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

<<sm links>>


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.



1.0. Introduction: Is an interchangeable Carrier/Amphibious force an option?

2.0 Outline of Force: Based upon America Class LHD & Harriers/F-35B

3.0 Britain’s Strategic Needs…


1.0 Introduction: Is an interchangeable Carrier/Amphibious force an option?

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[1]; 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.


2.0 Outline of Force: Based upon America Class LHD & Harriers/F-35B

  America Class
(As the USN are procuring the class)
Queen Elizabeth Class
(Post 2010 SDSR)


45,000 long tons

64,000 long tons


844ft / 257.3m

920ft / 280m


106ft / 32.3m

230ft / 70m


Two marine gas turbines, 70,000 total brake horsepower

Two 5,000 hp (3,700 kW) auxiliary propulsion motors

Two shafts

Two Rolls-Royce Marine Trent MT30 36 MW (48,000 hp) gas turbine generator units

Four Wärtsilä diesel generator sets (two 9 MW (12,000 hp) and two 11 MW (15,000 hp) sets)

Two tandem electric propulsion motors that drive the twin shafts, fixed-pitch propellers


20+ knots

25+ knots


1059 crew

1,687 Marines (plus 184 surge)

679 crew

1,000 air crew/staff

Sensors and processing systems

AN/SPQ-9B fire control radar

AN/SPS-48E air search radar

S1850M long range radar

Artisan 3D maritime medium range radar

Ultra Electronics Series 2500 Electro Optical System (EOS)

Glide Path Camera (GPC)

Electronic warfare and decoys


2×Mk53 Nulka decoy launchers


2× Rolling Airframe Missile launchers

2× Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile launchers

2× 20 mm Phalanx CIWS 1B mounts

7× twin .50 BMG machine guns

Phalanx CIWS

30mm guns


Aviation facilities

Straight Flight Deck

Joint Precision Approach and Landing System (JPALS)

Angles Flight Deck

Air Group

Approx. 32 aircraft

Approx. 40 aircraft



3.0 Britain’s Strategic Needs…

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.

4.0 Viability: would such a force suit Britain’s strategic needs?

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;
• The major advantage of a general unit for both amphibious and carrier roles, over specialists units for those roles, for the crew is that it is easier for a career to be planned as their skills will be easily transferable from ship to ship.

• 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
• America will be operating the America class of course, which means it will be known world over, and depending upon the level of commonality between that design and the anglicised design there could be sharing of logistics facilities.

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:
• Whilst there is only one STOVL aircraft under development, the F-35B (and no one knows whether that might be the last STOVL aircraft to be developed[7])– further to this the only surveillance platforms available are Sea King or Merlin Helicopter AEW. In simple terms this is an air group with a limited deep strike capability, a measure of area air defence, and a less capable area surveillance capability – although of course as ASW is helicopter based its unaffected.

• for CATOBAR, in terms of manned aircraft there is the F/A-18 Super Hornet, the Rafael[8], and under development the F-35C[9] and the F-XX[10], 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) aircraft[11]the 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[12], 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.

Therefore it works out simply that a nation to decide what it wants its aircraft carrier do; and then build appropriately – the mission list of British aircraft carriers as defined by its strategic needs, and therefore their likely role fits more with air group as possible with CATOBAR aircraft carrier. It’s not the greater range of the F-35C compared to the F-35B which gives it the advantage, it’s the greater range of the X-47B over the F-35B as well as the fact it’s being unmanned and stealthier form give it tremendous advantage for commanders[13] when used for Deep Strike and Covert Surveillance – both of which are missions which British governments will need the RN’s aircraft carriers and the air groups they carry to perform. It’s not the more successful engineering of the F-35C than the F-35B which makes CATOBAR the safer choice for a British government; it’s the fact that if the F-35 program falls through, there is the Rafael and Super Hornet available…and already the F-XX program under development to meet future needs. Whilst Sea King based Airborne Early Warning has served Britain in good stead since the lessons of Falklands War showed how necessary such an aircraft was; America and France both use the E-2 Hawkeye, the latest variants of which are massively capable[14] – whilst it may not be moved to overnight, a STOVL does not allow for it to even be cross-decked from allied carriers. It’s not a simple choice; many mistakes have been made in the procurement of the Queen Elizabeth’s but it is about options for the future – the decision made today may not be rued today: but in ten years, twenty years, thirty years, forty years, fifty years more and time then the historians of that age will pass judgement and only they with hindsight will be able to say whether it would have been right to gable on a limited design or bet the house on a design with great potentiality.

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[15] 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[16]. 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.

5.0 Should Britain do it?

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[17], 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[18]. 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.


6.0 Footnotes

[1] 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.

[2] HMS Illustrious’s recent bash with a tugboat is testimony to that, as was HMS Eagle’s

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] LHDs would of course also have the option of LCUs and LCACs to support Amphibious Operations

[6] This is to differentiate between the fire support provided to troops by fixed wing aircraft and that provided by helicopter gunships.

[7] 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

[8] http://www.dassault-aviation.com/en/defense/rafale/specifications-and-performance-data.html?L=1

[9] 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

[10] http://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/boeing-displays-manned-fa-xx-concept-jet-329472/

[11] Basically the naval aviation version of the milkman, postman and parcel deliveryman all rolled into one.

[12] who are building STOBAR carriers currently, but this is a situation which is ripe to evolve

[13] http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jan/26/business/la-fi-auto-drone-20120126

[14] http://www.phoenixthinktank.org/2011/05/the-e-2-hawkeye/

[15] 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

[16] 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

[17] 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.

[18] (White, 2009)

7.0 Suggested Reading

Web Sources















Phoenix Think Tank Papers


Online Videos



Brown, D. K. (2010). The Grand Fleet; warship design and development 1906-1922. Barnsley: Seaforth.

Chesneau, R. (1998). Aircraft Carriers of the World to the Present an Illustrated Encylcopedia (3rd Editon ed.). London: Brockhampton Press, Arms and Armour Press.

Friedman, N. (1983). U.S. Aircraft Carriers. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press.

Hill, J. R. (1988). Air Defence at Sea. Shepperton: Ian Allan Ltd.

Hill, J. R. (2002). The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Horsley, T. (1945). Find, Fix and Strike; The Work of the Fleet Air Arm. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode.

Lord Chatfield. (1942). The Navy and Defence; The Autobiography of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Chatfield. London: William Heinemann ltd.

Macintyre, D. (1968). Aircraft Carrier, The Majestic Weapon. London: Macdonald & Co.

Sturtivant, R. C. (1984). The Squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm. Tonbridge: Air-Britain (Historians) Ltd.

White, R. (2009). Phoenix Squadron: HMS Ark Royal, Britain’s last top guns and the untold story of their most dramatic mission. London: Bantam Press.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -




top | home | about | news | articles | authors | press | back

© 2015 The Phoenix Think Tank