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Big Decks on Big Carriers

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To follow up on Dave’s post about the Royal Navy, it appears that the first steel has been cut for Queen Elizabeth, the first of the RN’s new big deck carriers.

The debate on defence budgeting in the UK is a good deal healthier and more substantive than that in the United States, if only because there’s a widespread understanding that weapons cost money and that the money spent on weapons can’t be spent on other things. In other words, defence is part of the budget, rather than an untouchable entitlement for the military-industrial complex. The Army, RAF, and Royal Navy seem only too happy to shiv one another during the budget process, in contrast to the rigidly self-enforced comity between the services in the United States. The RAF, for example, expressed a selfless willingness to give up its Harriers, without mentioning that the Harriers are the only fighter/attack aircraft that can currently operate from the decks of Illustrious and Ark Royal.

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.

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 Cavour, which displaces 27000 tons and could carry about 20 F-35Bs. The development of the F-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. That said, big deck carriers have certain advantages, even in the era of the F-35 and the UAV. A big carrier with an angled deck can carry out operations at a much greater pace than a small carrier, and a big carrier is typically more resistant to battle damage (never an absurd consideration). Big carriers can obviously also carry more aircraft, whether manned or UAV. If I ran the Royal Navy, I would probably skip the F-35B (the VSTOL variant) in favor of the F-35C (the conventional carrier variant) as the performance of the latter is said to exceed that of the former in endurance and payload. Alternatively, a limited number of F-35Bs could be purchased for deployment on Ark Royal or Illustrious during their remaining service lives, with the bulk of the purchase consisting of F-35Cs.

However, I still think it’s quite likely that the Royal Navy will get its two supercarriers. Designing and building smaller carriers would, at this point, be almost as expensive (and probably quite a bit more time consuming) as going through with QE and PoW. Whether or not the United Kingdom should view force projection and independent expeditionary capability as a foreign policy value is secondary to that fact that it believes such now, and that naval aviation in some form is necessary to conduct that foreign policy. Even allowing that the Royal Navy will likely operate in cooperation with the Americans and French, having supercarriers wins the United Kingdom a bigger seat at the table, and thus more influence over the conduct of any proposed operation. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is very difficult to envision any British government accepting a world in which France, Italy, Russia, China, and maybe a few other countries have larger and more effective naval aviation arms than the United Kingdom. Prestige considerations may seem kind of stupid, but they are considerations nonetheless.

As alluded to above, I suspect that the Royal Navy’s SSBN force is in much greater danger than the carriers. Although the carriers are more expensive than the submarines (and much more expensive to operate) they also return benefits that are apparently visible and tangible. The submarines just hide. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the strategic rationale for an independent British deterrent has collapsed; I find it extraordinarily difficult to envision a scenario in which a country could lob a nuke at London without triggering a response from either Washington or Paris. Prestige considerations are also relevant for nuclear weapons, and the continued French possession of SSBNs may make British abolition untenable, but nuclear weapons also have a lot more domestic enemies than aircraft carriers.

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