Insights from the UK and beyond
Libya crisis could scupper British aircraft carriers once and for all
So the world has unfurled a no-fly zone over Libya, apparently undeterred by the lack of Royal Navy aircraft carriers. Judging by the uniforms gracing the steps of 10 Downing Street on Friday and the attacks launched over the weekend, Britain’s military top brass haven’t been put off either.
The Libya crisis has, until now, provided a platform for the “Save our Aircraft Carriers Campaign” to champion its cause but in the process they’ve thrown down some whopping red herrings.
First we were told Britain could have done a better job extracting citizens from Libya if it had an aircraft carrier. In the event 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. If Britain’s response was slow, that had more to do with the speed of decision making than the available military hardware.
Even if HMS Ark Royal had been in service, victualled, crewed and ready to put to sea from Portsmouth, she would have taken a good four days to reach Benghazi sailing at full steam the whole way, through still waters. Had she been in the Gulf of Oman supporting operations in Afghanistan, it would have taken closer to five days at best. Once in theatre she would have required defence from air attack and even the threat of submarines should any of Gaddafi’s Soviet-era vessels still be operational.
A second strange conclusion was that without aircraft carriers, Britain would be forced to police a no-fly zone from Cyprus – putting its jets out of easy range of Libya. Why Cyprus? NATO allies Italy and the United States run an airbase at Sigonella in Sicily which is less than a third of the distance from Tripoli.
Another argument deployed in favour of carriers has been the Falkland Islands but the smartest strategy there must be to defend them properly in the first place, maintaining or bolstering the Typhoon jets and Rapier surface-to-air missiles already based there. In the unlikely event the islands were left open to occupation, retaking them would be almost impossible –aircraft carriers or not – because unlike in 1982 there is a proper airfield from which any enemy should be able to establish and maintain air superiority. Land-based aircraft, with much higher sortie-rates, have a huge strategic advantage over marine-based jets and whoever controls Mount Pleasant Airfield controls the Falklands.
From a historic, nationalistic and sentimental point of view it is easy to understand why a proud naval nation would want to hang onto its aircraft carriers and it can’t be much fun for a First Sea Lord to inspect his fleet from the deck of an assault ship instead.
But let’s face it, Britain’s retention of its permanent seat on the U.N. security council will have more to do with its submarine fleet and the nuclear warheads it carries than HMS Ark Royal, which is after all half the size of France’s PA Charles de Gaulle and one fifth the size of U.S. Nimitz aircraft carriers.
There are of course scenarios where aircraft carriers would prove useful but our main NATO ally has plenty of them and with money tight, what’s left of Britain’s plans for a new generation of aircraft carriers is starting to look like a luxury rather than a must-have for defending our shores and our allies.
As I write, the Ministry of Defence is detailing how it launched Tomahawk missiles from a Trafalgar Class submarine during this weekend’s initial attacks on Libya’s air defence systems and fired Stormshadow missiles from Tornado GR4 jets which flew 3,000 miles from Norfolk and back again without landing in Sicily (let alone Cyprus) thanks to support from air-to-air refueling and surveillance aircraft.
If Operation Odyssey Dawn goes to plan, the absence of British aircraft carriers will only strengthen the Treasury’s hand when looking for any further cuts. The vulnerability of the next generation of Queen Elizabeth Class carriers, due to enter service in 2014 and 2016 and being built by defence contractors including BAE Systems, was already striking when Reuters took a close look last month at the state of Britain’s 15 biggest defence contracts. Running through the list it was clear that many of them were so close to completion as to limit the benefits of any cancellation.
More importantly though, most also looked to be more strategically important than aircraft carriers, particularly if one assumes Britain’s military priorities in the coming decades are going to be defence of the realm, supporting international humanitarian operations and crisis response.
The biggest UK procurement project, the 21 billion pound Typhoon Fighter Aircraft (Eurofighter), is well advanced with several squadrons already operating what will be the backbone of the RAF, replacing ageing Tornados and Jaguars. Air force chiefs would argue that without them there is no air force.
Next is the 12 billion pound Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft, essential if Britain is serious about deploying with speed to far-flung parts of the world as it has done in Libya and might one day need to do to bolster its presence at Mount Pleasant Airfield in the Falklands.
Third on the list is the Royal Navy’s well-advanced, 7 billion pound nuclear-powered Astute attack submarine fleet, able to carry out covert missions in a way that aircraft carriers cannot.
Then there are the Type 45 “Stealth” Destroyers, of which four are already in service or undergoing sea trials. Their Sea Viper (PAAMS) missile system, Sampson radar and Aster surface-to-air missiles with a range of up to 120 kilometres would theoretically be ideal for keeping the skies above Benghazi clear.
The aircraft carriers, with a 5.9 billion pound price tag, are the next biggest project. Ditching them might free up resources to replace the scrapped Nimrod MRA4 Reconnaissance Aircraft seen by many as essential to the defence of British waters – unlike aircraft carriers which have always been about projecting power abroad rather than defending the homeland.
Abandoning the carriers might also allow the Ministry of Defence to scale back preliminary plans to buy around 150 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters designed to fly from land and ships, although not without upsetting its project partners in the Pentagon.
There is a broad consensus that a replacement for the C-130 Hercules – used to rescue Britons from Libya’s interior – is essential to rapid response and to deployment if Britain plans to retain an army of any kind. It will come in the form of the over-budget but well-advanced A400M Large Transport Aircraft.
Britain’s defence equipment should prioritise stealth (exemplified by submarines), speed (in the shape of fighter jets among other things), range (tanker aircraft), accessibility (transport aircraft), deterrence (Trident) and punch (such as state of the art cruise, SAM and AAM missiles). While operations in Libya may not show aircraft carriers to be obsolete, it could well reveal how they struggle to be a class-leader in any one of these fields.
When England defeated the Armada in 1588, it was thanks in no small part to the ability of its faster, smaller “race-built” ships, boasting more technically advanced armaments, to sneak up on and outmanoeuvre Spain’s large but cumbersome galleons. Stealth, speed and punch then. Not size.
This debate has some way to run yet. In the words of Ark Royal’s own motto, “Zeal does not rest”. Defenders of aircraft carriers will no doubt be hoping that U.S., French, Italian or Spanish carriers lumbering towards Libya will make a useful contribution in the coming days or weeks. All the while though, their detractors will be arguing things are going to plan without them and that the time has come for Britain to swallow its pride and live without big, shiny aircraft carriers of limited usefulness.
The writer is the son, nephew and grandson of former RAF airmen and pilots. He is also, however, the nephew of a former Royal Navy officer, the cousin of active Army officers and the great-grandson of a Royal Marine and a submariner.