Carrier countdown (Part 1): Debunking the hype, mis-information & nonsense

The new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will be officially named on July 4th. Her Majesty the Queen will formally christen the ship and HMS Illustrious will be alongside. It promises to be a memorable day and will attract much press attention.Confusingly the majority of official naval and government PR and promotion of the project has been focused on the carriers size, the engineering achievement and the industrial and employment benefits. The carriers certainly are amazing products of British design and manufacturing and are keeping thousands employed across the country. However the whole purpose of aircraft carriers and their actual benefits to the UK have been very underplayed. The average UK citizen, who may have limited understanding of the Navy at the best of times, perhaps has some vague sense of pride in the achievement but is probably wondering why so much money and effort is being devoted to them. The usual critics have a particularly large and high profile defence project to bemoan so never before has so much mis-information, media hype and nonsense has been generated by a ship building programme. Here we will try to answer some of the common criticisms of the QE carrier project and aircraft carriers in general.

“We can’t afford them. Lets just spend the money on the NHS, deficit reduction, etc”

Firstly we can’t afford NOT to have strong naval forces. An inability to defend our interests and the control the sea would be far more costly and damaging to the UK economy in the long-term. Approximately £6 billion for their construction seems like a lot of money but in defence terms this is modest, especially when they will have a very long service life. (Great value for money in fact when, for example compared to the £37 billion cost of the RAF Typhoon programme). They are assets which could potentially serve the country for 40-50 years. Their construction is providing around 10,000 jobs across the UK and maintaining the industrial & shipbuilding base the RN needs. Sadly to many politicians the programme is just a politically convenient a job-creation scheme and its survival is only down to this and BAE being wise enough to lock the MoD into an unbreakable construction contract. (On arrival at the Treasury Chancellor George Osbourne demonstrated his total ignorance and contempt by saying he wished “we could cancel the damn things”).

“Carriers are relics of an imperial past”

While they can, be used to project power abroad, they are no more relics of imperialism than any other type of armed forces. (One man’s ‘imperialism’ is another man’s ‘preserving peace & stability’) Not only do they influence events on land but they are the cornerstone of a naval task force and form a vital protective air umbrella for any operations from full-scale war to peace-keeping. Without carriers, British servicemen’s lives will be in danger. History shows carrier aircraft are by far the best defence for ships against other aircraft. Operations such as the recovery of the Falklands would not have been possible without carriers. They can also project power and influence events in a more subtle way by their mere presence or by conducting humanitarian relief operations.

“They are too vulnerable to modern weapons and we should just build submarines”

There is a school of thought that says the advent of super-cavitating torpedoes and ballistic anti-ship missiles makes carriers vulnerable and obsolete. There are always risks but other nations are still building carriers and most naval analysts do not consider they have had their day. Carriers are not a complete panacea and have their vulnerabilities, particularly to submarines. If hit they may sink or at least cannot be repaired as quickly as an airfield. But they do have the very big advantage of mobility and can be hard to find in the vastness of the ocean, able to cover 500 miles or more in 24 hrs. All air bases are potentially vulnerable and a fixed position airfield (just punch in the GPS coordinates to your smart munition) can be subject to missile, bomb or artillery attack or can be over-run by enemy forces. Not a single aircraft carrier has been sunk since WWII while countless airbases have been bombed or over-run. A small rag-tag Taliban force was able to enter Camp Bastion in Afghanistan and destroy aircraft on the ground causing the greatest single loss of US airpower since Vietnam. New generation weapons are a concern but they are not yet proven and can still be countered by evolving layered defence and future missile and laser technologies. As it stands, to save cost the carriers will not be fitted with missiles systems for self-defence and we would urge that this be addressed.

“These ‘super carriers’ are too big and we should build cheaper small carriers with unmanned drone aircraft”

They are large but not strictly ‘super carriers’ at 65,000 tons considerably smaller than the 90,000 ton US ‘super carriers’. As the steel work of a ship is relatively cheap it makes sense to build vessels with sufficient capacity and scope to carry a large air group with the space to operate it efficiently. Also it gives more options for future updates and additions. In the past the RN was forced to build smaller ships than it wanted to make small savings on initial build cost but this made for less efficient ships that were costly or impossible to upgrade. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are likely to be useful tools in future in support of manned aircraft and it is questionable whether they will ever completely replace them. Clearly the manned aircraft has a solid future and many nations are investing in conventional carriers including the US, China, Russia and India & France.

“They are taking up all the RN’s resources & manpower and the rest of the fleet will suffer”

It is true that government underfunding of the RN exacerbated this problem and the RN fleet that will support the carriers in service will be very threadbare. However the solution to this is not to cut the carriers (and thereby finally reduce the RN to a coastal force, relegating Britain to a 3rd rank power) but to properly fund a balanced fleet. Given they will have a very small complement for a carrier, the RN will be able to crew the first ship without difficulty. Assuming both ships are retained, then there will be a manpower issue to address. A bigger problem is the ‘gap’ in carrier operating experience caused by the ill-advised premature retirement of the Harrier and HMS Ark Royal. The RN is heavily reliant in the US and French Navies to keep naval aviation skills alive.

“Their main armament – the F35 is a turkey”

The F35 has had many serious development issues and is outrageously expensive even if it works as advertised. We remain skeptical of the F35 project and very concerned it may turn out to be a poor fighter and average bomber. We really want to be proved wrong. It is some comfort that the RN has a very good track record of improvising with what appears to be poor equipment and turning it into a great success. Read a more in-depth discussion of the F35 here.

“Carriers are no use against terrorists”

A narrow view held by many, especially in the Army. While we face threats from terrorism today, it does not mean there will not be ‘conventional’ state on state conflicts in the future and we must retain the capability to fight effectively underlined by events  -a very unstable Middle East and an increasingly belligerent Russia. Building carriers is taking the wise long-term view that we can’t predict events. We can’t base our defence procurement on the needs of today or a single problem but try to invest in flexible systems such as carriers that give us lots of options in the future. Naval power is far from irrelevant to terrorism anyway and carrier-based aircraft have already been used for intelligence gathering and strikes against terrorist targets.

In Part 2 we will look in more depth at the purpose and roles of the carriers.