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Aircraft carriers have since replaced the battleship as the capital ships of the modern navy but with the advent of anti-ship missiles and ever more advanced submarines, what is the future of the aircraft carrier and why does Britain need them?

The following article was contributed to the UK Defence Journal by Sam Flint.

The Washington Naval Conference of 1922 can be regarded as the high point in the history of the great steel battleships that used to make up the pride of the world’s navies.

It was here that the post war order was laid out plainly, namely, that the British Empire and the United States were to operate the greatest fleets, followed by Japan, Italy and France, at a tonnage ratio of roughly 5:5:3:1:1. Most importantly, it confirmed that the battleship was the ultimate weapon and status symbol of the time.

The increasing value of the battleship had been borne out of two major technological developments. First, the ironclad, and ultimately, the dreadnought. Both produced spells of remarkable naval build-up, as the competing world powers sought to out produce or at least intimidate the others, particularly in the lead up to the First World War.

Taken in a historical context however, the impact of the battleship is a very mixed picture, and has been a topic of fierce debate amongst naval experts. I believe this debate has a contemporary use for today’s navy, as understanding the progression and eventual eclipse of the battleship will provide key evidence as to why our modern navy must contain aircraft carriers, whilst giving us clues as to what may be in store for the future of the successor to the battleship.

Part of the problem with the legacy of the battleship is the limited number of fleet on fleet battles that were actually fought, even in the hay day of the lumbering ships. Pre-Dreadnought examples focus around the Russo-Japanese war and the devastating loss of the Russian Baltic fleet at Tsushima in 1905. The only real decisive engagement between steel battleships, the Russians lost six of the eight that sailed across the world to meet the Japanese, signalling the rise of Japan as a naval power and the speedy end of the war. During World War One and World War Two however, despite the commonplace belief in the power of the battleship, there was only one case of fleet on fleet action.

The Battle of Jutland in 1916 was this last great hurrah of the steel battleship. Never again would these mighty boats meet face to face as the major vessels in fleet actions. But crucially, despite heavy British losses, not a single battleship was lost, and the ability of these fleets to decisively change the outcome of a conflict was heavily discredited. Instead, new naval technologies, namely the submarine, came to epitomize the war at sea. Why then did the Washington Naval Conference seemingly sanctify these weapons? Simply put, because the battleship took up a new and crucial role, as a tool of global influence.

The battleship, in its size and power, was the ultimate weapon for gun boat diplomacy, and could be sped around the world to police any incident. The United States didn’t even construct its tonnage worth of boats until long after the treaty was disavowed, it was merely enough for it to have the potential of such great influence.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of the Second World War, the battleship still had its advocates. These were quickly proved wrong, as crucial naval engagements demonstrated the weakness of the steel battleship. Initially, pocket battleships such as the German Graf Spee ran rings around British ships, its speed and fire power enabling it to strike and evade the Royal Navy. Submarines began crippling British convoys that had too few light naval escorts. But the true death knell for the battleship was the outcome of the Battle of Taranto. The first major air action from an aircraft carrier against naval targets, the Royal Navy took out half of the Italian navy’s battleships with only 21 outdated Swordfish torpedo bombers. As the British Admiral Andrew Cunningham noted, the power of the Navy’s air arm was now plain to see. The age of the aircraft carrier had begun.

Across the Pacific, battleships were limited to shore bombardment in the invasions of Iwo Jima and Peleliu, and even the mighty super battleship Yamato, during a last-ditch attack, was swatted aside by American aircraft. Major naval operations such as Pearl Harbour and Midway, the turning points in the war, were dominated by aircraft carriers. The slow and lumbering steel battleships, once the mightiest vessels in the worlds navies, were proven totally outclassed by their successor.

Heavily armoured boats have been mostly decommissioned, replaced by frigates and fast-moving warships that make up the bulk of the Royal Navy surface combat fleet. But with the advent of anti-ship missiles and ever more advanced submarines, what is the future of the aircraft carrier? Will it go the same way as the battleship?

Already calls on the American navy to produce smaller, cheaper aircraft carriers like the Queen Elizabeth class are emerging.

The argument being put forward by some, is that they are required to make up for the lack of expensive major carriers, though crucially, not to replace them. This runs counter to the old rule that battleships previously followed, the bigger the better. Now, with costs skyrocketing, (the new U.S. Gerald R Ford aircraft carriers come in at $10 billion each) and with the disaster that losing merely one could pose, smaller, more flexible carriers, just like the pocket battleship, are beginning to look more tempting.

Just as with the battleship, the aircraft carrier is merely changing roles. Modern technology may indeed pose a threat to the aircraft carriers dominance, but as the ultimate symbol of power and global influence, the aircraft carrier is the modern-day gunboat. Britain desperately requires her new aircraft carriers if it is to retain its role on the world stage and remain a permanent member of the U.N. security council.

The pair will provide the Royal Navy with a platform to operate air missions across any region or hotspot, and will prevent flagrant Russian taunting when they next choose to sail their carrier, the Kuznetsov, past British shores.

Remember the history of the battleship when discussing aircraft carriers. The aircraft carrier is now the new naval super-weapon, providing Britain with global striking capability in a more unstable world of irregular warfare.

17 COMMENTS

  1. I did not need convincing of their importance.

    SSNs, the RFA, and our Amphibious Ships and RM are the other pillars of the RN that should be retained and even expanded, to provide a true power projection capability.

  2. Role on the world stage? We better double our defence budget if we wish that to be the case.

    The arguement about the carriers can be settled by agreeing with one of the two statements.

    We the USAs most reliable junior defence partner and the carriers underline that fact.

    OR

    The carriers are worst defence procement decision of the past fifty years.

    • The carriers will still be around after we are both gone, overall the procurement cost of the two carriers is excellent value in comparison to the US carriers. I was disappointed they where not built to be easily convertible for cat and traps as they where supposed to be, but their crew requirement is not ridiculous. If the government would stop pissing money away on foreign aid budgets, enriching green energy suppliers for their lack of reliable energy and actually collect the tax that is off shored there would be plenty of money to invest in our military and clear the deficit.

  3. Not convinced by this article and whilst I am clearly very impressed with the QEC – I do question the logic behind them given our defence budget and strategy.

    I would have much preferred another 13 Frigates and 4 Astutes, but I guess that wouldn’t have happened anyway and actually as far as the UK goes I do despair that without the Carriers we would probably cancel the F35 order and not be in a position to hold the govt to account on the T26 and T31 builds which are fragile as is – but at least there is now a massive capital ship at risk if they don’t commit.

    The CVF’s for Britain seem to be the only way we can get ourselves out of the post 9/11 way of thinking and back towards what will hopefully be a balanced force – but 2.5% of GDP is required for this and as it stands that is looking a tough ask.

    • Best thing Gordon Brown did securing the carrier build with penalties.

      Dear Mr Osborne said he could not cancel “the thingy’s”

      • Hi Daniele,

        True – looking back it was probably a good thing those penalties. However, said Mr. Brown did plenty of damage when he was in charge of the purse strings. It was he who decided to axe the Type 45s from 12 to 8 and then to 6. Instead of 6Bn for 12, we instead paid 6Bn for 6 – genius!

        Second, at the time he also blew the equipment budget to pay for Afghanistan meaning no money for much needed helicopters such that we had to go cap-in-hand to the Danes and ‘borrow’ six Merlins off the production line earmarked for them – genius!

        That man was no friend of the Armed Forces!!

        • David I quite agree. I know what that man did all too well!

          My comment on dear Gordon was concerning the carriers only.

          I recall our VC winner Johnson Beharry refused to shake the PM’s hand in protest at his attitude.

          It was also he who cut the helicopter budget so instead of the SABR project to replace the Sea Kings HC4’s of the CHF with around 30 new medium lift helicopters they shafted the RAF by moving existing Merlins from 28 and 78 Squadrons to the FAA, called them “new” then ordered a smaller number of Chinooks, 14, in compensation.

          Robbing Peter to pay Paul.

          However, I was at least grateful to Gordon Brown for his part in the Scots referendum, the union being something I care passionately about.

  4. Evening
    Battleships were the ultimate projection of military might and industrial power. They were a step change in the way maritime nations “put a bit of stick about”.
    The aircraft carrier has now replaced that in the same way the USA replaced the Empire on the global stage.

    If we as a nation with to reassert ourselves on that stage the aircraft carrier is a necessary part of that process. It shows that we have the intent, the technology know how and the industrial base to do it. It gives us a potent “stick” that we can happily sit off any coast, anywhere in the world and say “we are here”.
    However the aircraft carrier and the potential capability it provides is only one part of what is required if you want the world to take you seriously.
    Let’s look at two other counties in the world who are also trying to either assert (China) or reassert their standing on the world stage.
    Russia – they have an aircraft carrier, they have aircraft but apart from it being a floating advert doesn’t really threaten.
    China – they build carrier task groups, integrated maritime assets developed together so that when they deploy its the CTG not the CVF that is the measure of power.
    If we are serious in re-entering the world stage, to play our part we need to realise that to do that requires courage, commitment and resources to do it.
    We haven’t had a real CTG since the seventies, the model hasn’t changed (just look at a USN CTG) what has is the number of platforms we have and the number of standing commitments we have to fulfill.
    There is no point building something if you cannot use it properly.
    One of the things that the CTG is there to do is protect the ATG – the thing that puts boots on the ground.
    To do things properly – to be serious about the influence you want to have you have. If not, don’t get involved, invest in something else.

  5. In previous decades, we had carriers built for a military & political influence purpose. QE & POW are wonderful additions to our diminished navy, but only exist due to the cancellation fee’s if their construction was abandoned. They were purchased, under a Labour government, to maintain shipbuilding in Scotland (and as it turned out, around Great Britain). I feel that Westminster has, ever since the decision, found them to be elephants in the room. In a ‘Don’t want them, cant afford to feed them, but can’t afford to get rid of the buggers’ kind of way. They were not constructed to defend the nation, purely as a political sap to appease elements who would support a Labour government. Hence, we have little in the way of adequate escorts on the horizon & purchasing F35B’s through the most gritted teeth.
    It may sound contradictory, but I look forward to seeing these mighty ships & their aircraft serving the nation, but it comes with a feeling of being obliged to do it, rather than a political will to WANT to do it.
    A bit like attending Aunties birthday lunch, smiling through it, but wishing you were someplace else.
    I have little faith in our governments commitment to defence expenditure.

    • Well said Kevin.

      A lot of people forget the RN had to give up ships in order to secure the carriers in the first place – where are the 4 Type 22’s? These were showing their age but were excellent surveillance assets and were still much needed but were scraped early to help fund the carriers. These days, the Treasury is exacting even more from the Armed Forces in the shape of 2Bn/yr in ‘efficiency’ savings – i.e. cuts. What it gives with one hand, it takes with the other and more.

      Shambolic the whole thing – this government (and those prior to be fair on both sides) have absolutely no interest in defence and see it as a chore. They should be ashamed of themselves the lot of them!

  6. The carriers are simply to drive reliance by the US navy. It will also give the US freedom to deploy another carrier to the West Pacific.

    Binds us even closer to the US and we will most likely see the US agree to provide some additional JSF and also escorts in my opinion.

  7. Need, definitely not.

    The age of Britain being able to exert it’s military power abroad is over, we now can only do it alongside the US. Russia is suffering the same problem as us, they are trying to rekindle their Soviet power without have they USSR which was effectively their version of the empire. China kinda needs to counter the US, since if you look from their perspective the US is trying to dominate the Asia region and China has the economic and industrial strength to stand up again what their see as US bully tactics (looking from China’s perspective).

    The UK still thinks it’s a global power, when it no longer is and the carriers demonstrate this. The issue is they are so expensive to buy and maintain that the limitations in the UK economic power is being exposure way more than it should.

    When we went into Iraq/Afghan it came rapidly clear that our armed forces were missing basic equipment such as body armour and machine guns, caused by lack of funds. These issues are not fully solved and so the carrier have no chance of being fully equipped and so the cracks get bigger.

    Finally what exactly are the carriers useful in 2017, a time where the empire is gone and so little overseas territories to protect and where the only way to go to politically go to war is to have neighbouring nationals support, which means land based air bases available. Add that to the reality that a modern sub could almost certainly sneak past our limited anti sub net caused by lack of escorts and increasingly quiet subs.

  8. Paraphrasing D.K. Brown: the battleship wasn’t made obsolete by the aircraft carrier because it was vulnerable, aircraft carriers are far more vulnerable than a battleship, they became obsolete because of the offensive striking power of the aircraft had far more greater offensive reach.

    Land bases however, are infinitely more vulnerable than any carrier ever will be.

    The CVF’s will be extremely relevant SHOULD the government properly equip them with their fast air assets (which easily could number 50-60 in number) plus supporting other aircraft, such as ASW, in-flight refuelling, COD and of course AEW. The fact remains the current AEW replacement Crows Nest is insufficient for the scope and scale of the asset it is designed to protect, there is no effective COD nor in-flight refuelling option around (even buddy refuelling hasn’t been addressed, even if this is again a bean counter solution – the use of a fast air offensive asset to fuel rather than attack diminishes the offensive strike power).

    The article is wrong to suggest they (battleships) were replaced by frigates AND fast moving warships? (seriously!) It could be successfully argued the modern naval designer is a victim of the pressures of political pressures led by (sic) financial bean-counters who apparently understand more about naval design (re: Type 14, 21, [initial] 23, 45 and of course now the CVF).

    If any politician honestly believes that 5 destroyers, 12 frigates and 5 submarines (the harbour training ships don’t count!) are enough for the world wide commitments of the maritime arm of the UK, plus fight a major war (including supporting both carriers), allowing for attrition and any resemblance of actually winning they should have themselves admitted (darn, no mental-health hospitals left…). Actually, the general populace is just as bad nowadays (think of the early 1900’s when public opinion and a powerful media made the government buy more battleships). Sea-blind.

    Imagine HMS Vanguard (as built) vs 5 destroyers and 12 frigates of today’s RN in a surface warfare scenario. “Much more capable than the vessels it replaces” catch-cry so often heard from the government won’t cut it when that obsolete battleship enters harbour…

    • Agreed “Ex-Service”.
      Service chiefs have said what is the bare minimum force levels but the treasury always thinks less is better. The real scandal is choosing not to provide funds for adequate defenses by choosing to allow the largest part of the top end of UK revenues to disappear offshore tax free & cutting beyond sustainability everything that the public at large relies upon.
      The world seems as insecure & volatile as at any time since the cold war, if not more so. It’s hard to see how the idiotic cuts to HM forces could be less than deliberately denuding the UK of credibility in defense, We depend so heavily on clear maritime trade & supplies we cannot afford to leave them so weakly defended.

  9. Agree but unsure just how UK aircraft carriers would stop the Russian navy carriers sailing in international waters/shipping lanes. They may closely monitor etc but prevent them?

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