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RN Carriers:Keeping up with the Zhanges’

June 21, 2009

The following is bumped and updated, since it was mistakenly posted early. Two posts on Twitter from Save the Royal Navy caught my attention:

Russians to expand carrier fleet. Royal Navy strategic focus on carrier strike validated.

Chinese expansion into carrier area puts paid to Cold War arguments about Naval relevance.

961116-D-0000B-004While we support efforts to maintain the Fleet Air Arm, in the face of fierce attacks from a Royal Air Force struggling for precious defense dollars, we hope the Royal Navy can find a better excuse for naval air than “everyone else is doing it“. Remember also that before the World Wars of the last century most major navies and some not so major were undertaking breathless construction of giant dreadnought battleships until the submarine and aircraft carriers ended the madness. Earlier I used the same comparison the fruitless and dangerous battleship races of the past with the needless aircraft carrier race ongoing today:

This new rivalry between nations couldn’t come at a worse time, with ongoing wars in the Middle East and the rising asymmetrical threats at sea with piracy. Both of these more immediate concerns do not require large and intimidating new battleships, and these very costly to operate, maintain, and protect vessels are actually hurting the effort to bring about peace. Just as the dreadnoughts of the last century drained precious funds for the war effort in the First World War, so do the aircraft carriers drain scarce moneys for new equipment from the “boots on the Ground” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One reason we might encourage both Russia and China to continue spending precious shipbuilding funds on a handful of very costly Big Ships, so that moneys will not be available to these peer rivals for  more useful and proven dangerous weapons such as cruise missile armed submarines. Such an obsession with giant capital ships reminds us of Hitler’s own battleship program of the in the 1930s, that left the Kreigsmarine initially and perhaps fatally short of U-boats early in the war, with only 57. Fortunately for the survival of Britain, neither were there enough smaller escorts and transports to ensure a safe passage for the German Army in the proposed Nazi invasion dubbed Operation Sea Lion in 1940. Wikipedia explains this position:

It is arguable that, had more resources been put more into U-boats earlier, then Britain would not have been able to defend its convoys quickly enough to avoid defeat. In fact after a year of war, production of new ships had only kept up with losses.

It amazes us then that both the Royal Navy and the US Navy spend vast sums creating a top-heavy aircraft carrier fleet, when submarines are so much more deadlier than during the world wars. Meanwhile, smaller UAVs and long range cruise missiles which duplicate many functions of carriers, allowing smaller and less vulnerable craft to conduct the power projection/sea control mission, are altering warfare as we know it. Even more troubling is the fact that ASW assets (planes, ships) in both navies have dwindled far below Cold War standards, let alone the massed fleets needed to defeat German and Japan 70 years ago.

070729-N-0535P-062Aircraft carriers are still useful for the persistent peacekeeping mission the West conducts against poorly armed Third World powers. Yet in every major conflict at sea from the World Wars to the Falklands, submarines and escort type warships which can cruise close to shore, defend convoys, sink enemy merchant fleets, and protect friendly ports have proved the most essential and always in short supply.

An alternative proposal for the Royal Navy might be a compromise with the younger air service. The RAF could be allowed to manage the dwindling number of manned fighters left in the country as long as the Navy can have complete autonomy over her own UAV fleet. As we argued before, combat drones (UCAVs) can be deployed from small aviation corvettes, and also the Ocean class assault carriers. UAVs have been likened to reusable cruise missiles and we can only conclude them as force enhancers potentially useful on the sea as they have been on land.

Here in America, we wish to see a large and stronger Royal Navy as well, which for centuries has been Civilization’s first line of defense in European waters and elsewhere. It is unlikely though that budget draining, escort ship destroying supercarriers like HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales will ever allow the fleet to grow, and more likely hasten its demise. British blogger Mike Cunningham at “A Tangled Web” puts this in perspective:

We have half the promised destroyers, and these await missiles not yet built. Our submarine numbers decrease at every slice of the Budget… The aircraft carriers may well be built, but they might not have any aircraft to fly off their expensive decks!

20 Comments leave one →
  1. June 4, 2014 3:56 am

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  2. Joe permalink
    June 26, 2009 9:16 pm

    Great Britain is even more determined than the United States to put its navy out of commission. What Mike Cunningham mentions about “half of their promised destroyers” refers to the Type 45 Destroyer project. What began as plans for 12 ships is now for just 6, at a per ship cost of nearly $6.46 billion pounds, which translates into $10.7 billion U.S. dollars, as of today’s date. Insane. And the AC carriers are presently $6.4 billion U.S. to boot.

    Something I do not know: Britain has mothballed quite a few of its ships in recent times, primarily for monetary reasons. Are the Brits maintaining these ships in valid enough condition that they could be reworked, modernized, and brought back into service if needed? If so, why not do that before simply building new vessels they cannot afford without pawning the Queen’s crown?

    How nations get themselves into these situations is amazing. We are no better than the Brits, so I’m not pointing fingers.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 23, 2009 6:15 am

    “Don’t build anything you can’t afford to loose.”

    Well, there goes 90% of the fleet!

  4. Scott B. permalink
    June 23, 2009 4:49 am

    Mike Burleson said : “Scott, the comment the good admiral made is a convenient excuse for business as usual,”

    It’s not a convenient excuse, it’s the reality that the Navy is learning the hard way, 10 years after Dr. Gansler started to downsize NAVSEA, because he thought he could ignore real life and get away with it.

    Just take a look at the number of failed programs that have accumulated over the past 10 years, and what you’ll find out is that it is not the way to go.

  5. Distiller permalink
    June 23, 2009 4:44 am

    Think it’s quite simple: Don’t build anything you can’t afford to loose. Could Great Britain afford to loose a CVF? Don’t think so. Therefore …

  6. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 22, 2009 6:58 pm

    As I mentioned in the post, we need a strong Royal Navy. We are Allies, all working together toward the same end, which is freedom of the seas and promoting democracy. All we do here is suggest alternatives. Though we may have different views, we have the same goals.

    Scott, the comment the good admiral made is a convenient excuse for business as usual, meaning that they must continue to build only large and very costly warships which have little relevance in the wars we are fighting now, but perfectly feasible if you aren’t going to fight. So they shut down debate and continue with their “all battleship navy”, ever shrinking in numbers, while increasing in cost and impressing our enemies very little, because they know we won’t risk them in battle.

    I’m not saying all the warship alternatives we propose here will solve the Navy’s procurement woes, but their refusal to consider new platforms spells the death of our seapower.

  7. David Chessum permalink
    June 22, 2009 6:02 pm

    While I appreciate the vote of confidence, I’m not sure that was what I was trying to say.

    I don’t have the answers as to the correct force structure for the Modern Royal Navy, but I’m not really convinced that the procurement decisions made by a Continental power dedicated to a sea denial strategy 70 years ago are necessarily all that relevant to the procurement decisions required today for a Tier 2 maritime power closely allied to the worlds only superpower.

    My interest is in naval history, and in the use and abuse of it to justify modern agendas.

    As I said at the start of my first post – if you are going to draw lessons from history, it is important to get that history right. Far too many people trawl through history looking for (or inventing) lessons that support their preconceived agendas, rather than look to history for inspiration to help them form their ideas.



  8. Scott B. permalink
    June 22, 2009 3:30 pm

    Chessum is RIGHT.

    What most people don’t seem to realize is what VADM McCullough said recently :

    “You’ve got to be able to maintain the high end capability because if you lose it, the cost to recoup it is incredible, not only in dollars, but in other things.”

  9. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 22, 2009 4:36 am

    I won’t argue about the utility of large warships, David, though I do think their purpose against modern threats in the littorals is increasingly questionable. I am against a top-heavy fleet which discounts the capabilities of small warships, that historically have been essential to winning Britain and America’s wars at sea. Today their capabilities are not only ignored but maligned by surface admirals who have forgotten the hard-won lessons of war, that we never have enough of such craft and can’t build them quick enough when we need them.

  10. David Chessum permalink
    June 21, 2009 10:56 pm

    “Again David it was the small ships which actually ferried the invasion force.”

    The invasion force was ferried in both large and small vessels (for example Lutzow and Blucher carried troops to Oslofjord), however the smaller vessels would never have been able to venture as far afield as they did without the cover provided by the heavy units of the fleet.

    “The handful of large ships the Germans possessed did little to save the 10 destroyers which HMS Warspite sunk”

    So is your argument that because they didn’t have enough of them, they should have built less?

    As an aside, the Warspite did not sink 10 destroyers. There were only ten destroyers in the Narvik force. Two had already been sunk during the first Battle of Narvik, three were sunk by Warspite and her escorts, while the remaining five were scuttled by the Germans due to a lack of fuel and ammunition.



  11. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 21, 2009 9:23 pm

    “Huge SSK/SSN fleets are an underdog tool”

    So is the suicide bomber, but it works, unless great care is taken to counter his very cost efficient but lethal tactics.

    And your “geostrategy” and “operations” matter little if your ships cannot function because of the submarines threat. The Allies found they couldn’t invade Western Europe until Hitler’s U-boats were dealt with.

    And if you are right that modern submarines are no more lethal than their WW 2 forebears, can you at least admit that the drastic decrease in general purpose ASW surface escorts in British and American navies have increased the risk to these navies?

  12. June 21, 2009 9:02 pm

    “It amazes us then that both the Royal Navy and the US Navy spend vast sums creating a top-heavy aircraft carrier fleet, when submarines are so much more deadlier than during the world wars.”

    Because they aren’t.

    They were and are relatively slow (except SSNs that accept the noise level of high speed), no weapons for force concentration and exceptionally useless against air targets. Their non-nuclear land attack capability still doesn’t match the capability of a destroyer and their mine countermeasure capabilities are still marginal.

    You misunderstand “lethality” with “survivability”.
    All arms can be sufficiently “lethal”- it’s just not equally easy to exploit this lethality.

    The subs of WW1 and WW2 did sink so many surface ships because of their ability to close in to them.

    Germany WW1: British fleet blockades the German fleet. Only submarines (small lethality) can pass the blockade reliably and engage the easily killed cargo shipping. German high seas fleet hasn’t enough range to operate in Atlantic anyway.

    Germany WW2: The same again – just that British aircraft carriers and land-based aviation made surface raiders even less survivable.

    U.S. WW2: The same plus the fact that the theater of war span much of earth while the battle fleet had to remain concentrated to be survivable. Only subs were able to disperse to seek the needles in the haystack (and survive).

    IJN WW2: Great demonstration that subs are not that lethal. Respectable, but not very important successes of IJN subs against USN warships.

    USSR/Italy WW2: Great demonstration how useless subs are if they aren’t technically modern but face tough environments and opposition.

    – – – – –

    It’s really not the lethality that enabled the historical sub successes. It was the ability to bypass strength and bring rather limited lethality to bear against relatively easy targets.
    Subs were defeated once the easy targets became tough targets (proper convoys) and when their survivability was degraded (HF/DF, Ultra, 3cm radar, Leigh light, 4-engine MPAs, carrier ASW aircraft).

    It was a good choice for the USN to focus on naval airpower instead of on SSKs. Huge SSK/SSN fleets are an underdog tool for powers that cannot hope to use a survivable air/surface fleet.
    There was no ‘rear’ area with ‘soft’ targets for the USN during the Cold War, and there is still no such thing (except maybe Chinese coastal areas).
    It was on the other hand a correct idea for the USSR to build a large SSK fleet during the 50’s and of the Chinese to do about the same later on.

    Maritime power tools need to be seen in the context of geostrategy and operations. There’s no “one type fits everybody, anytime”.

  13. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 19, 2009 2:58 pm

    “And here’s what’s really batty about it; why have a supercarrier at all if you’re intent on buying STOVL planes instead of catapult launched aircraft? ”

    Good question! Spread your forces around the fleet IMHO (goes for V/STOL, cruise missiles, UAVs, ect). Enhance survivability as well as your global presence.

  14. DesScorp permalink
    June 19, 2009 1:21 pm

    I’m a supporter of big carriers, and I think cat-launched birds are generally better than STOVL aircraft. But the fact is that not everyone can afford these, and I simply don’t see how Britian… a nation of 65 million, with a Navy of 83 ships and less than 35,000 people, can support two supercarriers without basically sacrificing the rest of the fleet.

    And here’s what’s really batty about it; why have a supercarrier at all if you’re intent on buying STOVL planes instead of catapult launched aircraft? The RN is committed to the F-35B, far more than the US Navy is to the F-35C, so why buy a supercarrier when you can get 5 or 6 ships like LHA-6, USS America for the same money? If my figures are correct, LHA-6 is costing us around $1.5 billion, and the two supercarriers are costing the UK $12 billion pounds. You can get up to 30 F-35’s, plus a squadron of anti-sub choppers, on an America-class platform. The new UK ships have a max-out compliment of 65 aircraft. So for less money, the UK could extend their reach with even more aircraft. Their policy just doesn’t make any sense. If they were buying navalized Typhoons or Super Hornets, fine, then you need a supercarrier. But F-35’s on a 65K ton class carrier?

    Again, I just don’t get it.

  15. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 19, 2009 3:27 am

    Again David it was the small ships which actually ferried the invasion force. The handful of large ships the Germans possessed did little to save the 10 destroyers which HMS Warspite sunk, and which could potentially have ferried a like number of troops for the proposed invasion of Britain.

  16. David Chessum permalink
    June 19, 2009 1:23 am

    If people are going to draw on lessons from the past, they should at least get them right. If Germany hadn’t invested so much in Battleships, then she would never have been able to take over the bases in Norway that were used by the U-boats, and Britain and France would have re-oriented their defence programmes to meet the threat of increased u-boats rather than a strong surface fleet.

    With a single dimensional threat to defend against in the Atlantic, Britain would have found the defence of the Atlantic sea lanes much easier, the U-Boats would have been defeated earlier, and it is likely that a much stronger fleet could have been dispatched to the East to deter Japan.

    Dollar for dollar, the German heavy ships were just as cost-effective as Germany’s enormously expensive u-boat program (see Pugh’s analysis in his book “the Cost of Seapower” for evidence of this).



  17. June 18, 2009 11:35 pm

    Different strategic requirements lead to different equipment requirements.

    It’s a primitive argument to call one power’s procurement validated just because another power buys similar equipment.

    It’s a version of an extremely common behaviour. Each slightest indication pro one’s position is being taken for true and important while every other indication is ignored or played down. This happens everywhere, and it reveals who’s got principles and who doesn’t.


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