The first of Great Britain’s two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, began sea trials in May. She and her sister ship, Prince of Wales, represent the revival of Royal Navy fixed-wing aviation. The last of Britain’s earlier fixed-wing, carrier-based airplanes, the Sea Harrier fighter, was retired in 2006, and the last of three Invincible-class light aircraft carriers—HMS Illustrious—was decommissioned in 2014. Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, displacing some 70,000 tons each, are by far the largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy.
The new carrier is controversial. The British press reported that the other branches of the United Kingdom’s (U.K.’s) military regard the carrier program as a parochial naval triumph at their expense. It is unfortunate that the Royal Air Force and British Army do not understand that a carrier is a mobile national air base and may be key to their own future. A key question for all British armed forces today is how to support and defend national interests far from home. At the height of the British empire, with possessions throughout much of the world, U.K. forces generally could be assured of a base near anywhere they had to fight. That has not been true, however, for decades. Overseas bases now usually must be paid for, often in commitments as well as cash.
For the British governments that decided to build the new carriers, the first straw in the wind was probably the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) operation against Serbia in the late 1990s. NATO had a massive land-based air force operating from nearby bases in Italy. Yet the two small Invincible-class carriers HMS Invincible and HMS Ark Royal regularly generated more sorties—and had more impact—than all the land-based aircraft. The reason was bad weather, which regularly closed the land bases. The carriers however, could maneuver into patches of clear weather in the Adriatic Sea in which they could launch and recover aircraft.
The post-Desert Storm no-fly zone operation against Iraq proved another point. Many countries surrounding Iraq found it uncomfortable to accommodate coalition aircraft policing the no-fly zone. Aircraft carriers were not subject to such restrictions. Saddam Hussein often threatened that any Arab nation cooperating with Western powers could be portrayed as a tool of the West and therefore legitimately could be overthrown. Some Arab governments were loath to spend their political capital to cooperate. Aircraft carriers, however, could operate regardless what the Iraqis said or did.
For the United States, this issue was evident during the 1990-91 buildup against Iraq. The Saudi government found itself under intense pressure to deny basing rights, even though the bases were to be used by U.S. aircraft defending the Kingdom. Carriers solved the problem: Saudi Arabia would be defended whether or not it welcomed U.S. aircraft to help. After this fact became apparent, it was not worth Iraq’s effort to keep pressing the Saudis, and land-based aircraft duly arrived. For several months in 1990, however, carrier-based aircraft were the main defense of the Kingdom.
The Royal Navy’s current aircraft carrier program had been approved in principle as part of the 1997 British Strategic Defense Review, but little had been done to implement that decision. Among other things, the scenarios in the 1997 review had not been altogether convincing when it came to buying very expensive ships. British carrier operations in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 seem to have been a particularly vivid demonstration of the value of aircraft carriers to the government of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair and gave added impetus to the decision to build more powerful carriers.
In 2011, NATO’s Operation Unified Protector, which intervened in the civil war in Libya, was another vivid demonstration of what carriers can do. In this case, the British were without them, having recently retired their carrier-based fighters. On paper, Libya was within striking range of Tornado bombers based in the United Kingdom. The British government, however, learned that aircraft range is only part of the story of successfully applying air power. It is one thing to assign aircraft to strike distant fixed targets, which can be chosen in advance.
An example is when U.S. Air Force British-based FB-111 bombers struck targets in Libya in 1986. Much the same might be said of the Royal Air Force Vulcan bomber attacks on an airfield in the Falklands in 1982, mounted from about 4,000 miles away on Ascension Island. One might argue whether such long-range operations are worth what they cost in terms of what they achieve, but the time elapsed between launching the aircraft and arriving at the target is not a crucial factor for stationary targets. The ability to fly very long distances is one measure of what long-range bombers can do. Even so, there are costs associated with lengthy flights, including massive quantities of fuel, elapsed time, and pilot fatigue.
Libya was a different situation. NATO-backed rebels required tactical close-air support (CAS), also known as “on-call CAS.” In such situations, time matters because of the unpredictable way a tactical situation develops. Unless an airplane is already close by, it likely will not be able to hit a target in time to make a difference. The closer the air base, the easier it is to keep aircraft in position to support troops on the ground. For Operation Unified Protector, the British base for fixed-wing fighters and bombers was far away, at home. The only nearby British aircraft were attack helicopters on board their surviving carriers. As the crisis wore on, the British were allowed to use Italian bases much closer to Libya. The clear lesson was that without a mobile air base—i.e., an aircraft carrier—Great Britain could not fight as it wished. Carriers represent national sovereignty; depending on another country’s land bases does not.
The Libyan experience seems to have tipped the balance toward ordering the Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales. When they were first discussed, the need to project British power far from home may have seemed more theoretical than real. The impact of terrorist attacks in the West, inspired by or actually ordered by groups in the Middle East, seems to show the opposite. Aside from a need to suppress terrorist organizations such as ISIS, Britain has major interests in the Middle East and needs the ability to protect them, whether or not local governments welcome its forces.
The two new carriers were conceived as the centerpieces of a fleet designed to project British national power. In the past, the Royal Navy emphasized the NATO missions of antisubmarine warfare and mine countermeasures. For example, its three Invincible-class carriers originally were conceived as antisubmarine flagships armed mainly with large antisubmarine helicopters. In the 1990s, the Royal Navy began to reorient toward a power-projection mission as it saw the need to strike into distant places such as Iraq. That raised two important issues. The first was the carrier as a means of striking as needed.
To be viable, the carriers needed escorts that could, among other things, defend against enemy aircraft and missile attacks, which could be mounted from an enemy shore. The Invincible-class carriers would have limited numbers of aircraft on board. They could not simultaneously defend themselves and attack targets ashore, which made it essential for other elements of the fleet to take on the air defense role.
The other aspect of power projection was landing troops.
The current Royal Navy reflects these requirements. The Type-45-class destroyers provide quick-reaction air and missile defense and have limited antisubmarine capability. In recent years many countries, some of them potentially hostile, have invested in diesel-electric submarines. To deal with them, the Royal Navy has retained some of its Cold War-era Type-23-class frigates and has added towed array sonars, which are effective against quiet diesel-electric submarines. British nuclear submarines are armed with the U.S.-supplied Tomahawk land-attack missile. A submarine’s stealth makes it an ideal platform to attack enemy air defenses from unexpected directions. A few Tomahawks offer only limited capacity to destroy targets ashore, but they can open the way for air attacks from the carrier. In a sustained campaign, of course, the ideal situation would be for troops supported by the carrier to seize a land base, from which land-based aircraft could operate.
As for the troops, the Royal Navy invested heavily in amphibious ships after the end of the Cold War. This was a joint investment. Without amphibious ships and carriers, it would be impossible for the British Army to operate autonomously far from home. Thus, the new carriers and other ships are relevant to the future of all British military services.
What the carriers and amphibious ships mean for the United Kingdom is that it can—when needed—operate independently. British national interests may demand that independence. Britain’s view of what matters abroad at times will differ from that of its allies. The ability to operate independently may generate desired support from other countries, including the United States. Without it, Britain’s pursuit of national interests overseas is limited and will depend on the permission and assistance of others.
Most of the world’s population lives and works not far from the ocean, on which most global commerce moves. The U.S. Navy’s post-Cold War littoral strategy was based on those facts and is still valid today. Great Britain let its navy—especially its power projection capability—atrophy after the Cold War. The addition of the Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales—armed with F-35B fighters—marks an important milestone in the return of the Royal Navy and its ability to project British national resolve.
Norman Friedman is the author of The Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapon Systems and Fighters Over the Fleet: Naval Air Defence from Biplanes to the Cold War, both available from the Naval Institute Press (usni.org).