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Of Jets and Carriers... Again

Commentary, 27 April 2012
Aerospace, Defence Policy, Maritime Forces, Europe
As the UK government grapples with whether or not to carry out a U-turn over which variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), chiefly because of issues surrounding carrier conversion costs, there are broader issues beyond technical and financial ones, and some echoes from the past.

As the UK government grapples with whether or not to carry out a U-turn over which variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), chiefly because of issues surrounding carrier conversion costs, there are broader issues beyond technical and financial ones, and some echoes from the past.

By Nick Childs for

 F-35 and Carrier artist impression

The F-35 and
Carrier Debate

F-35 and Carrier artist impression

Context: Of Carriers and Jets...Again

Choosing Plan B: Reviewing the UK's Choice of Joint Strike Fighter

'Cats and Traps: Launching the Carrier Debate in the Right Direction?

One day, many years from now, a definitive history will be written of the UK's tortuous efforts to renew its membership of the world aircraft carrier club. It will surely make uncomfortable reading. Whether it will have any kind of happy ending is, as yet, far less certain.

The new carrier programme is already nearly a 20-year project. The formal green light came - controversially of course - in Labour's 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR). But preliminary studies had already begun several years before. And the two ships under construction are still years from completion.

That 'generational' thing

The government's current dilemma is just the latest in a series of costly convulsions to have hit the project. Given the long gestation, many of the original calculations behind the programme have almost been lost in the mists of time. And many of the assumptions perhaps deserve to be revisited.

For some critics, though, the various lurching changes of course have been evidence that governments now struggle to make strategic decisions. For others, the lesson has been that this has been too ambitious a project for the country any more to swallow.

But the timeline also underlines the fact that questions to do with carriers tend to be, as one former First Sea Lord has put it, 'generational'. The last time the country was facing these kinds of choices was in the 1960s, ironically also a period of deep and prolonged economic difficulty.

On top of that, HMSs Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, the ships now being built, are meant to last 50 years. That is not necessarily a fanciful boast. The US Navy has one carrier, the real USS Enterprise, which has served five decades already. Others will soon start approaching that milestone. So, HMS Prince of Wales could serve until 2070. If that happens, she could have young crew members aboard who might be the great-great-grandchildren of the senior officers who first conceived her. Her final commanding officer may not yet have been born.

The current crunch

That is part of the backdrop to the current crunch, which on the face of it appears chiefly a technical and financial one. But it is potentially much more than that. The choice of which variant of the F-35 is ultimately adopted will have an impact not only on the future carrier capability, but also on UK air power generally, since it is formally a joint programme with the RAF.

Among the issues ministers are having to weigh are the potential near-term savings from scrapping the expensive carrier 'cats and traps' modification that would allow operation of the conventional carrier variant F-35C, at a time when the austerity squeeze is reportedly tightening. Against that are the performance penalties of reverting to the more direct Harrier replacement, the jump-jet F-35B. And then there are the arguments over which is the riskier, and costlier, choice in the long term.

Also, with the other Ministry of Defence (MoD) programme pressures, where does the carrier programme really fit in on the priority list? And how much capability is enough to achieve the government's declared Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) policy of remaining a global player that counts? [1] The United States sees 'cats and traps' carriers as strategic assets, but not so more limited carrier capabilities. Part of the price of change could be foregoing a unique strategic partnership with the US Navy. But is that the right benchmark? Clearly it cannot be at any price.

And all this against the backdrop of a strategic landscape that is certainly changing but which remains exceptionally unclear. It is likely to have a more maritime component in the future. The United States is already focusing more on a 'maritime-air' strategy, and not just because of China. But what kind of stake - in truth, what kind of navy - does the country need? A genuine 'wow factor' strategic capability, or a rebalancing to spread the maritime footprint wider?

Not surprisingly, the Royal Navy itself is not a monolith on these questions. At the time of the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, the carrier decision came as part of an RN package that included 32 destroyers and frigates. The number currently is 19.

Echoing down the years

Many of the arguments echo down the years, and were present during the last carrier controversy in the 1960s. Then, the Royal Navy's great white hope, its new generation full-size carrier, was designated CVA-01 (and would also have been called HMS Queen Elizabeth). But, even within the Royal Navy, there were those who said the 53,000-tonner was too ambitious, and would suck too many resources away from the rest of the Fleet.

Also at the time of the crucial 1966 Defence Review, the chunk of money that the programme represented was just too tempting a target to ignore as part of the effort to balance the MoD books. But the inter-service arguments of the time also left scars. The story remains imprinted on the Royal Navy's institutional memory that the RAF, in order to demonstrate that its own 'island-hopping strategy' beat the carrier case, produced a map showing Australia 400 miles closer to Singapore than it actually is. [2]

Whether that made any difference is debatable. The Royal Navy itself was culpable for basing its carrier case chiefly on a mission - the colonial wind-down east of Suez - that was finite. But at least then the strategic trajectory seemed much more clear-cut.

The current carrier conundrum has revived the emotive debate over 'why carriers' at all. And, more specifically, why such big carriers, which, at 65,000 tons, are three times the size of the ships they are meant to replace? Now, as in the 1960s, the charge has been made that the admirals have tried to be too greedy.

Hence, the critics have attached to the ships such regular descriptions as 'behemoths' and 'white elephants.' But one red herring in the exchanges has been that they are 'Cold War relics.'

In fact, the UK got rid of its last big carriers because of the Cold War, and a refocusing on NATO. That gave birth to the mini-carriers of the Invincible class, designed chiefly to hunt Soviet submarines in the eastern Atlantic. They had just enough capability to do a bit more if required, as the Falklands showed. Then their presence was decisive. But in various post-Cold-War settings, they were generally useful rather than decisive. It was precisely because of the end of the Cold War, and a return to an agenda of power projection, that the idea of reviving big carriers - the biggest yet - was born. In the words of the then Defence Secretary, George Robertson, 'we must be prepared to go to the crisis, rather than have the crisis come to us.' [3]

That was definitely a conscious decision to take at least one step back up the strategic ladder. It was always going to be a challenge. The current state of affairs - and the 'carrier gap' now of however many years - has kept alive the argument over whether a new generation of 'Harrier carriers' would have been good enough, and avoided the current situation. And that argument is alive even among some who were involved in the original 1998 decision.

What is it about carriers?

It is about more than just size. Aircraft carriers are totemic. They say something significant about how a country sees itself. Other countries certainly have vocal debates over their acquisition. But, in Britain, the issue has always been peculiarly charged.

There is, in part, the extra baggage of history, a self-consciousness about being seen to be trying to revive past imperial glories, or having continuing pretensions to be a pocket superpower. Suspicion of such impulses motivates many of the carriers' opponents. For others, there has been the relevance question throughout a decade of difficult land campaigns, particularly as the carriers have started to absorb larger chunks of spending and the cost estimates have grown, such that the carriers became the poster children of MoD excess and miscalculation. On the other hand, US carriers have been relentlessly employed supporting coalition forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

And the carriers' supporters argue that it is the critics who are actually being left behind. On the unfolding strategic international landscape, they say, which is more likely over the next couple of decades actually to be a seascape, carriers will become an increasingly valuable strategic currency. With the recent appearance of China's first aircraft carrier, the UK is currently the only permanent member of the UN Security Council without one.

The ships themselves were never going to be as cheap as the original 1998 estimate, of under £3bn for two. But they probably should never have ended up as expensive as they are now either. One constant theme of the carrier saga so far has been that each change of course has usually brought with it its own a new set of extra costs. There must be a risk of history repeating itself on that score if there is another change now.

One striking difference between the 1960s and now is that construction work never started on CVA-01. Today, amidst all the debate and anguish, HMS Queen Elizabeth is taking massive shape as great chunks of her are brought together at Rosyth. Significant pieces of her sister ship, too. But, at the moment, major questions remain over what will happen to them, what capabilities they will have, and exactly what kind of assets they will eventually represent.

Nick Childs is the author of Britain's Future Navy (2012) and The Age of Invincible: The Ship That Defined the Modern Royal Navy (2009), both published by Pen & Sword. He is a BBC World Affairs Correspondent.


1. The Strategic Defence and Security Review, 19 October 2010.

2. Story confirmed to author by former RAF official

3. The Strategic Defence Review, July 1998.

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