15 October 2020

What’s the point of aircraft carriers?


Compared to war, peace has many benefits. Actual fighting comes with all sorts of awkward inconveniences: mass death, grieving relatives, and great expense for the Treasury. Perhaps the most underappreciated benefit of peace, however, is all the fun debates it enables about the military equipment you aren’t using. In a real war against a competent foe, the debate over whether the tank has had its day (probably not) would be swiftly answered, one way or another. But prolonged peace enables everyone to have their say, a great boon to retired military officers, defence columnists, and anyone with a Twitter account.

The most entertainingly contentious of all debates is over the aircraft carrier. The press tells us that Britain’s two brand new floating airports are either multi-billion pound deathtraps, or the cutting edge of modern warfare, depending on the day of the week and which Service has most lately rallied its troops to conduct information warfare against the others. The layman, meanwhile, is left with many unanswered questions. What are aircraft carriers even for? Where does this debate over their vulnerability come from? And can Britain even afford these things anyway?

A carrier is simply a mobile airfield on water. A simple statement, but one that helps clarify things. They enable Britain’s airborne combat power to operate in places that would otherwise be inaccessible. This allows for air patrols, close air support of ground troops, reconnaissance, or even anti-submarine warfare prosecuted by helicopters. Crucially, the presence of the carrier may well allow operations to be sustained on a more continuous basis and at a higher tempo than if the carrier was not present.

In the Libyan campaign of 2011, Britain had no aircraft carrier available (thanks to cuts made in the defence review of the previous year), so had to make do flying from RAF Marham and, later in the campaign, a base in Italy. The great distances to targets severely limited what could be done. By contrast, both France and Italy had carriers available for operations. The end result was a somewhat underwhelming UK contribution of just 10% of sorties flown, with a very high cost per hour of flight time.

Libya showcased what you might need an aircraft carrier for. But Gaddafi’s forces had no serious anti-ship capability. France was at liberty to operate Charles de Gaulle as close to the Libyan shore as it liked. Against a better-equppied enemy this could simply not be done. This brings us to the second major question surrounding the carriers: how easily can they, really, be sunk? In the land of the drone and the missile, is the carrier no longer king?

It is admittedly true that carriers are vulnerable. Then again, they always were. The Royal Navy lost five in World War Two to enemy submarines alone. Even a carrier that remains afloat can be put out of action if its flight deck is sufficiently damaged. China now boasts missiles that can – supposedly – strike carriers at ranges of up to 2500 miles, threatening the US Navy across the South China Sea from the safety of trucks hiding deep within its own mainland. Whether this technology works right now exactly as the Chinese advertise is perhaps besides the point: the direction of technological development is clear. Missile threats to carriers are only becoming a bigger problem.

Often omitted in these discussions, however, is that the long-range missile threat is even more threatening to conventional airfields, including those on British shores. A carrier can at least move quite quickly to get out of harm’s way: a normal airstrip cannot. The carrier also comes with escort vessels (for the Royal Navy, the Type 45 destroyer) designed solely to protect it from air attacks, but ground-based air defence is one particular area where British capabilities are most painfully inadequate. The threat of drones and long-range missiles may well be very serious, but if so, this is a problem with ramifications far beyond carriers. If Britain cannot protect its carriers against these weapons, it will struggle to protect any of its other expensive military assets.

There, is of course, one notable adversary that the carrier is vulnerable to that the land-based airfield is not: the submarine. In exercises around the world, submarines – especially modern ultra-quiet submarines – have shown they represent a very serious threat to carriers and their escorts. A carrier can perhaps outrun some classes of submarine, but a carrier forced to take a predictable route or navigate a chokepoint could be in serious danger, especially if close to shore, where diesel-electric submarines can hide even more effectively than usual.

Once again, however, the argument over carriers and submarines is really about the viability of surface warfare itself. If the carrier cannot be protected from submarines, nothing can, and the Navy’s entire surface warfare programme is, as things stand, a giant waste of money. Take away the carrier, in fact, and the fleet’s anti-submarine warfare capabilities dramatically reduce.

For some reason, however, aircraft carriers have become a stand-in for what ought to be a much bigger discussion about the future of naval warfare. I am no anti-submarine warfare specialist, and so I will not attempt to say how viable the whole endeavour of protecting a surface fleet against a competent underwater foe is (although I know what side I’d put my money on).

More tractable, at least, is the argument over cost. Here at least it is self-evident that the carriers have bent the Navy’s overall procurement programme badly out of shape. To pay for the carriers, the Navy has already sacrificed its sole landing platform helicopter ship, HMS Ocean, accepted a cut of five Type 26 frigates, and may well lose both Albion-class amphibious assault ships in the upcoming defence review.

Yet even these painful losses seem like nowhere near enough. There is, as of now, no plan and no budget to purchase any more than 48 F-35 “B” variant fast jets. Consequently, the Navy will struggle to deploy any more than twelve jets on the carrier at once, though here at least the United States Marine Corps will help out for the first few years of carrier operations. Nor is there any funding for adequate weapons stockpiles for both the F-35 force and the carrier-embarked helicopter fleet.

The tactical datalinks that supposedly optimize information sharing between the various elements of the carrier group are inadequately developed, and there seems to be no real plan to improve on the status quo. The new “Crowsnest” early warning airborne radar system is delayed and wildly over budget: Thales, the principal contractor, have struggled enormously with unexpected technical difficulties on the programme. When deployed, the carriers will also need resupply from the ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. Three new “Fleet Solid Support” ships are planned for this task, but when these ships will be built, and where the money comes from, is also unclear.

Yet these deficiencies in the Royal Navy’s grandiose plans for “Carrier Enabled Power Projection” may not be as crippling as they seem on first glance. If there is no plan to ever send the carriers into harm’s way against a top-tier foe – and it’s hard to imagine any British Prime Minister doing so, given what a blow it would be if one were lost – then most of the problems can probably be worked around in the more mundane reality of lower-intensity conflicts. And in that domain, I have no doubt the carriers will excel.

Whether or not Britain should really have spent so many billions on the procurement of vessels it can never use against its most powerful enemies is, of course, a discussion now of purely historical relevance. The carriers exist, are paid for, and look pretty, a magnificent legacy of the Royal Navy’s greatest victory of all  – in the permanent war for a bigger share of the defence budget. In the face of such a crushing triumph, what petty gainsayers would dare voice any doubts?

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Jonathan Kitson is an independent researcher and forecaster.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.