the wrong first question in suggesting that it should be ‘are carriers the best way to achieve our strategic objectives for the money’?

Rather, the UK needs to go much deeper than this and seek to work out much more precisely just what its strategic objectives are. If, as proposed in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, they are to include a capacity to intervene overseas, only then does the question of whether carriers are the appropriate basing solution for air power arise.

If (and only if) there is determined to be a requirement for an intervention capability, it’s worth looking at the very mixed experience with maintaining basing access and passage through other nations’ airspace that the UK and its partners had during operational contingencies in the 1990s, and the part that this played in the original decision to build the carriers. The need to achieve and maintain access certainly drove much of the thinking behind the 1998 SDR and was the reason for the unanimity of Defence advice (including the RAF) at the time. If the UK is to continue in the intervention game, then that issue of access very much remains on the table. And, even if access can be assured, there remains the question of the cost benefit difference between proximate, sea delivered air power (plus seaborne lift—and an island state like the UK will always need to use the sea when conducting expeditionary operations) and long distance air-to-air refuelled capability. This is a very complicated question.

The UK’s deliberation in 2012 is simplified to some extent by the fact that the construction costs of the ships represent money already spent. I have little doubt that a desperate UK Treasury would have forced their cancellation in 2010 if there were anything to be saved, but the difference between completing the carriers and paying the cancellation penalties proved to be negligible. Disposing of the ships to another power would also only result in a fire-sale price, tiny by comparison with Britain’s outlay so far. However much the wisdom of the original decision and the expenditure involved since may be bewailed by some, the cost benefit question as to whether to retain the carriers depends now upon their through life costs and the capability that they provide by comparison with the shore based approach and its associated resources.

I should note that the lessons drawn from the Libya campaign in many quarters are rather different to those implied in Harry White’s blog—there is a lot of informal evidence that the British government bitterly regretted its decision to rid itself of the seaborne Harrier strike capability so precipitately. And, while Malta might have been an effective base for humanitarian evacuation operations, it was not—and I do not think ever will be again—a willing platform for military operations by foreign forces. The forward deployed fixed wing strike and fighter operations that were flown over Libya by the British came from an Italian airfield, and at substantial financial cost.

In many ways, the planning of the new aircraft carrier capability has been vexed. For example, there has been a lot of backwards and forwards in British planning circles regarding the type of aircraft that will fly off the carriers. After a brief flirtation with the carrier version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the UK government has since gone back to its original plan of the F-35B ‘jump jet’ version (at the cost of an additional £100m for these musings).

However, before condemning the ships as not worth the money in relation to the air power that they will be able to generate, even presuming that the F-35B gets off the ground (so to speak), I would draw readers’ attention to Norman Friedman’s new book Unmanned Combat Air Systems: a new kind of carrier aviation. His assessment is that drones will effectively reduce many of the historical overheads of carrier aviation, such as the need to practise landing techniques. In fact, the number of launches and recoveries will be much reduced by the greater inherent endurance of many unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), while the numbers which can be carried will be much increased from those of manned aircraft—even when considering large UAVs alone. With smaller UAVs, the number of platforms which might be embarked could be increased several fold or more. At the same time, given the potential for remote operations, the air group element of the carrier’s crew can be greatly reduced, lessening cost and increasing the ship’s inherent endurance. Carriers like the Queen Elizabeth class have the potential to remain in service into the second half of the century and their capacity for adaption and change needs to be considered in that light.

One final point. Harry White, like some other strategic commentators, seems to be unclear as to the meaning—and the nature—of sea control. The fact is that there is always an element of risk in operations at sea when the environment is contested in any degree. The question must be whether such risk is acceptable in relation to the operational objectives. Carriers are vulnerable in a high intensity environment. So are fixed air bases whose position is already known to the adversary.

Rear Admiral (ret’d) James Goldrick is a fellow of the RAN’s Sea Power Centre and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute.