With the launch of HMS Queen Elizabeth, and the forthcoming launch of her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales, the Royal Navy will be starting to take on the shape it will be for the next 30-plus years. This means there is a problem, because the Royal Navy is getting just two of these capable, versatile, first rate, short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft carriers. In all likelihood therefore only one ship will be available for operations, even if the money is found to operate both (maintenance requirements will mean one vessel will be in port at any given time). This limitation becomes a strategic problem when coupled with other decisions:
In the 1990s both the Albion-class landing platform dock (LPD) and the Bay-class Landing Ship Dock Auxiliary (LSD(A)) lost their hangar facilities as a cost-saving measure during the final design stages of their procurement (this was after such facilities were seen as an essential element through all prior procurement stages);
The personnel cuts have resulted in Britain’s expeditionary forces being even more reliant upon sea based aviation support for mobility, logistics and force security;
The shrinking escort force in the face of a numerically expanding submarine threat.
This puts the British Government in a Catch-22 strategic situation; either it is preparing (as often stated by government) for an expeditionary security strategy relying upon global reach capabilities to influence world events (which the Queen Elizabeth–class, with their size and command facilities, make excellent foundations for) or it is not, in which case the new aircraft carriers would seem oversized for what will be required of them. If Britain is actually going to carry-out the outward looking ‘global engagement’ security strategy, which is a very good fit with the strategic interests of a post-colonial trading nation with wide ranging historical ties, then Britain will need to find a solution to its sea-based aviation.
The solutions are of course dependent upon the British government – what level of capability it wants to acquire, and possibly, more importantly, how much it is prepared to spend. The options available are many, but selection depends upon a lot of factors.
Option one: a third Queen Elizabeth-class would be a solution, but at 65,000 tons they are not really designed for inshore work, and whilst it would deliver a very effective aircraft carrier, they are designed very much as an aircraft carrier with assault facilities. As such would most likely be used as one with an F35B focused air group (like Hermes was filled with Sea Harriers rather than Commando Helicopters in the Falklands War, despite the pre-war plans and designation of ‘Commando Carrier’). In other words, it would be used to guarantee the availability of carrier aviation, rather than supporting the amphibious aviation required for expeditionary operations.
Option two: the replacement of the existing Landing Platform Helicopter’s (LPH), HMS Ocean and Illustrious. This could be an ‘off-the-shelf’ design constructed in British yards; with the Australian Canberra-class, the French Mistral-class and the United States (US) America-class all being very good options, depending upon what capabilities are required.
Option three: and possibly the most suitable, as both of the options above represent the purchase of more First Rate warships; but with the two Albion-class vessels to provide command and control for amphibious operations, and obviously the two Queen Elizabeth-class vessels for fleet co-ordination, such vessels are not needed. What is needed is a hangar, workshop space for maintenance, flight deck space and, most importantly, it has to be affordable. Therefore the third option is to take a leaf out of the Royal Navy’s history; take an existing programme such as the new Solid Stores Ship and adapt the design into an auxiliary carrier (as escort carriers were originally called) with a full-length flight deck over a hangar. It could still work as a stores ship; in fact, with the increased flight facilities, it would actually serve as a better support platform for amphibious or even land operations should sea-based logistics be selected. It would also be the cheapest option both short-term and long-term, as these ships are already being procured; so they would be in service anyway.
Whatever the decision that is made will have a profound effect on what Britain can do in the future and therefore what it will stand for in the future; the important thing is that the decision has to be made and soon.
Vol. 6, No. 57 (2014)
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