Overrated: Aircraft carriers

The Royal Navy’s two new flagships may be too unwieldy and vulnerable

Overrated

“To sink it would be every submariner’s dream.” The lunchtime remark of a former First Sea Lord about the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth captured its acute vulnerability. Separately, an annual lunchtime discussion of former Ministry of Defence senior figures moved on from considering whether the carriers are wrecking the naval budget to assessing whether they are wrecking the defence budget. In 2010, the incoming coalition government reviewed the carrier project and decided to cancel it, only to find that Gordon Brown had put in costly cancellation clauses to preserve jobs at Rosyth.  Britain’s two carriers (the second, HMS Prince of Wales, is still under construction) can embark up to 60 aircraft each—far too large for our needs and budget. Britain cannot afford more than a handful of F35s or the frigates to protect the carriers.

But surely, with the Abraham Lincoln leading a task force into the Gulf in a display of American power, this is not the time to decry carriers? Surely they offer a way to project strength without the incubus of bases on land? Have they not a background of successful attack, whether at Taranto (1940) or Pearl Harbor (1941)? Should we not be trying to emulate the Chinese?

Carriers are a legacy military system, an upgraded product of the technological and organisational innovations of the First World War. They were effective in the Second but less so than generally appreciated. In part, this was because they could not carry aircraft comparable in range or payload to those from land bases, whether in bombing Japan, where Saipan became the key base, or operating against submarines (the Azores likewise). Nor were they effective at night or in bad weather, or easy to protect against submarines, while they were also vulnerable to surface bombardment and air attack. Their rate of loss in that war raises the question of the wartime viability of the much smaller modern carrier fleets

Protection is even more an issue now, despite claims that the British carriers have been future-proofed until 2060, claims that would be farcical were it not that lives depended on them. The development and deployment by China of anti-ship missiles able to challenge American carriers, notably intermediate-range ballistic missiles fitted with a manoeuvring, terminally-guided head containing an anti-ship seeker, poses a major problem, not least as missiles can be despatched in swarms. Russian anti-ship technology is also an issue, and even if the Russians may well find it difficult to use some of their actual or projected weaponry, their anti-ship missiles are already formidable. Moreover, such weaponry will be sold and used in alliance diplomacy. Thus, Iran, North Korea and other joys will acquire it. The adaptation of drones for the maritime and submarine environment, and the development of “smarter” mines raise questions irrespective of such traditional but updated anti-ship technologies as the submarine. With the advance of drone technology and cyber warfare, large aircraft carriers are going the way of the battleships after the Second World War. The battleships appeared largely redundant in the face of air power; now also with carriers and missile capabilities in both attack and defence.

The need to invent a goal in order to justify the technology, a common fault with what passes for strategy, is well demonstrated by the scrabbling round on behalf of the British carriers. The egregious Gavin Williamson appeared to be willing to risk war with China for their sake; reason enough to dismiss him. Williamson’s varied remarks also suggested a limited understanding of the necessary relationship between domestic circumstances and foreign policy and the related prioritisation of goals that are crucial to strategy.

Lastly, there is the question of opportunity commitments and costs. Carriers are particularly expensive to equip and maintain. And as France, India and Russia have all recently discovered, problems with maintenance can lead to appreciable periods in which they are unable to operate. This raises the point of their purpose unless there are a number of them. Indeed, that is the theory behind Britain having two and co-operating with France. Of course, that magnifies the target.

For Britain, investment in manned flight has led to a failure to devote sufficient attention to developing sea-based unmanned aircraft. Drones have limitations, but they do not require as large a carrier as manned aircraft, and thus their carrier offers a smaller target.

Moreover, expenditure on carriers leaves too little money for maintaining and building other warships, providing the flexibility offered by a flow of vessels entering service. Such a number offers the necessary geographical presence as well as a multiple capability, both of which are endangered by a focus on a small number of carriers. The high cost of new warships can ensure a pronounced level of volatility in procurement—even more of a reason to get it right.