SDSR – 'Carriers give politicians options – not dead ends'

First published: 4th May 2011 | Dr. Duncan Redford

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1. Introduction

2. A Balanced Fleet

3. Military Role of the Carrier

4. Further Roles

5. Political Power

6. Cost-effectiveness

7. European and World Standing

8. Way Ahead



‘Many of our allies still consider Britain to be a maritime power – even if we don’t’

The Strategic Defence and Security Review will ensure that Britain’s Armed Forces end up looking very different from today. Getting the balance right between short, medium and long-term threats, commitments, orders of battle, procurement plans and the desires of each of the three Services will be difficult. One issue that encapsulates the hard decisions that will be taken is debate over whether Britain should keep the two aircraft carriers being built for the Royal Navy.

The carriers are a key component of a vital aspect of maritime strategy – the balanced fleet. A balanced fleet combines different capabilities rather than concentrate on one. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, able to deal with a very wide range of threats and tasks, from high-intensity war-fighting to disaster relief or anti-piracy operations – and everything in between.


A Balanced Fleet

As a result a balanced fleet is not irrelevant today, nor will it be in the future; it has a structural agility that allows it to meet a wide range of strategic scenarios. The flexibility of a balanced fleet – and the new aircraft carriers – allows Britain to insure against strategic shocks.

The Royal Navy has been accused of living in the past, or pursuing an “exorbitant quest” for these two new ships. So why are these two ships so important to the Navy? What can aircraft carriers do that makes them so important to Britain? In one sentence: almost everything a government could desire from its armed forces.


Military Role of the Carrier

The carriers will be able to play a major part in defending Britain’s global maritime and national interests, be they oil rigs, energy supplies, merchant ships, or the massive amount of British trade moved by sea. These carriers will support British diplomacy and deter aggressors, as well as protecting the other ships of the Navy from attack by submarines, surface ships and aircraft.

They will be the main means of attacking enemy naval, land and air forces in support of our government’s security objectives – “power projection”. They can support land forces carrying out counter-insurgency operations – as aircraft from American carriers in the Indian Ocean are doing over Afghanistan – or high-intensity operations if required. These ships will act as the command and control centres not just for naval forces, but also for operations involving all three Services.

The carriers can, in conjunction with the Navy’s amphibious ships and the Royal Marines, act as a mobile base from which land forces can operate against an enemy – terrorist or state – without the political, financial, diplomatic and military cost of basing troops on land, where they are constantly exposed to every means of attack. More importantly, the threat of being able to do all these things – especially when backed up by a “balanced” fleet, gives a prime minister a great deal of political choice about how Britain’s interests are to be protected.


Further Roles

But the fighting aspects of the aircraft carriers are only one part of the naval power that they represent. There are also the “softer” functions, which are just as vital as the high-intensity war-fighting. From disaster relief, anti-piracy, counter-narcotics, helping to implement UN sanctions, or evacuating stranded British civilians from war zones and natural disasters, to naval diplomacy, these ships – and the wider Navy they are a part of – will be able to provide massive support to British interests around the globe – sometimes through just being there; showing that Britain is interested in events in that region, or that we support a particular country.


Political Power

Using aircraft carriers means that the UK doesn’t have to worry about basing rights, over-flight agreements, or other states allowing us access across their territory. Carriers and the Navy give Britain independence of action if needed, and also make her a valuable ally. This isn’t about old-fashioned “gunboat diplomacy” – it is far more subtle; about the unspoken messages that navies, especially aircraft carriers as the pinnacle of maritime power, can send.

A navy capable of operating at a global level with carriers at its core will be a powerful “naval diplomacy” tool. It can move at 500 miles a day between trouble spots and loiter out of sight until needed. It can deploy for months without the need for land-based support. It can operate overtly in sight of a coast line to reassure the friendly or deter an aggressor; the strategic flexibility and mobility inherent in maritime forces gives politicians options, not dead ends. It can visit ports and countries to show support for British interests, to build good will and understanding, or to aid the civil authorities. It can be used to promote alliances by working with friendly navies; it can build trust with former enemies by allowing ships to exercise together without the potential political problems of land-based operations.

The carriers are also a symbolic commitment by Britain that says it values maritime issues and the Royal Navy in particular. It is a commitment to a very public form of international prestige and national power – carriers divide nations into those that have them and those who will end up wishing they did. After all, when Tony Blair was prime minister it is said that his first question regarding the British response to an international incident or crisis was always “Where is our aircraft carrier?”



Critics of the new carriers are quick to point at the cost. However, to get out of the contract will cost £2.3 billion which, as these ships will only cost £44 million a year to operate, is more than will be spent on them in their entire working lives. It has been suggested that money could be saved by reducing the number of aircraft or making them less capable. Having fewer aircraft actually wastes the investment in the carriers – it’s like buying a tank but never buying shells for the gun. As to having less capable aircraft, that is already happening. The version of the Joint Strike Fighter we are buying, the F35B vertical/short take-off and landing model which is slated for the carriers, has less range and a smaller payload than the conventional naval “C” variant the Americans are buying; the “C” variant is also about £25 million cheaper per aircraft.

If Britain wants to save money in the carrier programme, fit them with catapults, arrester gear and buy the F35C, not vertical/short take-off version. These carriers represent excellent value for money – probably more so than many other British or European defence projects in the past 20 years. The commitment Britain shows to its maritime position through the carriers and the concept of having a balanced Navy is valuable. In an age where Britain will need the support of allies to further its foreign and security policy, it makes sense to contribute to such alliances as Nato or the EU in the most effective manner to ensure our voice is heard.
European and World Standing

Many of our allies still consider Britain to be a maritime power – even if we don’t – and given the contribution Britain makes to maritime forces available to the European members of Nato, it is easy to see why they think we are. Britain is ranked first in its contribution of nuclear powered hunter-killer attack submarines, aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships, and at-sea replenishment vessels to keep the fleet supplied wherever it is in the world; it ranks second in terms of helicopter assault ships – “commando carriers” and air-defence destroyers; third in anti-submarine or general purpose frigates; and fourth in mine-sweeping and mine-hunting ships – which does not reflect the qualitative and quantitative superiority over many ships in other EU and Nato navies. Importantly, given the small numbers of ships involved, scrapping one or two ships could have a massive impact not only on Britain’s capabilities, our international credibility and the value of our support to our allies, but also that of Nato and the EU.


Way Ahead

If Britain wants to sit back and let the world come to us, inflexible and immobile, chained to our island, then cancel the carriers and continue decimating the Royal Navy. On the other hand, if Britain wants to be a part of the global community, it will need a capable Navy to promote and defend its interests around the world – and that means it will need aircraft carriers. For hundreds of years and until quite recently almost the entire country believed that “It is upon the Navy… that the safety, honour and welfare of this realm do chiefly depend”; there is still a great deal of truth in that statement today.

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