In time, Brits may ask their politicians a simple question: if we spent a decade without aircraft carriers, then why do we need them now? Downing Street will spend the next decade formulating an answer.
The two carriers in question “would cost more, offer less military capability and be ready much later than planned.” This means they may be completed by 2020 instead of 2016-18 and would cost £12 and not £3.5 billion. And there will be other delays, as anyone familiar with defense acquisitions will affirm. The Royal Navy may then be without a carrier for a long time. In fact, “full carrier strike capability might not be achieved until 2030.”
To add insult to injury, the first carrier (HMS Queen Elizabeth) will be mothballed and kept in “extended readiness” after it is launched. And under current plans, the second carrier (HMS Prince of Wales) will operate for only 200 days a year.
While the UK ponders how to justify building these ships – especially as their use will be limited – it will attempt to maintain capability through partnerships.
On 6 January 2012, US Defense Secretary Panetta and British Defense Secretary Hammond signed a “Statement of Intent on Carrier Cooperation and Maritime Power Projection,” which is a “framework for increased cooperation and interoperability on the use of aircraft carriers.” At first, cooperation will be industrial. As Colin Clark observes, US firms may help Britain develop its carriers.
Extensive pilot and sailor exchange programs – a staple of transatlantic cooperation – would follow. But while British personnel will train on American carriers, US sailors will not be offered such luxuries in return. Yet, building carriers to provide a respectable exchange platform does not answer the public’s prescient question.
The UK has discussed another option since its carrier woes began; to fly missions from France’s Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier. And while some may have an impulse to insert surrender anecdotes, a desire to not operate jointly with the French is a poor reason for building expensive ships. In fact naval cooperation continues, even as recent rifts over France’s imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan emerge.
In October 2010, de Gaulle had problems with a faulty propulsion system that kept it docked. As joint operations with the ship are supposed to provide a lifeline for Britain, such technical challenges may get in the way. Well, at least this is one argument politicians could use to justify independent capability.
Other carrier-centered joint operations will continue. The HMS Argyll, a Duke-class frigate, recently joined the USS Abraham Lincoln as it passed through the Strait of Hormuz. Later in the year, the HMS Illustrious, a helicopter carrier, will join de Gaulle in the Mediterranean for drills. Expect such exercises to continue.
An empty deck
Britain’s anguish over lacking carriers may turn out to be the least of its problems. The carriers are designed to fly the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF); a program with well documented challenges.
London requested a tailored version of the JSF, one that would take off by catapult and land by arrester wires. This modification – but one addition to years of changing requirements – could drive unit costs up even further. But it would “enable British aircraft to land on French carriers and vice versa.” However, this technology has not been tested. Thus complications may arise.
Furthermore, as Philip Ewing writes:
The Royal Navy hasn’t flown its own fast jets off its own carrier with catapults and arresting wires since 1979, aboard the old warhorse HMS Ark Royal. The three carriers it has had since then — the HMS Invincible, Illustrious and another Ark Royal — proved to be essential ships, but they were built with ski-jumps and designed for Harriers and helicopters only.
By 2023 – and this is the best case scenario – according to one MoD spokesperson, the Royal Navy would operate [only] 12 F-35 jets. This was said with a sense of accomplishment, yet it seldom suggests confidence or capability.
It would be hard to explain paying for empty carriers.
Keeping the sun from setting
If the UK continues to involve itself in coalition operations such as Libya and successfully – a relative measure – then it will be even harder for it to justify a capability that it spent many years without.
Keeping the sun from fully setting on the empire will cost London dearly. Instead of pursuing old glories that its handicapped carriers won’t provide, the UK should save on some costs and rethink the purpose of its future ships. As both sides of the Atlantic seek to increase cooperation, the UK could specialize and not replicate expensive and extensive American capabilities. It won’t be able to accomplish complex air missions with a handful of jets anyway.
Thus, in recognition of tomorrow’s challenges, the UK may consider transforming the carriers into amphibious assault ships operating drones and helicopters, as well as into motherships for elite forces (taking a clue from Washington). This could help save on costs today and operating costs tomorrow. It could also keep the Royal Navy on the high seas, where it belongs.