Air power from the sea – the case for aircraft carriers

The Issue

Current air operations in Afghanistan, emphasising the under-resourcing of helicopters, obscures the continuing dependency of the UK on the sea and sea-based airpower. The historic and future dependence of the UK’s economy on the maritime environment drives the long-term requirement for the UK to have a flexible and proportionate global reach. This is not currently receiving the attention it deserves.

The ability to deploy, poise and operate aircraft, including fixed-wing combat air, at a place of the government’s choosing, is essential if the UK is to remain a major league player with the US, European partners and emerging world powers such as China and India. Aircraft carriers are at the heart of this capability. The Royal Navy alone retains the whole suite of skills required to operate them. Without sea-based airpower, freedom of operation is constrained by the need for complex and protracted international negotiations, agreements and treaties for the basing of aircraft on foreign soil. These agreements will, in a volatile world, be increasingly difficult to reach. Aircraft carriers and their aircraft are expensive and complex, and as such are amongst the first targets for savings in adverse economic conditions. However, once a nation has ownership and the skills, as we already do, they repay the investment handsomely. In particular, carrier-capable fast-jet combat aircraft can match their land-based equivalents but with more reach. There will always be the need for land-based support aircraft to augment combat air. However, current UK combat aircraft acquisition still envisages a mix of land-only (Typhoon) and land-and-sea capable fast jet (Joint Strike Fighter) aircraft. This mix is expensive, militarily unnecessary and, moreover, almost certainly unaffordable. As we need aircraft carriers and the people to operate them, we should refocus procurement and operations and rid ourselves of traditional land-centric thinking. The US Navy provides the model. The current MOD plans for fast-jet air and aircraft carriers are underfunded: therefore they are fatally flawed and they must change.


The British Government’s Future Maritime Operational Concept 2007 (FMOC 2007) explains the threats facing the UK, its dependent territories and its interests worldwide. The prospects for conflict at sea are increasing and less predictable. The UK continues to import 92% of food and goods by sea. By 2011 50% of our gas supplies will be delivered to UK by sea. We are already net importers of oil via sea lanes that are vulnerable to hostile acts. New ways to exploit the sea and competition for maritime resources increase. These threats are a consistent theme throughout UK history and are unchanging. What has changed is the sudden reversal in Britain’s economic position, the imminence of a general election and the current narrow focus on the conflict in Afghanistan. We must not be blinded by these events into ignoring the future need for flexible and capable maritime forces. Media and political speculation about cost savings, strategic defence reviews and the adequacy of frontline equipment in Afghanistan have led to unprecedented public statements by chiefs of staff and former defence secretaries. Relationships between the services in the MoD are at breaking strain as they vie for position within a shrinking budget. High on the list of potential savings are the current big-ticket procurement projects like aircraft carriers and Joint Strike Fighter. They are at risk precisely because they represent large single blocks of uncommitted public money on the current books, rather than any consideration of their vital need or unique utility. This article outlines why aviation from the sea should not be the target of savings measures, and how sea-based air represents the best long-term utility and value for money within the government’s strategic defence aims. The components of this capability to be considered are:

  • Aircraft carriers;
  • Carrier-capable aircraft;
  • People with the right skillsets;

Aircraft Carriers

Carriers are flexible platforms which can embark a varied mix of fixed and rotary wing aircraft, tailored for specific operations. During the Bosnian crisis UK Harriers completed 3 years of uninterrupted operations, only 8 minutes flying time from Gorazde, able to operate in weather conditions that sometimes precluded operations from shore bases. At sea, they were always able to choose where to be to achieve the right effect. Refuelling and rearming from a carrier close to the operating area cuts out the need for expensive tankers and gets more sorties, more often from fewer aircraft. Carriers can operate aircraft without the need for host nation support, especially important in the early stages of an escalating situation. The ability to deploy a mobile sovereign airbase almost anywhere on the planet gives the government political and military choices. This is not lost on Russia, India and China, which are all growing naval air powers. Even Brazil and Thailand each have an operational aircraft carrier. Carriers can be stationed and integrated into the forward area for UK Air Defence. Carriers support foreign policy in a flexible way. Positioning and remaining close to areas of interest for long periods, independent of the need for permission as they are in international waters, only a few miles from foreign shores, they provide an escalating range of options for diplomatic coercion and, if necessary, conventional deterrence to aggression. They can be poised to intervene militarily in the last resort, swiftly and decisively, with the minimum use of force. The mobility of the carrier makes it less vulnerable than a conventional airfield and allows it to find better weather for flying operations. The United States already believes that its European allies do not contribute their fair share to NATO and coalition tasks. That includes carriers. With no British carriers, the European contribution would consist of one French nuclear powered conventional carrier available for 50% of the time and up to three smaller Harrier operating carriers provided by Spain and Italy. Experience since 1945 suggests that unpredictability is the norm where Britain’s military involvement is concerned. Almost all of the conflicts involved naval air power. Aircraft carriers deter aggression and exercise soft power. But their success and value for money are hard to prove when the measure of success is the absence of conflict.

Flying from HMS Ark Royal in the Atlantic, the ability of RN Buccaneer bombers to show a presence over Belize in 1972 undoubtedly stopped Guatemala from invading British Honduras.

Denis Healey had already cancelled the conventional carrier replacement programme in 1966. In 1982 the Conservative government announced the sale of the Harrier Carriers and General Galtieri believed he could invade the Falklands with impunity. Those same Harrier carriers were to prove him wrong but the possession and deployment of a conventional aircraft carrier would have deterred him altogether. Many lives would have been saved. The Carrier provides the widest flexibility for missions ranging from high-intensity warfare to defence diplomacy and can rapidly change operational tempo between the two extremes. It is a powerful weapon of coercion or intervention.When the unexpected situation happens, carriers give the government of the day military, diplomatic and political choices. The deployment of carriers with either aircraft or embarked troops gives a government the potential to act without serious risk of escalation, then later withdraw without penalty. Deploying armies and aircraft to land bases is an inevitable act of escalation which politicians may not wish to take immediately. Without Carriers, the weakness of the Royal Navy would make Britain more vulnerable and unable to fulfil a political role in Europe or the world, commensurate with its economic power.

Carriers have application now and into the future for the widest range of possible threats to the UK and our interests worldwide. Over recent years the RN has taken a heavy burden of cost savings measures compared with the other Services, on the understanding that the carriers would come into service. Loss of the carriers now would mean that the remaining hollowed-out navy would not be a cohesive or effective force. The loss of the Carriers to UK Defence Industry, the consequent loss of industrial capacity and technological expertise and the rise in unemployment would inevitably delay the economic recovery of the UK, contribute to further industrial decline, whilst providing an increased burden on the exchequer.

Carrier-Capable Aircraft

The preferred solution to the Future Carrier Borne Aircraft (FCBA) is the Joint Strike Fighter. It is “fifth generation”, stealthy and likely to remain at the forefront of capability and airframe life for several decades. European sales will mean it has the potential for interoperability with most of our allies and their carriers. Projected worldwide sales of several thousands will ensure economy of scale.

The UK can only afford so many military fast jets. We should invest in aircraft that are designed with the strength and capability to operate from ships but which can also operate ashore, rather than the other way round. F-18s have the strength but are not fifth generation and are already halfway through their technological lives. Bought second hand, they will be more than halfway through their airframe lives. Typhoon was not designed to operate from ships nor to carry out ground attack missions and is unlikely to be anything other than a second rate compromise. It is neither stealthy, nor fifth generation: nor is it easily converted for carrier operations.

People with the right skill sets

There has been much acrimonious debate between the RAF and the RN over which service should operate all fixed-wing and many of the helicopters at sea. The Fleet Air Arm has enormous experience of operating aircraft from ships of all types and in all climatic and weather conditions, day and night without alternate or diversion airfields. The Royal Navy leads the world as an innovator in fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft operations at sea. Naval aircrew operating specifically designed naval aircraft have the innate ability to spend long periods at sea with the specialist background and capability to fight from the sea. Naval air squadrons and flights are capable of producing more serviceable aircraft for longer periods with minimal resources and fewer people than their RAF equivalents. RN ships are lean manned and everyone embarked must integrate and contribute. It is part of the naval air squadron’s ethos to deploy to sea and their people integrate fully into the routines, maintenance and the combat survival of the ships in which they are embarked. They are organised with only three trades rather than 5 in the RAF, so training and operation requires fewer people and is cheaper. RAF personnel do not join to go to sea for long periods and are not trained to do so. Many are simply not prepared for the lifestyle and inevitable separation from family and home. They do not integrate well into ships and cannot contribute to the routines, maintenance and combat survival of the ship. Naval air squadrons, on the other hand, can easily adjust to operating from land bases. RAF terms and conditions of service are incompatible with prolonged periods at sea and recent short embarkations of RAF squadrons to sea are only successful because they have been for short periods of about three weeks and in benign conditions. Aircraft carriers cannot be operated at full capability using RAF procedures. This is not understood by the RAF, none of whose senior airmen have any relevant experience of sea-based flying. Naval operations in peace and war require the appropriate application of air power at sea and over land. In order to achieve the best advantage, naval commanders and staff officers must have a deep knowledge of both naval and air operations. The best way to ensure this knowledge is to maintain a steady stream of career naval officers trained to fly and fight from ships.

Savings Options

Clearly the current operations in Afghanistan require that the operational requirements for equipment and manpower are met and sustainable. At the same time there is a need to trim the defence budget wherever possible as a contribution to the economic recovery of the country. It is all too easy to focus on unfinished big-ticket items like carriers and JSF to find savings. However there are alternatives, some of them radical. The RAF has for the last few years advocated an all-RAF fast jet community, with no RN pilots. This would neither achieve the sought-for 10% savings, nor would it provide a robust sea-based capability. No other country in the World has proposed or implemented a carrier force of naval ship-operators with RAF aircrew and engineers providing the air element. It doesn’t work. On the other hand the USN, the RN until recently and all other carrier operating nations can conduct the full range of fast-jet combat air operations from the sea using their own personnel and aircraft. Supporting land-based air is still necessary for theatre airlift, ISTAR and occasionally for tanking support at extreme operating ranges. This is where the RAF continues to add value. With a much reduced UK air defence role and no strategic function, the remaining RAF units, whose roles are already in support of maritime or military operations, should be fully integrated into the Army and the Royal Navy command systems. Savings will be made in acquisition, structure and manpower overheads and further reductions in the defence estate. The efficiency of air operations would rise, not least because another unnecessary layer of command and control would be removed. Reductions in manpower of 20,000 can be anticipated. This would not be as great an organisational shift as it might appear. Much of military aviation and training is already joint service or on civilian contract. Much could be further civilianised, particularly non-tactical transport and land-based search and rescue. The UK does not need a land-based air superiority fighter designed for cold war operations, such as Typhoon. The Joint Strike Fighter is more capable than Typhoon in this role and has much broader utility in its primary offensive support roles. Commitment to the final tranche of Typhoon may be inevitable for contractual reasons but they should immediately be placed on the transfer list. As JSF comes into service the remainder of the Typhoons can be progressively sold off and removed from service.


The United States currently maintains 11 carrier battle groups but this may reduce in future. We cannot expect the US to devote so much of their time and treasure to the defence of European allies, major economic competitors. Whilst the UK debates the future of carriers, the French are seeking a second, Russia, China, Brazil and Thailand have acquired the capability and India is building its own fleet of four carriers. Clearly their view of the world is that projection of power using carriers is essential for protecting their interests. In the rest of Europe the Spanish and Italians operate 3 small Harrier carriers between them. If Europe is to satisfy the long-stated demand by the US to make a more proportionate contribution to global stability and European defence, then between them, European members of NATO ought to be generating 5 or 6 carrier battle groups. If you imagine a future Britain with no carriers, pared-down conventional arms but a nuclear deterrent, politicians might be left with few options other than Armageddon or capitulation if a serious threat arose. A Britain with a viable carrier force as part of the overall defence package would give the government of the day a conventional deterrent and a range of choices for dealing with a threat to the UK, our trade, energy supplies and our continuing overseas responsibilities.

Originally published in October 2009 written by Cdr Ed Featherstone RN, Rtd