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

Jun 26, 2014   //   by NavyLookout   //   Articles, blog  //  9 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.


Outlook on current ‘hot topics’ for the Royal Navy.

May 22, 2014   //   by NavyLookout   //   Articles  //  12 Comments

There are several key issues around the Royal Navy that frequently appear in the media and on Twitter discussions. Rather than keep repeating ourselves, below is a quick summary of our view on these issues together with links to more detailed articles.


This hugely controversial aircraft is too expensive, over-complex, plagued with avoidable development problems and has a mediocre airframe for a fighter. Its stealth characteristics are poor for the amount of money invested and the compromises that it forces on the design. However the F35 is a quantum leap in capability in many areas particularly in cockpit design, sensors and networking. If its ability to fight beyond visual range (BVR) work as advertised then it will be formidable. Overall we remain F35 ‘skeptics’ but desperately want to be proved wrong. Those who say we should have retained the Harrier are right, but the two aircraft are incomparable. The Harrier was an amazing late 20th Century aircraft that should have served for longer but the F35 is appropriate for the 21st century and the RN will undoubtedly make the best of it, despite its flaws. We reject the ’joint ownership’ of the carrier aircraft by the RAF and advocate the Fleet Air Arm have control of all F35B tasking. 3-part commentary here:
Back ground & Cost
Roles of the F35B
Ownership & Operation

Aircraft carriers

The RN was right to build 2 large carriers with space for upgrades and the potential to serve for up to 50 years. Sadly the project has been royally messed up by politicians through delays which added cost and most controversially, by the switch between a conventional design with catapults and traps back to a VSTOL design. In the long run the conventional design would serve us better, allowing far greater options for aircraft types (especially F35B alternatives) that could make up a balanced air group, including fixed wing AEW, in-flight refuelling and transport aircraft. Crucially future long range UAVs developed in the US may also need catapults to launch. We are highly sceptical of the cost and timeframe claims from the MoD continually used to justify the switch back to VSTOL. We maintain this was the wrong decision driven by short-term cost saving, BAE commercial needs and RAF self-interest. Despite this mess which we must put behind us, the VSTOL F35B equipped carriers represent a giant leap in UK defence capability and have enormous future potential. Retention of both carriers is a priority for the RN and we expect the 2015 SDSR to abandon the planned mothballing or sale of HMS Prince of Wales. Articles (written at the time of the switch):
Government U-turn on carriers means less capability and long-term costs
The morning after the night before… Making the best of ‘Plan B’

Attack submarines

The RN is chronically short of arguably its most important vessels – attack submarines. Through a very complex history of management mistakes the programme to deliver the 7 Astute class submarines has been severely delayed and way over-budget. The programme is back on track but the RN’s attach submarine force is suffering the consequences, able to send just 2 or 3  submarines to sea at a time with the remaining T-class subs presenting ever-greater engineering challenges. The RN “officially” stated it needs at least 8 SSNs to meet its commitments but will only get 7. In the early 1990s the RN was forced by John Major’s government to make a choice between nuclear (SSNs) and conventional (SSKs) submarines and rightly chose to go all nuclear. The nuclear submarine is superior in most ways and we are not advocating replacing SSNs with SSKs. Ideally the RN would go back to having both SSKs and SSNs, maybe using the excellent Swedish or German designs. Unfortunately in the current financial and political climate this is pie-in the-sky wishful thinking. SSKs are better for shallow water operations, special forces ops and ideal to use in training of submarines and ASW practice for the surface fleet. Much cheaper and simpler to operate, they could really take a lot of pressure of the SSNs and it is a real shame the RN was forced out of the SSK business.
Article Attack submarine force: sinking below critical mass?

Nuclear deterrent

Nuclear weapons are very nasty and very expensive but keeping the nuclear deterrent is the only way to ensure they are never used against the UK. They have helped keep the peace and prevent a world war since 1945. Giving them up seems like an easy option to save money but would dangerously undermine our position in the world and ultimately leave us open to blackmail to nuclear armed states. Despite continuous political pressure to cut corners, every study has reached the same conclusion that the only way to maintain a credible continuous nuclear deterrent is with 4 missile carrying submarines. Detailed argument here:
Making the case for the Trident replacement 

Offshore patrol vessels  & simpler warships

The RN is often in the ludicrous position of having to send sophisticated £multi-million warships to do simple maritime policing tasks that could be undertaken by far cheaper OPVs or corvettes. Often there are cries that the RN should build cheaper warships that can be deployed in greater numbers, reducing the pressure on the major fighting ships. This of course would be the sensible solution but only if the RN could rely on stable funding and an end to constant rounds of cuts. Instead the naval staff dare not push for additional simpler ships because these would only come at the expense of the more important frigates and destroyers. Wisely the RN has prioritised warships with a full range of fighting capability that can easily re-role from maritime security to full-scale naval combat if required. If sanity were to prevail the RN could build a squadron of cheap helicopter-capable OPVs, each a fraction of the cost of a frigate. (We could incidentally, build 2 OPVs for the price of a single F35B aircraft!) This would reduce the huge pressure on the surface fleet, multiply the hulls and deployment options available, allow major warships to spend more time exercising key anti-submarine and anti-air warfare skills and provide useful command experience for junior officers. However it would only be a matter of time before the treasury demand the order for Type 26 frigates was cut in lieu of OPVs… The recent order for 3 OPVs is welcome although their main raison d’être is to keep BAE Systems workers in Scotland busy until the Type 26 programme starts. It is silly and short-sighted that this was not an order for 4 ships with 2 built in Portsmouth and 2 built on the Clyde. Allowing BAE to casually shut the Portsmouth shipyard is gross negligence – the last complex warship builder left in England. The new OPVs will only be a significant benefit to the fleet if the River Class OPVs used for UK waters fishery protection patrols are retained, rather than replaced by the new ships.

Scottish independence

A disaster for Scotland, a disaster for the UK and the Royal Navy in particular. Although government has neglected the defence of Scotland just as it has for the whole UK, breaking up the Union will do far more damage to the defence and security of us all. Obviously the issues are far wider than just defence but there are few informed commentators who believe Scots will be much better off by becoming independent.
The spectre of Scottish independence – implications for the Royal Navy


We recognise the RAF has a lot of brave and hard-working people, every bit as dedicated as the RN and it provides many important capabilities. However the narrow self-interest of the leadership has been distorting what is best for UK defence as a whole for many decades. It is bizarre that as a maritime nation the RN actually has fewer serving personnel than the RAF (of which around just 1% are aircrew). The RAF has suffered its own cuts and will argue they are undermanned, but given the very low number of frontline aircraft they can generate, the management and structure has to be questioned. Of course we need UK air defence, air transport and airborne intelligence gathering capabilities but across the world many are questioning why have dedicated “air forces” when fighting over sea or land. Airpower is critical in conflict but airforces have spread the myth that “only they truly understand aviation”. There is an opportunity to vasty increase fighting efficiency and value for money by putting all airpower under control of the Army and Navy. The Army could properly develop the close air support and transport it needs while the Fleet Air Arm could thrive as a powerful globally deployable force that can project power abroad or defend the UK directly. Unfortunately, up against the mighty RAF PR machine, the powerful aerospace lobby and armies of aviation enthusiasts, proposals to radically re-think the structure or purpose of the RAF have little chance of success. Batten down the hatches and prepare for torrent of abuse…


Russian forces may appear crude compared to the Western powers (and care little for things we do such as looking after their people and properly maintaining their equipment). However their weaponry is (mostly) impressive, their endurance legendary and some of them are very deadly practitioners as many RN submarine captains will confirm. Today they have good scientists, determination to exert influence, a totally ruthless leadership with a real grip on geopolitics and strategy that British politicians barley understand or care about anymore. Russia is not about to invade the UK but is a significant threat that we need to be alert to and ready to counter. A second Cold war may have already started and it will not be won by refusing to face facts. At a time when the US Navy is reducing its presence in European waters, the Russian navy will commission 47 new vessels this year while the Royal Navy will not commission a single new vessel in 2014 or 2015!

Increasing the defence budget

The coalition government has been right to face up to the spiralling national debt and attempt reduce government spending. However targeting defence spending was weak and cowardly because, unlike most government departments, defence has been cut continuously since 1990. Defence actually had the strongest case of any for ring-fencing its budget. Of course it is much more electorally popular to keep writing blank cheques for the NHS. We live in dangerous times that certainly justify increased defence spending. The US is reducing its forces in Europe as it pivots toward Asia and is struggling with its own massive debt, Russia is resurgent and threatening, the Chinese are arming at alarming speed and the Middle East is as unstable as ever. Many Europeans are living in a fantasy that thinks state-on-sate conflict is a thing of the past and the internet, globalisation and ‘soft power’ will keep us safe.
Examining Options for increasing funding for the Royal Navy.

Foreign aid

We don’t fully subscribe to the UKIPPY dismissal of foreign aid and that all money should be immediately be diverted to the forces. However the figure of £11Bn seems to be very high and would suggest we apply these strict principles to the allocation of the budget.1. Can it directly and quickly benefit the poorest and most needy in the world in a way we can monitor and measure? 2. Does it serve British interests and can we ensure it will not be diverted to profiteers, criminals or even terrorists? 3. Are there more imaginative ways we can spend the money to benefit more people both abroad and in the UK? Our armed forces will often be involved in the delivery of aid and emergency relief efforts and should therefore be integrated into DFID planning and benefit from the aid budget. To get you thinking…
The case for building a British hospital ship