Ever since The Defence Minister Philip Hammond started backpedalling last week, there has been more than a whiff of panic in the air over the two monster aircraft carriers so beloved by the Lords at the Admirality (as CPO Pertwee once dubbed them on the Navy Lark). Apart from that comment showing my age, it also makes me old enough to remember the last time the UK deployed ‘real’ carriers in the 1950’s—and to question why we need any new ones at all.
Back then, there was some military rationale for carriers. WW2 taught the lesson that air supremacy is vital to any operation and the most flexible way to apply it, especially to a far-flung maritime empire such as Britain still had then. With all the pre-war fleet carriers, plus various classes of light and escort carriers all decommissioned before the Korean War, the remaining two Audacious (Fleet) four Centaur (Fleet) and four Colossus (despite the name, Light) class carriers did sterling service both there and the later Suez debacle.
But planes grew ever faster and heavier and no UK carrier (except HMS Hermes) was provided with a proper angled flight deck that allowed simultaneous aircraft take-off and recovery operations, nor were they big enough for the size of air group that became the norm. Global experts and the only ‘blue-water’ navy with real credibility was the USN, who developed 98,000-ton monsters capable of carrying and deploying 70+ aircraft on board. By 1960 all light carriers were scrapped (Bulwark converting to a helicopter carrier) and soon, with Britain’s withdrawal ‘East of Suez’ the Fleet Air Arm and remaining fleet carriers were scrapped (Eagle in 1972; Ark Royal in 1979; Hermes in 1984).
Three smaller carriers (20,000 ton Invincible class, originally ‘through-deck cruisers’ vs the 28,000-ton Centaurs) saved Britain’s bacon in the Falklands conflict by allowing air cover by Harrier ‘jump-jets’ as no other heavy fixed-wing aircraft could operate from such small ships. But, valuable as they were, even the original fleet carriers were no match for the USN. With a current total of fifteen operational carrier ‘battle groups’ the USN rules the waves in a manner the Royal Navy never did in its heyday. The idea that the UK can again stand tall with the Americans by building these large carriers is delusional.
As the picture underscores, the UK has never been able to play in the carrier big league. Quite apart from the carrier itself at the core of things, EACH US carrier battle group consists of:
- 2,000 highly trained personnel on each carrier
- Air wing: 12 x F14s; 36 F/A18s; 4 x E2Cs (AWACS); 5 EA6s (ECM); 8 x S-3s (Tankers)
- At least one CG Aegis cruiser (10,000 ton, $1bn cost command & control unit)
- Two DDG (9,000 ton, Guided missile destroyers for anti-air/missile work)
- Two FFG (4,000 ton Guided missile frigates for anti-submarine work)
- One of more oilers and supply ships
So, don’t just count the ballooning cost of £5.5bn for two ships—the RN would wind up spending 4 TIMES that amount if it ever wanted to deploy them in anger. Call it £20bn. That’s HALF the entire UK defense budget. The real issue is the UK doesn’t really have the £5.5bn, let alone any multiple.
And what, exactly are they to be used for? Afghanistan is landlocked—even the American’s can’t use naval air there. Have we any more colonies we are likely to go to war over, a la Falklands? Are the Chinese, busily building business links all across the planet, suddenly going to invade Oz (for whatever Lebensraum is in Mandarin) and we will rush to their aid?
It now appears that the UK’s original plan to delay equipping the carriers with JSF fighter aircraft until the VTOL version (can take off/land like Harriers) has run into further cost escalation. The necessary catapults to launch and arrestor gear to land aircraft add (according to Babcock) another £800m per ship, bringing the total bill to £7bn for just the ships.
Mr Hammond is to make a statement in the Commons tomorrow (March 27th). His and his government’s back may not collectively be quite back against the wall on this matter. So these white carrier heffalumps (they’re too ridiculous to be called ‘elephants’), born of Labour macho hubris but embraced by equally macho Tory hubris, may not face the axe. Yet. There will be some mumbling compromise that appears to pare their ludicrous costs.
But the more the UK gets irradiated by poisonous Osbornium—borrowing at a furious rate, not cutting public spending, stealing the odd tax where he can—at its fiscal heart, the more certain it is that these monsters will never launch, let alone carry aircraft in anger. It took the Admirality 15 years to build HMS Hermes: with these two, it looks like Their Lardships are going for the record.