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In defence of Britain’s carriers

Recent weeks have seen a spate of articles and discussion in podcasts criticising the Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. At the same time there has been growing talk on how Britain needs to consider expanding its army, even to the point that the Prime Minister had to dismiss the possibility of a return to conscription. It appears that some people might not be too happy the Royal Navy has quietly (perhaps too quietly when compared to the United States (US) Navy’s excellent communications on social media) and professionally been protecting the United Kingdom’s (UK) interests in the Red Sea. Often criticism circles around several of the same talking points, repeated again and again, which have begun to make themselves more mainstream to the extent that politicians and pundits start to believe them. 

So what are these recurring criticisms? And how much water do they actually hold? This article seeks to dispel some of the myths and show that the majority of them are unfounded, and that the aircraft carrier is not entering its death throes. 

The main criticisms

The Royal Navy does not have the personnel to crew them: While it is true that the Royal Navy is facing problems with recruitment and retention, for which solutions will need to be found, it is simply not true that it can not crew the carriers. The Queen Elizabeth class can operate on a crew of around 680 rising to around 1,500+ when the air wing is embarked. This is a remarkably low number for an aircraft carrier of its size (65,000 tonnes), and is testament to the crew reducing innovations built into the design. 

For comparison, the 42,000 tonne Charles De Gaulle of the French Marine Nationale requires a joint naval and air crew of around 1,800 personnel and the 100,000 tonne Gerald Ford class of the US Navy requires a joint naval and air crew of over 4,000. If the personnel crisis worsens without resolution, the Royal Navy may find itself struggling to crew the carriers, but for now that is not the case (as shown by current deployment plans) – and it would be far better to improve the offer for joining or staying in the Royal Navy than it would to throw in the towel and get rid of the carriers to free up personnel.

The carriers are a waste of money: This is always an interesting criticism for two reasons. The first is that the money has already been spent, so it would become a huge waste of money only if the carriers were decommissioned or sold off. The second reason provided are claims the carriers ‘blew a hole’ in the defence budget. This is incorrect – various figures are used depending on what is included with various configurations of procurement cost, lifetime costs, and the cost of the F-35s used. The actual procurement cost of both ships was £6.2 billion from design to commission, working out at £3.1 billion per carrier. This sounds like a lot of money but in the grand scheme of things it really is not. 

For comparison the new American Gerald Ford class carriers have a procurement cost of roughly US$13.3 billion (£10.6 billion) and although they are bigger and nuclear powered, it is still quite remarkable that the UK was able to build its carriers for a third of the cost – doubly so when considering that cost overruns were not from problems with the programme but from a political decision to slow production to pay less each year, but more overall. The time between when HMS Queen Elizabeth was laid down and HMS Prince of Wales was commissioned was 10 years (2009-2019). Over this time the UK spent approximately £452 billion on defence, meaning it spent only 1.1% of its defence budget over a decade to design and build two large and modern aircraft carriers. Given the complexity of designing and building the Royal Navy’s largest ever warships (requiring close collaboration between rival defence companies in the ‘Aircraft Carrier Alliance’), the speed, and reasonable cost, of the aircraft carrier procurement is mightily impressive. This is further true when considering that at the same time, over £4 billion has been spent so far on the much maligned Ajax armoured vehicle programme with only 44 of 589 vehicles delivered and the operational date delayed from 2017 to 2026.

They are pointless because there are no aircraft to fly off them: This is an area where there has been a grain of truth to the criticism. The sight of the carriers sailing with only a handful of aircraft on deck is well documented and often results in headlines complaining about the ‘embarrassment’ of having carriers with no aircraft. It is true the low number of F-35B Lighting IIs available is a problem. Britain, as of mid-2023, had received 32 of 74 F-35Bs on order. The Queen Elizabeth class was designed to carry three squadrons of 12 aircraft each (with a surge capacity for over 70). This means, in theory, the UK has only ordered enough aircraft to just about fill each carrier. But these aircraft must, of course, be shared with the Royal Air Force. 

When the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) deployed in 2021, only eight British F-35B warplanes were on board. However, the situation is improving. For the upcoming 2025 deployment of the CSG there is an expectation that the carrier will take with it 24 British F-35Bs and, as with the previous deployment, there is the option of embarking US aircraft to pad out the numbers. So the idea that Britain has no planes to fly off the carriers is false; in 2021 the CSG deployed with 18 aircraft (8 British and 10 American), and it should depart in 2025 with the standard complement of 36 (24 British and 12 American). 

It is fair to say that Britain does not have enough aircraft, yet the fix to this is simple. The UK needs to increase investment in defence, where His Majesty’s (HM) Government has set an aspiration to invest 2.5% (currently 2.1%) of gross domestic product. As soon as this money is made available, the UK should purchase the original full suite of F-35Bs it planned to, which was 138. 

They are too vulnerable: Another recurring criticism is that the carriers are giant targets which will be near impossible to defend. The touted threats range from airborne/naval drones at the lower end of the spectrum to ballistic and hypersonic missiles at the other. The short answer is that yes, carriers are vulnerable, but the long answer is that they are not ‘too’ vulnerable. All warships, like any piece of military equipment, can be destroyed. In the Second World War almost 20 fleet carriers, on all sides, were lost across the conflict (as well as a larger number of escort carriers). But no one doubts the value of the carrier during the conflict. If only invulnerable military equipment was built, nothing would be constructed. It is true that a large number of lucky strikes from drones, missiles or torpedoes could sink a carrier. But this is simply not reason enough to not build them. 

The real question is: are they too vulnerable? No. A carrier deploys as part of a CSG which will include a number of destroyers, frigates, and potentially submarines, to keep the carrier safe from airborne, surface, and subsurface threats. These warships are bristling with sensors and weapons. As long as the CSG does not stray somewhere where it can be swamped by incoming threats, it should be able to stay afloat. There is always the chance for the penetration of the CSG’s defensive shield, but it would still take a large number to hit a carrier hard enough to sink it. 

During the Cold War the Soviets worked on the theory that it would take at least 12 hits by large conventionally armed missiles to stand a reasonable chance of sinking a US supercarrier. The Soviet Kh-22 missile designed for this role had a warhead size of 1,000 kilograms, so the number of small/medium-sized drones needed to get through and hit a carrier with roughly equivalent firepower would be very large indeed (e.g., roughly 240 Shahed drones). 

But it is fair to say that the vulnerability of carriers has grown, and so increasing the defensive capabilities of British warships should be a priority. It has been good to see plans for the Type 45 class destroyers to receive an extra 24 vertical launch system cells and upgrades for improving ballistic missile defences. In addition, the UK, through the Dragonfire, is getting closer to designing a direct energy weapon which will be able to reliably, cheaply, and in rapid succession destroy aerial drones. In addition to these steps, the carriers themselves should be upgraded with improved defences to help intercept ‘leakers’. Compared to other similar carriers, the Queen Elizabeth class is under armed when it comes to short range missiles and guns, with only three Phalanx close-in-weapons systems. For comparison, France’s Charles De Gaulle, despite being smaller, has 44 missile cells in addition to its three autocannons. 

Ultimately, if militaries arrive at a point where it is decided that aircraft carriers sitting in the middle of a CSG become so vulnerable that they should not be built, then all surface vessels have become obsolete.

Conclusion

Aircraft carriers give capabilities which no other platform can, and that land-based air power struggles to provide. They are incredibly flexible: the aircraft carrier can deploy its air wing anywhere in the world where the oceans can take it and its escorts can protect it. The majority of countries on Earth have a coastline and striking from carriers ensures that overflight and basing rights will not become problematic. A carrier provides naval forces with organic air power which can provide better air cover than land-based aircraft and strike a wider geographic range of targets. In addition, the improvement of long-range missiles which have apparently made carriers so vulnerable have also made air bases on land vulnerable, but even more so. The value of a carrier is that it can move. It must be found and then tracked sufficiently, whereas targeting an immobile air base is far easier.

Fair criticism of procurement and force design is to be welcomed; it is always good to keep an open mind and seek the best possible military with the resources available. And the carriers could certainly do with more aircraft and improved defences, but recent criticism has not been fair or informed. Hopefully some of the anti-carrier myths so loudly and regularly put forward have now been dispelled.

William Freer is a Research Fellow in National Security at the Council on Geostrategy.

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