Liam Fox’s Ministry of Defence is clearly under huge pressure in the countdown to the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), due for publication on October 27th. There are fierce battles going on behind closed doors in Whitehall (exposed publicly this week through Fox’s leaked letter to Cameron). It seems likely that the Royal Navy could get at least one of its two aircraft carriers, but the fate of the second seems perilously dependent on arch-bean-counter George Osborne.
If HMS Prince of Wales (the second planned carrier) is axed, the Navy might look to develop some interesting new ships as a compromise. HMS Ocean, the fleet’s one-of-a-kind helicopter carrier, has done a similar job to the Invincible class of light carriers in recent years, and would be a relatively simple design to replicate for a useful sister ship.
Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales (fingers crossed)
Should Prince of Wales be cut (and I argue that it should not), there are also more radical concept designs afoot. There are already reports of potential for Anglo-French development of a future frigate class. Building only one large carrier might also make it unnecessary to complete the last two of the Royal Navy’s Daring class Type-45 air defence destroyers.
The Daring class
The government squashed the rumours in recent weeks of an Anglo-French aircraft carrier sharing deal, only to this week reintroduce the notion of a deal with France for a joint underwater nuclear deterrent, designed to cut costs but frought with political pitfalls. Sharing a submarine deterrent might be subject to many political problems but would certainly be easier to operate in practice than sharing aircraft carriers. The practical difficulties of the shunned carrier sharing scheme were stacked against the idea: use of catapults (France) versus ski-jumps (UK), incompatible aircraft types (Rafale vs F35 Joint Strike Fighter (the JSF)), not to mention asymmetric geopolitical priorities (France doesn't fight much; the UK does).
Thankfully, Trident has never been called upon, contrasted to the Royal Navy’s carriers which are frequently called out to project British power or influence around the globe. For that reason the latest hinted proposal may have better sea legs than the carrier idea. Also, in a distinctly Strangelovian scenario, if the UK’s major cities fell victim to nuclear attack, the northern part of France would also be rendered uninhabitable (some small consolation?).
Anyhow, going back to the issue of affordable naval airpower, there are suggested alternatives to solely relying on two 65,000 ton behemoths – lovely designs though the Queen Elizabeth class undoubtedly are – for power projection at sea. The Army’s current case in its tussle with the Navy for scant fiscal resources hangs on the urgency of the situation in Afghanistan. The immediate need for more armed drones, helicopter transports, gunships, patrol vehicles designed to resist IEDs, body armour, and ‘boots on the ground’ is at first glance compelling. Moreover, it is the Navy’s infernal bad luck that Afghanistan happens to be a landlocked country, where we are fighting an insurgency against which the Navy is reduced (Royal Marines aside) to contributing only logisticians, administrators and medical staff to the Army’s war.
The recent deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Afghanistan and Pakistan could be replicated in other future warzones nearer coastlines, and perhaps even in the Indian Ocean to help combat piracy, should UAVs be used as carrier-borne aviation. This would not necessitate a fleet carrier. British defence manufacturer BAE has already produced a concept for a UAV carrier, based on the Type-45 destroyer hull, displacing an estimated 8,000 tons, as a cost-effective solution to the quandary of how to continue to maintain blue water capabilities on a budget.
Concept UAV carrier from BAE
All this talk of replacing fleet carriers with “UAV mini-carriers” might sound about as batty as replacing battleships with aircraft carriers did in the 1930s. However, there is one key problem with drawing such a parallel. The aircraft carrier replaced the battleship because it could deliver a more potent blow and had longer reach than naval gunfire, as well as fulfilling a whole variety of different roles (such as anti-submarine warfare) which has placed it at the heart of the modern fleet.
Naval air power on the cheap they might be, but UAV carriers cannot replicate this flexibility. It is not impossible that the primary opponents faced by HM Forces in 20 or 30 years time could still be religious extremists and insurgents fighting long term, low intensity campaigns. But to base long term planning on this idea would be dangerously presumptuous. It is highly likely that the threat will change, just as surely as it has moved on from the Soviet tank formations once expected to roll across the North German Plain. In this respect, a UAV carrier only works against the threat of today. Even a middling power like Iran has the technology to shoot down cumbersome UAVs (and probably much more sophisticated aircraft) in droves.
But the UAV is also evolving. The unmanned craft currently in service over Afghanistan and Pakistan are only the first generation of battlefield drones. It’s commonly said that the current generation of fighter aircraft, such as the RAF’s Eurofighter and the expensive JSF will be the final generation of combat interceptors to contain a human pilot. The computer systems within these aircraft do most of the fighting without – as Strangelove would say – “human meddling”. The latest BAE prototype UAV, dubbed Taranis, represents the cutting edge in drone design. Designs like Taranis will in the future be able to launch from ships at sea, win air superiority, and project naval air power on sea and land.
BAE's Taranis stealth UAV design
However, taking the stealthy Taranis as a template for the future brings the argument full circle. It looks pretty big. It looks even more expensive. Launching it and its weapons against foes will probably require many more ground operators than previous drones. So in the long term you’ll need a pretty big, sophisticated and expensive ship to operate a Taranis-equipped carrier airwing at sea. Uh oh: better order that second carrier anyway.
PS: I apologise for the delay in writing this entry, but I have been extra-ordinarily busy. Within the past three weeks I've moved house, spent a bit of time away with the Navy, and started a new job. More coming soon.