Getting carried away: Britain’s new aircraft carriers
11 Dec 2012|
A pilot climbing into the cockpit of a Sea Harrier FA2, on the upper deck of HMS Illustrious, an Aircraft Carrier, as she sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar.

In last Wednesday’s Autumn Statement, the UK’s Chancellor George Osborne has clung, all white knuckles, to austerity with a commitment that would make Calvin proud. But as Osborne tries to sell painful belt-tightening to the British people, across Whitehall the Ministry of Defence is making at least one large spend which seems hard to justify—the new Queen Elizabeth class carriers.

Britain’s Carrier Strike capability (the carriers, and the planes to operate from them) will be expensive. The estimate released before April’s decision to revert to the Short Take-Off Vertical Landing version of the Joint Strike Fighter was at least £6.2 billion (AUD$9.5 billion). At more than 65,000 tonnes—almost three times the displacement of the Illustrious class they’ll replace and the largest ships the Royal Navy has ever operated—these are formidable pieces of hardware. As such, they will be symbols of national pride for a country that has naval traditions deeply embedded in its psyche. The problem is that they are unlikely to deliver a strategic benefit that justifies the price tag, no matter how impressive they look. (A fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Britain’s comedians.)

Like any element of force structure, the strategic value of the carriers rests on the situations in which they could be usefully deployed. And that’s the problem—it’s hard to find many of those. Carrier deployment would only be the right option for the UK in situations which get a tick next to each of the following criteria:

  • The UK can provide an acceptable level of security for the carrier itself. In peace-time, it is hard to think of Britain genuinely risking one, so that starts to look a lot like sea control.
  • The forces on the carrier(s) are likely to achieve the operational effect that produces the desired strategic result—and no other force elements can do so.
  • The United States isn’t sufficiently invested in the situation to deploy one of its own carriers.
  • The strategic objective the UK is trying to achieve is worth the price-tag.

That leaves a vanishingly slender set of problems for which a British carrier would be the best solution. The Libyan crisis provides an example of a scenario which didn’t meet criterion two. In the words of Reuters, ‘nature’s own aircraft carrier, Malta (immune to rough seas and mechanical failure) proved a perfectly good operations centre from which to manage rescue efforts’. But even if that hadn’t been the case, are we really suggesting that rescue and disaster relief operations tick box number four? There are likely to be better ways to spend $9 billion.

Some problems clearly fail criterion three. For example, if things got out of hand in the Persian Gulf or South China Sea, American interests and superior resources would render the need for a British carrier moot. The list goes on, but the only scenario that has a reasonable chance of satisfying the first two criteria is another Falklands conflict. And while the British government may, on behalf of its citizens, decide that that specific objective validates the carrier program, it seems like a stretch.

It’s a deceptive issue, because our tendency when asked ‘are the carriers worth the money?’ is to list the things they could be used for—and that’s a long list. It’s instinctively comforting, but flawed. You could answer ‘a spectacular place to have a party’ and it would be a perfectly good answer, even though it ticks none of our boxes. The question that Britain really needed to ask was ‘are carriers be the best way to achieve our strategic objectives for the money’?

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the 65,000 tonne Queen Elizabeth class carriers will be vast and expensive symbols of national (and naval) pride, rather than the practical means to protect Britain and its interests. That’s especially tragic for a Britain beginning to fear a lost decade. If I were George Osborne, I’d consider asking loudly for a more rigorous analysis of the relationship between the cost, operational benefits, and strategic benefits of the UK’s large defence spends.

Harry White is a London-based strategic analyst and will be joining ASPI in 2013. Image courtesy of the UK Ministry of Defence.