So great is the impact of larger aircraft carriers as a visible deterrent, they’re often used as a geopolitical chess piece.

Earlier in the year, speaking as Assault Stations were successfully completed for the first time, the Ship’s Amphibious Operations Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Searight Royal Marines, explained the importance of HMS Queen Elizabeth and her capabilities.

“HMS Queen Elizabeth will maintain the United Kingdom’s ability to have a forward-based strategic conventional deterrent which has the ability not only to conduct strike operations with the F-35B, which is its primary role, but also to have an Embarked Military Force that is fully trained and ready to be projected ashore to conduct tasks that might arise.

That might be soft power for defence engagement, all the way through to humanitarian and disaster relief and war fighting. This training is part of the initial work-up to achieve that. The training has gone really well. It’s been an education to the Ship’s Company on what the LPH role will entail, and there has also been education to those who assist me to achieve aviation assault operations: Assault guides, FLYCO, the Logistics department who make sure they can sustain the operation and troops sufficiently; the ammunition personnel in the Air Engineering Department who make sure we have got the right ammunition. It’s a complex process.”

The view of the deterrent effect these vessels will have has been expressed frequently in defence circles, with the First Sea Lord last year stating that the Queen Elizabeth class supercarriers will represent a “powerful and important strategic conventional deterrent”.

The ships former commanding officer, Captain Simon Petitt, rightfully pointed out that there is a lot of symbolism in modern warfare and that having a ship the size of HMS Queen Elizabeth, which will be the navy’s biggest ever, was significant. The sight of a heavily equipped 70,000 tonne carrier, which is almost 300 metres long, heading towards a potential enemy had a deterrent effect that is essential if the UK wants to project influence across the world Petitt claims.

“It is massively visible, you can range back in history and see the value of this. Everything from Nelson deterring Admiral Villeneuve from leaving Cadiz all the way to the big battleships of early 20th century, to what we are doing now.

The Americans use it all the time. We currently haven’t got this level of carrier capability. The bigger the capability the more influence you have to bear.”

So great is the impact of larger vessels as a deterrent, they’re often used as a geopolitical chess piece. American governments have, since the second world war, moved aircraft carriers around to demonstrate American resolve.

There’s historical precedent for the UK utilising this capability, in 1972 British Honduras was threatened with imminent invasion by Guatemalan paratroops. Britain’s response had to be immediate and decisive but there was only one deterrent the government could offer: HMS Ark Royal and her air wing. They were used successfully to deter invasion of the territory.

The particular benefits of using carriers in this way are that they operate on the high seas, where permission is not needed from other countries. Indeed, since modern US carriers are large and imposing they “show the flag” to great effect due to their sheer size alone. Equally, it is often argued that had the Royal Navy had two full sized carriers in 1982 it is more than possible that Argentina would not have attempted to take the Falklands in the first place.

Larger carriers don’t have to be packed to bursting point with aircraft to achieve their greatest effectiveness, even with fewer aircraft on board, a ship with a large flight deck can rearm and refuel aircraft much more quickly, this is typically why they allow for much higher sortie generation rates than smaller vessels.

The more crowded the flight deck, the slower the turn-around of each aircraft, the lower the sortie generation rate.

Size also offers greater storage capacity, larger vessels do not have to be resupplied as often, impacting both the effectiveness of the carrier and her vulnerability. Because a carrier is more vulnerable when being replenished, the vessel typically withdraws from station for that function. Much of the time lost is the time spent heading away from station and returning. The smaller the carrier, the more time lost and a bigger logistics chain required in support.

A larger ship is likely to survive damage that will sink or disable a smaller one. The smaller the proportion of a ship that gets damaged, the better the chance that the ship can survive the damage and keep on fighting. It takes sheer size to provide enough protection against all the weapons likely to be used against a carrier, from bombs to cruise missiles to torpedoes.

This lesson comes from the second world war, where lessons learned from operations with the large converted battlecruisers in comparison with the smaller purpose-built aircraft carriers had taught both the Royal and US Navies that large carriers were more survivable than smaller ones due primarily to the large number of watertight compartments.

If a complement of aircraft that would typically be found on one large carrier is split among several smaller carriers, then each vessel needs its own escorts unless they operate together. This would require more resources to operate effectively. It might be argued that splitting up a carrier force would make it more difficult for an enemy to deal with all of it at once but the price paid in escorting ships would be high, making it unfeasible for most navies. Indeed, the most significant effect this would have would be requiring more smaller carriers to do the job of one large vessel, further increasing costs.

Each of the smaller carriers in the group is less survivable, more wasteful and less effective than a single larger ship.

55 COMMENTS

  1. Unless the new are adequately protected by destroyers, frigates and SSNs they are sitting ducks for a determined and capable enemy.

    We have large shortfall in surface warships and therefore are dependent on allies to protect our carriers.

    Which then raises the question what if our allies do not to want share UK defence responsibilities, for example the Falklands 1982.

    1998 SDR called for 32 destroyers/frigates to protect the carriers and fulfill our other defence commitments.

    • You massively underestimate the difficulty of finding, let alone attacking a carrier group when its on full war setting, the ships are big, but the ocean is vast, it would require a monumental effort from a very capable navy to successful attack a QE class or any American carrier.

      • When a modern submarine can identify a specific ship over hundreds of miles away, or satellites can cover vast areas in minutes the ocean seems remarkedly small

        • Let’s remember that in 1982 the RN’s best submarines tried unsuccessfully to locate and sink the 25 de Mayo. They knew exactly where to look and there were up to 3 SSNs looking for her. The fact that when Belgrano was sunk she turned for home at max knots is neither here nor there. She was never detected. At one point, one of the subs got a sonar trace on her but then lost it. There were Nimrods in the air as well and the Yanks were helping us with satellite imagery. The ocean is not an easy environment.

    • A sobering reminder.

      At the time I was pissed off at that unthinkable number as we reduced from around 40 in the 1995 Front Line First review to 35, then 32, then 31.

      Blair,Brown and 2004 New Chapter cut the fleet to 25, then 23 as T45 became only 6 from 8 then planned.
      Cameron finished the job with the 4 T22 in 2010 taking the RN to where they are today, even 17 if including manpower issues.

      UTTERLY SCANDALOUS HMG.

    • Everyone is focusing on the RN apparently not having enough escorts to protect the carriers; that’s not true. Any combat deployment with a QEC would involve a similar number of escorts to a USN CSG, most a Type 45 as goalkeeper and a pair of Type 26s, with an Astute nearby. While this combination may lack the sheer firepower of a Ticonderoga and a pair of Burkes, the RN escorts are specialised enough in their roles to compensate against anything but a swarm attack.

      The big issue is what this will do to the rest of the RNs standing deployments. In the event of a Falklands style event where we can’t rely on our allies for support, we’d be pulling ships from NATO deployments and potentially leaving our allies exposed, which isn’t going to earn us any good will.

  2. Anyone wanting to cripple a UK carrier group could just target the SSS and Tankers supplying the group, we may be able to muster enough escorts for a the Carriers but supply ships would be easy targets with no or limited escorts.

      • With high sortie rate the tankers will have to leave the group to replenish, unless the whole group returns to port. if you have operations any distance for a friendly port and with only 4 tankers and 3 SSS then remove any of these could stop operations.

  3. Interesting!

    “The new F-35B jets will take off from a “ski jump” at the front of the ship and then hover to land – similar to the way Harrier jump jets flew on and off HMS Ark Royal.

    In theory the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers could be fitted with “cats and traps”. This was considered in 2012 but was deemed too expensive – the estimated cost of fitting them to just one carrier went up from £500m to £2bn. Some in the Navy still hope they’ll be retrofitted at a later date to operate other aircraft – such as unmanned drones.”

    Without “cats and traps” there will be limits to the other nations that can use the British carriers”.

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/UK_aircraft_carriers

      • No one uses each other’s carriers anyway. Infact the F35b will be the first aircraft that will really offer easy crossdecking opportunities.

          • True, but that is a very specific and highly planned deployment, you could not just cross deck a French squadron onto a US carrier as needed without very specific planning and training, but you can do this with a F35 squadron.

            For my mind the ability to deploy on spec ( during a crisis) any nations F35Bs so far outweighs a potential For a cats and traps carrier to take a squadron on a standing deployment after months of specific training and planning just to ensure they can safety land and take off.

            It’s worth noting that the reason the French are doing this is because they have such a mare carrier qualifying their pilots, one of the biggest aguments for mid sized nations not to have cats and traps carriers.

      • Develop a F35D, smaller more powerful lift fan to free up payload space, use F35Cs larger wings for greater lift and fit diverter to use the fan as reverse thruster once the aircraft touches down, remove the VL capability altogether. With the next generation PW engine we’ll gain more thrust and range, then we really have something. Seems if the SRVL is successful then the need to VL is a nice to have. You could land and take off from very short stretches of road if you wanted to forward deploy on land.

        • The F-35D is already in the early design stages as an upgrade/replacement for the F-35A around 2035, so we’re looking at an F-35E onwards.

          As much as your proposed version would suit the RN, who’ve built big STOVL carriers, losing VTOL capability would compromise operations for the F-35Bs other big users, the USMC and Italian navy, who operate from smaller assault ships and light carriers, and make operating from unprepared areas highly unlikely as they’d suddenly need at least a passable runway.

          • Not suggesting the B variant disappears but an new short take off and landing version would need US support, as you say the USMC would perhaps not want to loose the VTOL capability. But SRVL trails were done on the RN Illustrious with the Harrier so you don’t need a big carrier.

            My thoughts would be the USN building some smaller carriers, cheaper than the Ford class and using the STOL variant on these. Particularly if such a variant is close to matching the F35Cs capabilities. The STOL variant would also stress the airframe less than arrested landings. So cheaper carrier and lower airframe life cycle costs could be a driver.

    • Uhh unless they’re buying f35bs. UK pilots are training with USMC under the explicit expectation of embarking them on our carriers in future.

    • From memory the big issue with the cats was they were an untested linear system ie: using magnets. Even now these (EMALS) are under test with only the US having built this into a ship (USS Gerald R Ford), but when fully operational will allow more take of cycles as regeneration is significantly faster.

      To put conventional cats in would require quite a big rethink. That is, where do we boil the water? And where do we get the power to boil the water as the ships are not nuclear. True there are non nuclear steam cat ships, but these were designed from the outset to have the means of supplying the steam.

      Then we would need the F35C and so it goes on……

      • Conventional cats and traps were never really an option for the QECs, the plan was to hopefully retrofit EMALS on at a later date when funding was available. However, I think it was around 2009 when they realised fitting any sort of catapult would require major structural changes to the upper decks, which would make retroactively fitting it cost prohibitive (at least, in the eyes of government. Admirals could argue the point, but the only response they’d get is “we’ve already got ski jumps and and a fleet of jump jets, why would we pay out for more?”).

        The only non-nuclear conventional carriers are all old steam powered ships, which no one builds anymore. For a diesel- or gas-powered ship to use old catapults, they’d need a dedicated steam raising plant, which would be space prohibitive and impractical. EMALS is the only practical option.

  4. Satellite recon would find them – whether there’d be time to get a sizeable force to attack them is another question.

    • That was well described in Red Storm Rising.

      But they can then move away as you say before the next satellite pass.

      • Also let’s be realistic about who we’d use carrier strike against and in what context. Only a few countries have the capability to scan ocean from space and launch ballistic missiles at them. We’re probably talking China and Russia and then we’d have the us on side to tilt the balance.

    • As said, move away after the pass or don’t be in the well known and easy to calculate footprint to begin with.
      ROSATS are known entities as are their orbits. If you want to avoid one you can. Their orbits are available through the various intel data links available on board.
      Search aircraft need to transmit to find you. A group using minimal RF transmissions or LPI radars won’t help a searcher and you can detect a radar on an ew set at over twice its detection range.

  5. Perhaps something like the Jindalee JORN OTH radar could provide sufficiently accurate tracking of a carrier battle group to allow an attack to be planned and appropriate launch assets vectored into the target area ?

  6. We have spent billions on carriers on the premise coalition forces will defence them. This is a fatal assumption, unless it includes the usn.
    We would be far better concentrating on the air defence of the uk and keeping the Atlantic open. Leaving Europe to look after the land of Europe. Let them spend the 2% or tend for themselves. Every defence review leaves the same commitment but with inadequate resources. Time for some political balls.

    • For the most part it does mean the USN. They are apparently re-arranging deployment cycles of their Burkes and Ticos to account for the QEC’s. As I have said before, and got into some trouble for it, they are best viewed as part of Anglophone’s collective defence; they will be a greater asset to the USMC than the FAA/RAF.

      • David where did you hear the USN re-arranging deployment cycles of their Burkes and Ticos to account for the QEC’s?

        I can’t seen to find a mention of it on a google search.

        • I am sure they will survivor. The US Navy are placing great store in our QE class.

          I wouldn’t be surprised to see a US escort as part of a combat deployed QE battle group.

          It’s far from ideal, but I guess we have to mend and make do like we always have.

          Uncle Sam would view a fully equipped QE class as offering welcome additional carrier strike capability, that he doesn’t have to pay for .

          They will probably always be used in a US Navy led operation, as least as far as the primary Carrier Strike role goes, so If he had to provide a couple of escorts, then it’s a cheap deal to be honest.

          • Absolute tosh. At best effort I’ve no doubt the UK could field 2-3 type 45s and 4-5 type 26s and 2 astute. This would only be in a Falklands type scenario. Operating in European waters against Russia we’d have loads of NATO escorts, in Asia were forming partnerships with Japan and Australia, plus we’d have the us. Nothing to worry about given the strength of our alliance based collective defence. I am worried about the underaemi f of the escorts but if war was on the cards I suspect the money would be found to for them out.

  7. It’s a stretch to call a conventionally powered STOVL carrier a “Super Carrier” no matter what the GRT.
    They’re a welcome addition but we missed the opportunity to return to CATOBAR operations and that was a grave mistake.

  8. Sorry I rushed that last post. At best effort the navy should be able to field 2/3 of any vessel type for the rare scenario when the UK has to act alone, e.g Falklands. That would provide sufficient defence for a carrier task force. In all other routine scenarios we have staunch allies to help us. In most cases that are likely to happen there won’t be much of anti ship missile threat, e.g seirra Leone, Kuwait, Belize. Where there is then I’d expect brand new equipment and well trained personnel to meet the threat. Take Iran fit instance, if it attached the carrier, crippling or sinking it, it would mean all out war with the UK and probably article 5 involvement of NATO allies, so would result in maàive retaliation. So attack it unsuccessfully and your going to get a serious response (e.g. astute sinking Iranian shipping), attack it successfully and you’re going to get an overwhelming response. In the very unlikely event of conflict with the most dangerous adversaries like China and Russia we’d have significant help from allies including the USA.

    • Want happens if we can’t force a decisive victory and any conflict becomes prolonged.

      How would you maintain a combat effective force when you have two thirds of forces in a single wave and your allies do not support you.

      Withdraw accept defeat and have another in a years time?

      • Decisive victory, as opposed to tactical wins, is rather rare result in history. More often than not it’s stalemate, loss of conviction or a peace based on who came out slightly better. In the Iranian example sufficient damage could be sustained from attacking shipping, escalating to to striking in shore with cruise, escalating to crippling their society using cyber attack and economically via sanctions, etc. Depends what caused it as to the end game desired.

  9. Our best bet Mike, is to declare half time and head back to the pavilion for cucumber sandwiches and tea…

    Reconvene the fighting at a mutually convenient time.

    That’s why we need two carriers, four front line F35 squadrons and sufficient escorts. This would allow some staying power, without breaking the capability. We achieved this almost permanent carrier presence during the Balkans War in the 1990’s…. Though the RFA and the escort force were much larger back then.

    • I didn’t even mention losing warships to enemy action.

      Without around 30 destroyers/frigates, 10 SSN and 10 support ships to support our carriers we have no credible naval force capable of independent action in time of war.

      Therefore we are reliant on the US politicians and naval assets to undertake any such action. It’s about our politicians and military recognise that fact and plan accordingly rather than posturing about how great we are.

      If the US says no, our warships stay in the dockyard.

  10. To be honest Mike, if the US said no, it wouldn’t matter if the escort force was double it’s present size…

    Luckily our two countries dove tail together (with most things anyway) with regards foreign policy.

    I would agree with your minimum force level assessment. They should have been minimum levels that were never breached, never mind reduced further…

    • Until there is cross party consensus agreed in Parliament on minimum force levels and HMG prioritise the military over the military industrial complex that will never change.

      The military has become a political football with instant SDR’s actioned or pledged as soon as a party takes power, which only ever go one way – cuts to numbers to pay for juicy contracts with industry.

      • Unless your Corbyn and this current brand of Labour who I fear would dismantle offensive parts of the military on ideological grounds, simply so we cannot get involved in oversees wars. A sort of modern day Neil Kinnook whom I recall wanted to turn all our Tornado GR1 into Air Defence aircraft in the mid 80’s.

        • Not mention destroys the partnership with the US meaning even if he kept the carriers (to deploy aid and rescue/transport migrates to the UK) we’d have no US support.

    • The problem with minimum force.levels is that it doesn’t correct for quality or the emerging threats. For instance, if a type 45 is as good as the type 42s then a threshold based on the further will be wrong. Secondly if your minimum threshold is based on historical threats like soviet hunter killers then that determines how many astute we need. Another example is the army’s focus on fres when the forces deployed in Iraq needed a mine resistant vehicle. Where would it have said how many mine resistant vehicle is the minimum before Iraq?

      • Fair comment, its incredibly easy to fall into the trap of planning for the last war instead of the next. However, its also important to take into account what happened during that last war, as well as tactical and strategic constants, e.g. no matter how improved a platform is over its predecessor (T45 over T42 for instance), that platform can only be in one place at a time. The RN used to have a requirement to always have 5 destroyers either at sea or capable of being at sea ASAP, which with a fleet of 12 ships only meant having less than half the fleet at stations. They planned to continue you that with the T45, but as costs spiraled the justification was given that modern ships wouldn’t need as much yard time and 8 ships could do the job of the old 12. Then Diana and Decoy were cancelled and the RN gave up its 5 destroyer requirement, and THEN it was found modern ships need just as much yard time as old ones, so we ended up with 0-3 destroyers at sea instead.

  11. Hi all,
    I posted in this in another thread. We all need to remember recent history here. It is fast that HMG sold a massive lie to the Royal Navy. They said scrap ships 7+8 Diana and Decoy if you like, and we will accelerate the type 26 frigate programme and give you a polyvalent hull form you can rebuild the Royal Navy around. Then once hulls 7+8 were scrapped the type 26 was delayed and then it too had its hull numbers reduced from the required 13 to a barely acceptable 8 with type 31 now lauded as the future warships for RN hull numbers. I would therefore be very surprised if we get all 8 type 26 frigates due to the lies of the treasury and MOD and I would be very surprised if we get anything more than 5 type 31s and then you have to question the warship quality and capability for £250 million each, even with government furnished equipment.
    Sorry for being pessimistic I am a positive person in all things apart from MOD procurement.

    • Agreed. We could have an effective, properly armed Army, Navy and AirForce, but we don’t. We don’t have the political will to do so.
      Successive governments would rather we give away sovereignty (without agreement from the people of the UK) to the puppet masters in Brussels and elsewhere, than stand up for the UK.

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