Aircraft Carriers – their point, purpose and power
In part 1 we examined the ill-founded criticism of the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers. Now lets talk about what they are actually for.
1. Cover for naval task group
Although primarily referred to as ‘strike carriers’, traditionally their first duty is to provide air cover for naval task groups. Without fighters in the sky, both naval and merchant ships are vulnerable to aircraft and missile attack. However good ship-based air defence systems may be, they are no substitute for carrier-based fighter cover. History confirms the folly of naval fleets that relied on air cover from a land-based aircraft. Even if the land-based air force is dedicated to the task, it is extremely difficult to ensure the right number of aircraft in the right place to protect the fleet at all times. The RN has been devoid of its own fighter cover since the retirement of the Sea Harrier in 2006 and until this capability is restored, cannot be risked against foes with any kind of serious airforce. The carrier can also operate helicopters which, in co-ordination with supporting frigates, can provide anti-submarine protection. The naval task force, once secure under it’s own integrated air cover and anti-submarine screen can then conduct any number of different missions (some of which are included below).
2. Platform to launch strikes on coastal and inland targets
The strike carrier will provide a global reach, a ‘big stick’ to back up foreign policy. Since more than half of the world’s population lives within 200Km of the sea and the majority of the world’s largest cities are on the coast, strike aircraft have a great ability to influence events. Carriers allow the UK to fight its enemies at arms length and can do most of what UK land-based strike aircraft do but with a vastly greater reach.
3. Platform for the launch and support of amphibious landings by troops
The carriers will have accommodation for 250 marines and could pack in a lot more troops under austere conditions for short periods. Able to land troops rapidly with embarked helicopters the carrier can serve as a lynchpin as an amphibious operation (Although this concept is something of a compromise and it would be far preferable for the RN to have a dedicated helicopter assault ship – HMS Ocean replacement)
4. Flexible and mobile, able to re-reposition and re-role in response to events
Experience since 1945 suggests that unpredictability is the norm for the UK’s military involvements. Almost all of the conflicts involved naval air power. Their mobility and flexibility give our leaders a powerful tool to maintain our interests. Able to cover more than 500 miles in a day, they can quickly reposition in response to events and threats. They can also quickly re-role, potentially flying strike missions one day and operating as a humanitarian relief hub the next.
5. Base for the delivery of humanitarian aid
Carriers are the ideal platform for the rapid delivery of aid following natural disasters. As ‘first responders’ they can deliver aid teams and equipment quickly and to inaccessible locations. The carriers themselves have an extensive onboard medical facility to cope with military or civilian casualties.
6. Able to ‘poise’ and demonstrate political will without resort to force
Aircraft carriers have been and will be used to influence events without firing a shot. An aircraft carrier sitting in international waters just off the coast of a nation will exert particular pressure, shaping events without the escalation implicit in deploying soldiers on the ground or even intrusions into sovereign airspace.
7. Flagship for command and control
8. Platform for intelligence gathering and recconisance
The carrier’s aircraft and surveillance helicopters will provide critical surveillance around a naval task group, providing early warning and assessment of threats. Aircraft flying from the carrier have the potential to search both visually and by radar, hundreds of square miles per day.
9. Avoids many of the constraints in using foreign airbases
Aircraft carriers avoid the constraints of complex and potentially lengthy international negotiations, agreements for the basing of aircraft on foreign soil. Carriers can deploy rapidly to international waters as and when government decides, unhindered by wishes of ‘host nations’. The carrier task group is also self-sustaining carrying its own logistical support with it. This avoids the lumbering circus of HGVs and multiple heavy lift aircraft flights required to move the equipment & personnel needed to support land-based aircraft.
10. Visible symbol of prestige
It maybe unfashionable to say this with our increasingly unreal European mindset of soft power-only foreign policy, but carrier ownership gives a nation highly visible symbol of prestige and commands respect. Although liberals may dismiss such things as a “big boys and their toys”, actually everyone in the UK benefits to some extent from living in a nation that is still a global power, however faded. Sometimes it maybe for reasons of self interest – guaranteeing our trade routes and access to resources or it maybe being a force for good – keeping the peace, protecting allies or fighting oppression. Carriers are a significant asset that keeps you at the ‘top table’ with a voice and influence on world events.
* In the past some naval advocates have over-stated their case and we recognise that aircraft carriers are clearly not; a panacea that makes all land-based combat aircraft or bases irrelevant, able to stay on station indefinitely, invulnerable or the answer to domestic terrorism and ‘asymmetric’ threats.