The Ministry of Defence today has formally announced that it will place a contract to build two new aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy.
25 July 2007
By Dr Lee Willett, Head, Maritime Studies
The Ministry of Defence has announced that it will place a contract to build two new aircraft carriers (CVF) for the Royal Navy. Fitting with what senior defence sources have referred to as the Government’s desire to develop ‘new, modern, world class’ capabilities, the two carriers – 65,000-ton vessels to be named HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales – will be the fulcrum of Britain’s expeditionary defence strategy.
The decision to proceed with the carrier programme was a core element of the first major statement on defence under Prime Minister Gordon Brown. With concerns about future funding for the Armed Forces, and about the future of the Royal Navy in particular, the announcement is very welcome – although it should be noted that the formal decision to place the build contract originally was scheduled for 2003, and that it is likely that the Royal Navy will suffer further cuts in its surface flotilla to facilitate the flow of the carrier programme. Major decisions on the carrier, including its budget, appear to have been set for some time now – certainly since the end of last year. It is possible, though, that the announcement was delayed until now to give the new Prime Minister the option to make the final decision on if and when to commit to such a major investment, but more crucially the opportunity to make a very positive commitment to the future of the Royal Navy.
The Strategic Context
Britain’s expeditionary strategy was set out in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR). SDR endorsed importance of expeditionary operations, maritime forces and future carrier (CVF), stating that:
In the post cold war world, we must be prepared to go to the crisis, rather than have the crisis come to us. … Maritime forces are inherently well suited to most force projection operations. Their reach, ability to sustain themselves without reliance on host nation support and flexibility are invaluable attributes. A joint maritime force often provides the opportunity for early and timely intervention in potential crises. … [T]he ability to deploy offensive air power will be central to future force projection operations. But we cannot be certain that we will always have access to suitable air bases. Even when we do, experience has shown that bases may not always be available in the early stages of a crisis, and that their infrastructure is not always able to support the full range of operations required. In these and a range of other operational circumstances, aircraft carriers can provide valuable flexibility. … Aircraft carriers will have a wide utility, including for deterrence and coercion. … [We] plan to replace our current carriers from around 2012 by two larger, more versatile carriers capable of carrying a more powerful force, including a future carrier-borne aircraft to replace the Harrier.’
From the Royal Navy’s viewpoint in particular, the announcement catapults it into second place in terms of global carrier firepower, with only the United States Navy’s Nimitz-class carriers being larger. Along with Britain’s nuclear-powered submarine (SSN) and amphibious capabilities, the new carriers also will enable the Royal Navy to retain its position as a ‘2.1’-class Navy behind, once again, the USN.
The two carriers effectively will operate as sovereign, mobile, floating airfields which - given that they are likely to be pre-positioned and certain to be combat-ready - can help Britain to seize the initiative and to assure access, movement, and opportunity. With flexibility in capability and employment, and with the ability to move 600 miles per day and, through their air wing, reach out a further 500 miles, the carriers will provide sustainable global strategic reach not constrained by any lack of access, basing and overflight rights. With taskings ranging from conflict prevention to high-intensity war-fighting, the carriers will have the ability to deliver an adjustable range of effects across the spectrum of defence and security tasks. Simply, they will provide a central option for Britain in delivering political and military effect at the place and time of choice. It is important to note, too, that the political, military and public concern likely to be generated over interventionist land operations in the future because of the current experience in Iraq means that the ability to deploy large-scale strike aircraft and ground force operations from a sea base – such as provided by the carriers – may well become more important still.
It should be noted, too, that while £3.9 billion is a large price tag, the options that these platforms will provide for Britain over perhaps 40 years of service life will show that figure to be very good value for money. The Government’s commitment to the carrier programme is a significant fillip for the Royal Navy, and also for the UK as a whole, with as many as 10,000 jobs to be created or sustained across perhaps more than a dozen ship yards and other industrial facilities. Alongside the Government’s decision, following the Naval Base Review (NBR), to retain its three naval bases at Faslane, Plymouth and Portsmouth, the carriers themselves will be based for the foreseeable future at Portsmouth. HM Naval Base Portsmouth itself will require significant upgrades to accommodate the carriers, despite any base optimization which may take place under the NBR.
Capability and Operational Strategy
Although the current focus on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq falls on the land component, it must be noted that the Royal Navy’s current carriers played critical roles in those operations, particularly in the early phases. In both cases, the carriers conducted strike and helicopter operations. In Afghanistan, the role of the carriers was crucial as Afghanistan is a land-locked country and, in 2001 when operations began, initially there were no available bases on the ground either in Afghanistan or in surrounding countries.
The operational strategy for the carriers suggests that one carrier will be available at all times for high intensity, time-sensitive strike operations, a role known formally as Carrier Strike. The strike role will be undertaken by an air wing of up to 40 Joint Combat Aircraft (strike) – very likely to be United States’ F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) – plus rotary wing craft. The strike aircraft capability also can provide air defence and close air support for other British forces, both at sea and on land.
The second carrier will be roled as a platform for deploying helicopters and ground troops. In the case of helicopters, the new carriers are likely to be able to operate the UK’s Apache, Merlin and Sea King helicopters, as well as future helicopter programmes and craft such as the US Marine Corps’ VF-22 Osprey. Indeed, only recently the Royal Navy’s carrier HMS Illustrious embarked USMC Harriers and Ospreys during an exercise off the East Coast of the US. The second carrier will share the helicopter role with the Royal Navy’s other floating airfield, the Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH) carrier HMS Ocean. Having three ‘flat-topped’ platforms in the cycle will enable the UK to meet both the strike and helicopter roles, even if one platform is unavailable.
The combination of strike aircraft and helicopter capabilities will mean that the two carriers will make a fundamental contribution to Britain’s joint approach to military operations, by combining force elements operating in all three environments – land, air and sea. The carriers also will be a key component in any combined operation in either US- or European-led coalitions.
The carriers also are based on a modular design, to improve the ease with which through-life capability upgrades can be made. In particular, while it is planned that the carriers will deploy the Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) variant of JSF, the carriers will have the capability to be fitted for catapults (both steam- or electric-driven) and arrestor gear which will enable the use of Conventional Take Off and Landing (CTOL) aircraft if required. The ship design also can be adapted in service to accommodate additional types of aircraft.
The only possible shadow which could loom over this very welcome announcement is any trade-offs the Royal Navy might have to make in other platforms to pay for the carriers. The Royal Navy already had traded in a total of 10 destroyers and frigates (DD/FFs) and four SSNs, in two rounds of cuts in SDR itself and in 2003, ostensibly on both occasions to pay for the carrier programme. Today, despite statements from senior defence sources that there are no planned cuts in other force levels and, even, that eight Type 45 destroyers remain part of the future equipment programme, rumours persist of possible reductions in DD/FF levels, perhaps down to 21, and that only six Astute-class attack submarines (SSNs) will be built, against a currently-stated SSN force level of eight. The carriers play a significant role, but need assets such as DD/FFs and SSNs to help them fulfil this role. Such assets also remain vital day-to-day not only to the Royal Navy but also to British defence and security as a whole.
The debate about the future of the Royal Navy – and the force levels required to enable the Navy to execute its role effectively – no doubt will continue. The Government’s commitment to the carriers is very welcome, but this good news would be bolstered further with a contractual commitment to all eight Type 45 destroyers and a force level of eight SSNs. Given other Government spending priorities, with a defence budget shrinking in net terms, and with the level of military operations increasing, affordability always will be the critical issue in any defence programme decision. Although it is arguable that the Government should increase defence spending to match the increasing level of commitment it is requiring from its armed forces, if required to do so it would seem prudent for the Royal Navy to opt for the carriers at the expense of further cuts in DD/FF and SSN levels, if the alternative was maintaining current DD/FF and SSN levels while perhaps having no carriers at all.
The Government also announced In Service Dates (ISDs) of 2014 and 2016 for the two carriers respectively. Original plans specified 2012 and 2015 as ISDs. In April this year, the MoD still appeared to have a ‘working assumption’ that the ISDs remained set at 2012 and 2015. However, MoD might argue that such dates were an aspiration. Reflecting a statement by Minister for Defence Equipment and Support Lord Drayson given in 2005, at a briefing given by senior defence officials source it was stated that the ISDs would not have been confirmed until a build contract was placed. It is now planned that ships from the current Invincible-class carriers will have their service lives extended until the new carriers enter into service.
Implications for the Defence Industry
In recent years, the MoD and industry have established the Aircraft Carrier Alliance (ACA) to deliver the programme. The MoD also has been working very closely with the French Government on the design stages of the programme. Some discussion persists in the UK defence world of options for a joint build programme with France: yet such discussions appear to have no public substance, with senior defence sources stating that while discussions have taken place with France, all of the main blocks of the ships will be built in the UK.
It is likely that up to 14 sites in the UK will be involved delivering the carrier programme, with the bulk of the main construction taking place at BAE Systems’ shipyards at Barrow and Govan, Babcock’s yard and Rosyth and the VT yard in Portsmouth. 12 shipyards also are bidding or further work on the ships. The MoD also will no doubt welcome the commitment from BAE Systems and VT Group to rationalize their ship-building and support assets in a new joint venture.
 Senior defence sources have argued that the carrier contract is structured in such a way as to incentivize industry to drive out cost, with the MoD hoping that the two ships will come in for under £3.9 bn.
 According to senior defence sources, the 10,000 jobs are likely to be sustained over around 10 years, perhaps with around 1,000 of these jobs to placed at each of the four main shipyards.
 Such upgrades include installing new piers and power supplies, building access points to the ships, and dredging of channels.
 Kirkup, J. ‘Navy Set to Keep 30 Year-Old Ships in Service over £3.6 billion Carrier Delays’, The Scotsman, 25 April 2007. Available on-line at: http://news.scotsman.com/uk.cfm?id=626952007.
 For reference on Baron Drayson’s statement, see: Murphy, J. ‘UK MoD Distances Itself from CVF In-Service Date’, in Jane’s Defence Industry, 27 October 2005.
The views expressed above are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.