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Trading Frigates, Subs for Aircraft Carriers

May 13, 2009
The Captain of the carrier HMS Illustrious, one of three small flattops in Royal Navy service, made the following statement during Britain’s recent celebration of 100 years of the Fleet Air Arm:

“Carrier aviation and particularly Carrier Strike is not only the back bone of the Fleet, it is the backbone of our national security and wider defence policy.”


HMS Turbulent S87

HMS Turbulent S87

We fear that Western Navies are still in denial on the type of warfare at sea most likely to be fought in any potential conflict. Still hoping their giant battleships such as supercarriers and guided missile ships will deter any potential foe as they did through much of the last war–the Cold War, they spend much of their budgets and force planning on very costly naval airpower in a century for asymmetric threats such as conventional submarines, cruise missiles, and even suicide boats. In Great Britain, this sort of mindset is glaringly revealed by base swapping plans, as Western Morning News tells us:

DEVONPORT is to lose its frigates and submarines as part of a major shake-up of the Royal Navy announced today by the Armed Forces Minister Bob Ainsworth. As widely speculated, the Navy’s new frigates will be based at Portsmouth, which is to become the fleet’s main operating base, while the submarine fleet is moved to Faslane, Scotland.

Devonport’s Type 22 frigates will remain until the end of their service lives while a decision on its Type 23 frigates will be made in the next five years. The announcement, which could cost the South West economy millions in lost jobs and services, was confirmed this afternoon when the minister visited the Plymouth-based naval base.

Mr Ainsworth said that, subject to Ministry of Defence investment decisions, Portsmouth will be home to the new class of frigates, known as the Future Surface Combatant. They will be berthed alongside the new Type 45 destroyers currently being introduced to service as well as the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers currently on order.

Though specifically these are not warships cuts but a bureaucratic reshuffling of forces, there have been cuts recently in order to ensure the Royal Navy possess a last-century carrier arm, backed by very powerful Daring anti-missile ships, and a sizable amphibious capability. Typically the cuts have fallen on low-end escorts like the Type 23 and submarines, ships which during wartime have often proved the most valuable, and the type of vessel the anti-piracy mission in the Indian Ocean is pleading for.

HMS Somerset (F82)

HMS Somerset (F82)

According to Save the Royal Navy, numerous and still useful vessels have been discarded prematurely to pay for budget cuts and to build this small gold-plated fleet. For instance, Britain sold 4 Upholder class submarines to Canada after they had seen only 1-3 years service each. Also, six very powerful Type 22 (Batch 2) frigates were sold to an ex-Warsaw Pact Navy for scrap value. Remarkably, 3 of the Type 23 Duke class commissioned in the 1990’s were sold to Chile at a bargain.

All of which leaves the once mighty Royal Navy with a fleet less than half its size in 1990, with ongoing cuts planned. To borrow a recent quote from Commander Jeff Huber of the USN, the British admirals and politicians “always plan for the last World War.” Yet, it is the small warship which has proved the most handy, and hardest working in all major conflicts at sea. While we wouldn’t call for a complete dismantling of all large warships in service, certainly some form of balance is required to allow a navy to contend with multiple threats, instead of just the ones we pick or choose.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. May 14, 2009 9:04 am


    the RN subs arrived first, and chased a navy with very limited ASW into port – the Carriers arrived ready and raring to fight, only nothing came out to fight them.

    BMD, is a necessity, but it is not that expensive, all you need is an Aegis Radar, a Type 41 VLS, and the SM-3-ER – which America and Japan already have, on practically everything which moves in the USN – its only the RN, which was forced to accept Sylver VLS instead of the Type 41 for political reasons, which can not.

    yours sincerly


  2. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 14, 2009 8:44 am

    BMD will be the death-knell of the Big Ship navy, just as the expense of nuclear warships have been for the USN. Notice since the 1950s their has been a steady decline with no end in sight.

    Have to agree with Distiller on the modern role for carriers as mainly against land targets (more on this next week!). Notice that in the Falklands War, the British carriers could carry out their important function only AFTER the RN subs had chased the Argentine Fleet into port.

    Just a final point on cruise missiles: they have yet to be used enmasse in a full scale war. Just a few quick shots against a handful of vessels, and none of these were the supersonic carrier-killing Russian types like the Sunburn (someone correct me if I’m wrong here). These out of the way battles as in the Gulf and the South Atlantic can only give us a glimpse of their real capabilities. We can’t be sure but I am convinced in a war between great powers that we will be surprised at their effectiveness and also change our minds on what type of warships we can live with or without.

  3. May 14, 2009 8:17 am

    The U.K. just painted themselves into a corner. It has just been announced that the U.K will go for T3 on the Eurofighter Typhoon. And well helo spare parts for the forces in Afghanitrash are still short. And …. and…. and….

    and…. the big gold plated fantasy purchases are going to have an even more difficult time…

  4. May 14, 2009 7:32 am


    air bourne – that requires air bourne refueling and all the dangers that abounded in the Cold war from keeping aircraft up their for long periods of time, and the accidents that happen – ships are much safer. the other option would be the militarisation of space, something which still, technically, illegal…so not a real option.

    Unfortunately the best carriers (balancing; for manouverability, amount of aircraft carried, and all the other requisite factors) are 70,000ton nuclear powered medium carriers, heavily armed, you then will need a couple of destroyers, becuase to use mikes maximum you can either stealth or invulnerability, if you can not rely on one you are forced to the other – and any escort protecting targets such as carriers, amphibious ships, and auxilaries – remember they grow with importance inversly to the size of the ship, will never be able to hidden, so their escort groups will have to contain some escorts of the invulnerable brand.

    and point of note, Cruise missiles have been the ‘enemy’ for so long, and so many weapons have been developed to counter them, that it is almost back to tactics as to who will win.

    yours sincerly


  5. Distiller permalink
    May 14, 2009 6:40 am

    Blue water battles don’t need carriers any more. What is needed are subs (and/or long-range aircraft) carrying effectors like AShM and torpedos, and over-the-horizon targeting data, which could come from anything from a satellite, to ELINT, to UAVs, or a P-8. No carrier, no large escorts, and no need to protect all of this.

    In reality the only job left for carriers are inland strikes against mobile targets of opportunity, be it in support of a landing, or just so. That’s of course where all the escorts come in again, and I think there can’t be enough of them. But the size of the carriers, and the size and characteristic of the escorts are up for discussion.

    And BMD should be airborne, not ship-based.

  6. May 14, 2009 5:08 am

    Yes and no mike, the small ships and subs can take of most things by themselves; however to be really effective they need to be part of a battlegroup, one which has a carrier, and some big escorts, these are necessary to do the tough fighting in war, to support the amphibious operations which are neccessary for a full and complete exploitation of the sea control (whether total or contested) the submarines and the Carrier Air Group will achieve.

    submarines are still weak against aircraft mike, they can hide yes, but the moment they have to start moving thats when all their wizadry deserts them.

    BMD will never be a waist of money mike, if the Dong Feng 21 does come on line eventually, then even your little ships and subs will be at risk – afterall a nuclear tends to destroy eveything it is path. therefore, if it all it takes to counter that is a couple of destroyers with SM-3-ERs then build them and load’em up; afterall you can still 30 odd corvettes, but they will some ‘big toys’ to take care of them should they tweak the dragon’s tail a little to much.

    yours sincerly


  7. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 13, 2009 4:30 pm

    Alex, I’m not so sure if its balance anymore but overkill and over-cautious. Now we are getting into BMD at sea, adding more costs and distracting us from the Navy’s real purpose. Defending the sealanes. If the Big Ships spent more time on the oceans where they belong, away from the littorals, would they need such costly and budget-breaking escorts? Which is why I call for more corvettes to send to the shallow seas, which are naturally stealthy by their small size, affordable in large numbers to provide numerous targets, and able to carry the new precision missiles and UAVs in an more affordable hull. remember that the larger the ship, the more defensive equipment it will need. But the small ships and submarines can take care of themselves. That is the future, not more Cold War battleships.

  8. May 13, 2009 12:58 pm

    well mike, that is the rule, they all want to have the big toys; and to be fair to get a balance of capabilities you do need the mix of big toys, but you also need a larger mix of the small toys for ‘sea exploitation’

    yours sincerly


  9. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 13, 2009 12:44 pm

    “p.s. you nicked my picture!” I did? I always go after those not in copyright. Or maybe great minds think alike!

    What bothers me about the escorts, Alex, is when they start approaching the cost of the ships they are escorting (especially in the USN’s case) then something is terribly wrong. It seems each combat command needs a battleship, including the submariners, surface warfare, the Marines. This type of logic will soon break us, while our enemies are running around in commercial speed boats and strapping suicide vests on.

  10. May 13, 2009 9:31 am


    some of us argue we need 6 improved Type 45s, and that the FSC should be a corvette – we are also the ones arguing that the RN with a reduced submarine force and reduced escort force have no choice but to make the carriers the back bones of any strategy – even though we need three nuclear powered medium carriers (to maintain a garuntee of one operational at any one time), to be got in a ratio of 2 escort groups (each made of 2-3 destroyers, and 6-8 corvettes) for each carrier (preferably 6 in total, with enough destroyers and corvettes spare to form a 7th if needed), this would provide one for each carrier battle group, one set of escorts for the amphibious task group, and enough escorts over for the myriad of other tasks we require them to do….
    however in this new world order we keep being told that you no longer need the escorts; which to my mind is like saying you only need artillery you no longer need Infantry/APCs and Tanks….it just does not make sense

    yours sincerly


    p.s. you nicked my picture!

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