A guest post from Chris on that perennial favourite subject of aircraft carriers.
Every now and again I like to do something a little different. Playing the Devil’s advocate for positions that I wouldn’t normally agree with is one way of doing that.
And so that’s what brings me here today; to make the case for a third aircraft carrier.
I know, scary isn’t it?
The aircraft carrier represents one of the most powerful warships that any Navy can possess. It was during World War 2 that the aircraft carrier came to the fore and cemented its place in the naval order of battle, displacing the battleship as the key element of the surface fleet. The range and speed of its embarked aircraft allowed the aircraft carrier to scout over a wide area for enemy surface vessels, which it could then attack, generally without exposing itself to enemy gunfire. On top of this, the aircraft carrier demonstrated the ability to conduct strikes on fixed targets at significant ranges from friendly territory, as well as providing both air cover and air support to amphibiously deployed infantry.
However, becoming the pre-eminent surface ship of the war – and indeed the future – was not without its dangers. One of the reasons why I personally get very worried by many debates around aircraft carriers is the way some people begin to talk about them as if they were immune to attack themselves. Aircraft carriers are essentially a floating aerodrome, which fundamentally means that large quantities of aviation fuel and munitions are stored together in a location no longer (and significantly thinner) than your average football stadium. Even hits by relatively small weapons have the potential to start uncontrollable fires that can lead to the effective “mission kill” of the vessel, if not its sinking.
Going back to World War 2 for a moment, 19 Japanese, 7 British and 12 American aircraft carriers were all lost at sea as a result of enemy action. The fact that no carrier has been sunk by enemy action since then is routinely viewed as a sign of their apparent immunity from harm, but careful study should indicate to the wary that a combination of factors such as skilled defence, a relative lack of enemy action against them, and frankly a little luck has contributed greatly to this.
Added to this back drop is the current financial climate. In order to reduce their budget deficit, the coalition government has progressively stripped more and more money out of the defence budget, with further reductions likely after 2015 regardless of which party achieves power. With the other two services unlikely to offer up more of their own capabilities for further cuts, the Royal Navy would have to look inwardly for funding for a third carrier.
Which creates a problem.
Actually it creates two problems. Problem number one is that there is no spare money. Problem number two is that there is little spare ship building capacity. The construction of the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers has required the efforts of a whole consortium leveraging their combined ship building capacity. Some of that capacity will be needed around the 2020 mark as the construction of the new class of Type 26 Frigates commences.
Therefore the only logical solution I can see – if indeed this plan is to go ahead – is to delay the beginning of the Type 26 program, as well as ultimately reducing the size of the final order. This does two things to help our third carrier. Firstly it frees up the ship building capacity needed to construct yet another Queen Elizabeth class. Secondly, it frees money back into the budget to be used on the construction of the third vessel. The final cost of each Type 26 has not yet been pinned down, but is estimated as being anywhere between the £250-350 million pound range. With inflation (and the record of UK defence procurement) that sum could easily rise.
As it stands, the order is expected to be for 13 ships to provide a one for one replacement for the outgoing Type 23 Frigates. In order to pay for a third CVF we need to claw back around £2-3 billion, which means losing around 5 of the Type 26 Frigates, bringing the final order down to just 8.
That in turn presents us with yet another problem.
As has been previously pointed out by regular commenter APATS, in order to guarantee coverage for one expeditionary task (such as deployments to the Middle East, South Atlantic, Caribbean etc) you need around 3.5 vessels per task. 3 can do it, but if one of the ships suffers a lengthy problem and/or needs a refit, you’re in trouble. With just 8 Frigates plus the 6 Type 45 Destroyers, we now only have enough ships to guarantee 4 “escort” tasks, two of which are going to be escorting a deployed carrier. That means either pulling one of the two ships from the Middle East, or pulling the patrol task in the South Atlantic.
It’s here that I put it to you that we might be able to do both, leaving just one 24/7/365 task in the Middle East. The reason I say that is because one of the main issues surrounding the Atlantic Patrol Task South is the deterrence of any further aggression by Argentina against the Falklands Islands. Considering the parlous state of the Argentine armed forces and the fact that in a case of war we would now have the ability to send two carriers south with a third in reserve, I think it would challenge the rational of having a dedicated patrol task for that region, and instead it would become more of an ad hoc thing, such as popping down during the more sunny months of the year.
The Carriers themselves I suspect would form the new nucleus of the Response Force Task Group (RFTG), which routinely deploys into the Mediterranean and often onwards to the gulf. I’m sure the loss of one permanently deployed Frigate/Destroyer would be more than made up for by the reasonably regular visits of an entire carrier battle group.
And that would really be the essence of a three carrier Royal Navy and the rational behind it. As it stands now the navy often finds its assets dispersed singly over a wide geographic area. A three carrier Navy would become more about concentration of effort. It might mean the number of visits by individual vessels to certain parts of the world would be reduced, but when they did show up the impact would be greater, as a 60,000 ton behemoth sailed into view flanked by probably the worlds most advanced air defence Destroyer on one side and the worlds most advanced anti-submarine warfare Frigate on the other. Their flexibility and potency of action once deployed, and their potential for offering varied training to allies would be dramatically enhanced compared to the deployment of just a single ship.
If the money could be found to go the full hog and install the now infamous “cats and traps” (or alternatively “cats and flaps”?!) which would permit the use of aircraft like the E-2 Hawkeye, as well as increasing “interoperability” (“ugh”) with allies, then the capability of the carriers would be expanded greatly. Of course there is one last hurdle to overcome.
Specifically, a third carrier means a requirement for yet more planes to go on them. And those planes aren’t cheap. Both the B and C low rate initial production models of the F-35 currently cost over $220 million (£143 million) each. Even as the cost of new planes comes down over time, it’s still going to be considerable. That’s more money that needs to come from somewhere.
There is a chance that in the post-2020 environment the country’s finances will have picked up a little and there will be more cash available in government. If indeed we are to get a referendum on the EU during the course of the next parliament then you can almost guarantee saying hello to another £8 billion in the government’s coffers, because I have strong feeling that people will vote for an exit. With any luck the general economy will also be back on its feet, generating more tax income and spending less on benefits.
But if indeed there is more money to be handed around, that doesn’t mean to say defence will see its fair share. The fact that when it came to lowering the axe on government spending things like defence have been seen as prime targets, even while a war is on-going in Afghanistan and with Libya in recent memory, while departments like Health, Education and overseas aid were largely spared, doesn’t bode well.
That means that further cuts to other parts of defence would be needed, and somehow I don’t think the other two services would take too kindly to that.
We can always cross our fingers though and pray for jam tomorrow…