2 aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales are currently being constructed in the UK for the Royal Navy. Never before has so much mis-information, media hype and nonsense has been generated by a ship building programme. Despite already investing years of money & effort in them and the future of the RN and UK defence policy being based around them, there are still voices calling for their cancellation! Carriers are very flexible instruments of power and if used wisely can be a huge force for good in the national interest. They can deploy to anywhere on 2 thirds of the surface of the globe and can influence events from over the horizon by their very presence without even firing a shot. It is safe to say that many future Prime Ministers will be thankful for them when crises and the unexpected happens. So let’s examine some of the mis-guided reactions and criticisms of the programme:
“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 will 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 compared to the £23 billion cost and rising of a real white-elephant; 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. (On arrival at the Treasury Chancellor George Osbourne demonstrated total ignorance/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 sailors lives are 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. Recent events in Libya have also further strengthened the case for carriers.
“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 have their vulnerabilities, particularly to submarines and if hit, generally can’t be repaired as quickly as an airfield. But they do have the big advantage of mobility and can be hard to find in the vastness of the ocean and can cover 500 miles or more in 24 hrs. All air bases are potentially vulnerable and a fixed position airfield is can be subject to repeated missile and bomb attack and even commando raids. A small rag-tag Taliban force was able to enter Camp Bastion in Afghanistan and destroy 5 valuable aircraft before they were stopped. New generation weapons are a concern but they are not yet proven and can still be countered by layered defence and future missile / 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.
“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 crew for a carrier of around 1,500 including the air group, even with just 30,000 personnel, the RN will easily be able to crew the first ship without difficulty. If there was a need for both ships to be operational simultaneously then there would be a manpower problem. However current (Deeply flawed) government thinking is that 1 ship will be mothballed on completion. The bigger problem is the ‘gap’ in carrier operating experience cause by the ill-advised premature retirement of the Harrier and HMS Ark Royal and Illustrious. The RN will be reliant in the US Navy to keep naval aviation skills alive and up to date.
“There won’t be any suitable aircraft to fly from them”
Originally it was planned that the F35-B Lightning would be purchased for the carriers. The F-35B is designed to operate in a similar way to the Harrier using ski jump for a rolling take off and landing vertically. However in the 2010 the new government decided to purchase the simpler and ‘cheaper’ F-35-C which is a conventional aircraft. The F35-C is a more capable aircraft as it has better range, speed and payload. However it requires the carrier to have catapults to launch them and arrestor wires to trap them on landing. Subsequent to this article being written, in May 2012 the government announced it would revert to the F35B option effectively becuse this will save the upfront cost of adding cats and traps. This severely reduces the carriers capabilities and will probably cost more in the long term. A full discussion on this can be found here. Although extremely expensive and less capable than F35C, at least the RN will have the F35B – a very advanced 5th generation stealth aircraft at sea by 2020.
“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 Arial 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 new conventional carriers including the US, China, Russia and India & France.
“Carriers are no use in Afghanistan or against terrorists and suicide bombers”
A narrow and short-termist view held by many, especially in the Army. While we are currently facing immediate threats from terrorism it does not mean there will not be ‘conventional’ conflicts in the future and we must retain the capability to fight effectively. Building carriers is taking the wise long-term view that we can’t predict events. We can’t base our defence procurement on the short-term needs of today but try to invest in flexible systems such as carriers that give us lots of options in the future. However naval power is far from irrelevant to terrorism today. Carrier based aircraft have already been used for intelligence gathering and strikes against terrorist bases. Although Afghanistan is land-locked, the majority of the world’s population in lives near the sea and within the radius of carrier aircraft.
- Air Power from the Sea – the Case for Aircraft Carriers (Save the Royal Navy)
- Liam Fox: changing aircraft carrier design ‘was right (The Telegraph)
- Aircraft Carriers – the most flexible tool of government (Phoenix Think Tank)
- [In Parliament:] Written Answers – Defence: Air Force (28 Jun 2011)
- National Audit Office challenges £6bn project to build aircraft carriers (The Guardian)
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