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

Jun 26, 2014   //   by NavyLookout   //   Articles, blog  //  8 Comments

QE Aircraft carrier in dry dock shortly before naming

The new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will be officially named on July 4th. Her Majesty the Queen will formally christen the ship, an F35B will probably perform a ‘fly-past’ 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.



  • two carriers not one. give the navy the tools for the job.two carriers .I pay more taxs if have to for the uk to have two carriers

  • My views haven’t changed in the last two years. They are not “aircraft carriers”, just Landing Support Vessels.

  • I am interested in the carriers being fitted initially with traps ( arrester gear/wires ) and associated landing aids. Some would say ‘what is the point of this if there are no catapults?’

    My answer would be:
    1. As night follows day in the future we are going to end up doing this anyway and as its proven technology it can be done early rather than later.
    2. The configuration whereby a conventional naval a/c can take off from a ramp without a catapult for training purposes is already seen on the Russian and Chinese carriers. To land it needs wires. Friendly nations carrier a/c can also use our carriers in emergency.
    3. The USN have a Boeing drone already flying that is very advanced and will probably be in squadron service in 5-10 years. We must be ready for this. It takes off and lands like a conventional a/c.
    4. The first thing that must happen is to reintroduce the angled flight deck configuration. The catapult when bought can then be initially fitted on the angle as on the USN carriers which have one on the angle as well as forward.

    IMO this process needs to start now with HMS POW.

    Furthermore the RN needs expanding by 30% for the coming sea stand- off in the 20′s and 30′s.

    As WSC would pin to his paper….ACTION THIS DAY.

  • Plenty of food for thought there but my main concern is the F35B. I have heard that the F-35 fleet has been grounded again due to a fuel ( I think ) leak. And which variant did this happen to? The F35B. At this rate you will have the worlds biggest helicopter carrier the only fixed wing will be those hobby model like UAVs with there model aircraft engines buzzing away on the flight deck. Could cats and traps be retro-fitted later on? F35Bs with Super Hornets would be a good combo if Boeing does a good job of the engineering and does not allow shoddy build quality to creep in like the 787 Nightmare liner. The SAAB Sea Gripen could be rapidly prototyped and flying within 3 years and with the inprovements of the Next Generation Gripen and conformal fuel tanks it would compliment the F35B just as well if not more so as being smaller you could get more onboard. I just hope the F35B can over come its problems though or its more national humiliation for britain eg carrier with no jets for it.
    BUT all this hinges on BOTH carriers getting into service . If you want to stop terror and defend your nations interests both MUST got to sea. One will not do it , 2 will.
    Rant over.

    • I stand corrected it was a oil leak. But a bigger problem has just occurred a few days ago . One F35 has suffered a bad fire while waiting to take off. The pilot got out ok but the aircraft may be a right-off. Also for those of you waiting to see this thing go through its (hopeful) paces at uk airshows don’t expect the vertical landing trick as the special mats that prevent it blasting a holes in the runway are not available.. It was never this hard with Harrier! I hope the raf chumps who got the ear of cam-moron in order to keep their third rate tornado gr4s are happy with their days work. I see national humiliation ahead with perhaps the flag of Argentina flying over the Malvinas for good!

  • I generally agree with all the headlined observations. However, the Royal Navy would be better served by not buying F-35′s (which are proving grossly over budget for an increasingly obvious mediocre aircraft). The alternative? The Swedish Grippen – much cheaper, just as capable – you can have bigger air groups for less cost. Use the money saved to build new 1500 ton frigates/corvettes to renew the capability to patrol the seas, perform anti-piracy work, do the day-to-day missions for which the Darings would be much too big.

    You also need to start a major lobbying campaign for increased funding. Go to the public – get your allies in the civilian community involved. You have to neuter the influence of the civil service mandarins who want to turn the Royal Navy into a coast guard as part of their effort to remove your country as a Great Power.

    • @Publicus Yes we are very worried about F35. Unfortunately the RN is stuck with the F35B since the dubious decision in 2012 to revert to a VSTOL carrier. We cannot use conventional carrier aircraft such as the Rafale or Super Hornet or even the as yet undeveloped Sea Grippen, only the VSTOL F35B. (Even if we could, the Super Hornet would probably be the obvious best solution as we operate closely with the US).

      This site is an attempt to lobby for more funding for the RN but such efforts tend to be on a small scale – there is a lack of funds and of co-ordination amongst naval advocates in the UK.

  • The carriers are great, and both will be even greater,
    But I think that with political interference they may well end up an empty shell,
    You see, its not the ships of planes etc, it’s the penny pinching amateur incompetent politicians, whom will swear that we are the best and have the best, but in fact we are not, and have not,
    Politicians should be made legally liable for their decisions regarding the lives of all whom sail in them,
    Like the type 45s they will be fitted for, but not with [something] that may or may not be added later,
    At the end of the day, all said and done, it is not the politicians, who will go and fight,
    It’s the men and women of our armed forces who end up fighting with substandard equipment just to satisfy political penny pinching and whims
    The sole reason we are getting less and fewer is government incompetence,
    One suspects that European ambitions in joint military euro army, navy, etc is one reason our government is reducing our independent ability to act unless with the aid of others,

    Although in some ways its good to do things with others, you must never become reliant of them and hoping they will come to your aid in a crisis,.
    So to end my humble mumbling I would say this,
    The carriers are great and so are the rest, but we have to few and need more,
    And perhaps a decent government who gives its loyalty to us, rather than others,
    That’s just my humble opinion, for all its worth.

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