Last year the Royal Navy and the French Navy conducted joint operations in the Mediterranean during cougar 12. This was a prelude to the Anglo French Combined Joint Expeditionary Force due to take shape in 2016. With Europe’s southern shores ablaze with revolution, the USA pivoting towards the Pacific and the poor budgetary state of most European governments I would like to ask if we can turn this Joint Anglo French Force into something more.
Many nations in Europe have naval and marine units they can contribute to such a force. Others may presently not have them but if given time may feel able and willing to also contribute to such a force.
Europe accounts for close to a quarter of world military spending but is unable to conduct relatively small operations on its periphery without major US support.
A standing task force providing both naval, air and marine forces may go some way to help redress some of these problems and let Europe get a better return on its military expenditure.
What I would like to see is Europe having the ability to maintain a joint task force consisting of a Carrier Strike Group (CSG) and Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) either at sea or on high readiness at all times. This would give a force not dissimilar to a US Naval Fleet.
The force would be based in the Mediterranean and would typically operate in the Mediterranean, Red Sea, Gulf and Western Indian Ocean.
Carrier Strike Group
MS Northumberland with French Aircraft Carrier Charles de Gaulle
Currently only France operates a true aircraft carrier in Europe. However in a few years the UK will also begin to operate two large aircraft carriers. In addition both Italy and Spain operate fixed wing aircraft from smaller LHD’s.
For a Carrier Strike Group we will typically require a minimum of:
- 1 Aircraft Carrier
- 1 AAW Destroyer
- 1 ASW Frigate
- 1 SSN
- 1 Stores and Logistics ship
- 1 Fleet Tanker
- 1 Air Group
The size of the Air Group will be important. US Navy carriers typically carry 3 squadrons of fighter’s as well as a host of support aircraft. The CDG and our CVF’s will typically only carry a single squadron of 12 attack aircraft. To be more than a token force and to hopefully go some way to supporting our even replacing a US Fleet in the area we will probably have to have an Air Group with 2 squadrons of 12 aircraft. This will mean that ultimately neither the Spanish or Italian Vessels’ will be able to perform the role of the carrier. However with the CDG and the two Queen Elizabeth Class we would be able to meet this requirement post 2022 when POW is ready to enter service.
Until this date however the Italian and Spanish vessels could be slotted into this role to give an interim capability.
Getting enough aircraft will be a big challenge. While the French could provide 24 Rafales for a third of the year at a push, the UK would be unable to provide 24 F35B’s for two thirds of the year under current procurement plans.
However Italy will be operating a fleet of 15 F35B’s which could be used to supplement our aircraft. In addition it may also be possible to encourage other European nations to also buy F35B to supplement this force.
Many EU nations will operate F35. Most will use the A variant however it would present no significant difficulty to change some of those orders for the B variant. If EU nations operating the F35B pull their resources in the way that the Norwegians, Danes and Dutch are proposing to do with their A variant then we could take away much of the associated cost of operating a small fleet of aircraft. We may even find that eventually, smaller nations are prepared to purchase F35B’s to be able to participate in this force.
Would it be possible to have for instance a squadron with 8 Dutch and 4 Belgian F35B’s flying off of Queen Elizabeth alongside a Squadron from the Fleet Air Arm? I don’t see why not.
There would be some divergence in capability between operating F35B and Rafale however both are highly capable combat aircraft and both will likely be more than good enough for the required tasks.
Airborne Early Warning
This is one area where there is a larger divergence. The French operate the E2C Hawkeye where we currently use the Asac7. In the future we will likely be using a CROWSNEST derivative of the Merlin for this task.Both systems have their virtues but provide very different levels of capability. However the likely areas of operation are well within range of European Airbase’s and it would present little difficulty to use land based AWACS provided by the UK, France or NATO to Supplement the CROWSNEST System.
European Navies can provide a wide range of excellent AAW and ASW Frigates and destroyers to attach to this force. We also have a decent range of logistics’ support vessels and tankers which could be relatively cheaply supplemented by other EU navies keen to participate.
The UK and France will have 13 SSN’s between them so should be able to make one available to the Carrier Strike Group
Amphibious Ready Group
If we are to mirror something similar to a US Expeditionary Strike Group or Amphibious Ready Group then we will require the following components:
- 1 LHD
- 1 LPD
- 1 LSD
- 1 Marine Expeditionary Unit
- 1 AAW Escort
- 1 ASW Escort
- 1 SSN
- Land Based MPA
Italy operates the Cavour and Spain operates the Juan Carlos. In addition France operates three mistrals.
All of these vessels would be capable of operating in the LHD role.
The Royal Navy operates 2 LPD’s of the Albion Class while the Dutch have 2 LPD’s of the Rotterdam Class. The Spanish have 2 LPD’s of the Galicia-class and the Italian Navy have 3 San Giorgio Class although they plan to replace them with 2 LHD’s in future.
The UK operates 3 LSD’s of the Bay Class and the Dutch and Spanish LPD’s are based on a similar design and could also slot into this role. LSD’s are relatively cheap to build and are very cost effective to run. Many smaller navies shy away from such vessels as they lack the rest of the fleet to make sense of having such a capability.
However it may be possible over time to get other EU nations to acquire such vessels to make a contribution to the expeditionary force.
Marine Expeditionary Unit
In the USMC this is typically a force of some 2200 men based around a reinforced marine battalion. Many European nations such as the UK, Norway, Denmark and The Netherlands have dedicated Marine forces. Many other EU nations operate highly professional army units that could be adapted to operating inside a marine expeditionary unit.
The force will also require transport and attack helicopters. Again these could be provided by many EU nations.
Over time these helicopters could hopefully be harmonized to provide a more homogeneous force. Indeed due to the smaller size of Marine forces it’s probably far easier to harmonize equipment across all European Marines than to do the same with national army’s.
Maritime Patrol Aircraft
Many nations in Europe could make a contribution of Maritime Patrol Aircraft. Many already operate a relatively similar fleet of P3 Orion’s.
Again there is a wide capability amongst EU navies to provide escorting Frigates and Destroyers and the UK and France could also provide an SSN for this force.
Cost to the UK
The UK would be providing probably the largest contribution to this joint force. The main cost would be giving up sovereign capability for much of the year when our vessels are attached to the force. Our carriers in particular would be practically continuously attached to this force.
The larger number of European Amphibious support vessels would probably give us enough flexibility to still deploy our RFTG for at least part of the year for exercises with non-European allies.
Benefit to the UK
Firstly, almost any conceivable operation we conduct will be as part of a coalition. This force would be our primary way of acting in any such operation.
Using other EU nations to supplement our forces could free us up in areas where we are short or have capability gaps. If Portuguese P3’s are escorting our amphibious vessels then we may be able to afford not to buy an high end MPA capability.
If French Frigates are escorting our carriers then it frees up our own escorts to cover standing tasks. Getting other nations in Europe to purchase F35B’s will help to bring down our operating costs while at the same time allowing our carriers to reach more of their potential. Anything that makes EU forces more capable of acting in the world should help to take some pressure off of both the UK and the USA.
The large contribution by the UK would make us vital in providing European defence and power projection. As the Eurozone moves to ever close integration and the UK seeks to renegotiate its relationship with Europe this may give us some desperately needed political leverage in any future discussions.
Command and Politics
I would prefer to see this force operating under a loose NATO umbrella rather than an EU Naval Command. To reach its maximum potential it should be seen as an assist to the US Navy in the Med and IO and not a rival. It’s also important to avoid contributions from nations like Sweden and Ireland while gaining support from non EU players such as Norway. Generally speaking we are on the same page as the Italians, Spanish, Dutch and French when it comes to military interventions.
These nations would make up the bulk of this force. It’s probably important to avoid German contributions as they often seem to have a different view on international interventions.
However this fleet is commanded it will need to provide nations with flexibility in being able to recall assets if needed in a national emergency whilst at the same time avoid becoming a debating club every time it’s called to respond to an international incident. It’s also worth offering senior command positions 2 star and above to smaller nations like the Norwegians, Belgians and Danes as it would encourage them to make more contributions.
Operating a combined European fleet based around a Carrier Strike Group and Amphibious Ready Group is certainly within Europe’s capability. Most of the necessary components are either in place or will be shortly. Most of what is required is a rota of vessels and some harmonization of refit schedules.
The force will look a little ad hoc in the early years but if it’s in place long enough we may see strong moves towards harmonization. This will also give smaller EU nations a longer term goal to procure equipment to participate. It may also help to take some of the pressure off of our own forces and free up resource’s to be used elsewhere.