Royal Navy to be allowed to put both aircraft carriers into service

At the close of the NATO summit in Wales this week David Cameron delivered the good news that the Royal Navy will be allowed to retain the second aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales. This was another U-turn, reversing one of the many mistaken decisions of Cameron’s 2010 Defence Review that stated the ship would be mothballed or sold. Although undoubtedly good news for the navy, and more importantly the defence of the UK, it is difficult not to be cynical about the entire situation and timing of the announcement.

Great news everyone, you can keep the thing we threatened to take away from you after all

Although the retention of the second carrier has seemed likely for sometime, the timing of the announcement was a surprise. Some expected it at the Tory conference or not until after the deliberations of the forthcoming 2015 SDSR. Cameron could enjoy his moment in front of NATO leaders appearing to make a major addition to the fleet. While British politicians have been reminding European nations of the need for them to raise defence spending, RUSI have predicted UK defence spending will actually fall below the ‘NATO minimum’ 2% of GDP. Government disputes the RUSI figures but their hollow appeals will likely fall on deaf ears anyway. While the Russian threat grows, talk of unity and action by NATO provides a fig leaf to cover inadequate and falling defence spending across Europe.

Cameron’s re-election is far from certain so perhaps we can expect more announcements on commitments he may not be around to follow though on. It would be politically difficult for any future government to make yet another U-turn on the carrier project. It is also important that Cameron gives the appearance of taking defence issues seriously as he gathers political and public support for possible action against ISIS militants in Northern Iraq. Like most major defence procurement projects, the fate of HMS Prince of Wales is just part of a bigger political game.

The announcement was not accompanied by much detail and leaves a lot of unanswered questions. The RN and its major procurement projects must successfully navigate a general election and the 2015 Defence Review before we can be really certain about HMS Prince of Wales’ future. The biggest unknown is how will the costs of the second carrier be carried by the RN, have the additional costs been found by cuts elsewhere or has this been funded by new money?

Previous Defence secretary Phillip Hammond explicitly stated that the approximately £70 Million annual running cost of the second carrier would have to be found from within the RN’s existing budget

The photo above is a computer generated fantasy, apart from the fact carriers would rarely sail in such close formation, it is highly unlikely the RN will ever have the resources to field both carriers simultaneously. Generating the extra crew that the second carrier needs will be one of the first challenges for the RN, already in the throes of a manpower crisis. Although the carrier in refit or maintenance will not require anything like a full crew, it will still require an overlap of manning.

The lack of carrier-capable aircraft will also be aggravated by attempting to keep a carrier always available. While aircraft can quickly be transferred between ships, pilots and engineers need rest and planes need maintenance. There is an expectation the UK will order around 48 F35Bs which is precious few to arm the carriers, not to mention the non-naval demands the RAF may place on them. A similar lack of Merlin helicopters may also become apparent.

The problem of escorts for the carrier is also exacerbated slightly. A single carrier would have to be alongside or in refit some of the time providing similar respite for her escorts. continuous carrier capability demands more escorts are available. To form a credible battle group to protect the carrier will require at least an air defence destroyer and 2 anti-submarine frigates. (and at times a submarine and RFA support ships, also in very short supply) The RN’s pitiful 19 escort ship are already at full stretch to meet standing commitments. Allocating them to the carrier battle group will mean either abandoning standing commitments or building new ships, ideally more than 13 new Type 26 frigates. The retention of the 3 River class OPVs used for patrol of UK waters would allow the 3 new OPVs being built to go some way to covering the RNs standing tasks. Alternatively we must rely on NATO allies to provide escort ships but this reduces our freedom of action, and the ability to deploy quickly.

Shabby politics and detailed operational questions aside, this does at least mean the UK will have the credibility of continuous carrier capability and avoid a French-style gamble on a single ship availability.