Options for Future Amphibious Aviation: Is an interchangeable Carrier/Amphibious force an option? If so, would such a force suit Britain’s strategic needs?
First published: 28th March 2012 | Dr. Alexander Clarke
Abstract: The basic premise of this work, is that Is there a one size fits all solution for Britain’s strategic needs? In a global world where problems can arise in second demanding instantaneous responses; where weapons purchases are increasing by both state and non-state actors, can Britain afford to generalise its forces rather than specialise them?
Note: it is important to understand the circumstances of this work; it has been an on-going thought, an on-going project which has maintained relevance because of continuing debate and conjecture that persists around the Royal Navy’s carrier project.
Well the short answer is yes; it is an option, it is also not the worst option for a British government to pursue. If an ‘of the shelf’ option was to be used to do this, and frankly it would be illogical not to, then an ‘anglicised’ version of the America class would be Britain’s best choice – primarily due to the fact it was designed to function in roles as both a Light Carrier and Amphibious Assault ship…although that is not the only reason.
Reasons for adopting the America class stem from two roots:
1) The fact that as a design it is very spacious, making it easier to adapt to Britain’s specific requirements; as well as giving it a larger range of operation.
2) As a rule the RN is more likely to go to war or into any operation alongside America, Canada and Australia; due to number of vessels being built by the USN, those operated by the RN would meld completely in.
By ‘anglicised’ more is meant than just changing the class name to Britannia, the vessels would in all probability be fitted with a ski jump to enhance VSTOL operations, install systems which reduce manning so it conforms to the RN’s standards, probably take the existing idea of reducing medical facilities to increase space for air operations further and re-orientate the internal design to allow for a slightly increased air group (something which will be facilitate in part by the reduced crew requirements). There would also likely be a difference in weapons outfitting, the RN has Sea Ceptor which requires a Vertical Launch System (VLS) the same as its other Air Defence Missile System the Sea Viper, whilst the RN does use Phalanx Close in Weapon Systems (CIWS); but it might wish, due to the lesser number of escort vessels available to install Harpoon anti-ship missiles, maybe even use a MK 41 VLS (as made by BAE) to enable them to use Tomahawk cruise missiles as a force multiplier. These are all options which could be done quite easily; there is even the option of changing the engines to Rolls-Royce Marine Trent MT30s and boosting its horsepower generation and efficiency, giving a greater top speed.
1. Access to Global Markets to allow for purchase of food, energy and goods; Trade Protection – aviation mission entails: Area Surveillance, Anti-Submarine (ASW), Air Deterrence.
2. Defend Sovereignty of Nation, Vital Interests and Protect Allies; Expeditionary Force – aviation mission entails: Area Air Defence (AAD), Deep Strike, Combat Air Support (CAS), ASW, and Mobility.
3. Ability to project power and presence in order to preserve peace and global economic stability; Situational Dependent Conflict Deterrence aviation mission entails: AAD, ASW, AS and Deep Strike; and must be capable of turning into Trade Protection or Expeditionary Force within less than a minute if the situation is not deterred.
All these needs require aviation ships; in varying degrees, for example an expeditionary force without an aviation ship to support both the amphibious and naval air missions (and therefore without the support of a large number of both fixed wing and rotary wing aviation) is facing a virtually impossible task when pitted against the majority of enemies in the modern world: after all taking out an attacking aircraft an eighth or a sixth of the task of taking out the missiles it might launch at a fleet or land force. Modern missions depend upon force multipliers such as air strikes and helicopter supported manoeuvring, these in turn depend upon suppression of enemy air defences and of course enemy air power; all of which are missions currently performed principally by aircraft, although cruise missiles and naval gunfire support have been making significant inroads into these missions.
For trade protection an aviation ship provides command and control, theatre/long range area surveillance and of course the ability to react with larger boarding parties; as well as if necessary posturing, even attacking with fixed wing aircraft. However, an LHD with a well deck can go further; using that well deck to support fast moving but shorter range boats to increase the dexterity of presence a naval force can bring to counter piracy operations or any trade protection mission by adding another dimension, another set of capabilities to that force. This is the core duty for aviation ships, aircraft carrier or LHD, they are force multipliers, to get the equivalent coverage of an area as a task group based around such a vessel with escort vessels (frigates & destroyers) would require 12 or more escorts on top of the vessels of that type deployed as part of the task group.
Projecting power and presence are perhaps the missions most difficult to quantify in the modern world; after all ship visits have been a recognised method of soft power since long before that phrase was coined. They are difficult to quantify as they often take place before anything happens, with the aim of preventing it…and therefore by their very definition they are not something which is shouted about, nor is it possible to take aside the visiting dignitaries before and after for a quick questionnaire to see how the arrival of such has affected their opinions. However, as recent deployments with the Type 45 Daring class destroyers has shown – units of national status are important statements when deployed (unfortunately only 6 of this class have been built – out of the 14 originally requested, the 12 decided upon and the 8 ordered), aviation ships such as America class vessels or Queen Elizabeth class have an even greater status when deployed. Often such deployments are all that are needed to affirm Britain’s on-going commitment to an area, a nation, an ally, a territory…even an ideal if that is the government of the times aim.
Again the short answer is yes. The long answer has more layers. Intrinsically of course utilising a standard design which provides a common hull, power system, weapons & sensor fit across a fleet that provides multiple platforms for carrier and amphibious operations does have benefits:
It generates cost efficiencies in on-going operations as parts are bulk bought pushing down costs and making it viable enough to allow more businesses to get involved and therefore to drive down costs that way.
The training/crew career is of course simplified;
• Only one set of training facilities are needed, reducing costs there; but also allowing for more training to take place as there would be a larger pool of crew requiring the relevant skills
Internal and International Interoperability:
• If there is only one type of vessel then all aircraft types and aircrew can be certified
Operational Capability and Utility:
• As has already been highlighted, the greater the number of units the smoother operations will be in the face adversity; with a class of 2 vessels if one is in refit and one is damaged in accident, there is no slack to take up the duties and fill Britain’s strategic needs.
So does the above fit with Britain’s strategic needs as already outlined in the previous section? The increased numbers of units that can support aviation as proposed by this option would of course represent an advantage for trade protection as this means more areas can be covered if necessary, and that coverage can be maintained for a longer period of time without impacting upon other areas of operation. It is a similar story with deterrence of conflict, the ability to be in more places at once, and to have a measure of ‘slack’ within the operations schedule of a fleet allows the option of ‘pre-deployment’ of a task group to show the parties that Britain is paying attention to that area (without having to commit to a side or perhaps increasing the tension by deploying ground forces to bases within the region), and would prefer it if a peaceable solution was achieved but if one wasn’t the British Government would be able to act as necessary.
The expeditionary force is a slightly different thing, as larger carriers with larger air groups can achieve a higher tempo of operations therefore generating more missions and more hours of air operation…however, there is fact that the force proposed in this work, especially option D, would allow for multi-carrier forces such as were deployed in 1982 to the Falkland Islands; in fact a force of 2 light carriers and 2 LHDs operating on the air groups put forward by this paper would take 60 fighter aircraft with them, in comparison to the total Harrier force of 42 aircraft deployed during 1982 it is quite a good number. So this is therefore a viable fit for Britain’s strategic needs, and if it was a blank canvass it would be an option which undoubtedly be considered. The situation however is not a blank canvass, Britain is already well into the production of its first class of next generation aviation vessels; the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers which in their current post-SDSR Catapult Assisted Take Off/Barrier Assisted Recovery (CATOBAR) configuration.
The biggest difference between the two forms of aircraft carrier is in terms of air group:
• for CATOBAR, in terms of manned aircraft there is the F/A-18 Super Hornet, the Rafael, and under development the F-35C and the F-XX, furthermore there is an unmanned strike aircraft, the X-47, which is currently under development and due to enter service over the next decade (perhaps sooner) to provide American (and in its current planed form, perhaps British) aircraft carriers with an unprecedented deep strike capability, whilst CATOBAR places no restrictions on the operation of helicopters, it does offer the alternative of E-2 Hawkeye AWACs and as a bonus the Carrier On Board Delivery (COD) aircraftthe C-2 Greyhound. Therefore it offers the best capabilities for area air defence, deep strike, area surveillance, even ASW has the option of perhaps Long Range Fixed Wing Unmanned Aerial Vehicle being used.
Inter-operability with other nations, the other aircraft carrier nations can all operate from CATOBAR carriers allowing for the operational swapping of aircraft/aircrew even squadrons with the USN, and to do exercises with the French, the Indians, the Italians, the Spanish, even Russia and China…
CATOBAR carriers thanks in part to the efficiencies of the system and how it interacts with its air group mean it’s a far more flexible system which lb for £ develops far more hours of flight through its life.
So does this mean that this paper is moot; well no in fact it’s the opposite its brings about Option E. Whilst the purchase of 2 Queen Elizabeth Class Strike Carriers in CATOBAR configuration is well in hand, it is still necessary to consider the necessity of successors for Ocean, Illustrious(the two vessels currently doing duty as LPHs) and eventually Albion &Bulwark – there is also the fact that in this situation must be considered that whilst procuring CATOBAR strike carriers such as the Queen Elizabeth will provide excellent capabilities that will support operations worldwide for many years, and whilst many sums have been done which say a third such vessel is not needed as one will always be available; there is the problem though as to what happens when things don’t go to plan…
Option E therefore suggest a procurement along the lines of procuring 1America Class Light Carrier which could be adapted to operate using CATOBAR (although it would be tight, and require every ounce of innovation that the RNs history of ship design is famed for) and 2, preferably 3 America Class LHDs; it wouldn’t be as perfect all one ship solution but it would allow the generation of task forces with 72/96/102 strike fighters across 4 aviation vessels to support combat operations, as well strike missions. This option would solve many of the problems which are in the current financial climate regarded as something beyond the pale of discussion; although it would also create some problems a 2/4 split of ships would not deliver the same benefits of commonality as all vessels being the same, however considering they would replace currently 3 classes with 1 it would still provide benefits. The increased capability of a Queen Elizabeth in comparison to even a CATOBAR America class based light carrier makes it worthwhile; because when they are available they will equip Britain with a capability to not only influence world events but protect the trade and economic integration are a fundamental part of its prosperity.
Well the reasons that Options A to D won’t come about has already been covered, so there is no real point going there. Ultimately a nation which chooses to invest in naval aviation either does so because it’s a strategic necessity or it has money to burn; in the current economic Britain does not have money to burn, it can’t afford financially or diplomatically to maintain such luxuries as large, well equipped foreign air bases all around the globe to protect its trade and interest, neither is foreign bases for ground forces such a viable option – especially as such bases can be denied to the use of Britain with just the flick of a pen because of the host nation’s internal politics. However, that does not mean that Britain will not need to defend itself and its interests in those areas – density and distribution of which is shown below. That is why the RN is being equipped with aircraft carriers, because instead of needing 60+ air bases around the world each requiring troops to protect them and facilities at constant readiness to be take surges whilst also sustaining a constant presence, Britain can make do with 10 foreign bases and 2 (hopefully more) mobile bases which can be used to fill the gaps as and when that’s necessary; and each costing far less than the theoretical 8/9 bases they would replace – let alone the bases for ground forces.
So if trade and economics are the most important reason for maintaining a fleet with expeditionary capabilities, and therefore requiring aviation vessels, the possession has extra benefits. The range of diplomatic options enabled by the possession of fleet based around aviation ships is enormous, in 1972 the then HMS Ark Royal deterred an invasion of British Honduras by Guatemalan forces by simple means of an over flight by just two buccaneers. They enable a government to project power anywhere; and most importantly to project power with substance…not a hollow shell, not a force which is at the end of a tenuous or exposed line of logistics as many recent operations have been.
Naval aviation, and carrier based aircraft are not silver bullets, they do not possess magic properties – for example whilst they are not invincible, just very, very difficult to kill, they are is the definition of mobile which is one of the reasons they are so difficult to kill; whilst they are not independent, they function best when they are the core component of a balanced task group, they are self-sufficient and take everything with them wherever they go; what they are not are white elephants or boondoggles with no purpose or utility, what they are though is a proven capability that has been of instrumental importance in countless conflicts since World War I.
So the conclusion is, that it is worth it for Britain to procure aviation ships, but it needs more thought, it needs to be less about vision and more about reality – and that needs to start with how many of the vessels are procured, a token is no use, it is never available when needed… if a capability is desired then enough vessels have to be in service so that that capability is available and ready when its required, not in 6 months.
 They use the same equipment, operate along the same standards, and have the advantage of working in the same language – something which in theory might not matter in the modern data sharing combat world, but is in reality still incredible important.
 HMS Illustrious’s recent bash with a tugboat is testimony to that, as was HMS Eagle’s
 It is important to note that in times of emergency on-going maintenance etc. can be cancelled giving the option of bringing the whole fleet on to duty; this is actually something which is easier the more units that are in the fleet, as this allows for maintenance to kept more regular as a result of having more units available as routine so less need to disrupt it – which results in actually a higher level of maintenance and readiness across the entire fleet.
 The standard on the USN will be 32 aircraft air groups; with the modifications suggested under the Anglicisation of the design it is entirely feasible to increase that number to 36.
 LHDs would of course also have the option of LCUs and LCACs to support Amphibious Operations
 This is to differentiate between the fire support provided to troops by fixed wing aircraft and that provided by helicopter gunships.
 and the British Government has already sold its harriers and it’s unlikely it would be able to buy any even if it wanted to
 Which does have a longer range, higher speed, increased payload and lower purchase price and operating costs than the F-35B; but it’s the wrong debate to pit the F-35B vs the F-35C
 Basically the naval aviation version of the milkman, postman and parcel deliveryman all rolled into one.
 who are building STOBAR carriers currently, but this is a situation which is ripe to evolve
 1 Queen Elizabeth, 1 light carrier and 2 LHDs = 36+24+6+6 = 72, 2Queen Elizabeths and 2 LHDs = 36+36+6+6 = 84, 2 Queen Elizabeths, 1 light carrier and 1 LHDs = 36+36+24+6 = 102
 In an ideal world Option F, i.e. the procurement of 3 Queen Elizabethclass Strike Carriers and 3/4 America Class LHDs for Amphibious would provide
 Such bases cost a lot of money which goes straight out of the British economy into that of host nation; whereas ships which are built in Britain, maintained in Britain and supported by Britain – the money is spent on British workers, keeping the money circulating within Britain’s own economy.
 (White, 2009)
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