Carrier Alternative Weekly
Why the Royal Navy Shrinks
Your first guess to this question might be “lack of funds”. However, I beg to disagree, and instead point to headlines like the following:
These cuts mentioned are only two small warships. No big deal right? Yet, the consistent dismantling of the Royal Navy has been ongoing throughout this decade, for some hoped-for return of the large deck aircraft carrier to the fleet for reasons of prestige, as if one of the world’s most active and effective navies has any cause for shame or anything to prove. Meanwhile the small warships have been in contact with the enemy, from terrorist smugglers, to pirates, and Iranian kidnappers. Here is journalist David Axe on the Navy’s essential small ships:
But the Royal Navy is already under-equipped and under-manned. To provide a frigate to the E.U. counter-piracy flotilla, when that force first deployed in December, the Navy had to pull HMS Northumberland from her regularly scheduled South Atlantic patrol, leaving the Falklands without a warship’s protection. In 1997, the Ministry of Defense concluded the Navy needed 32 frigates and destroyers. Today the sea service has just 22 of these useful warships — and numbers will undoubtedly decline further, to a potential low of just 14, as the Type 22s and Type 23s begin paying off in around five years’ time.
The world will discover, as the Royal Navy bottoms out, just how much it has relied on British warships and staff officers to safeguard world security. Northumberland, for her part, was the first warship on the scene in December when the E.U. flotilla opened up a southern flank in the war on piracy. Earlier, pirates had seized the supertanker Sirius Star, laden with $100 million in crude oil, in unprotected waters south of Mombasa, Kenya. Northumberland’s presence made a repeat of that bold hijacking unlikely.
This type of low tech warfare the supercarriers cannot do. As we have pointed out all week, the Royal Navy’s wants are horribly off the mark from its needs. Small warship which are easily cast off are the backbone of the Navy. It is Britain’s little frigates and patrol vessels that have been the most useful ships, the most important, recalling when the simple patrol ship HMS Endurance was geared to leave the Falklands in the 1980s, a major war erupted.
Their usefulness is far in excess to their size. When they are gone, the RN will have a magnificent set of battleships, which will be too expensive to risk leaving port since they have no escorts against smaller threats. The politicians don’t get this.
Spreading the Pain
Max Hastings says the Labour Party’s new budget tries too hard to “spread the pain” instead of actually cutting non-essential programs, like the new supercarriers. He also contends the Tories won’t do much better:
Liam Fox (the Tories’ likely defence secretary if elected) is known to be eager to keep the Royal Navy’s two planned aircraft carriers. It would certainly be nice for Britain to maintain them. But, including the U.S. F-35 planes designed to fly off them, the whole programme will cost £25billion.The Tories have already said they will not increase the overall size of the defence budget. On that basis, the carriers and F-35s are unaffordable. I believe the brutal, but realistic, option is to cancel the whole programme.
In today’s world of terrorists and pirates, what the Royal Navy really needs is a larger force of cheap and cheerful small frigates.But the Navy is passionately wedded to hugely expensive kit. The indications are that the Tories will opt for weak compromise – keeping the carriers but cutting the purchase of planes to fly off them.
Yes, keep our frigates “cheap and cheerful”. Also call them corvettes!
USN Also Embraces the Shrinking Fleet
Chris Cavas at Defense News (subscr. only) gives us glimpse at the US Navy’s 30 year shipbuilding plans (full report in February)
An example of the sort of numbers that have been presented is a fleet plan dating from mid-October. That $13 billion plan showed some alarming numbers, including a precipitous drop in the size of the fleet from 313 ships to 246. The plan reverted to buying only one submarine per year beginning in 2015, and while the total number of attack submarines drops to 32 in 2028, it rises to 35 in 2040. The SSGN guided-missile submarines disappeared from the plan.
While the plan kept all 11 carriers, the CG(X) cruiser disappeared, and the total number of cruisers and destroyers – meant to provide defense for the big flattops – was only 45. A new ship, tentatively called a BMD DDG (ballistic missile defense guided-missile destroyer) also appeared in one plan around 2020. The number of amphibious ships – a key indicator to the Navy’s commitment to the lift requirements of the Marine Corps – dropped from 33 ships in 2016 to 25 in 2040. The total number of LCS ships was 53 – two short of the requirement, perhaps reflecting the disposal of the two ships built to the design not chosen for the rest of the class.
What we see is further evidence of the unraveling of traditional naval platforms and an almost certain decline in the fighting capability of the US Fleet. This is all the more astounding considering the individual capabilities of Americans warships are greater than ever.
Axe–Don’t Lose Sleep Over China Carrier
If you won’t take blogger/journalist, fellow SC native David Axe’s word on China’s flattop plans, how about a top USN Admiral:
“I may tell you that aircraft carrier operations are very expensive and complex and require a great deal of training and dedication,” [U.S. Pacific Command boss Admiral Robert] Willard warned. The Chinese surely realize this — hence their extremely cautious approach to building a carrier fleet.
What that means, in practical terms, is that the operational Varyag will probably spend very little time at sea. Consider that Russia’s sole carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, Varyag’s sister, has sailed on extended cruises just a few times in her 18 years of service. Her old, complex powerplant is a “source of trouble,” RIA Novosti military commentator Ilya Kramnik said. On Kuznetsov’s latest cruise, a sailor died in a fire. In February, the vessel spilled 1,000 tons of fuel into the sea during a refueling operation. The Russian carrier often sails with a large tugboat alongside, “just in case,” Galrahn noted.
I’m more concerned about her missile and subs than her carriers. Any funds spent toward giant conventional, and costly naval airpower can only distract her from pursuing less costly but equally effective asymmetrical weapons.
Dread-naught the Japanese Either
David Axe is on a role with carrier posts today! He gives the following reasons why Tokyo won’t deploy large decks ships:
- Aircraft carriers are tools of offensive warfare
- There is no policy that would drive the need for an aircraft carrier
- Most of Japan’s potential adversaries are right on its doorstep
- Aircraft carriers are extremely expensive
- Aircraft carriers are from a chapter of Japan’s past it would rather forget
- Historically, carriers are a great way to kill a lot of Japanese people
- Japan already has aircraft carriers (meaning its military ties with the nearby US Fleet)
He makes a good argument, but as he says “Japan already has aircraft carriers”. As Britain proved in 1982, you can do alot with a couple light carriers and an excellent surface fleet. She now has both, especially the latter.
Here is Raymond “Galrahn” Pritchett discussing carriers in wartime:
The loss of an aircraft carrier with 4000 killed would unquestionably represent an enormous blow to the US, but the question I have is whether it would significantly shift the balance of naval power in the region? I don’t think so, because I believe in major war the power at sea lies with submarines, not aircraft carriers.
Scary to think about! Especially with so many sailors packed into one giant hull.
Sinking the Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier
UK Defence Forum says the loss of airbases on Okinawa as a staging area for the US Military could not be sufficiently duplicated on Guam or with aircraft carriers:
Since Japan cannot guarantee enduring contingency access to a Futenma runway after reversion to civilian control, the loss of this strategic national asset would degrade alliance crisis response. In the absence of a Schwab airfield, consolidated Futenma and Kadena flight operations would exceed existing Kadena runway and ramp maximum-on-ground storage capabilities for surge operations during a military crisis or humanitarian emergency.
Relying on Guam for ramp storage space would exponentially increase air-to-air refueling requirements for both essential land-based and carrier combat aircraft operations. This would significantly reduce U.S. ability to conduct combat sorties as well as strain, if not exceed, logistic capabilities. Deploying additional aircraft carriers would not be sufficient. Aircraft carriers cannot support transport or air-to-air refueling aircraft, nor can they generate the necessary combat aircraft sorties planned for both Kadena and Futenma during contingency and combat operations.
This assertion clarifies our own thinking that Guam should only be a base for light forces.