There’s a really interesting Defense News article from last week on how the Royal Navy is relearning carrier operations. It appears that the UK is going ahead with plans to construct two full deck, 65000 ton aircraft carriers. Details on the modified third member of the class, which is supposed to go to France, remain a little bit more murky. The British, however, haven’t had a full deck carrier since 1978. Their current carriers all operate VSTOL aircraft, and while the new Royal Navy ships are expected to carry the F-35B, there’s still a considerable separation between that fighter and aircraft the Royal Navy has living memory of. Running a modern, full deck carrier is extraordinarily complicated, and the British have lost most of the relevant experience.
To solve the problem, the British are relying on a little help from their friends. They’re embedding Royal Navy officers on French and American carriers in order to gain experience with modern aircraft handling and operations, and they’re also bringing the French and Americans aboard existing VSTOL carriers with an eye towards reforming operations. This may all seem like common sense, but it’s an option that’s not available to several other carrier-aspiring navies, including China and Russia. The Chinese are learning carrier operations the hard way, with a rusty, stationary Russian carrier and a new coat of paint. The Russians have been forced to learn on their own as well, and for various reasons it’s not thought that they’ve advanced very far. I’m not sure about the Indians; they currently operate a VSTOL carrier, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they get some help learning carrier operations from either the US or Russia if they ever manage to acquire their new carrier.
There’s a larger point about friendship and alliances that deserves to be made. Alliances don’t serve just to aggregate capabilities, or to bind us in unpleasant ways. Rather, alliances can have a transformative effect on both legitimacy and military capacity. Ask David Petraeus; everyone agrees that the Australian David Kilcullen has had an important impact on the development of US counter-insurgency doctrine.