A series of guest posts from AndyC
The decision about the size and capability of the carrier strike force is the most significant decision facing the conventional armed forces of the UK in the SDSR of 2015.
In most situations the main reason for operating two QE class aircraft carriers is to ensure that there is always a minimum of one available. However, careful planning of the refitting schedule for the first carrier and an awareness of the international situation at the relevant time could almost certainly ensure that there is always one available at any time that it is actually likely to be needed.
In the majority of planning scenarios the need for the deployment of two carrier groups is clear – it’s just that the combination of one QE carrier and one helicopter carrier would be sufficient.
Only in the scenario of the UK operating alone on the global stage would we definitely need two QE carriers and their ability to deploy up to six F-35B squadrons between them or expand our amphibious capabilities.
Whatever the final decision there is a need for the carrier(s) to regularly train with other European carrier groups – such as the French in the Norwegian Sea and the French, Italians and Spanish in the Mediterranean.
Similarly the Royal Marines and the amphibious group should be prioritising training with French amphibious forces and the Norwegian Army in the north and with French, Italian and Spanish amphibious groups in the Mediterranean.
The remaining fleet of six destroyers, thirteen frigates, four patrol ships and seven attack submarines is sufficient to provide escort for two carrier groups plus one amphibious group and patrol the routes to the Faslane Trident SSBN base but they can only provide a limited anti-submarine capability. It is not sufficient to cover all of the sea around the UK which can only be done more comprehensively by aircraft.
Significant new pieces of equipment that need to be ordered in the near future include three new patrol ships with the capability to operate helicopters and then the Type 26 Global Combat Ship that will replace and upgrade the frigate fleet. The possibility of adapting up to half of these new frigates to a more dedicated escort role where the gun would be replaced by Aster 30 long-range surface-to-air missiles should be investigated.
In addition, the Sea Ceptor short-range surface-to-air missile would be fitted to all destroyers and frigates while the Aster 30 long-range surface-to-air missile should be upgraded for use in an ABM role.
The Royal Navy will need to maximise the flexibility of its maritime helicopters if it is to meet all of its operational requirements with a much reduced total fleet. That means both Merlin and Wildcat maritime helicopters being able to operate dipping sonar, sonobuoys and torpedoes in an anti-submarine role and launch FASGW/ANL and LMM missiles in an anti-shipping role.
Ultimately the carrier option that the SDSR supports will be decided by the overall defence budget. Altogether there are 6 Options and in order of likely cost they are:
Naval Option 1 – activelyoperate both HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. This would mean that most of the time the Royal Navy would be operating one aircraft carrier but at some times both would be operational. This is the most expensive of the options as it envisages operating two large carriers with their complete crews. However, it would be possible to save some funds by operating the 2nd carrier in a more limited fashion by restricting it to home waters and only operating it when the 1st carrier was being refitted.
Naval Option 2 – actively operate HMS Queen Elizabeth and the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean while mothballing HMS Prince of Wales in a near operational condition in dry dock. In peacetime HMS Queen Elizabeth would be the flagship most of the time with HMS Ocean only operating when it was in refit. As the helicopter carrier’s crew is only about half the number of a QE carrier and it is cheaper to operate this would save on the budget. In a conflict situation HMS Ocean’s crew would switch to HMS Prince of Wales which would be brought out of dry dock – the rest of the crew would be made up from reserves. For training purposes crew could operate the 2nd QE carrier on limited training missions to maintain familiarity. This option has the advantage of being cheaper than Option 1 and is the only option that allows the Royal Navy to have three carriers in total to maximise operational flexibility.
Naval Option 3 – actively operate HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Ocean but sell HMS Prince of Wales. This Option would definitely reduce the capability of the UK to operate outside the NATO area and is dependent on finding a buyer for HMS Prince of Wales.
Naval Option 4 – actively operate just HMS Queen Elizabeth while mothballing HMS Prince of Wales in a near operational condition in dry dock. With careful planning this should allow the deployment of two aircraft carriers in periods of heightened tension. The biggest issue would be where to find the crew for the 2nd carrier? Almost certainly it would have to be made up from a very high proportion of reserves.
Naval Option 5 – actively operate just HMS Queen Elizabeth while selling HMS Prince of Wales. This would be a definite drop in capability which could only partly be covered by re-deploying the escorts for the 2nd carrier group.
Naval Option 6 – if budgets dictate further cuts then operate just HMS Queen Elizabeth, sell HMS Prince of Wales and sell or scrap the 3 destroyers/frigates that would have made up the escorts to the 2nd carrier group.