Carrier countdown (Part 2): Their point, purpose and power

Jul 1, 2014   //   by NavyLookout   //   Articles, blog  //  7 Comments

HMS Queen Elizabeth in company with Type 45 Destroyer

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 aircraft carriers 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 airforce 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.

F35B lands on flight deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth

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.

Merlin Helicopter lands on HMS Queen Elizabeth

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

The carriers have the space and facilities and communications fit to operate as flagships, and a command and control hub for complex naval and military operations for sustained periods.

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.

2 islands - unique feature of HMS Queen Elizabeth

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.


  • […] Part 2 we will look in more depth at the purpose and roles of the […]

  • I think what the UK needs is tanker and aew variant of the V-22 to make its carriers more capable.

  • OK lets look past the pomp and christening ceremony and see where england as a great power stands with this new vessel-
    1-No fixed-wing to fly from it. The F35 is currently grounded due to a engine fire so the date of 2020 when JSF will fly from her must have 12-24 months added on to it (AT LEAST). The mock up on the ski-lift (soon to have tumbleweeds blowing across it) was quite humiliating to gaze upon.
    2-If she goes to sea on ops without jets and just helicopters she will require air-support of some kind . Going up against a enemy which has fast jets and supersonic anti-ship missiles is a recipe for disaster. True the escorts will offer some protection but its better to shoot the archer before he shoots his arrows. The raf will no doubt think they can do this. But do you want to entrust your fleet air defense to a flight of typhoons weighed down with drop tanks(no one allowed them to base in their nation so straight from blighty) and tired pilots? No naval strike wing for some time means it will be limited to the ops it can do without fear of a mach 2 ship killer poping up after air release to slam into her amidships.

    So in short while good to see a new ship christened, capability wise its only half done and will be for some time. Not a proud moment for britain.

    • QE will not enter service until 2018, so even if the F-35 did not fly from her until 2021/2022 as you suggest, the ship will be in service for 40-50 years, so it’s not that big a drama in the scheme of things. Personally I think flight trials will start in 2018 as planned. A lot of the F-35 doom mongers like Solomon, were convinced a few years back that the QEs would both be axed, because they believed the nonsense in the media, yet here we are with QE just floated out, and assembly to start on HMS Prince of Wales in September.

      • If the US had brought the F-35 into service in 2012 as originally planned, then the UK would not have needed a mock up on QE’s ramp. The two mistakes the UK Gov made were relying on the US to design and build a capable multirole aircraft, and to bring it into service on time and on budget, and then compounding that by selling the UK’s 72 Harrier GR7/9s to the USMC for peanuts.

      • I am worried yet further by the F35. Its non-appearance at Farnbrough does not bode well for the aircraft. Boeing and SAAB will be getting requests for info regarding their Super Hornet and Gripen NG by some very worried customers for the JSF.
        The stealth coating on the aircraft gets my attention. Will it be robust enough to take the rough and tumble of carrier life? Will splashs of fuel, sea salt ,wear and tear from handling during maintenance( scratches on access panel fasteners) degrade it?
        Will britain be up the spout when it gets delayed well passed 2020?

  • Excellent piece as always

Leave a comment

Comment Spam Protection by WP-SpamFree

follow us on Twitter