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RN Carriers: Is It Worth It?

July 14, 2009

Robert Farley at Lawyers, Guns, and Money makes a valid point concerning the Royal Navy’s giant new 65,000 ton supercarriers:

The decision to build two big deck carriers has, accordingly, produced the need for sacrifices in other areas. The number of Type 45 destroyers has been cut from twelve to six, and other escort vessels have either been delayed or had their service lives extended well beyond what was originally projected. The RN is paying a significant price for Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, a price that I suspect will eventually include the SSBN fleet. It’s also possible that, in spite of the steel cutting, Queen Elizabeth and her sister will never be completed. Followers of the Royal Navy are concerned that after having cut the service in order to fund the carriers, the government will now cut the carriers.

We continue to hold Great Britain as the standard for clinging to a dated strategy in a new era of warfare. While they spend precious funds on last century arms, their armies overseas have suffered humiliation at the hands of Bedouin soldiers, and continue to suffer shortages while in contact with the enemy. Here in America we have no right to gloat. Though this is an extreme example, if we don’t come to terms with weapons which increase in size, complication, and expense, while drastically shrinking in numbers bought, England’s woes will be our own in a decade or 2.

Also, Farley discusses small carriers:

Alternatives exist, even within the force projection requirements of the Royal Navy. Ark Royal and Illustrious are both twenty-five years old, and will eventually require replacement. Had the RN not chosen the big deck route, it could have pursued something similar to the Italian , which displaces 27000 tons and could carry about 20 F-35Bs. The development of theF-35B and the advent of the Age of UAV has reduced the capability gap between big and small carriers, as the latter can now operate aircraft substantially similar to the former. With lower operating and construction costs, a British Cavour type might have saved some of the Type 45 destroyers.

Really, your mothership should be as spartan as possible, if you are going to rely on missile escorts for defense. Her parasite fighters are far more important, and smaller numbers are far more capable thanks also to new precision technology, promising “one bomb,one hit”.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. Alex. (the new'un) permalink
    July 16, 2009 2:52 pm

    Too much money and time has already been spent on the carriers to let them go, even cutting one is a waste of cash especially when you consider that if you want the capabilities of a carrier then you need 2; well you really either need 3 or 2+2 carriers and helicopter orientated amphibs(which in the RNs case seems to be leaning towards 2 QEs and 2 Enforcer 30000-esque vessels)

    as to Cavour you can’t get 4 anglocised Cavour type carriers for the same price as 2 QEs (infact you would be hard pushed to get it for the same price as 3 QEs) not only that a Cavour is in no way as versatile as a QE. Say the UK dropped CVF back in the 90s and looked towards replacing ocean and vincy class with a single class of ‘4 or 5’ Cavour type vessels then we would have carriers bound to V/STOL ops for their lifetime and LPHs that are too expensive to operate. This may be an ideal situation for the MM but for the RN it’s far less than ideal.

  2. July 16, 2009 1:17 pm


    reveiwing does not equal cancelling, although I have heard somthing about building Queen Elizabeth, and then building two smaller 30,000ton ships…but I don’t think thats likely, as it would be another expensive development program.

    yours sincerly


  3. Scott B. permalink
    July 16, 2009 1:13 pm

    The Daily Mail, May 1, 2009 :

    “Mr Cameron then suggested major defence projects like two new Royal Navy aircraft carriers or the £20billion update of the Trident nuclear deterrent could be up for review.”

    The Scotsman, May 1, 2009 :

    “The Tory leader conceded all major programmes – including the two new aircraft carriers being partly built in Scotland and the replacement Trident programme based on the Clyde – would be reviewed if he became Prime Minister.”

  4. July 16, 2009 12:20 pm

    and there goes the politness; right Scott, here is a simple fact, Cameron wants to cut costs, he will most likely be the next prime minister, and he will be told by practically everyone who is anyone advising him on defence that it is cheaper for him to sell/close the foreign bases in places like Saudi Arabia, and many other nations – where we don’t get to use them if we go to war anyway; than to operate aircraft carriers which can provide ‘big presence’ so important to national self image, without ‘big ties’ or ‘big commitments’ which lead to ‘bigger costs; – Cameron knows this himself. This is why the carriers will come, and probably the bases will close.

    yours sincerly


  5. Scott B. permalink
    July 16, 2009 12:12 pm

    Alex said : “the RN will get two CVFs, mainly because the two major political parties have spent so much time saying how necessary they are that they run the risk of looking __________________(insert suitable adjective here)”

    Don’t be so naive.

    If there’s one thing politicians know (in the UK and elsewhere), it’s that promises engage only those who believe them.

  6. July 16, 2009 11:39 am


    the RAF are trying to take all aircraft under them, the RN are fighting – it is not the RN wanting to loose them; it is the RAF trying to find itself a mission, in a world where it does not want to do ground support

    yours sincerly


  7. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 16, 2009 5:47 am

    Alex, I consider aircraft carriers eminently useful and I wish all our allies had some, but not at the expense of more useful and still essential warfighting skills. A carrier can’t do everything a destroyer, frigate, corvette, or minesweeper can, and in all our wars we hurt for these type of ships. Remember, in the first and Second World War it was the submarine which brought Britain close to defeat, not Germany’s battlefleet. The ancestors of these very stealthy and deadly craft are with us today, more powerful than ever.

    But if we aren’t planning to fight, by all means, lets build more expeditionary forces, even those these ships are getting harder to build, and we get fewer and fewer for our money with each passing decade. Now we hear the RN is willing to forgo aircraft altogether other than helicopters, just to get them built. Kinda defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?

  8. July 16, 2009 5:02 am

    Mike not sure, where you talking about chopping off both the core and the escrots; i.e. the carriers, the amphibs, the destroyers and the corvettes? I would have thought the latter you would have supported.

    the reason for the Amphibs is the Falklands/Commonwealth support scenario; just look at the Sierra Leone problems a few years back; to which basically an influence squadron was sent. If the Argentinians went through with their constant posturing and threats and decided to try and retake the falklands again, then the ATG of at least a reinforced brigade would be needed; and we don’t have as many civilian ships as we used to be able to call on, so that need we need more greys.

    Australia is building up its systems with a view to possible problems with its neighbours to the north, and with our commitments to them and to Brunei, having a carrier fleet too send out there is useful; especially if it was coupled with an influence squadron. The same would go for the Falklands scenario, where a carrier group to provide strike/strike interdiction could well allow the ATG to carry out its work with far less threat.

    Mike you will also note I did not specify what aircraft will be flying from the CVFs; they could be carrying UAVs, in which case I am sorry to say but the Global Hawk’s, Predators, and the rest of their more powerful ilk, are a little to large to get a useful quantity on a small hull; you might be able to get Phoenix’s on such a hull, but the are little prop driven, man launched, scouting drones used for infantry units. Until there is the switich to UAVs, you will have to accomodate manned aircraft, and the JSF is good, you will need to be able to carry enough to mount both a constant(reserve) 4(4) plane CAP and 4(4) plane strike flight, especially if you are not going to fit a catapult and launch a Hawkeye, or even a radar scanning drone; this means 48 aircraft are required or rather 6 groups of 8.

    yours sincerly


  9. Distiller permalink
    July 16, 2009 1:42 am

    Re modern day Falkland scenario – air defense problem. Wonder if the Hawkeye capability could be replaced by a handful of forward loitering UAV, like Predator C with IR eyes, or an AESA canoe. Cause I speculate that in such an island war scenario where BVR kills would be allowed, the PAAMS of the Darings could replace manned interceptors, if the sensor coverage is far and tight enough, leaving a purely offensive mission to the carrier aircraft.

  10. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 15, 2009 8:56 pm

    Alex, just chop the top two off your list and I love it! LOL

  11. July 15, 2009 4:56 pm

    see that is purfect scott, its polite, and its to the point.

    the RN will get two CVFs, mainly because the two major political parties have spent so much time saying how necessary they are that they run the risk of looking __________________(insert suitable adjective here)

    yours sincerly


  12. Scott B. permalink
    July 15, 2009 4:43 pm

    Alex said : “I will plumb for the CVF – as we might get a third, and that will hopefully give us enough.”

    You’ll be lucky if you get those two currently envisioned.

    Personnally, I don’t think you’ll get more than one CVF.

  13. July 15, 2009 3:50 pm

    yes mike you do, but having a decent CAP would have helped, the Harriers were good but they didn’t and don’t have the ‘legs’ of their larger brethren.

    the CVF’s are designed to fight, they are good enough to use, even though they need to be nuclear powered, and we need three of them (and three LPH’s – in an ideal world). The RN then needs the escorts as well; mike you can not cut off your nose to spite your face. You need the useful sized carriers, with their useful sized aircraft (whether manned or not) and the useful escorts all in useful numbers. To be realisting with the RNs current commitments they need:
    Fleet Core: 3 CVFs, 3 LPH/LHDs, 3 LPDs,
    Escorts: 18(24) DDGs, 48-72 FSGs, (6 EGs of 3 DDGs + 8 FSGs, with 12 FSGs for Home Defence, and 6 FSGs each for Gibralta and Falklands)
    Light/Patrol Forces: 24 OPVs, 24 MCMVs (12 each of MCMVs and OPVs for defence of Home Waters, with 3 MCMVs and 6 OPVs each for Gibraltar and Falklands, 6 MCMVs for attachment to Battle Groups or the Aphibious Task Group).
    Submarines: 12 SSK, 12 SSN
    Auxilaries: 18 one-stop, 12 tankers, 6 medical support ships (6 AGs of 3 one-stop, 2 tankers and 1 Medical support ship)
    Amphibious Logistics: 9 LSL (4 Batch 1, 4 Batch 2, 1 Batch 3)

    each BG would be composed of 1 EG, 1 CVF, 1 AG, 1 SSN and perhapes 1-2 MCMV
    the ATG would be composed of 1 LHD/LPH, 2 LPD, 4 LSL, 1 AG, 1 EG, 2 SSK and 2 MCMVs
    an Influence Squadron (IF), 1 LHD, 2 LSL, 1 EG, 1 MCMV, 1 SSN, 1 AG

    Its alot, but if the British Government keeps comiting like it is, that is what it needs, if it could build the extra 6 Destroyers, then it would be in a far better position to fulfil all the options often required of it.

    yours sincerly


  14. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 15, 2009 3:20 pm

    This is like the USN’s notion, that their purpose is “not to fight” If you don’t plan on fighting (not talking about close air support against Third World nations), then you can build anything you want. And I agree that expeditionary warfare is important, but you don’t want to lose essential warfighting skills at the same time.

    Mentioning the Falklands, the RN carriers in no way could have taken the Islands on their own, They had to stay well outside the Argentine Air Force limits to survive. And I can’t imagine a handful of Type 45 super destroyers doing much good either. You have to have general purpose forces can afford to lose as well.

  15. July 15, 2009 3:01 pm

    this sounds like the same argument which lead to the Invincible‘s; and whilst they were and are lovely little ships, the Falkland’s showed they were two small; the Hermes was better, so perhaps it would be better to build three nuclear powered 35,000 ton ones, along with another couple of LPH’s of the Ocean class.

    that would provide enough; but as no one wants to consider realistic strategy, I will plumb for the CVF – as we might get a third, and that will hopefully give us enough.

    yours sincerly


  16. Heretic permalink
    July 15, 2009 2:17 pm

    In the end you shouldn’t build what you can’t afford to loose, and I really don’t think the U.K. could afford to loose a CVF.

    Too Big To Fail …”

  17. Joe permalink
    July 15, 2009 1:20 pm

    I think Distiller hit it on the head when he said: “In the end you shouldn’t build what you can’t afford to loose, and I really don’t think the U.K. could afford to loose a CVF.” If you’re cutting the in-place fleet to afford the to-be fleet,, then future aggressors know that if they knock out a British carrier, the reinforcements may not be there to make them pay for doing so. Hence, why risk its presence on true ‘aggressors’?

    The forth-coming defence review might determine that spending be slashed for many years to come. As such, it’s an arguable position to suggest that smaller, cheaper (yet still lethal) carriers would allow for GB to have considerable force projection yet retain “cap room” i.e., spending flexibility (borrowing a U.S. sports metaphor) in these tight times.

    Which is the better overall strategy for the Royal Navy? To adopt smaller carriers that potentially allow for a larger navy with more layers of protection/force projection, or a strategy of building bigger, more capable carriers that run the risk of shrinking the number of companion vessels?

  18. Distiller permalink
    July 15, 2009 11:33 am

    Dumbing them down essentially means to offload and automate the sensors in favour of a dispersed, netcentric architecture. Clear benefits like modularity, scalability & flexibility, easier upgrades, also enhanced survivability are promised (if the datalink problems are solved). I think it is possible, probably even necessary to fully realize the benefits that one can see on the horizon of the art of warfighting. I mean, the computing world seems destined to finally take advantage of the net and move on to the “cloud”, and DARPA is looking into deconstructed swarmflying satellites, it’s only logical that the fleet also moves in that direction. But I doubt it will result in drastically smaller vessels.

    Not sure speed and its connected engine weight is the big issue any more, now that scalable and flexible GT/gen-sets and electric drives like the RimJet are out there. In case of the USN the original carrier wing idea seems to have been dropped in favour of a very attack-centric setup (thanks to digital air defence, LO aircraft, ad-hoc LPI networks, &c). Without dedicated air superiority fighters, without carrier-borne wide-area ASW assets, and with ever more robotic ammo the USN is nibbling away the justification for the supercarriers.

    I was never a fan of the CVF plans. I think that in warfighting terms those 130ktons would better be invested in four 30kton ships like Cavour, as Farley suggests. The CVF seems more like a more mobile version of the USN Sea Base idea, that will fight with the incompatible requirements of being an aerial strike base and an amphib 3D assault base. In the end you shouldn’t build what you can’t afford to loose, and I really don’t think the U.K. could afford to loose a CVF. I also think that CVF signals the end of the RN’s willingness to take on first-tier enemies, and instead concentrate on minor colonial action without real opposition.

  19. Heretic permalink
    July 15, 2009 11:05 am

    Actually Mike, it may be EMALs that makes “slower” (and smaller) carriers a possibility. This is because EMALs allows far greater control over the launch forces applied to a plane taking off, thus giving the necessary safety margin/confidence to be able to launch aircraft with lower Wind Over Deck speeds. Once you can lower the WOD speeds necessary to launch (historically in the range of 30 knots), the next challenge is being able to land the aircraft at lower stall speeds (with Vertical Landing being the safest). Combine those two factors together and you can build “jeep” carriers that sail comfortably at 20 knots far more efficiently than ones that have to sail at 30+ knots just to be able to launch and recover aircraft safely.

  20. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 15, 2009 8:24 am

    Distiller, I keep wondering if we can’t “dumb them down”, with low powered engines, maybe place diesels on them, run them at 20 knots like the LHA’s, anything to cut costs and get them focused as Weapons carrier. The platforms we now deploy are now so costly and take a national effort to build, we have trouble getting adequate planes to fill their decks. I have often heard the Super Hornet called the “plane of last resort” because we were in big trouble in the early 1990s, with a block obsolescence of most of our airwing. This superpower has so much difficulties fielding a carrier-centric fleet, we had to cancel aircraft program after aircraft program in the 80’s to get them built. And the Brits, with less funds available, are seeing first hand how it can tear a military apart.

    We have made these wondrous demonstrations of our technical prowess into “sacred vessels”, justifying these space age battleships because we made need them to fight in the Third World, or second-rate powers as Alex mentioned the Argentines. Just give me something that will do the job in a pinch , and give us back the numbers in the fleet which are most useful for the wars we fight, that the admirals strangely seem to despise these days.

  21. Distiller permalink
    July 15, 2009 3:45 am


    your last para about spartan motherships: That’s not a viable way to go. On the contrary large units like carriers and amphibs have to have full self defence capability. Of course the offensive mission weapon system of a carrier are its planes, but that can’t result it being bare of defensive systems. Defensive systems like some CAMM hives and half a dozen Millenium guns, for example. Doesn’t take that much volume, and it’s simply necessary.

    I think that it is becoming increasingly unfinanceable and ineffective to mis-use the large surface combatants defensively as close escort and local aerial defense platforms. They need to get an offensive task, e.g. ultra long-range SAMs targeted via AEW UAVs, or ASW swarm-UAVs plus ASROC on steroids combo). That would mean an increase of the footprint of the task group, more balance away from a carrier centric setup, so that its manned aircraft become just one offensive mission weapon system amongst other, not the primary one. I think such would also be in the spirit of netcentric warfare with dispersed platforms. Your “USS Obama” UAV carrier would fit quite nicely.

  22. July 15, 2009 2:08 am

    don’t attack the carriers!, actually britain does need them, because we may have to fight another falklands…that demonstrated were to small; these are not the same size American Carriers, no where near – in fact to be correct we should not call them super carriers but fleet carriers (the one inbetween light and super). It is not their fault that the current government has been fighting the equivaelent of 3 wars on a peacetime budget…and cut helicopter and units back to save money, to pay for pet projects such as the M4 Bus Lane

    And Mike, less on the Humilation our troops have done a cracking job, no matter what they have been provided, it was the politicians who let them down, it was the politicians who even now spend mre time posturing than doing.

    yours sincerly


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